Tuesday, March 29, 2011


It was almost midnight. The boys came running into the kitchen and grabbed my hands, and led me outside to the darkness. A soft breeze was blowing. The sky was full of stars. They didn’t say anything. What is it? I asked.

Their father, David, was standing in the doorway behind us. “They want you to see the stars,” he said. The boys nodded enthusiastically, staring up at the sky.

The boys, Joshua and Jonathan, had spent their entire three and four years, respectively, inside the skein of perpetual manmade light that envelopes Tokyo.
That skein was recently invaded by radioactivity, which is how the boys and their parents ended up at Holly Grove, my home in rural Mississippi. I knew David from back when he lived in Jackson. We'd emailed back and forth after the earthquake in Japan, and once they were evacuated they needed a place to stay, for an indeterminate time.

Considering that the family had been uprooted for reasons that the boys could not fully grasp, and that they live in a city with a greater population of almost 30 million, it’s not surprising that Mississippi was an alien world to them. For starters, it was very dark when they arrived. Then: Magic. The stars.

Their mother, Ryoko, had cried when she got out of the car and saw the stars. It was such a relief to be away from the turmoil of Japan, and it had been so long since she’d seen a clear night sky. Plus they’d been traveling for more than 24 hours, after days of uncertainty and gas masks in Tokyo.

When I asked about the quake Ryoko did a little slo-mo dance, illustrating what she felt in her office in a Tokyo high rise. It began with up-and-down motion, after which came the violent lurching from side to side. She acted it out without even realizing it, as if her body were recalling muscle memory. The boys followed suit, dropping to the floor the way they’d dropped to their hands and knees on the playground when the earth began to move. The quake went on for so long that many of Ryoko’s coworkers began to cry out, thinking they were about to die. By then everyone was under their desks and tall furniture was tipping over, everything making grinding and slamming noises. Through the windows she could see the other buildings swaying.

After the worst ended, Ryoko and her coworkers crawled out from under their desks and watched on TV as the tsunami engulfed towns along Japan’s northeast coast. There wasn’t a lot of damage in Tokyo but communications quickly broke down and she didn’t know how David and the boys were. There was no cell phone service and she and her coworkers were not allowed to leave the building. Finally David called from a pay phone and told her they were OK, and when the workers were allowed to go outside she walked five hours across Tokyo to get home. David had skate-boarded to the daycare center where the boys were. The family was safe. Then came the disaster at the nuclear plant.

Now, on the lawn of Holly Grove, the boys crouched to feel for stones in the gravel drive, momentarily trading the visual spectacle of the night sky for tactile sensation. Each of them picked out two stones to keep, which they later carried with them to bed.

Once the boys were tucked in, we returned to the porch. It was a balmy night, with the scent of jasmine from the flowering vines nearby. Soft air. Ryoko walked through it, arms outstretched to feel it caress her skin. “The air,” she said. “I never want to leave this air.”

It was the air of Tokyo that had ultimately driven them away. There had been little structural damage because the city was designed to flex. The effectiveness of its structural engineering, as well as the taciturn social order, which prevented looting, was almost as remarkable as the disaster itself. Tokyo was also spared the direct effects of the tsunami. It would have been OK to stay were it not for the partial meltdown of the three reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant, about 120 miles to the north, and the dispersal of radioactivity in the direction of Tokyo, which held the potential for both incremental and sweeping perils. Because David is a U.S. citizen, the U.S. government assisted in his and his family's evacuation.

The next day, we gingerly indoctrinated the boys about the tiny new perils of Holly Grove in spring: Wasps, fire ants, poison ivy, snakes.
All unknowns, piled atop unknowns. We tried to break it to them gently while on a walk to a spreading live oak whose limbs arch down to the ground. The boys were thrilled with the openness around them, and by the stones, and the acorns along the trail, but they were chastened by our admonitions to not step there, to not touch that plant, and by the insects, large and small, that crowded the airspace on their various missions. Then we came upon three horses on the edge of the woods and the world became tantalizing again.

Clearly, anything could happen. Anything at all.

Each time Ryoko, David and I talked about the quake, or Tokyo, or the future, in adult words, the boys turned gloomy very quickly and began to cry. The crying didn’t last long – soon a bug
was tapping at the glass of the window, attracting their attention, but while it lasted the crying was intense and deep.

They were picking up the scary vibe. Then there were the stars, or the stones, or the horses, or the dogs, or the golf cart, and everything changed again.

It put the unpredictability of our lives in perspective. As we stood outside again the following night, I saw all those stars, each part of its own universe, full of orbiting planets that are cracking open, rumbling, tilting, and thought about how much we take for granted, and perhaps necessarily so. Our planet is a whirling mass of soil and water floating atop molten rock, sheathed in a thin membrane that keeps us alive. It all seems very tentative, and risky. Our vantage points seem narrow, brief and focused. The stars excite us. The quake makes us feel grateful and wary.

