“How near to good is what is WILD!”

After a night of thunder and lightning and heavy rain, I sit on my porch taking in the wildlife that closes in around me. I watch a red-bellied woodpecker couple, a doe with her fawn stroll through the high grass, soon to be cut and dried as hay. Water drips like a metronome from the roof. I watch. And I read Thoreau.

NOT BORING

I remember reading Henry David Thoreau in school and falling into a state of near comatose boredom. As I read him now, I have a completely different experience. Recently I came across an essay he published in 1862 after presenting it as a speech several times. I’m not going to lie; it’s long, he rambles, he covers a multitude of topics. Oh but it’s chock full of treasures! He covers everything from conservation to politics, to literature and sense of place.

TO HAVE BEEN THERE

I wonder what it must have been to be a member of the audience of that speech back in the nineteenth century. Where they bored and restless as they sat in hard chairs in their stiff attire? Did they fight a yawn? Force open their eyes? Or did they hang on his every word, mesmerized by his poetic descriptions and advanced vocabulary? Were they in awe at his predictions of future America? They should have been; he was spot on.

This essay, which I never before heard of, fell into my hands as I was doing a little research for a character in a short story I am currently writing. Indeed, it helps me to get to know the character better, but it’s providing me with so much more food for thought. It’s called Walking. Look it up if you are so inclined but be patient and allow it time.

CHARMED, I’M SURE

Like I said, he rambles. Also, he lived a charmed life, clearly. Anyone whose daily stroll lasts four hours pretty much has it made in my book. We can assume that most of the remainder of the day was spent writing and reading. So, yeah, charmed. Not everyone has such luxury. I am glad he had it though because he had some important things to say.

CONSERVATION

His discussion of conservation was far ahead of his time. He saw in the future, an America depleted of its forests and wild space. He saw, even then, how we as humans were destroying our very home. He stressed the importance of educating our youth about nature and conservation; about the need for individuals to spend time in nature (both to appreciate so we will care for it, but also for how it benefits the soul), and the dire need for public lands. “Wildness is the preservation of the world,” he says.

AMERICA

On the subject of America as a nation, as a culture, as a people, he sees us as being shaped by the nature around us, by the wildness and unique flora and fauna. He brings up the idea of an “American mythology” which is fascinating. With prescience he states, “Perchance, when in the course of ages, American liberty has become a fiction of the past—as it is to some extent a fiction of the present—the poets of the world will be inspired by American mythology.”

I love his take on American literature and its place in the world. Our American experience lends a special quality, unique and rich. It’s good to own that. His nineteenth century mind is hopeful for a prolific and rich literary collection inspired by the American experience. Indeed, I think we’ve got that!

NOT PERFECT JUST LIKE AMERICA HERSELF

There are some things he’s gotten wrong, or rather failed to consider. Most notably, the contributions and inclusion of Native Americans. Imagine if Natives could have influenced conservation efforts back then! When commenting on our proclivity to go west toward the new as opposed to traveling east, he tells of his witnessing “the Indians moving west across the stream (the Mississippi River),” as if they traveled willingly. But that’s a discussion for another day.

ONE LAST THOUGHT

As I said, he rambles and now I am too. It’s raining again here, and the world is green and lush. I will leave you with one last quotation from Walking just to prove how varied his subject matter is and because I just love books: “A truly good book is something as natural, and as unexpectedly and unaccountably fair and perfect, as a wildflower discovered in the prairies of the West or in the jungles of the East.”

Thoreau, Henry David. Walking. 1862. Republished by National Geographic. https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2011/11/17/walking-by-henry-david-thoreau/

Mud in My Blood

I went down to Mississippi to see the place; really, I was just passing through. Vanessa was with me and we stayed with my Uncle Pat and Aunt Terri for the night. I would’ve like to stay longer. This was several years ago. She and I were taking a road trip to Atlanta to visit another friend who we hadn’t seen since high school. We were on a schedule. Sort of.

We went down to the beach. We drove over to Suter Place to see the house where my family lived when I was born; it was the same as ever. The wrap around porch with its Victorian lace stood proud. The only difference was the historical plaque posted next to the front door and the chicken wire fence was replaced by white picket circling the small yard. It was lived in; that was nice to see.

