Quest for the Lord God Peckerwood (Part 2)

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Part 1 was here. Two additional photos here.

One of the two most surprising things about the area where Gene Sparling, Bobby Harrison and Tim Gallagher had their first sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker is how close it is to two major highways, Arkansas Rt. 70 and U.S. Interstate 40. “This is about as remote as our mountain in Pennsylvania,” my brother points out as he parks the car at the end of a gravel road at the edge of Bayou DeView in the Dagmar Wildlife Management Area. Yeah, except our road isn’t this nice.

The other surprising thing is how enthusiastically local folks have embraced their source of newfound fame. Yes, Virginia, there is a Lord God Peckerwood. He lives in the hearts and on the shade trees and lampposts of half the inhabitants of Brinkley, Arkansas (see maps here). Since the town’s restaurants and motels have depended on revenue from hunters and fishermen for so long, I guess it didn’t require too great a leap of faith for them to roll out the welcome mat for birders, too.

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Brinkley was good to us, and we were good to Brinkley. We spent the night in a cheap-but-decent, unaffiliated motel, after a big supper of fried catfish and barbecued ribs at Gene’s Bar-B-Que, where “the bird is the word.” And we’d return after lunch on Saturday to buy ivorybill merchandise at a local gift shop, including t-shirts, a ball cap, a pair of earrings, a pin and a hand-painted ivorybill Christmas tree ornament. I bought the most tasteful of the hats, which features an embroidered likeness of the bird and the message “another chance.” I could’ve bought a hat that wondered, “Where’s dat der peckerwood?” or another that simply asked, “Got Pecker?”

I wish we’d had more time there. I see that our positive first impressions of the area were shared by Pat Leonard from the Cornell Lab, who posted an engaging travelogue of her own visit to Brinkley in September. I’m envious of her canoe tour of Bayou DeView with local guide and life-long resident Chuck Volner.

Heading back, Chuck sums up some of his philosophy: “Everything in nature is beautiful. God didn’t make nothin’ ugly. You look closely enough, you’ll see everything is beautiful.�? Oh look, another beautiful cottonmouth. This one is swimming with its head above the water and glides right next to the canoe.

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But we’re on our own, and being somewhat disorganized, we fail to take advantage of either of the two foot-trails or three water trails that have been set up for birders by the good folks at Dagmar. Instead, we park at a likely looking spot near where, as best I can tell, Sparling et. al. had their sightings, and proceed to do some bushwacking (otherwise known as walking in circles).

That’s when Mark spots it. No, not the bird; the tree. In a swamp full of huge baldcypresses, this tree is enormous. I am beside myself. I’ve visited my share of eastern old-growth, but I’ve never seen trees this big east of the Cascades.

Fortunately, as I mentioned in yesterday’s installment, the water level is low: the high-water mark was about five feet off the ground. So when Mark rolled up his pants to wade across to a nearby island for a better picture, I followed suit, continuing on across a wider channel to reach the island of the giant itself. The water was freezing cold, which gave me some confidence that I might not encounter a cottonmouth, though I’m not sure I would’ve desisted had there been snakes on every log.

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I’m six foot one, at least on rare occasions when I stand up straight. This is an undoctored photo. The tree appears to be close to fifteen feet DBH (diameter at breast height – the standard forester’s measurement). Even if you measure it at the point where it stops tapering, it’s still almost as wide as I am tall. Lord God, what a tree!

The sun shines weakly through a scrim of clouds, which creates a pleasing symmetry: murky sky, murky water. A scattering of red maples and other understorey trees gives a splash of late autumn color, but what most attracts the eye is the great diversity of forms – a hallmark of true old growth. Trees get weird when they get old – check out the photo of “the yelling tree” in Pat Leonard’s essay. My brother marvels at a massive tupelo growing adjacent to an even wider rim of rotten wood: a several-hundred-year-old root sprout off a tree that may have begun life half a millennium before that. I know how old black gums can get from reading studies of Pennsylvania old growth. Only the baldcypresses get older here, I imagine. After a certain point, when the so-called heartwood rots out, it’s impossible to date them accurately, but some dendrochronologists feel that baldcypresses can get to be 2000 years old or more.

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I’m happy – I’ve come for the trees – but Mark isn’t so easily satisfied. I struggle to keep up as he strides off along the edge of the bayou. He scares up a few white-tailed deer, but otherwise wildlife seems scarce. As we head back to the car, a pileated woodpecker lets out a peal of its usual insane clown laughter – kind of like howling for wolves and getting barked at by a coyote instead.

