Quinta Scott ~ Where News Meets History



I have Wendy Billiot to thank for my introduction to Quinta Scott. When Wendy, my favorite Bayou Woman, first guided me (and “Otherbug”, my companion paper doll***) through the waterways and highways of Louisiana’s Terrebonne Parish, I just was beginning my education in the living ways of marsh, bayou and swamp.

When Quinta Scott stepped aboard Wendy’s boat some time earlier, she already had spent decades becoming an accomplished photographer and years traveling and documenting the Mississippi River for her book, The Mississippi: A Visual Biography. Fifteen years in the making, the book was photographed and written between the Flood of 1993 and the Flood of 2008, with Hurricanes Gustav and Ike thrown in for good measure.

As she began exploring the Mississippi wetlands, Quinta already had three books to her credit: The Eads Bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis (text by Howard S. Miller), Route 66: The Highway and Its People (text by Susan Croce Kelly) and a follow-up entitled Along Route 66: The Architecture of American’s Highway. All are filled with extraordinary photographs and interesting commentary, but in today’s world, it is the record of the Mississippi and its wetlands that feels most significant.

One evening while I was in Louisiana, Wendy stopped by Camp Dularge with her copy of Quinta’s latest book. I was fascinated. The Mississippi has run through my life like an unbroken thread, stitching together people and experiences more securely than any other feature of our physical world.

As a child, I stepped across the Mississippi headwaters at their source, Minnesota’s Lake Itasca.

 Where the river flows east to west through the clustered Iowa and Illinois towns of Rock Island, Davenport, Moline and Bettendorf, I often visited relatives with my parents. One year we vacationed in New Orleans, and once we traveled to St. Louis, to see how things were “back east”.

The years ticked over, one by one, with the river serving as a moving backdrop for our lives. Now and then the floods came and the river revealed itself truly to be Eliot’s “strong, brown god“, but eventually it receded, and life went on.

Just over a year ago, the river flowed back into my life. I was planning a trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi for their annual Juke Joint Festival, and had secured reservations for lodging at Uncle Henry’s at Moon Lake. Formerly known as The Moon Lake Club, Uncle Henry’s was transformed into the thinly disguised Moon Lake Casino in several of Tennessee Williams’ works, including A Streetcar Named Desire.

Moon Lake itself is an oxbow, formed over time by changes in the course of the Mississippi. Interesting for its natural history, its role in human history has been equally significant. In 1863, General Ulysses S. Grant and the Union army blew up the levee connecting Moon Lake with the Tallahatchie and Mississippi Rivers. Their goal, never achieved, was to move their gunboats into the Yazoo Pass and reach the southern stronghold of Vicksburg with the advantage of surprise.

As these things happen, I discovered while planning my trip that my great-great-grandfather, David Crowley, saw his first Civil War service with the 34th Iowa Regiment (later consolidated into the Iowa 38th) in the Yazoo Pass Expedition. Having made my own way to the Pass, I meandered through iris and dogwood down to the landing behind Uncle Henry’s. Imagining the boats that arrived there, watching the water flow, I wondered: what would it be like to trace the flow of history?

In The Mississippi: A Visual Biography, Quinta Scott shows us what it means to ask, and then answer, such a question. Speaking of the genesis of her most recent project she says,

Ever since I picked up a camera and said I was going to be a photographer, I have wanted to do a Mississippi River Project. In 1991 on a trip down Mississippi Highway 1, I came across an old oxbow of the Mississippi, stepped in a fire ant nest, made a photograph, and found my Mississippi River Project. I would document wetlands the Mississippi created as it meandered from the Source to the Louisiana Gulf Coast.

Anyone who has experienced love for the Mississippi, interest in its history, appreciation for its beauty or concern for its future has reason to be grateful to Quinta Scott. As the best photographers do, she has made the river more vibrant, more compelling and more resonant than it often appears in real life. For the sake of her book alone I would be happy to pass on her name and recommend her work.

And yet, Quinta Scott has given us another gift, a gift more timely and perhaps more important as we wait for the volcano of oil spewing through the Gulf to be tamed. In her simply-named Quinta Scott’s Weblog, she provides a wealth of information about the nature of wetlands, the damage they have endured over the years and the need, even now, to look beyond the terrible reality of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and begin to understand what will be required of us when restoration begins.