We drove across Howard Avenue and the railroad tracks to see my grandparents’ house on Iroquois Street. That’s where things got strange. This was years after Katrina and Iroquois Street was a mud pit and we couldn’t even drive all the way through. It just dead-ended. I couldn’t even recognize the house. Everything was a sad mess.  Later the house was torn down; nothing to save.

I showed Vanessa where my paternal grandparents had a house on the beach before Camille and where the Episcopal Church used to be next door.

HURRICANES

Growing up, time was defined as “before Camille.” Now it’s “since Katrina.” When you come from a place known for hurricanes you learn to take it all in stride, you make comparisons, you never imagine the next one will be as bad as the last. Hurricanes come and they go. It’s a way of life, I guess. I remember Camille although I was only seven years old. Camille made a hole in the roof of our house when a tree fell. My maternal grandfather’s wharf was destroyed. The house on the beach where my paternal grandparents lived was wiped out. The day after the hurricane, my family piled into the car to check on my grandparents; we didn’t know if they even survived the storm. We found them wandering in a daze amid the debris of their home. We were without water and power for several weeks. You can’t talk about the Mississippi Gulf Coast without talking about hurricanes.

HOME

Personally, the land between New Orleans and Mobile fills an odd but vital space for me. Unlike my cousins who never left, I have no right to claim it as my home and yet I do. I have a very strong sense of place because of Mississippi. So many generations on both sides of my family lived and thrived there. My parents could not get away fast enough, but something pulls me back; I have never been able to let go of my connection to that place. I feel that place stronger than any other place I have ever lived. Mud in my blood.

SUMMERS

My writing always takes me there. And my dreams. When we moved away, I was about eight years old, but I returned every summer to stay with my grandparents on the bayou. That marked me. Those summers made me who I am today. I am privileged to have spent my summers on the bayou picking blackberries, playing in the woods, sailing, riding my bike to Lovelace Pharmacy for a root beer (Barq’s, of course). I felt a strong sense of belonging when I was there. It’s hard not to when strangers approach recognizing who you are the child or grandchild of just by the shape of your smile or your eyes: “You’re not Scotty and Marguerite’s daughter, are you?” or “You must be an Allen (or a Byrd).” Yes mam, I am.

ALL IN MY MIND

I rarely visit. In many ways, it doesn’t even exist anymore. The Biloxi in my memory is so different from what you would find if you went there now. All places change but Biloxi then and Biloxi now, I think, are entirely different worlds. Casinos line the beach now. It’s no longer the seafood capitol of the world. I cannot imagine that it’s safe for children to roam freely about as we did back then. Maybe what I remember never was at all; maybe it’s colored, fogged by the passing of time.

I am glad Vanessa and I passed through the way we did. I got to see just enough. Someday I’ll return and stay awhile, explore old haunts and discover new gems. Until then, I can return to the gulf coast as it is in my mind.

Origin Story

She came up out of the mud where the Mississippi River washes the continent’s silt into the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi Sound was her place of birth, her embryo, her mama’s womb. She knew the familiar cadence of languages mixed as in a boiling pot. There was the French providing spice, the savory meats of English and the Spanish paella blended to a sound so sweet and soft. A person didn’t have to understand the words, not if she was in tune with this small world and its past. Just listen to inflection, follow the pattern, the hand gestures and facial expressions.

Go sit on the dock at her grandfather’s wharf, pretend to check your crab traps, pretend to watch the boats go past and listen to the old men. There they sit in the shade, Jax beer in hand, talking quietly amongst themselves, a chuckle here, an occasional outburst of laughter there. Their bellies evince years of fried food and pie consumption; a life, if not well-lived, certainly appreciatory of the simple goodness their world provides. Their hands are large and calloused, their eyes deep and tender. They speak of fish and boats and family. They don’t know it, but they speak of love. They offer favors and shake on it. Using few words, they offer comfort when needed, giving each other a pat on the back and maybe slipping a handful of neatly folded bills when necessary. It will come back around.

Find a corner in the kitchen and allow yourself to be forgotten. What you witness will be much the same. Women sit around the table smoking cigarettes and talking about the children or the neighbors. Or the men on the wharf, their husbands.  A grandchild wanders in and is offered a bowl of warm blackberry jam and homemade vanilla ice cream—a reward for picking the blackberries. She is sent away to enjoy her treat on the shady porch. The women carry on with their gossip.