We explore Dagmar a little more by car, passing several other stands of impressive old growth on our way to a quiet picnic lunch. Mark subsequently discovers that field trips to Bayou DeView are the featured attraction of this year’s Eastern Old-Growth Conference, scheduled for Little Rock, Arkansas on March 24-25. Check out the aerial photo on its webpage.

The rediscovery of the critically endangered ivory-billed woodpecker in the cypress-tupelo woodlands along Bayou DeView in eastern Arkansas, which still retains remnants of centuries-old baldcypress and tupelo forest in a heavily developed agricultural landscape, confirms the significance of our remaining old-growth forests and justifies the federal, state, and private efforts to conserve and restore the Big Woods ecosystem of the lower Mississippi Valley.

Other draws for this conference include the old-growth post oak woodlands of the Ozarks, which are apparently as underwhelming as the swamp forests of Bayou DeView are overwhelming. Thanks to the pioneering work of the tree-ring lab at the University of Arkansas, we now know that there are many more remnants of ancient forests in the eastern U.S. than previously imagined.

Why have these remnants of ancient forest escaped public notice? Because they don’t look like what we think an ancient forest ought to look like. I’ll bet a dollar against a doughnut that when somebody says “virgin forest,” you conjure up a park-like place with trunks as big around as Volkswagens.

That’s from an article profiling the head of the tree-ring lab, Dave Stahle, who is also my authority for the probable age of the trees we’ve just encountered.

Stahle and [Malcom] Cleaveland have also done extensive tree-ring work with baldcypress, a species especially valuable to dendrochronology because of its ability to live a long time. Stahle has sampled baldcypress stands in North Carolina that are more than 1,600 years old, and he’s found numerous sites in east Arkansas with trees over 500 years old. One site, on Bayou DeView, has more than a few 1,000-year-old trees.”And that’s just their provable age,” Stahle said. “Most of them are hollow.” Judging from the average thickness of the rings and the diameter of the center rot, Stahle is confident some of these graybeards are 1,300 years old.

Think about that–some of the trees growing right now in east Arkansas were already mature before the Crusades began in medieval Europe. By the time DeSoto tramped through them on his way to fame, glory, and an early death, they were already 750 years old.

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We take the scenic route that afternoon on our way back to Mississippi. Mark has heard that the Pine City Natural Area, an isolated, genetically distinct population of loblolly pine, supports “the last remaining colony of the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker in the Mississippi Alluvial Plain of eastern Arkansas.” The presence of the site so close to the ivorybill area, on top of all the more common woodpeckers that occur here, means that the Arkansas Delta has the highest peckerwood biodiversity in North America.

Navigating with the help of a woefully inadequate map – a page torn out of the National Geographic Road Atlas of the United States – Mark manages to find the right road, and soon enough we spot the dark smudge of a pine woods among the plowed fields. Signs on the trees identify it as a state natural area. Had we driven a little farther, we would have seen the official roadside sign, and two larger tracts, but we pull over by the first, narrow fragment of forest and set off on foot.

Mark is in the lead as usual, scanning the treetops for the holes and sap marks that indicate the presence of red-cockadeds. We notice that many of the trees other than pines have been girdled, no doubt by land managers anxious to have the pines out-compete other species. We don’t see any evidence of recent fires, but I’m sure that prescribed burns are or soon will be an important part of the management strategy here. Natural fire regimes in the southern pinelands featured a fire return interval as brief as ten years. And while the South is one of the few parts of the country where whites carried on the pyrophilic practices of the Indians, many forest ecologists feel that the tendency to set fires in the winter, rather than during the growing season, hasn’t helped the southern pinelands, which have of course also been decimated by agriculture (as is the case here) and sprawl. Their value as timber means that few commercially managed pine forests ever get old enough to provide habitat for red-cockadeds, who excavate nest holes only in trees where the heartwood has begun to rot.

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After a quarter mile, we find the main nesting area, easily identifiable by the collars of sheet metal that have been put up to keep nest predators such as raccoons at bay. “Let’s sit down here and be quiet for a little while,” Mark says. “These are very shy birds.” His daughter temporarily lowers her voice by a few decibels.