 In an April 30 post focused on Breton Sound and the Oil Slick she says,

At the beginning of last year, when I decided to devote this blog to all things Mississippi River, I decided I would respond to news with history. That is what my book, The Mississippi: A Visual Biography is about, the history of the Mississippi River and the wetlands it created, how they were formed, what we have done to change them, and how we are trying to manage the river and wetlands we have created.
 I came away from the experience of photographing, researching, and writing the book as a generalist on the Mississippi and its wetlands, not as an expert on any one portion of the river, but as the rare person who has looked at the river as a whole. The oil leak, such an inadequate description of the rupture of this mile-deep oil well, in the Gulf of Mexico brings home to me the limits of my expertise on the river.
 Nevertheless, I shall do what I said I would do: Respond to news with history…

 And so she has.

The beauty of Ms. Scott’s weblog is that it provides a way even for those far from the desolation and despair of today’s Gulf coast to learn, to connect with the suffering of American coastal residents and decide what must be required of legislators, corporations, bureaucrats and regulators who have brought us to this pass.

And for those who live daily with the beauty of the marsh, for those who make their homes and their living in this fragile network of waterways, for those who grieve the innocent suffering of the creatures and are sickened by the callous disregard of humans, Quinta Scott has one more gift.

It is a reminder that whether at Yazoo Pass or Pass Christian, whether in Pass A Loutre or South Pass, there still is hope. The earth’s time is not human time. Oxbows do not appear in a day, just as oil will not disappear overnight. Seen against the horizon of history, the terrible news of the day can be balanced and made at least bearable. If the destruction can end, if the oil can be stopped, if the tide of human exhaustion can be stemmed, the lessons of the disaster learned and the dedication of the people renewed, restoration can happen. History says so.


Comments are welcome.  To leave a comment or respond, please click below. 
*** Yes, yes, I know. I’ve mentioned my paper doll friend and this mysterious journey, but BP and their oily mess have distracted me. Miss Otherbug’s journey through the bayous and swamps will be coming, very soon!

11 thoughts on “Quinta Scott ~ Where News Meets History

  1. I love the way you write. Congratulations on a great article. And, thanks for the nice words about my work.

    Quinta Scott


    Despite the painful edge to the topic, I very much enjoyed putting this piece together. It was especially interesting to work my way through your blog, and I’m looking forward to following it in the future.

    It’s very kind of you to stop by – I’m glad you enjoyed the read.


  2. I spent more than a dozen years living on the banks of the Mississippi River, and I have to say I really wasn’t impressed the first time I saw it.

    I’d left the small town of Orleans, MA, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean to attend a small college in Canton, MO., about 35 miles or so upriver from Hannibal. I was met at the train station in Quincy, IL, by a representative of the school for the final 30 mile drive to Canton. As we crossed this brown trickle the driver of the van announced that the river was “over a mile wide at this point.” Big deal! You’d have to lay more than 3,000 of them side by side to equal what I was used to. So much for the myth of the mighty “Father of Waters” as far as I was concerned then. I ended up living in the small river town for three school years.

    In 1975 I was a newly licensed captain and hired to help a young couple bring their Outhouse (excuse me, Out Island) 51 from Chicago to Florida via the Chicago, Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. The Illinois was a pretty ride but the Mississip from Cairo down to New Orleans was pretty boring since all of the attractions are hidden on the other side of the levee system.

    In ’77 I moved to New Orleans and lived there almost 10 years. I worked briefly as mate on a tug boat pushing a fuel barge on the river from the Ostrica locks way below where the roads end up to Baton Rouge fueling ships and the tug boats of the grain fleets along the way. I didn’t care for that job at all. Too big and too slow.

    It always amused me at flood season how people sipping coffee and scarfing down beignets at Cafe du Monde were completely oblivious to the fact that ocean-going ships were passing them some 20 feet or more above their heads.

    Now, this is fact. While living in New Orleans, the city which gets its drinking water directly from the river actually won a contest for best-tasting municipal water in the country. We used to say it was no surprise since it had been filtered through every kidney in the Midwest before it got to us.

    Having lived in those two distant locations on the river I came to understand the concept of karma. In college we used to go on beer-drinking binges on the levee in Canton. Of course you don’t buy beer, you just rent it for a while and when answering inevitable calls of nature we’d go to the edge of the river to relieve ourselves and holler “take that, New Orleans!” And I did for 10 years, but was a great purchaser of Kentwood bottled water.


    Several good morning laughs here, including at your reference to the Outhouse 51. The reference brought to mind the Cheoy Leakys I’ve known.

    Isn’t it interesting how differently people see things? In some ways the Mississippi is like a painting or a book – we “read” it through our own experiences and develop quite personal relationships with it. I had to dig a little, but I remembered something from John M. Barry’s “Rising Tide”, his great book about the Mississippi flood of 1927. I won’t quote the passage in its entirety, but I think you’ll get the flavor.

