from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
October 5, 2003
TRIP TO KENTUCKY, 2003
On schedule at 2:55 PM Monday, September 22, the Delta Bus Line Bluebird LTC 40 "kneeling bus" pulls behind the station in Natchez and, on command, "kneels" its front end close to the pavement as the driver steps out.
It's a formidable-looking bus, a large, new, white, boxy thing, and its shiny front end is plastered with hundreds of black Lovebugs, PLECIA NEARCTICA. Once a bus driver told me that sometimes he ran through such dense clouds of Lovebugs that he'd have to stop to wipe the goo off his windshield. I've seen them so thick that I couldn't jog through them without breathing them in. Usually you see the male and female flying stuck together, and even here on the bus's front nothing might be left of one but a crushed heap, but its rear end still will be coupled to its partner. In Kentucky we didn't have Lovebugs, but here everyone knows them. You can read all about them at http://creatures.ifas.ufl.edu/misc/lovebug.htm and you can see some on a spray of goldenrod, at http://creatures.ifas.ufl.edu/misc/lovebug_photo5.htm
It's the last day of summer so as we pull out of Natchez I look for the signs of fall. Trees here are still summery green but with imagination you might detect a hint of yellowish bronze. Roadsides and abandoned fields are thick with Canada Goldenrod, SOLIDAGO CANADENSIS. Flowers in the goldenrods' inflorescences aren't fully developed yet, so they're greenish yellow, not the bright yellow I expect to see upon my return next week.
This is the season when red Spider Lilies, LYCORIS RADIATA, put on a show and it's amazing how many appear around older houses, on roadside banks and around old mailboxes. "Old," because this pretty member of the Amaryllis Family is nearly always missing from spots landscaped since around 1950. These plants are relics of an earlier time. As the bright new Bluebird LTC 40 rumbles up US 61 I wonder what change in society around 1950 caused people to stop planting Spider Lilies around their homes. In Kentucky I grew up using the name Spider Lilly for a completely different plant, one with white flowers. You can see Mississippi's red-flowered one at www.tcp-ip.or.jp/~jswc3242/000/150.jpg The Web site providing that picture is in Japan, and that's appropriate, since this species is native to Japan and China. What we grow here is a horticultural variety developed in ancient times. Since it's a sterile "triploid" with three times the chromosome number possessed by the wild species, it can't be grown from seeds.
Between Natchez and Vicksburg the land is rough and irregular like the surface of mildly troubled water. I'm on loess-capped upland just east of the Mississippi River, and loess dramatically gullies wherever it can. Ten minutes north of Vicksburg US 61 plunges over the bluff, we cross the muddy Yazoo River on an impressive but rusty iron bridge, and enter the Delta Region. The Delta is as flat as a land can be, and it will stay flat like this all the way to Memphis.
On the banks of drainage ditches Swamp Rose-mallow, a kind of wild hibiscus, is in full blossom, and is as spectacular here as Spider Lilies are in the uplands. I think that this is HIBISCUS LASIOCARPUS, but similar species exist and from the bus I can't make a definite identification. You can see the species' pretty flowers at www.biosurvey.ou.edu/okwild/wrmal.html where it is referred to as the Wooly Rose Mallow.
Outside my window some cornfields already have been picked so that now only shattered, dun-colored stalks and chaff remain. In other fields the corn still stands, their big ears all hanging at about the same level. Some cotton fields are still green with white bolls just beginning to show, while other fields are so white they look like they're covered with dirty snow. Some fields have already been picked and plowed.
Along the edges of cotton fields every hundred feet or so green bottles are suspended on slender poles. These are pheromone traps on guard against boll weevils. Though the picture shows a yellow trap different from these, there's an excellent page all about boll weevil pheromone traps and the boll weevil in Mississippi at http://msucares.com/pubs/publications/p2294figures.htm
Also at field edges are massive blocks of picked, compressed cotton. In the business these cotton-blocks are known as modules. I estimate that they are 25-30 feet long, eight feet high and six feet thick (8m x 2.5m x 1.8m). Occasionally you see the large, metal machines used to compress freshly picked cotton into these blocks. They're like big garbage bins with a sort of press at the top that moves from one end of the container to the other, pressing down as it goes. You can see such a compressor being loaded at www.nrm.qld.gov.au/community/condaminefp/photos/machinery/machinery12a.jpg
The big modules of compressed cotton are capped with plastic tarpaulins and the tarp color varies from field to field. In the bright Delta sunshine beneath blue sky, any farmer must love seeing these colorful and substantial heaps lining up at his fields' edges at season's end. You can see cotton modules topped with tarps at http://www.tomstarps.com.au/tarps.htm
At Greenville we take a supper rest and the sun goes down. In the growing darkness, across from the bus station, the used-car dealer goes around cutting dozens of large, brightly colored, helium-filled balloons from their car-moorings, letting them drift into the calm evening sky. I wonder how he can so thoughtlessly trash the countryside, and I wonder at the beauty of the bright balloons lifting calmly into the purple sky.