A couple minutes later, Luz catches up to us. “Didn’t you see me waving back there?” she asks. “I saw one. It just glided silently from the top of a tree, right after you went through.”

Mark seems to accept this. They’ve visited other red-cockaded sites together farther south, so she knows what the birds look like. Earlier in the day, though, he hadn’t been nearly so accepting when she claimed to have seen an ivorybill, right after we went wading off into the swamp at Bayou DeView. Her description was too vague – she’s not a birder – and after all, what are the chances? “Well, it was big,” she had said lamely, holding her hands about eighteen inches apart. “It flew right overhead… I saw some white on its wings.”

I’m sure it was just a duck.

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All photos here are by Mark Bonta except the first, second and last, which are mine.

UPDATE (Nov. 11): Reuters has a new story on this season’s official search.

To hell with Christmas

Who killed Christmas? It wasn’t all us overly considerate types who like to substitute “Happy Holidays” for “Merry Christmas” so as to avoid giving offense to celebrants of Yule or Hanukkah. No, it was you – all you so-called Christians, masters of the pious shell game, who work to perpetuate this notion of an old guy in the sky who rewards good behavior with a buttload of material goods. God don’t like that, and it says so right in your Holy Bible, if you’d bother to read it. The message of the Book of Job is pretty goddamned hard to miss.

As long as I’m playing Scrooge, this story reminds me why I used to be a metal head: cut the “White Christmas” crap, pass the Slayer.

The 6-year-old Indiana boy who was killed when a jetliner skidded off a snowy runway at a Chicago airport was singing “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” when the plane crushed his father’s car, a family friend said yesterday. …”His mother said he didn’t suffer,” the family’s neighbor, Jean Cottrell, said. “She said it was a miracle nobody else in the family was seriously hurt.” …

Joshua’s dad, truck driver Leroy Woods, was at the wheel of the Pontiac when it was struck. His wife, Lisa, and three of their four sons were in the car with them.

“They were going to see Lisa’s parents to do some Christmas shopping,” Cottrell said. “Joshua was a sweetheart. A cute little boy who was missing his two front teeth.”

Cottrell said the town is raising money to pay for the funeral.

“I know they can’t afford it,” she said. “Leroy is just a hardworking regular Joe. She’s a stay-at-home mom. What an awful Christmas for them.”

Of course, this is America, so you can’t just blame God, or Fate, or whatever. We’re a nation of positive thinkers; life can’t just suck. So brace yourselves for months of investigations and hearings, finger-pointing and earnest soul-searching. Someone has to be found culpable so that This Kind of Thing Can Never Happen Again. Or, at least, not to the hard-working consumers of this most divinely favored of nations, whose happiness is, like our standard of living, completely non-negotiable.

Ah hell, this is all too depressing. I think I’ll go shopping.

Quest for the Lord God Peckerwood (Part 1)

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It’s a sunny afternoon on the day after Thanksgiving, and we’re driving deep into the Arkansas Big Woods on a quest for the largest and most elusive woodpecker north of the Rio Grande, known to locals as the Lord God Bird, and no doubt to the few birders who have spotted it here as the Holy F***ing Shit Bird: the ivory-billed woodpecker. In other words, we are combing the puckerbrush for peckerwoods.

At the wheel is my brother Mark, who teaches geography across the river in Mississippi and thus can sometimes be counted upon to get us where we want to go. Also with us are my sister-in-law Luz, an artist with a sharp eye and an imagination to match, and my nine-year-old niece Eva, whose enthusiasm for nature is infectious albeit occasionally deafening. We got off to a late start this morning, due to the lingering effects of the previous day’s over-indulgence. And we’ve just spent a couple hours at the very educational and family-friendly visitor center of the White River National Wildlife Refuge, which includes a display on the ivorybill courtesy of the Big Woods Partnership.

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We followed a new trail still under construction below the visitor center through an impressive stand of very large oaks and tupelos down to the banks of the White River. I was especially struck by the thick understorey vegetation, which included many white oak saplings. In Pennsylvania, white oak regeneration has declined drastically over the last century, apparently as a result of fire suppression as well as from overbrowsing by deer. According to the signboards along another nearby trail, the area hasn’t been wildlife refuge land for too many decades, and I wondered if the forest composition doesn’t reflect a culture of burning among the much-maligned peckerwoods – the people, not the birds. According to the Wikipedia, peckerwood

is used as a pejorative term and was coined in the 19th century by southern blacks to describe poor whites (white trash). Blacks saw blackbirds as a symbol of themselves and the contrasting redheaded woodpecker as a representation of whites. They considered them loud and troublesome like the bird, and often with red hair like the woodpecker’s head plumes. This word is still widely used by southern blacks to refer to southern whites.