This is the world she returns to in her mind, the world that haunts her and follows her no matter where in the real and present world she might find herself. When she drives up the interstate in Texas, filled with thoughts of traffic, errands, politics, work, suddenly she is back on the bayou watching the shrimp boats go out at dusk. The briny, humid air is the embryonic fluid that kept her buoyant and thriving and she feels it draw her home. Ghosts follow her everywhere. The ghosts of those who came before, whose DNA she shares. They are trying to tell her a story. They want her to understand that she is here now, doing this because they were there then and because of the choices they made.

And what of the others? The ones who came long before the grandparents and great-grandparents? They also haunt this woman, this woman who came from the very chemistry of this American sea that curls into the continent like a bowl being protected in the arms of some great god. She sometimes looks over her shoulder to see a woman, her bare feet, sand encrusted, her skirt hem stiff from sun and salt water. How did she get off the island, ghost or not? How is it that she is here, this Marie, wandering through an air- conditioned grocery store complete with piped in Musak and computerized cash registers? Is she covetous of this new century or disdainful? And why is she so restless that she must follow this descendant, this Elizabeth, who seems so untethered herself?

Elizabeth sees the past through a filter. It appears to be idyllic. Oh, but it was tough! And her ancestors must have been fierce to survive the weather, geography and the culture!

Elizabeth is a child and she dives down for starfish and seahorses. She races along the beach, bare feet pounding hard packed wet sand. She plays and explores. Time is meaningless. Farther up the island, the sea oats dance in the breeze where the sand is dry and deep and thick. It’s hot too but her bare feet are tough and capable. Her thighs are capable too as she marches through deep sand as other children might march through snow drifts. Over on the gulf side of the island, the wind always blows. It whips her hair into her face, slapping sand and salt about. She watches the waves and she can see them all the way to the horizon, so much bigger on this side. It’s wilder over here and exciting. On this side, it is much easier to believe that she is alone, a lone remnant of humanity. This is her origin story.

Gautier & Byrd-Bait Shop, Boat Dealership

AirB&B

 

bayou

Recently, I learned an astonishing thing. My grandmother’s house where I spent my childhood summers has been made into an AirB&B. Who’d a thunk it! Helen’s house is a simple yellow brick ranch home. To the passer by it is nothing special. The house is a small three-bedroom, two bath that sits atop a small hill overlooking the bayou and the woods. The screened in back porch was perfect for picking shrimp or eating watermelon. The kitchen was tiny but so was Helen; it was easy for her to get around and reach for things. The dining room table sat in front of the large sliding glass window with a panoramic view. In those days, that table was perhaps the most important part of the house. It is where we would gather for dinner every afternoon and say the blessing. Sweet tea and fried chicken.  My brother and I would pour Kraft French Dressing on green beans and mashed , mixing the potatoes to make a white and orange swirl. At supper it was hamburgers or gumbo with Ritz crackers.

The house was quickly built after Hurricane Camille wiped out my grandparents’ Biloxi beachfront home.  It was worlds’ apart from the Biloxi house which had hardwood floors, mahogany furniture and proper Limoge china. The Biloxi house, surrounded by mighty oaks and magnolia trees, looked across Highway 90 to the beach and Deer Island. Early in the morning, my brother and I would sit on the front porch and look for Cuban refugees drifting ashore in bathtubs. He had me convinced but we never spotted any.

But it was the Ocean Springs house I loved! I was a little older and have more memories there. But it wasn’t just that; the house on the bayou was relaxed, less formal and we really lived there. Every summer, I was eager to get to Helen and Deda’s house where we would roam the woods, play on the bayou and sail in the bay. We had so much freedom. Everyday was a new adventure building forts, picking blackberries, riding bikes into town or sailing to Deer Island. We had the ease of going where we pleased and the knowledge that we were safe, and that dinner would be waiting.  People knew us. They knew who our parents and grandparents were and because of that we were expected to behave and show respect. Are small southern towns still like that?

Deda liked to spend his time in the shed, a carpenter’s dream of a shop equipped with every kind of tool. It was hidden in the woods just below the house. It was the original “man cave;” his escape from domestic life. The scent of fresh cut wood and the sound of Deda whistling or singing a song. He was a carpenter and an inventor and there was no one else in the world like him. He loved to feed the birds, rabbits and turtles. He would name each rabbit and turtle that came into the yard as if he could tell them apart. He could whistle the song of any kind of bird. I wonder if the shed is still there. My guess is that Katrina took it, or the current owners tore it down.