    In 1837 a European visitor observed the Mississippi as it roiled through this region and was chilled. “It is not like most rivers, beautiful to the sight…not one that the eye loves to swell upon as it sweeps along, nor can you wander along its bank, or trust yourself without danger to its stream. It is a furious, rapid, desolating torrent, loaded with alluvial soil… It is a river of desolation, and instead of reminding you, like other rivers, of an angel which has descended for the benefit of man, you imagine it a devil.

    The fellow who wrote that might have approved the actions of you and your beer-drinking friends! ;-)


  3. Well, my dear — I think you’ve sent me to another place. But then your writing often does that for me! (What a cute little girl you were!) And isn’t Moon Lake the most wonderful name?

    Catching up after the past week of sadness — I’ve much to read!


    We’re just travelers, aren’t we? And sometimes our means of transport is pretty amazing. Moon lake is a very, very interesting place – here’s a link to a bit of information from Mississippi Public Broadcasting, just for you!

    The only downside I find in traveling is that the first trip raises so many questions it only feeds my curiosity, and the little bit of context I get makes me want to go back and see it again, through better-informed lenses. I’d better get going – time’s a wasting!


  4. I cross the Mississippi a couple of times each day and have largely tuned that out – except when I’m walking over the river on a walk bridge that starts just behind my workplace. Too easily, it becomes just another piece of the urban landscape, rather than something moving on a journey to the Gulf. I think we get our drinking water from the river as well, but it hasn’t passed through as much up to here.

    Mary Ellen,

    I don’t think familiarity always breeds contempt, but it certainly can breed inattention. As I’ve mentioned, I live across the lake from Johnson Space Center. I drive past it at least a couple of times a week, and often more. I “see” the signs and the hordes of tourists having their photo taken beside them, but have I been there? No. I tell myself all the time I ought to get over there, but I haven’t.

    In the same way, I drive daily over a high bridge that crosses a channel feeding into Galveston Bay. Ships come and go on their way to – well, everywhere – but most of the time I’m thinking about my grocery list or how to organize my day, and the Bay and the ships are landscape, just as the Mississippi is for you.

    Learning to see, paying attention, seeking the larger context – those are the keys, aren’t they? That’s why people like Quinta Scott and Wendy Billiot are so important. Each in her own way helps us to see.


  5. As I wrote in my post, just published, “Your pelican is also my pelican, likewise, my deer, your deer.”

    Even though I live thousands of miles north of the Gulf coast, I can feel the devastation, and am indignant about the lack of empathy on the part of BP’s staff as described by Wendy, the BW. I suppose they have to put up a ‘front’ or else they would be ‘taken advantage’ of. Anyway, the oil spill tragedy has been on my mind even though I’m way up north. I’m afraid we’re saying this all too often now, but the truth still stands: “We’re in it together.”

    Thank you for all the links, Linda… you’ve certainly done your part in calling attention to the devastation and giving us valuable information, all in the spirit of Varnish John.


    One of my favorite quotations from the naturalist John Muir is “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” It’s absolutely true, and anyone who hasn’t gotten that message yet will be getting it shortly. There is no use pretending this isn’t going to become worse before it gets better. How much worse is the question, and much depends on closing up that well.

    I’ve thought a good bit recently about the possibility that our technology has outstripped our ability to manage that technology. Or, perhaps better, that we often overestimate our ability to manage technology. The role of human error on Deepwater Horizon and in the Challenger tragedy have significant parallels.

    Speaking of sea and space, I have to mention an extraordinary experience I had last night. I was working at the computer, watching the launch of a Delta rocket from Canaveral in one window and keeping an eye on the blow out preventer in another. The very fact that such things are possible is amazing – and the connection between the two is even more so. Oceaneering, the company that has provided the ROVs for BP (and probably hundreds of engineers just now) also provides things like astronaut suits and equipment for space walks to NASA. Whatever we say about what’s gone wrong here, there’s a good bit that’s going right, too. Whether the “top kill” works or not, the people doing the work deserve nothing but accolades.

    We’ll talk about BP execs and PR people later ;-)


  6. Linda,
    As always, thank you for your words and your links. These are beautiful photos and I love the one of you when you were a little girl. We are hoping and praying here. Those beautiful wetlands and waters never leave our minds and hearts.


    I do have to laugh a little – now, the first thing I do when I get up is turn on the live feed to see what’s up on the seabed. This morning’s new wrinkle is an apparent flame coming from the end of the riser. The consensus so far is that it’s methane, but whatever it is, the image is a perfect metaphor for what has happened: we’ve drilled into hell. At this point, if they shut off the oil at noon today, there’s still a lot of coping to be done. The damage is greater than most realize: to the marshes, the sea life, a way of life, the public trust.