In 1979, the USDA’s Southern Forest Experiment Station in New Orleans published Southern Woods-Burners: A Descriptive Analysis, which characterized “veteran woods burners” as a “disadvantaged culture group with antisocial tendencies.” The authors found that some 40 percent of the 60,000 wildfires that occur throughout the South every year are intentionally set. But regardless of what Smokey the Bear would have you believe, frequent, low-intensity ground fires can help perpetuate the more fire-resistant oaks (or, farther south, longleaf pine savannas) while helping to provide the standing dead trees that are so essential to a balanced forest ecology – especially one that includes large woodpeckers. In the wet forests along the fringes of the swamps, I imagine that flooding, whether by beavers or otherwise, is the major killer of trees. But on Saturday we would see some undeniable evidence of the importance of burning to local woodpecker biodiversity.

The afternoon sun is already sinking into the treetops as we wind our way south through a maze of gravel roads. Mark spots the flaming red crest of a woodpecker in the trees off to our left and slams on the brakes, but it turns out to be a pileated – a bird we are both quite familiar with because it’s common on the family farm back in Pennsylvania. “That’s O.K., I can still use a good pileated photo for the blog,” I say, but it takes off before he can even roll his window down. We stop instead at one of the numerous camping areas that line the road and spend a few minutes admiring the bald cypress trees before resuming our journey.

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When we reach the end of the road, we feel as if we are indeed deep in the wilderness. There’s one other vehicle in the parking lot, an old pickup. It’s still hunting season here, and the trails are open to hunters with ATVs. But by the middle of December, those trails will be closed to all motor vehicles, and then the ivorybill searchers will have the 160,000 acres of the refuge pretty much to themselves.

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It’s very quiet. I am reminded of a line from the Delta bluesman Big Joe Williams – “a thousand miles from nowhere.” In fact, this area on the west side of the main stem of the Mississippi is culturally and geographically part of the inland delta – locals refer to it equally as the Delta on both sides – with the difference that a much larger proportion of it is still wooded. The timber crews came through early in the last century, but much of the area was never clearcut, simply high-graded, and some stands of cypress in the deepest part of the swamps were ignored altogether. As readers of my earlier post “Learning from the ivorybill” will understand, it’s these big trees that I am mostly here to see; I have few illusions that I will be lucky enough to actually see an ivorybill. This also constitutes a logical extension of my Delta Blues pilgrimage. Like levee camps, lumber camps were important as places where musicians from all over met and mingled, trading songs and techniques and helping to spread the blues across the South in the decades before the “race record” industry got underway.

The White River Refuge was established to protect migratory waterfowl at the point of their greatest concentration in North America, so perhaps it isn’t too surprising that a presumably small population of resident ivory-billed woodpeckers were overlooked. As the decades went by, the impact of hunting- and fishing-related tourism became more and more important to the local economy. In the 1980s, the wealthy planters of Mississippi wanted to build a bridge across the river to carry their cotton west into Texas, but they were stopped by popular opposition, which focused on the need to protect wildlife habitat and the wilderness character of the White River refuge. And it was Governor Bill Clinton himself – a peckerwood if there ever was one – who pushed for the reinvention of Arkansas as “the natural state,” Mark tells me. Last year, when ornithologists announced the rediscovery of the ivorybill here, it was a vindication of that vision. Though the best sightings have been a little farther north, in the more accessible area we’ll be visiting tomorrow, the White River refuge and adjacent woodlands have yielded the best sound recordings of ivorybill calls from the autonomous recording units (ARUs) that have been posted here.

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It’s been very dry for the last few months; we find it easy walking along the fringes of the bayou. In contrast to last season, when the water was high, this year, the ivorybill searchers are probably having a hard time finding a place to put in a canoe. The cold is keeping mosquitoes and cottonmouths at bay, though I had kind of hoped to see the latter. Mark wants to leave time to drive out before dark, a concern which is also a limiting factor on how well the refuge can be canvassed for ivorybills, who are most active in the hour or two before dusk, according to Tim Gallagher (see my review of his book The Grail Bird here).