I hope the visitors to the AirB&B can sense the specialness of the place. I hope they appreciate it.

Brigadoon

sunsetcabinbrigadoon

My little cabin makes me think of Brigadoon, a place where time stands still. Every hundred years the portal of time opens up and you can stay, frozen in an idyllic time and place, or you can go and live in the world where nothing slows down. I’ve got a strong feeling the time is coming when I’ll have to make that choice. I know full well what I’ll choose. I am not one to stand still for long, no matter how beautiful the days may be. When the time comes, I’ll step out, gingerly at first, then run. I have photographs, words, and memories. I’ve always had a strong sense of place. This little hill has become a part of me and I will always find it in my heart when I need a comforting place of solitude and peace.

While I’m still here, I’ll cherish the moments—the noisy birds and silly lizards, the deer and the breeze. I’m trying not to be in a hurry. I’m also trying not to be too sedentary. This place has seen me through a very rough time. The events that led me here, though constantly on my mind, are still too painful to write about. I am looking for a bit of distance, perspective, so that I can make sense of it. It’s about love and friendship and feeling the rawness of life. It’s about feeling so raw and living so much that it very nearly kills you. It’s about making sacrifices. It’s about sacrificing yourself, and love, and very nearly sacrificing life itself.

Ship Island

When I was a child I spent a great deal of time at the beach. We would sail in my grandfather’s boat, the “Dixie Flyer” or my parent’s boat, the “La Moette,” to the islands off the Mississippi coast.  Ship Island was where we would go most often. When I need a place to go, when I need to make a mental escape from the world, when I am trying so hard to sleep at night, that is where I go.

I can’t remember the last time I was actually, physically there but I often go there in my mind. And the Ship Island of my mind and heart may or may not be what it was then or what it is now. I only know my reality of it.

I remember playing on the white sand beach for hours on end. I was sun-kissed and happy. My brother and I would dig trenches and have hermit crab races. Of course we would build sandcastles and swim. The water was so clear in those days. We would dive for sand dollars! I remember that.

Sometimes we poured Mountain Dew over the stern of the boat and watch the swarms of catfish the sugary liquid would attract.

Ship Island is unique because in the very middle of the island there is an artesian well with an old pump. After a day of sun and salt, we would run through the sea oats, take turns pumping and allow the fresh, pure water to pour over us. Wonderful!

I recently  took a trip (a mental trip) to Ship Island to see the little girl who was me. I thought I might tell her some things. Instead, she told me.

She runs along the beach, bare feet pound the hard, wet sand. Wet hair slaps her tan shoulders. Her tongue licks the salt and sun from her lips. She runs. She wants to see how fast she can be. Her skinny legs will take her far.  Her skinny legs will move her forward to the future.

But now there is a woman who wants to see her, talk with her and hold her little hands. That woman is me.

“Be kind to yourself,” the little girl tells me. She smiles.  “Look,” she says, “I swam deep as my brother and got these sand dollars. It’s hard to go that deep,” she says, “but this is what you get for it.”

I love that little girl so much.

She’s not surprised or disturbed by my presence. She is quite accepting that I’m there. In fact, she acts like I am always there with her—a companion, of sorts. She is astounding. She flits here and there. Digs in the sand for a while. Runs through the sea oats stopping to watch a flock of seagulls.  She finds a stick to write her name in the sand. My name. She writes it big and proud then adds a heart at the end. Drags the stick. Drops it. Runs, then wades, then swims to the boat for lunch. Sandwiches, Barq’s root beer, cold watermelon. I stand on the beach alone. She looks up and waves.

I have nothing to tell her. Her life will be good and sweet. It will be bitter. She’ll have long stretches of sunny days. She’ll have sadness and anger that seems unending. But the sadness will end to be replaced by more sunshine and calm. Back and forth, her life will go. Like any life. Like everyone to different degrees. That’s ok. She’s telling me the same thing. Be kind to yourself. Smile a lot. Look at the sand dollars and seagulls. Be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself. The rest will follow.

“Be kind to yourself,” she tells me.