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.