Later that next night Jonathan, the oldest, made origami, of a tree, and taught me how to write my name in English and Japanese, as he sat on the floor of the kitchen in his Batman suit, the legs of which were a foot too long.

Nearby Joshua wore his own Batman suit; he beamed each time I glanced in his direction.

Meanwhile, radiation spread through the Tokyo water system.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Nitta Yuma

It was something like a Google Earth image, circa 1840: A bird’s eye schematic of Nitta Yuma Plantation, in the Mississippi Delta, showing the arrangement of two neighborhoods of slave quarters, cabin by cabin, as well as barns, cemeteries, roads, stream crossings and the all-important cotton fields, each of which was hatch-marked to indicate the direction the long rows ran.

The map, undated but obviously drawn before the Civil War, had been discovered by consultants surveying historical sites that lay in the path of a project to four-lane U.S. 61. It delineated the physical world of antebellum Nitta Yuma in a way that was both illuminating and bewildering. Seeing it projected onto a screen in the Old Capitol museum, during the Mississippi Historical Society’s recent annual meeting, I found myself wanting to zoom in on that line of slave cabins to see who and what was there.
Because most of the visuals I have of slave life on antebellum plantations come from popular culture, I pictured Cicely Tyson, dressed in period garb, washing clothes in a cast-iron pot over a fire in one of those cabin yards on the banks of Deer Creek.

The map predated the construction of the big house, so it was clear that its fields, footpaths and slave cabins constituted the original core of what is now the community of Nitta Yuma. The Delta was wild country before the Civil War, with most of the development taking place along remote lakes, bayous and rivers. The cabins of Nitta Yuma, all of the same size and configuration, were surrounded by sprawling fields, beyond which lay wilderness marked as “heavy timber” or canebrakes, which were the province of alligators, panthers and bear. Planters and their families typically maintained primary residences elsewhere, to avoid fevers and pestilent mosquitoes, but the slaves who lived in those little sketched squares weren’t so lucky. They had to learn to make do. Unfortunately, much of how they went about making do, along with the typically rudimentary and ephemeral evidence of their lives, has been lost to history. The majority of what was recorded and preserved relates to the master class. For that reason my first thought, upon seeing the map, was to wonder what might be left of the world it described.

As it turns out, there are a good many reminders of the past in present-day Nitta Yuma – enough, in fact, to fill several museums. Among them is one survivor from the map’s epoch: A log slave quarters on the banks of Deer Creek, in the vicinity of what was designated therein as the “lower quarters.” The cabin, like seemingly everything else in and around Nitta Yuma today, is owned by the Phelps family, descendants of the original owners, who apparently have not parted with much of anything they’ve ever owned.

I visited Nitta Yuma before a talk in nearby Rolling Fork about my book Sultana, which was part of a series of programs organized by a group known as the Lower Delta Partnership. Meg Cooper, who leads the group, had offered to show me around, and brought with us her daughter Ashley, local resident Lynne Moses, and my old friend Melissa Darden, who’s from the Delta and also works with the partnership, which is trying to find new ways to develop the largely depressed local economy, including capitalizing on its history and musical traditions.

The area, which encompasses communities and towns with such romantic names as Onward, Anguilla, Nitta Yuma, Rolling Fork and Panther Burn, has its share of remarkable historic buildings, and was the setting for President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous bear hunt, in 1902, which led to the creation of the teddy bear.

It was also the birthplace of blues musician Muddy Waters, aka
McKinley Morganfield, whose song about the life of a rolling stone was the inspiration for the name of the rock band the Rolling Stones. In short, the area’s culture and history are more diverse than the miles and miles of flat farmland might suggest.

Our first stop on the day’s tour was Mont Helena, a Colonial Revival mansion that stands on an Indian mound north of Rolling Fork, which is owned by Drick Rodgers, a descendant of the builder who farms the adjacent land.

Mont Helena is an archetypal wedding cake of a house, built around 1900, commanding an impressive view of its 5,000-acre plantation, and is now the focus of an innovative effort by a group known as the Friends of Mont Helena to fund its complete restoration through dinner theater productions.

Mont Helena was built by a woman named Helen Johnstone Harris (known in local lore as the Bride of Annandale) and her husband. It is most often portrayed as her house, because she was one of those larger-than-life southern characters whose personal history is perfectly suited for the kind of stage drama the Friends have put together. Helen, who grew up in the hill country east of the Delta, appears to have led a charmed life before her betrothed (of the Vick family, which founded Vicksburg) was killed in a duel a few days before their intended wedding. As the story goes, the flowers and victuals shipped upriver from New Orleans for the wedding were instead used for Vick’s funeral.

