‘A fur piece’

The campsite, adjacent to a swamp in the Mississippi Delta, seemed nice and remote. When I set the tent up I didn’t consider the possibility that afterward, as I built a fire and cooked dinner over it, I might wonder the whole time about whether there were any alligators nearby, and if so how precisely nearby they might be. Ripley ran around freely until I heard a large splash coming from the water, and considered it’d be better to keep her close. The surface of the water was otherwise still but the marsh made noises: something created a clacking sound that built in intensity before finally petering out. And then again. Ripley lives her life on a hair trigger. Leashed, she growled in the direction of whatever she heard, or saw. At one point I think she barked at her shadow.

It turns out there are no alligators in that particular forest, which is for the better, because my strategy had been to grab the dog and jump up onto the picnic table, and here is a photograph of an alligator that has climbed a tree.

At Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s estate in Oxford, Mississippi, the walk to the front door is lined with old cedar trees. They’re not native, but they were planted after an epidemic of yellow fever, on the belief they would cleanse the air. In Faulkner’s office, on the first floor, he wrote the plot of his novel A Fable on the wall. At his grave in town, pilgrims had left a couple empty full-size bottles, and a couple full ounce-size bottles, of bourbon. They were dedicated to Faulkner but apparently not to the extent of 750 milliliters. Driving out of Oxford through forests lined with every possible shade of green, I thought of the first character to appear in Light in August, Lena Grove, who thinks to herself, “I have come from Alabama: a fur piece.” She’s gotten pregnant and run away from home, chasing the father of her child.

I had dinner with a southern food writer at a fancy place in a strip mall just outside the downtown. From the outside, the restaurant and its neighbors formed a sort of southern tableau. This place served Indian-inflected southern food. Across the street, a Greek restaurant; an old-school barbecue joint; and an out-of-business gas station with a truck in its parking lot advertising CRAWFISH BOIL, flying the Confederate flag. At Ole Miss, students successfully agitated to get the school to stop flying the Mississippi state flag — a section of it is the symbol of the Confederacy — and a monument to the Lost Cause in the middle of campus featured an embarrassed disclaimer at its base. “Although the monument was created to honor the sacrifice of local Confederate soldiers,” it read in part, “it must also remind us that the defeat of the Confederacy actually meant freedom for millions of people.”

A while back in the Oxford American, there was a column by Jack Pendarvis called I Don’t Hate It!, whose meaning finally resolved itself to me when I read Absalom, Absalom! The white sort-of narrator of that book, Quentin Compson, grew up in Faulkner’s fictionalized Oxford, Yoknapatawpha County, and spends the novel explaining the south’s weird racial pathologies to his Harvard roommate, a Canadian. Why do you hate the south? the roommate asks, finally, at the end of the book. Quentin recoils. “I don’t hate it!” he says — his tortured conclusion about the place he comes from. He repeats the phrase a couple times. My interlocutor in Oxford had been talking about how he speaks differently about the difficulties of the south to other southerners, who tend to see the region with a fuller view of its complexity, than he does to outsiders, for whom he tends to be a sort of translator. Sitting at the bar, I mentioned that it reminded me of Quentin Compson and his Canadian roommate. He agreed the situation was similar. Jack Pendarvis, who lives in Oxford, stopped over to say hi to my friend as he and his wife were leaving the restaurant.