So we only have time for a brief walk, but in that time we find several hollow logs and trees and a wonderfully grotesque snag – more evidence of why this is such great wildlife habitat. Black bears, who like nothing better than to den in hollow trees, are common here, whereas they only show up in Mississippi on rare occasions when one swims across the river. There are also persistent reports of mountain lion sightings. Luz looks on a little apprehensively as her daughter pushes her way into every homey-looking cavity she can find. We listen in vain for a double knock or the tooting of a child’s tin horn.

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To be continued. The second, fourth and sixth photos are by my brother Mark.

Viscera for breakfast

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Meanwhile, back on the mountain, the first snows of the season make the blues come down. I don’t want to say that these are my blues, necessarily, but there are always plenty to go around. I am thankful for the cold in which sound does not travel so fast or far; it’s quiet enough that you can hear the beech leaves whistling through their teeth.

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Wounds are harder to hide now. But those who cause the wounds are just as vulnerable, easy targets against the snow. If you need somewhere to take shelter & to sharpen your claws, baby, look no further.

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Here in the mountains, the sun can take a long time to reach down into every cove & hollow. Some places don’t see the morning sun until well past noon. We can sleep in late.

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But some days, you know if you lie down you might not get back up. The comforter is heavy with the breast feathers of geese that never got to fly south.

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I saw seven crows in an oak tree, silent, waiting for the hunter of images to go on past & for the sun to thaw their breakfast of viscera. Dense red muscle of the heart, stomach like a deflated balloon, the liver’s sour purple disc: everything about a deer is beautiful. Even the footprints of these eaters are thinner & more delicate than I would have expected.

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Look, here’s an empty seat. You could well say it’s nothing looking at nothing, & you might be right. On the other hand, the sun’s not as lonely as he looks: for those in the know, this is by far the best time of year to go sunbathing. You can sit fully clothed in the midst of all this nakedness & feel rich & lucky & happy to be alive.

Blues country

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The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta is a vast, inland delta or floodplain stretching from Memphis in the north to Vicksburg in the south, and miles deep in rich, alluvial soil. Rocks, such as this rip-rap along the bayou in downtown Cleveland, Mississippi, are a valuable commodity.

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“As for surrealism, I think there’s more of it in the blues [than in jazz]. The early stuff, especially. Most people know Bessie Smith and perhaps Robert Johnson, but there are many others. Incredible verbal invention. What one would call ‘jive,’ but also eroticism, the tragic sense of life. If the blues were French, we’d be studying it at Yale.”
Charles Simic (interview with Sherod Santos)

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“Some of my blues is kinda sad blues ’cause sometimes I be feeling down and out. And I know some other womens do too. I play them so it will hit somebody. The songs are for anybody that listen to it – so I can tell ’em. … Shotgun, everywhere I play it, everybody like it. It’s just kinda of you’ve been mistreated and you want to blow somebody away. [laughs]. The other one is about nosy neighbors. They talk about you all the time. See, I got a lot of neighbors talking, lie, go on about me. They all the time lying and going on. And I just sat out in the yard and made a record about them. Turned the amplifier up as loud as I could get it so they could get the message.”
Jessie Mae Hemphill (1991 interview)

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Nearly 400 families lived on the Dockery plantation in the 1920s, when the style of guitar blues later associated with Clarksdale (and still later with the South Side of Chicago) first took shape. Blues researcher and native Mississippian Gayle Dean Wardlow: “It may at first seem fantastic that three of the very best bluesmen – [Charley] Patton, Son House, and Willie Brown – should have been on the same plantation at the same time. However, once we accept [Patton’s sister] Viola’s statement that Patton taught them all, it no longer seems so remarkable…. Brown was Patton’s closest disciple. Son House, with his dark brooding singing and strange chording, started a following of his own.”