Following her disappointing first engagement, Helen married an Episcopal reverend who was the rector at her family’s church, and moved from Annandale to the Johnstones’ Delta plantation, known as “the Helen Place.” There she made her mark upon the land through Mont Helena, which became not only a showplace (and, considering its site atop a sacred mound, perhaps a temptation to fate) but a notable destination for Delta socializing. The existing house is the second on the site, the first having been lost to fire just before its completion, in the 1890s.

After its heyday, the current structure was converted to apartments, then abandoned, and was very nearly lost to decay. In 1993, Drick began sinking a small fortune into it, not because he wanted to live there but because he felt it was an important icon of local history that should be preserved. By the time he began his restoration, the fourth-floor widow’s walk had collapsed, channeling water and rot through the center of the house, all the way to the basement, and trees had taken root in the walls of some of the rooms. He set about stabilizing the structure and restoring its exterior, after which Mont Helena looked great from a distance, though inside it was a very impressive husk, with all but a few of its interior spaces unfinished; it was possible to walk from room to room through the open, studded walls.

Eventually even the maintenance of the exterior became overwhelming, which is when the Friends of Mont Helena formed and began staging theatrical productions of Harris’s life story, along with dinners in the restored dining room, to raise funds to complete the restoration and put the house to work for a variety of events, including weddings and other formal gatherings. I haven’t attended one of the productions, but from what I hear they are anything but the hackneyed fare of typical dinner-theater. Both the play and the accompanying feast are said to be top-notch. The script was written by Rolling Fork resident Leslie Miller, with a cast that includes three Helens – young Helen, older Helen and dead Helen; all of the actors and understudies are locals. Every event quickly sells out, including all of this year's productions. The maximum capacity is 40 people, each of whom pays $50 plus change. The Friends also offer guided tours of the house, with the option of a boxed lunch or a sit-down dinner. As a side benefit of all the attention being focused on the house, the group has begun conducting tours of other historic sites in the area, and Drick has undertaken the stabilization of an adjacent Africa Methodist Episcopal church, built by Helen for the plantation’s workers.

Drick is an old friend of mine, and Mont Helena has long been one of my stops when I’m in the area, but it was especially nice to see it coming back to life. From Mont Helena we headed north to the community of Nitta Yuma, a collection of historic buildings straddling Highway 61. Most noticeable is the rambling, Greek Revival plantation house known as Cameta, which was moved to its current site by the Phelps matriarch, who had long admired it, wanted to add it to her collection of historic buildings, and oversaw its relocation in 1977, on the day Elvis died. Henry Phelps, whose mother remains the matriarch at 99, showed us around.

No one seemed to think it odd that moving the house had no real purpose other than preserving it, in that the Phelps family already owned the nearby Nitta Yuma Plantation house, which overlooks Deer Creek, as well as three 19th century commissaries (one of which contains a preposterously large collection of dolls) and several other historic buildings, including a carriage repair shop and a cotton gin, all of which are unused.
The family also owns a chapel built in the late 1980s, an old gas station, a few more modern houses, and an early log cabin and a garconniere (the latter of which Mrs. Phelps had moved to the grounds of the Nitta Yuma house years ago).

Just down the creek, there are more historic buildings -- an old cypress barn, the log slave quarters facing the creek, and the impressive ruins of what’s known as Mrs. Crump’s house, which was a peer of Mont Helena before a tree crashed through it during a 1973 storm, and whose survival as a ruin for going-on 40 years is a testament to both the quality of its construction and the durability of cypress wood.

On the day we visited Nitta Yuma, the route of the highway widening project was marked by orange flags and earth movers were digging into the deep alluvial soil on the opposite side of Deer Creek, bisecting the terrain described in the old map. The log slave cabin is presumably the only landmark from the map that remains, though it’s hard to say, in that many of the buildings aren’t documented.

Melissa also showed me an old African American church, now abandoned, the construction date of which is unknown, sagging and hollow-eyed, across from its stark, modern successor. Both churches are known as the Chapel of the Cross – the same name given to the church that Helen Johnstone Harris’s family built at Annandale. Likewise, Henry Phelps’s son is named Vick, in reference to the family’s Vick predecessors, offering one more indication that local history in the south Delta is an intricate, closely-contained web of relations.

Most of the buildings owned by the Phelpses are crammed with antiques and memorabilia, including a Civil War sword, a library of thousands of books, various oil portraits, a remarkable billiard table with carved elephant-heads for legs, all kinds of china and glassware, an old wine press, even an assortment of ancient TVs, computers, adding machines and portable phones.

