The Catastrophe of Success

Uncle Henry’s was a fine place to celebrate a first year of writing.

Tucked between Yazoo Pass and the Mississippi River, just north of Clarksdale and a little south of the Helena bridge, it sat alongside Moon Lake, an oxbow good for fishing, if not for navigation and commerce.

Across the road from the lake, Uncle Henry’s provided its guests with a spacious gallery, a west-facing view perfect for sunset-watching, no scheduled activities, and plenty of solitude — perhaps its greatest virtue. Not every lodging encourages just sitting and thinking, those necessary components of the creative process. Uncle Henry’s did.

While robins stitched their song through branches of dogwood and azalea and morning flared out across the sky, I was more than happy to sit and think, particularly about the nature of persistence, and how quickly a year can flee down corridors of time. Continue reading

Cruising Yoknapatawpha

Step aboard a boat docked in any of the marinas clustered around Clear Lake, loose the lines, find the channel, and soon enough you’ll be edging into Galveston Bay.

Whether the Bay’s your destination for a day sail or the first step on a longer journey – to Galveston itself, or to the open doorway of the Gulf of Mexico – you’ll have plenty of company. Second only to Florida in terms of boat sales and with one of the largest collections of pleasure craft in the country, someone around the lake always is getting underway.

Most of the boats you’ll see are documented or registered in Texas, although craft from Florida and Louisiana are well-represented. Thanks to Delaware’s more relaxed attitude toward documentation and taxes, you’ll often see larger and more expensive vessels with Wilmington or Dover listed as hailing ports.  Now and then a cruiser from the East Coast or Caribbean will tie up on a transit pier, alongside sailboats from Half-Moon Bay or the San Juan Islands. Continue reading

Built to Burn ~ Les Feux de Joie


Standing atop the levee in Butte LaRose, a long, narrow settlement on the western edge of Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin, my traveling companion and I considered our options.  Breaux Bridge and Bayou Teche lay well behind while St. James Parish, home of the Christmas Eve bonfires we’d traveled to see, still lay ahead. Before us stretched an intricate web of bayous, canals, river and swamp, the natural heart of Cajun country.

With a good boat, good weather and a guide raised up in the swamps, we might have been able to thread our way eastward by water, to the other side of the Basin. But for the automobile-bound, topography is destiny. To cross the Atchafalaya and reach the Mississippi levees, we’d have to trade gravel and blacktop for concrete, throwing in a few bridges along the way. “I guess we’ll head north to I-10, take it across the basin and then head south again at Grosse Tête,” I said. “Sounds good to me.” My friend brushed the last crumbs of French bread from her lap. “I was hoping you weren’t going to wait for James Carville to show up on his flaming alligator.Continue reading

Muddy Waters

Goin’ down to the Delta,
lookin’ for a brand new rhyme,
Gonna find me a clock
that don’t tell a single time,
Gonna find me a river
where the muddy waters flow just fine.
~ Mississippi Writin’ Blues

Interstate highways are fine things. For my generation, one that always considered “going for a drive” a perfectly legitimate form of entertainment, the beginning  of the interstate highway system meant an expansion of freedom and an increased sense of mobility, a sense greatly encouraged by speed limit signs suggesting drivers determine their own “Reasonable and Proper” speed.

Today’s speed regulators aren’t quite so laissez-faire, but by the time those signs disappeared I’d learned a thing or two about the difference between driving and traveling. Today I worry less about making time and focus more on spending time – rather different pursuits, no matter where you’re traveling.

Between Memphis and Vicksburg, a driver can make great time on the interstates. But to the west of I-55 and north of I-20 lies a fertile, alluvial plain whose richness of culture and history equals the richness of its soil.  Bounded by the Yazoo to the east and the Mississippi to the west, the Mississippi Delta is shaped, nourished and occasionally destroyed by the rivers that roll along her edges. Experiencing her life requires a little slowing down. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Dancing Down Life’s Storms

 

It seems impossible that four years have passed since Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and the coastlines of Mississippi and Alabama.  As the secondary tragedy of New Orleans’ levee failures compelled the world’s attention,  the destruction strewn across the Mississippi coastline faded into the background.  In a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial, the South Mississippi SunHerald put it succinctly: 