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Parchman Farm, still one of the most brutal prisons in the United States. David Oshinsky:

The most common offenses – fighting, stealing, “disrespect” to an officer, and failure to meet work quotas – were punishable by five to fifteen lashes. Escape attempts carried an unspeakable penalty: a whipping without limits. One superintendent recalled a mass breakout in the 1930s in which a trusty-shooter was killed. “To get confessions,” he said, “I had whippings given to the eight we caught who weren’t wounded. Before the young ringleader confessed, I had him lashed on the buttocks, calves, and palms, then gave him fifteen lashes on the soles of his feet. This cleared his mind.”The number and severity of whippings depended on the sergeant in charge. “Book rules” meant little in the field camps, which were fiefdoms unto themselves. The sergeants worked in relative isolation. Some of them were alcoholics; a few were sadists. “They beat hell out of you for any reason or no reason,” an inmate remarked. “It’s the greatest pleasure of their lives.” Above all, the sergeants were under pressure to make a good crop, and that meant pushing the men. “What can you expect in the way of judgment at fifty dollars a month?” asked one prison official. “What kind of foreman on the outside [is] employed at fifty dollars a month? They usually pay foremen more than anybody else, the man who works the men, but that’s what they pay here – fifty dollars a month!”

Oh listen you men, I don’t mean no harm
Oh listen you men, I don’t mean no harm
If you wanna do good, you better stay off old Parchman Farm

-Booker T. Washington “Bukka” White, “Parchman Farm Blues”

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Amber waves of foam on the Mississippi River at Rosedale

Lord, I’m goin’ to Rosedale, gon’ take my rider by my side
Lord, I’m goin’ to Rosedale, gon’ take my rider by my side
We can still barrelhouse baby, on the riverside

– Robert Johnson, “Traveling Riverside Blues”

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Eatery in Rosedale

“Blues taught me a number of things. How to tell a story quickly, economically. The value of gaps, ellipses, and most importantly, the value of simplicity and accessibility.”
– Charles Simic

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Crossroads at sunset, Bolivar County, Mississippi

“The world’s still standing like it was a million years ago. Sun still comes up and goes down, wind still blow from the four corners of the earth, the stars still shine. It’s the peoples that live in the world that’s got it so messed up.”
– Big Jack Johnson (1991 interview)

St. Louis blues

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Sliding out from behind a billboard Supporting the Warfighter, another odd pustule of civilization interrupts the smooth horizon of the Middle West. Off to one side, a silver parabola straight out of a math textbook makes me scan the sky for an x-axis, that new horizon people are always talking about.

The bus station occupies a Victorian-era bank building with a two-storey-high ceiling and a small, resident flock of English sparrows. This is Greyhound’s gateway terminal for all points west, and it’s so crowded, people can hardly tell which line to stand in. I stow my bags in a locker and head for downtown on foot, ignoring warnings from a security officer that this is Not a Good Neighborhood. I guess that must mean black people live here; presumably, the bank went under when its red lines failed to check the tide. Gone are the days when Those People could be safely bottled up in East St. Louis, easy prey for racist cops and weekend vigilantes.

A mob is passionate; a mob follows one man or a few men blindly; a mob sometimes takes chances. The East St. Louis affair, as I saw it, was a manhunt, conducted on a sporting basis, though with anything but the fair play which is the principle of sport. They went in small groups, there was little leadership, and there was a horribly cool deliberateness and a spirit of fun about it.It was no crowd of hot-headed youths. Young men were in the greater number, but there were the middle-aged, no less active in the task of destroying the life of every discoverable black man.

That’s from an eyewitness account of the 1917 riot (click on the link for much more gruesome details). The factories of St. Louis were busy turning out materials for the first fully modern war when resentment at the influx of black laborers from the south spilled over into violence.

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It’s a sunny afternoon, and the streets are nearly deserted. A white plastic shopping bag – A.K.A. urban tumbleweed – crosses the avenue in front of me. One plaza near the heart of the downtown features, in lieu of a public fountain, a large, square opening that affords a view down onto an otherwise hidden stream. The opening provides just enough light to support grass and a few bushes (though not enough, at this time of day, for a good picture), and the overall effect is slightly vertiginous, as if the concrete flesh of the present could be peeled back at any time. The banks of the stream are dotted with small homeless encampments, whose presumed inhabitants are sitting around on benches in the street level portion of the plaza, soaking up the sun.

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It’s odd, the pull of an icon. Everything I see is colored by my expectation of the Arch. And why not? Eero Saarinen’s parabola captures as well as any monument could the Western European desire to cut all ties with the earth and inhabit a world of pure abstraction – a desire at least as old as the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages.

But just because the architect conceived of it as a symbolic gateway into the future doesn’t mean that everyone else has to see it that way. And in fact, a very close-up view of the thing shows the efforts of more recent, anonymous artists to capture the Arch for their own visions. We were here, they want us to know, or We were in love. However cluttered or atavistic our lives may seem, they still have value.