I fall asleep as soon as we are underway again, awakening only as we roll into Memphis around 11 PM. In a couple of hours I take a Greyhound northeastward, sleep all the way, and awaken as we pull into the Nashville station at 4 AM.
In Nashville I have a ten-hour layover before my next bus so when daylight comes I begin wandering through town. During the late 70s and early 80s for about seven years I lived in Nashville, so I am drawn toward my old home area in the western part of town, the Hillsborough Village/ West End community near Vanderbilt University.
Soon it's clear that so many changes have taken place that the feeling of the Nashville I knew has largely disappeared. Instead of my walk being a sentimental journey, it resolves into a seed-collecting expedition. On this first day of fall lots of things are fruiting. From exotic plantings around the Country Music Hall of Fame and in front of studios on Music Row I snatch fruiting heads of spectacular plants I've never seen. I gather a pocket of Ginkgo seeds and from in front of an old mansion whose musty smell reaches me on the sidewalk I harvest seeds from a Four O'clock with variegated yellow and violet blossoms. Then comes a Goldenrain-tree and a Catalpa, and it seems that every block provides something I've been wanting to grow.
In the afternoon I'm asleep even before my bus leaves Nashville's city limits. I awake only as we approach my home area in western Kentucky a hundred miles to the north. How gratifying to see real hills with solid bedrock exposed in roadcuts. This is the Pennsylvanian-age, 300,000,000-year-old sandstone on which I grew up. Somehow Adams County's unconsolidated gravel, sand and loess, all less than a tenth this age, feel to me too unsubstantial for solid footing.
Forests up here also are summery green, but just a little more yellowish bronze than in Mississippi. The landscape is busy with big machines bringing in the soybeans and corn. Yellow-green to brown tobacco hangs curing in a few old barns. I have had my times hanging tobacco in barns, with the sweat of the men above me, tobacco worms and gummy chaff showering down on me in the stifling heat.
In the late afternoon about 15 miles west of my last bus station in Owensboro, Kentucky, I see this: In general the landscape is a patchwork of small, dark green forests, green to yellow to tan soybean fields, straw-colored corn fields, and of these crops maybe one-fifth have been harvested. The sun is low on a clear day so golden sunlight floods in from behind us making long, black shadows reach from the woods into the fields. There's a green truck with high, red sideboards filled with yellow soybeans parked in a gray field framed by dark green woods, with a large, red combine parked nearby. I am beholding this as we pass a car and I see that the new Kentucky license plate bears a yellow-and-black smiley face. For half a second I glimpse a hint of both why I am compelled to return here each year, and why I abandoned the straight life as I knew it in Kentucky. You can see the new license plate yourself at http://gov.state.ky.us/plate/
My family consists of a grandmother going on 92 years old and numerous aunts, uncles and cousins. It is good to see them all, and every one goes out of his or her way to make me feel welcome and at home. When I arrive at Grandma Taylor's house in Calhoun 20 miles south of the bus station in Owensboro, a supper of hot vegetarian vegetable soup and cornbread awaits, as I knew it would, for that is the meal my mother always had waiting during those years when I'd return from my summers in Europe and winters in the tropics, and now my family honors my mother by keeping that tradition alive.
Though Calhoun is the seat of McLean County, its population is only about 850. Young people tend to leave the county upon graduation, or else live next to their parents, often in trailers on grassed-over corners of the family farm, and often commuting to work in other counties. A few fight a losing battle to keep on farming. Farmland here is wonderful, but prices for what's produced on the land are too low for making decent livings. Basically McLean County is a bedroom community for larger towns outside the county. You can get a rather half-hearted, Chamber-of-Commerce introduction to Calhoun and McLean County at www.mcleancounty.org/intro_CAL.htm
I grew up on a small farm 5 miles south of Calhoun, at the edge of an unincorporated clustering of homes called Semiway. My earliest memory of Calhoun is coming to town each Saturday morning in the early 1950s to find the sidewalks blue with the bibbed coveralls of farmers who on Saturday mornings did their week's shopping and networking. A kid back then knew to watch out for reckless tobacco-spitting. I remember how just thinking of Calhoun's busy, crammed streets caused enormous excitement and apprehension in me. But now nearly all of Calhoun's stores have been Wal-Marted into nonexistence. The town, still pretty with its Sugar Maples lining Main Street and with the big Green River coursing by, mostly consists of churches, flower shops, the courthouse, and a few other low-key establishments. Its citizens are more- than-average old, fat, slow-moving and sick. The farm on which I grew up has been absorbed into a much larger farm, and the buildings are so neglected that during my visits I don't go look.