There is no question that the New Orleans story, like ours, is a compelling, ongoing saga as its brave people seek to reclaim those parts of the city lost to the floods. But it becomes more and more obvious that to national media, New Orleans is THE story – to the extent that if the Mississippi Coast is mentioned at all it is often in an add-on paragraph that mentions “and the Gulf Coast” or “and Mississippi and Alabama.”
Christ Episcopal Church, Bay St. Louis, Mississippi

Given the nature of things, neglect of Mississippi probably was inevitable.  Given the realities of human nature, it also was inevitable that some Mississippi residents would express bitterness at their relegation to the fringes of the story.   The bitterness surely was understandable, as was the accompanying anger at the unfairness of life, but in the end it was the sadness which touched me – the deep, pervasive sadness of  people who know the living death of surviving a cataclysmic event.  Standing in the rubble of his life, a man from Waveland who was interviewed shortly after the storm captured all the poignancy and pathos of events when he turned to a reporter and said, “You know, we had a storm here, too.” Continue reading

Claude Monet ~ Alive & Well in Mississippi

Highlighted by savvy museum curators and hawked within an inch of their beautiful lives by mass-market retailers and online poster-and-frame shops, the French Impressionists remain popular painters.  Once derided and criticized, their landscapes, serial studies and portraits are as pleasing to the art establishment as they are accessible to people who just want a pretty picture on their wall. It’s easy to imagine Mssrs. Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, Cézanne and Manet (late to the movement, but influential in its inception) sitting around a celestial hillside, watching the play of light on the  clouds and congratulating themselves on their remarkable staying power.

Less concerned with realistic form than with natural light, atmosphere and color, the Impressionists sought to paint the world as they perceived it rather than in accordance with conceptual guidelines.  In its brief online overview of the movement, the Metropolitan Museum of Art  notes that,Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris) exhibited in 1874, gave the Impressionist movement its name when the critic Louis Leroy accused it of being a sketch or “impression,” and not a finished painting.”

“It demonstrates the techniques many of the independent artists adopted: short, broken brushstrokes that barely convey forms, pure unblended colors, and an emphasis on the effects of light. Rather than neutral white, grays, and blacks, Impressionists often rendered shadows and highlights in color. The artists’ loose brushwork gives an effect of spontaneity and effortlessness that masks their often carefully constructed compositions.” 

Claude Monet ~ Impression, Sunrise

Traditional landscape artists tended to depict the individual phenomena of the natural world – leaves, blossoms, blades of grass – as carefully as an illustrator and with an eye to accuracy.  Monet, on the other hand, wanted to paint what he saw ~ not separate leaves or discrete blossoms, but splashes of constantly changing color and light.  According to William Seitz, art historian and author of the Monet volume for the Masters of Art series, “It is in this context that we must understand his desire to see the world through the eyes of a man born blind who had suddenly gained his sight: as a pattern of nameless color patches.” 

Reading his words, I can’t help but wonder if Seitz knew of Marius von Senden’s 1932 study called Space and Sight.  Quoted extensively in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, von Senden had collected stories of men and women blind since birth who regained their sight with newly available cataract surgery.  For most, it was a difficult transition, full of necessary learning.  As von Senden puts it, for the newly sighted, “Space ends with visual space…with color patches that happen to bound his view.” 

Beginning with Manet, the  idea of “color patches” was integral to the development of the impressionist vision, and it’s entirely possible that von Senden picked up the phrase from the painters themselves.  In any event, it‘s easy to imagine a painter like Monet roaming the countryside with his easel and palette, painting whatever he happened upon and in the process giving us a record of the world informed by these new techniques and a unique vision. 

In his award-winning book,  The Impressionist Garden, Derek Fell notes the Impressionists’ commitment to “capture and record the fleeting moment” through their brushstrokes.  Perhaps the development of photography and the new ability to take “snap shots” influenced their thinking.  The phrase “fleeting moment” recalls photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous commitment to his own “decisive moment”.  Whether Monet’s reflections on his art were known to Bresson I can’t say, but the lives of Monet (d.1926) and Bresson (b.1908) briefly overlapped, they experienced the same technological advances and no doubt shared some of the same artistic concerns.   