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I’m surprised to see a crowd of tourists lined up in front of a subterranean set of doors. It turns out that the Arch is hollow, and that one can ride a tram clear up to the top. The National Park Service has custody of the memorial site, and their police make everyone pass through security gates.

I get in line against my better judgement. I’m one of those who continue to set off the alarms even after removing every scrap of metal from my pockets; they pat me down, make me pull up my pants legs, and finally let me bypass the gate. Forty minutes later, I leave the Museum of Westward Expansion brimming with anger at its celebration of Manifest Destiny, its bland platitudes glossing over the grim realities of genocide and conquest.

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But at least the museum gives plenty of background on the building of the Arch. Winning the competition for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in 1947 catapulted the young Eero Saarinen to fame. He remains best known for the Arch, but his other creations are equally imbued with an almost fetishistic attraction to modernity – the 20th century’s version of Manifest Destiny. His design for the General Motors Technical Center, with its sprawling, one-storey buildings designed to celebrate the culture of the automobile, set the template for the modern corporate campus. The TWA Terminal and Dulles International Airport buildings embody a utopian vision of jet travel based, of course, on the false premise of a future of unlimited fossil fuels. As the website Eero Saarinen: Realizing American Utopia puts it,

Saarinen’s stylistic range came to represent the postwar American ideal of an open-ended society of unbounded choice and diversity. Key to the successful projection of this ideal were Saarinen’s visionary clients–businessmen like IBM’s Thomas J. Watson and CBS’s Frank Stanton who presided over the development of progressive technologies like computers and television. Saarinen, working in close collaboration with his clients, deployed equally progressive construction and mechanical systems for new office buildings set in bucolic corporate parks. At the same time, Saarinen himself embodied the free and creative individualist. Together, Saarinen and his work represented the image of a utopian capitalist America, ever new and dynamic and in full control of its domain.

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Walking back, a tune pops into my head, accompanied by – yes – a vision: Louis Armstrong with his trumpet, blowing the venerable old tune about the city that shares his name for an ecstatic audience of tens of thousands in newly liberated Ghana, 1956:

St. Louis woman, with all her diamond rings…

When I get back to the station, the evening sun is just going down.

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Greyhound stew

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Peckerwood Pilgrim


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“A trident cooking hearth does not spill stew.” With this piece of wisdom, gleaned from a book of Yoruba proverbs, my friend L. had wished me an emailed bon voyage. Now it’s 9:00 a.m. on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. I’ve been on the road since 6:30 the previous evening and have made it as far as Indianapolis.

Over the summer, Greyhound eliminated a number of routes to more rural, less popular destinations, which is why someone traveling between such minor cities as Altoona, Pennsylvania and Cleveland, Mississippi might find himself routed through St. Louis. “New faster service,” crow the posters inside the terminal. “Stop less. Go more.” And indeed, my layover in Indianapolis has only lasted fifty minutes – but this would prove to be the exception. In all, on the way to Mississippi I’ll spend more than sixteen of my thirty-eight hours of travel time in “stop” mode, including a five hour and fifty minute layover in St. Louis, coming up this afternoon.

I’ve just reboarded the St. Louis bus. Sunlight floods the space under the high arched roof where the buses pull in. Directly across from me on the other side of the terminal’s glass wall, an African-American teenager talks on his cellphone. He pivots restlessly on one foot, left arm behind his back, baseball cap turned sideways. Every time he opens his mouth to laugh, which is often, the sun flashes on a full set of braces – a dazzling sight. I feel as if I am intercepting a coded message from the agent of some previously unknown, possibly angelic power: FLASH. FLASH FLASH FLASH. FLASH. FLASH.

Going Greyhound has always been a somewhat surreal experience; over the last few years, the growing popularity of cellphones has added an extra layer of weirdness. Now you get to hear what a lot of people are thinking about, beyond those who habitually talk to themselves. Not that this knowledge is always especially welcome. In the seat in front of me a thin, blond, thirty-something woman with a T-shirt that says “Naughty” dials several numbers with no apparent success. Or perhaps she is dialing the same number over and over, waiting for the other party to wake up and answer the phone.

At last she gets someone, and dispenses with the usual salutation. “I’m gonna press charges against you,” I hear her say. “I’m gonna press charges against you.” Pause. “I said, I’m gonna press charges against you.” Pause. “I’m gonna press charges against you.” Shorter pause. “Yeah, asshole, I’m gonna press charges against you. For assault. For assault.” Pause. “For assault.” Pause. “And that’s a mandatory jail time, mandatory jail time.” Pause. “That’s a mandatory jail time.”

