Southern Crossings 5

Pearl River County, Mississippi

One morning I cut cross-country on dirt roads from Hattiesburg to the state line, following a route that deteriorated into rutted lanes before I reached a small, neat home. An elderly woman came into the yard and asked where I was headed. She shook her head when I said Louisiana and told me I couldn’t get there from here — the river was in the way. We talked awhile. Nearby was an old farmhouse tucked under a spreading live oak (Quercus virginiana). The woman related that she lived all alone where she did because that was where she was borne and where she would die. She kept intact the old shack, despite her son wanting to tear it down, because it made her feel at home. I thought I knew how she felt. Old buildings such as hers, footnotes of the historical South, are quickly disappearing. There may be no need to keep such old buildings— most are rotten and dangerous and their owners may no longer want them around — but once the structures are gone, the landscape will have lost yet another small piece of its cultural memory. When tangible markers of a person’s past disappear entirely from view, it becomes slightly more difficult for us to remember who we are as a people.

Tunica County, Mississippi

The Mississippi Delta is pancake-flat and covered in rich black soil. When I held some of it in my hand I could feel its wealth slip through my fingers. A storm accompanied me across the delta one day, blowing black dirt, tufts of harvested cotton, paper litter, and an angry howl. The swirling debris conjured a dark past: plantations and slaves. The history of human despair was palpable, its lingering presence in the landscape creating a weight that still presses upon the persons living in the region. The delta remains one of the poorest and most racially-conflicted places in America.