During this entire visit to Kentucky, every morning and every afternoon is scheduled for a family visit. I have brought along some field guides and my binoculars, but never have time to touch them. The weather is beautiful, sunny, breezy, with a decisive feeling of fall in the air. The tops of the Sugar Maples along Calhoun's Main Street are turning yellow and red, and in the afternoons Monarch Butterflies can be seen migrating southward. There's a fine Web site describing Monarch migration through Texas at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/nature/research/monmig.htm
I want to give you my Grandma Taylor's recipe for orange pie, which she prepared while I was there. She says she invented it back around 1950, one night when my grandfather asked for a pie and all she had was a couple of oranges. Here it is:
GRANDMA TAYLOR'S ORANGE PIE
Mix together the following ingredients:
- juice of 2 oranges
- 1.5 cups of sugar
- 3 heaping tablespoons cornstarch
- 4 egg yolks
- 1 teaspoon orange flavoring
For the topping, combine the following:
- whites of the above 4 eggs
- 4 tablespoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon orange flavoring
Fill a graham cracker pie crust with the orange juice mixture and cook until the mixture gets about as thick as mashed potatoes -- about ten minutes in a microwave set on high. Beat the topping mixture into a white, frothy meringue. Spread the meringue atop the filling, then bake in an oven until its top browns just enough to be pretty. That's all.
I have not eaten this pie, but I did taste of what adhered to a knife blade drawn through it. It is delicious in a 1950s, dazzling, uncomplicated, self- destructive kind of way. This pie in many ways represents a certain essence of my childhood in McLean County, absolutely delicious, unpretentious, and deadly as it is.
THE TRIP BACK
As I leave my grandmother's house in Calhoun at 7:30 last Sunday morning, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak "peeks" in the Red Maple above us. This thick-bodied, very- thick-billed, seed-eating bird with a white beak and, on the male, a rosy breast, has learned to visit suburban feeders, and I see more of them now than when I was a kid. This species raises its family in eastern and central states far north of both Mississippi and Kentucky, so the "peeks" heard now announce fall migration. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks have rambling, musical calls, but nowadays they only "peek." If your computer eats MP3 audio files, you can hear their musical call with two typical "peeks" at the end at www.uwgb.edu/birds/wbba/species/audios/GROSBEAK__ROSE_BREASTED.MP3
In a couple of hours I'm in Nashville again, and now I settle in until my bus leaves twelve hours later. It's a brilliant, windy day, the sky is deep, deep blue, scored by orange-colored Monarch butterflies sailing southward. It's so windy and chilly -- not out of the 60s the whole day -- that it feels good finding a sheltered corner in a park out of the wind but in the sunlight, to read. It's been a long time since I experienced this gladly sheltered kind of feeling, and I savor it, the roar of wind, the warmth of sunlight in cold air, so very different from the heavy, humid heat of not long ago.
An 8-hour layover awaits me in Memphis, for there's only one Natchez bus a day, and it leaves at 9 AM. I spend the night collapsed over my backpack in the Memphis bus station. The whole day Monday the Delta Line bus rumbles south on US 61 the full length of the Delta, through hangdog little towns, some with names familiar to and revered by Delta Blues aficionados the world over. Cotton picking is at its peak. In the southern Delta, red Spider Lilies begin appearing in peoples' yards. Around Port Gibson and Spanish Moss starts hanging from trees.
When at last with darkness coming on I am next to my little trailer and gardens, with a Rose-breasted Grosbeak offering its last "peeks" of the day, and the goldenrods in the Loblolly field almost shimmering with a bright yellow glow, how peaceful and civilized everything seems. I come home reinforced with the notion that I have no stomach for the outside world. "Roots," and "family" is one thing, and I shall always honor and respect that. But the manner of living, thinking and believing I have witnessed on this trip hold no charm for me.