 

Monet’s Garden at Giverny

In 1883 Claude Monet moved to Giverny,  and began to develop his garden.  In the process, nothing escaped his attention.  As avid a gardener as painter, his legacy still lives in the water-lily ponds, wisteria-clad Japanese bridge and grand central allée strewn with nasturtiums.  Just as lovely is the collection of paths and beds in the walled Clos Normand, the large, traditional Normandy flower garden just outside the house. When Monet acquired the old farmhouse in 1890, he sacrified an old and tired orchard in order to plant new gardens and install the custom-designed metal hoops and pergolas that carried his  roses and clematis.  

Eventually, he turned his attention to the water garden.  He rerouted a river, selected hybrid water lilies for their color and designed his bridge all in a deliberate act of creation – he was an artist creating his own subject.  He left nothing to chance. Renoir may have built a glass-walled studio in his garden in order to paint his beloved olive trees, but Monet commissioned a studio boat, the better to paint his water lilies.

Claude Monet  ~ Le Bateau-atelier   1876

“Apart from painting and gardening, I’m not good at anything,” Monet once remarked.  Amusing self-deprecation aside, his talents in both areas resulted in the creation of the garden at Giverny. Composed as if it were a painting and over time the subject of much of his best work, it is considered by many painters and gardeners alike to be his greatest legacy – as beautiful, inspirational and pervasive in its later influence as it was for Monet himself.   

Until my recent trip to Mississippi, I hadn’t fully appreciated the significance of Monet’s double role in shaping our vision of the world. Fairly adept at recognizing his work as a painter, I’d never considered the possibility that his life as a gardener and nurturer of the very world that informed his work might someday affect my own perception of the landscape.

Imagine my surprise when I turned down a  muddy gravel road in the midst of the old Doro Plantation, halfway betweeen a clapboard house flying the Confederate flag and the fishing shacks moored along the levee, only to discover a landscape so purely impressionistic it was hard to believe it wasn’t already on canvas. Stopped in my tracks by what appeared to be rippling curtains of white wisteria hanging from the heavens, I decided to disregard the likelihood of snakes and the possibility of tetanus. Scrambling and tumbling my way across half-buried barbed wire and through piles of fallen brush into the old pecan orchard, I found my footing and looked up in astonishment.  

It wasn’t that the orchard reminded me of Monet, it was as though Monet already had been there, dappling the leaves with light, capturing the pristine translucence of new growth and then washing the world’s canvas with a sheen of new rain and unnameable colors.  I’d have been less astonished had I walked into Monet’s studio and discovered the canvases suddenly alive, or walked into his garden and surprised him painting a few new shrubs into place.

In Giverny, Monet constructed a garden for himself.  That day on the Doro Plantation, where accidents of nature and history had rerouted the Mississippi, reshaped the land and left a secret, unexpected collection of trees, flowers and grasses to shimmer in the springtime afternoon, the only thing missing was the artist himself, to record the miraculous beauty of that first impression.

Doro Plantation ~ The Pecan Orchard in Spring

 

 Doro Plantation ~ Wisteria Drifts

Doro Plantation ~ Hidden Lavender 

 

 Doro Plantation ~ Turning of the Season

Looking at the photographs today, I see them primarily as photographs, snapshots, lovely compositions in their own right and touching reminders of those unexpected bits of beauty found tucked away into the silence of a Mississippi afternoon. 

But now and then I see again the play of light, and feel the warming breeze, and catch my heart leaping up as the first impression comes back.  Breathless, I re-experience a truth as unexpected as the plantation orchard.  Once ~ just once, or at least once ~ I was granted the privilege to see the world as Claude Monet would have seen it -tumbled into  light, drenched with atmosphere, and patched with color so piercingly pure no response is possible except to be astonished by what Monet spent his lifetime revealing – that brushes, paint and canvas are sufficient to capture first impressions for a lifetime of enjoyment.

 

Doro Plantation – Daffodil Bridge

 

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