She snaps the phone shut, puts it in her pocket and goes back to staring out the window.

The seat beside me remains empty. Last night at Dayton, the young black guy who had been sitting there since Columbus decided to move one seat back, in order to sit beside the older white woman who had made a complimentary remark about his butt when she squeezed past him in the crowded aisle. “You seem kind of friendly,” he said to her, adding quickly, “No offense – ” to me – “but if I should happen to fall asleep and end up falling into someone’s lap by mistake… you know…” We all laugh.

“I have a husband waiting for me in Indianapolis,” the woman warns, clearly flattered. “Oh, that’s O.K., baby. I’ll just be warming you up for him!”

Across the aisle, a woman takes a book from her bag and begins to read. I don’t get a glimpse of the cover, but I can read the bold letters at the top of each page: PROPHESY. Panama Hat Man stretches out across the two seats in front of her, and takes his dark glasses off. This is the first I’ve seen his eyes since I ran into him in line at the Columbus terminal. Now that the sun’s out, it seems, he has no further use for dark glasses.

Panama Hat Man is taking crazy pills, and for some reason he wants the world to know about it. He’s in his fifties, short, stocky, of indeterminate ethnicity – a Pacific Islander, I decide, since he says he’s going back to Hawaii, though he also told me he grew up in New Jersey. We’d been riding the same bus since Pittsburgh, but I’d managed to avoid conversation with him until Columbus, when he suddenly turned to me, pulled one earphone out and said, “I’m listening to some Jewish music I picked up in New Jersey. Bush likes it.”

I stared at him. “You mean, a klesmer band?”

“I don’t know… they’re from Rutgers. My Dad bought it for me.

“My Dad’s nice,” he continues. “He bought me a bus ticket clear to L.A., and nine hundred dollars worth of pills.” He shows me two plastic bottles full of brightly colored gel caps nestled in the breast pocket of his jean jacket. “I think he wanted to get rid of me.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah. But actually, I think it’s a test. He’s trying to show he trusts me. Wants me to prove myself to him.”

Time spent in bus terminals is always tense with waiting; it’s all too easy to miss a connection, or to end up too far back in line to get a good seat. But once on the bus, all worries evaporate – at least, for me. Others, perhaps, continue to marinate in a stew of personal traumas. As we pull away from the terminal, cellphone conversations gradually peter out, and the engine and blowers combine to make a comforting envelope of white noise in which to doze or daydream. I re-enter a state of almost timeless suspension, floating over the landscape like a passenger on a very low, slow plane. St. Louis, here I come.

Ramifications of travel

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Peckerwood Pilgrim


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Creeper-festooned oak, White River National Wildlife Refuge, Arkansas

Coming home after ten days away that culminated in two sleepless nights on the return bus, one finds that things are not quite as one had left them. Were the woods really so bare and the field so drab when I left? Well, probably not. But chances are that my house had been just as small and lonesome as it now appears. I sure don’t remember my writing table being so cluttered, though. And where the hell did all this dust come from?

Only ten days, and I find myself groping to recover familiar habits, wondering at myself for doing things in such odd ways. On the morning of my second full day home, I can’t find my daypack, which I had just used the day before, and I rush all over the farm looking for it. When at last I find it, I’m completely baffled at my idiocy. It’s in the chair beside the door, right where I always leave it… I think.

One thing’s clear: it will take me a little time to get back into the writing groove. I am trying to resurrect an idea I had down in Mississippi, just before surrendering to wakefulness on the morning of the day I left. The phrase “decision tree” came to me, accompanied by a literal image of a tree branching downward, into the earth. With each arbitrary life choice, it seemed to me, the clarity of the open sky recedes and one becomes more and more enmeshed in particulars. Then a little later, when I sat outside drinking my coffee, I was struck by the way the large oak tree across the street appeared to be trapped in a maze of electric and telephone lines. Isn’t growing right-side up, after all, a far more hazardous and adventuresome route?

The fabled decision tree
dangles head-down,
rootless on the blackboard
in my dream. Each new
pair of twigs reaches
like a tuning fork
into silence.

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Old-growth bald cypress, Bayou DeView, Arkansas (photo by Mark Bonta)