    Hope and prayer are critical – especially for the people who are trying to put an end to this. The engineers and operators must be exhausted by now, and that’s one reason to be perhaps slower and more deliberate than people would like. We don’t want exhaustion causing more mistakes.

    I will be glad when I hear a definitive explanation for the “flame”. The image is slightly unnerving. ;-)


  7. Fragile. That sums everything. It is a delicate dance we do on this planet and Mother Earth continues to give and take, push and pull and yet, though it takes time, we are “sent to our rooms” in awe of it all.

    This book looks lovely. There is something about the sweep of trees over a river that taunts and engages. I will look for her books (being a neighbor to the Mississippi!) To say that St. Louis is on the Mississippi is only to speak in geographic, look-at-map terms. The huge muddy thing has taught everyone within its living environs that it is not to be messed with. Not at all.

    And yet, this entry has stirred me. We need to go take a look at the river. Today. Not on the banks of the city; it’s really surprisingly hard to feel it as a river downtown because of the roads, highways and (silly) casinos that cluster there and block the view and there are no “observatory” accesses except for the steps to the Arch. No, we’ll go upriver for a better peek. More later…


    I just was remembering – wasn’t it during the last big Mississippi flood that we first “met”. I believe it was.

    And you point to such an important reality. The world around us isn’t just “scenery”, pretty places where we can live out our lives. The rivers and seas – and trees and mountains and plains, too – are alive, complex, subject to their own complex, internal laws and often resistant to the imposition of human will.

    And yet we attempt to impose our will, to dominate, overcome and exploit that which we see as lifeless. If there is any lesson being brought home to the millions transfixed by those seabed images, it is that there are things in this world that we control with difficulty, if at all.

    Wave to the river for me!


  8. And thanks for the link to Ms Scott. I am rocked by the fact she spent 15 years on a book. That is honoring the river and the wetlands and all of it, including the book craft, in its finest form.


    And it tells me she took the time to establish and nurture a relationship with the river. She doesn’t write about it as “scenery”, but as a living thing worthy of respect and care – and grief, too, over what is happening to her where she meets the sea.


  9. Linda,

    I cozy up to the hope in your ending. I need the gentle reminder to take a longer view.

    Loved your photo of Moon Lake, maybe in part because I am enamored of anything about the moon these days. If Moon Lake — a site of Civil War violence — can be so beautiful now, then taking a long position on hope makes so much sense.



    In a world of micro-managing and nano-seconds, the long view tends to be anything that happened six hours ago. In a multitude of ways the natural world reminds us to take the truly long view, seeing events and consequences against a much larger horizon. Think of it – the Civil War was roughly 150 years ago. That’s nothing, in terms of history’s scope.

    On the other hand, what happened aboard the Deepwater Horizon is a reminder that history itself can be changed in a second. An asteroid crashing into the earth, the eruption of a volcano, the ripping open of the seabed – consequences ripple and spread for decades, if not centuries.

    So many in Washington – including our President – are so far removed from the natural world they can utter the phrase “just plug the damned hole” without any apparent sense of irony. Someone should tell the bureaucrats and politicians there’s no tech help desk for this one – there’s just dirt, and mud, and oil and death to be confronted, day in and day out. And plugging the damned hole won’t change that.

    But there is hope. One of my greatest hopes is that some of these folks will stop with the “transparency” rhetoric and develop a taste for the truth. There are local officials and plain old local folk telling the truth. If the fans of transparency don’t start listening to them, we’re in for some even rougher times.


  10. This is a beauty the Philippines lack. We have no beautiful rivers that cool the environment. Instead we have bodies of water spiced with trash and all sort dirty. My father introduced the Mississippi to me in a different way: M-i-crooked crooked-i-crooked crooked-i-p-p-i

    By the way Linda, you don’t have an about me page here in your blog. I wouldn’t have known your name if you don’t sign your replies with “Linda”! Please do email me so I would know your email-ad. I hope you’re cozy in the air conditioned room!


    I learned to spell Mississippi exactly the same way! I think that’s why it was one of the easiest “long words” for me to spell when I was a kid.

    The Mississippi’s an interesting river – its length and history and effect on the land around it really outshine its “beauty”. It didn’t get nicknamed “The Big Muddy” for nothing! There’s much prettier water in other rivers – but the Mississippi’s America’s river, I think.

    Oh ~ I do have an “About” page – it’s over on the sidebar, between readers’ comments and the blogroll. I haven’t looked at it in some time – I need to do some blog housekeeping, too!


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