It’s almost too much to take in, strolling through the musty rooms. But one impression is clear and resounding: This is a family that has been acquiring things for a very long time, and rarely lets anything go. And you know what? Good for them. So much has been lost elsewhere.
Lynne Moses, who was present the day Cameta was moved, remembered that Mrs. Phelps, the elder, was a model of decorum and poise as she watched the spectacle she’d launched from the roadside.

“It was hot as blazes that day,” Lynne recalled, adding that Mrs. Phelps was nonetheless dressed in the full regalia of a southern lady of the era, including various unmentionable structural components that Lynne went ahead and mentioned, and that while everyone else was sweating profusely, she appeared to perspire not one drop. She was a product of a world that has all but vanished, Lynne said, but she did her part to preserve its reminders, even in cases where the reminders were awkward.

As we were touring the commissary, Lynne asked Henry Phelps about a pair of slave shackles she remembered seeing there, and he said they were in a drawer somewhere. He seemed not to want to delve into the subject, but after thinking it over for a moment, added, “What’s really sad is that one pair is small – it was for children.”

Continuing on our walking tour of Nitta Yuma, Phelps said he hopes the buildings can eventually be a part of the historical tours being developed by the Lower Delta Partnership. It’s a pretty good tour, as it is. As we stood before the ruins of the old Crump house, I commented on its surprising integrity, considering its condition, which prompted a local farmer to nod and say, “It’s still hanging in there,” which is something you could say about the south Delta in general, and, for better or worse, about the world described in that old, hand-drawn map.

It should be said that the Lower Delta Partnership’s efforts are decidedly inclusive, and that the Sultana talk at the local library that night was well attended, and by every demographic of the area – black, white, wealthy, poor and middle class, young and old. Looking out at that diverse group, greater Rolling Fork seemed a remarkable community. I wish them the best in holding it together.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Moose and Cheree

A reader sent this pic and suggested it goes with Booger Love Sissy, which it does. It was taken in an empty house in Natchez, Mississippi.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Booger love Sissy: The back story

Several years ago my friend Steve was driving to the Delta National Forest when he passed a garbage dumpster west of Satartia, Mississippi, on which someone had painted a memorable proclamation: “Booger love Sissy.”

Steve’s first thought was to wonder why anyone would choose a dumpster to profess his love. He second was: OK, the guy was named Booger.

For some reason this roadside glimpse into the heart of a man Steve now calls “possibly the most romantic dumpster graffiti artist in Yazoo County” stuck with him. As random roadside glimpses go, this one had staying power. And thanks to the location, Booger's profession became part of the public domain.

Fortunately, at the time Steve told me, which was perhaps 15 years ago, his memory was fresh. Booger’s profession of love was there for all the world to see. And when I recently told my friend Chris about it, he was intrigued.

Chris and I had arrived in Satartia midway through a day devoted to dismantling a century-old log corncrib on his family’s land in the nearby hills, where he lives. Chris had offered it to me to move, because his grandmother had decreed that it should be bulldozed, and my friend Chad agreed to help. During our first visit to appraise the salvageability of the corn crib, Chad and I had roamed around the countryside looking for interesting abandoned buildings, of which there were many, and at one point had come upon a trio of men riding around in a low-slung pickup truck. We were stopped on a remote gravel road when they rolled past, very slowly, the driver eyeing us with an unsettling grin; in back rode a huge man who was reclining against a pillow propped against the tailgate, and who was also grinning. Chad and I aren’t particularly skittish about such things, but we remembered those guys when we got out to explore the next abandoned house, and as a result we didn’t tarry. I later told Chris about them and naturally he knew exactly who I was talking about. This would come up later, in the newly unfolding Booger-love-Sissy saga.

On our way back to work on the corncrib, Chris and I stopped at the store in Satartia, where they serve lunches. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows everybody, and no one uses cash because everyone has a credit account there, and the food is great. Satartia is a very small place on the banks of the Yazoo River, where the hills meet the Delta. As Chris and I were eating lunch I told him about the Booger-love-Sissy dumpster. He’s too young to remember the dumpster, but asked the women working in the store if they knew anyone named Booger or Sissy. They said yes, and Satartia being a small place, wanted to know why he wanted to know. He told them about the dumpster. They were young, too, and didn’t remember it. They said they didn’t know if Booger ever dated Sissy, but said they were definitely not together now. This was a bit of a disappointment, but not really much of a surprise.

The ladies didn’t have much more information, and we got interrupted by the brief appearance of the second-string quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs, who hunts in the area and came in to buy a soft drink, during which the two women got palpitations and went on about him after he left, until Chris steered the conversation back to Booger and Sissy. Apparently the message on the dumpster had long since faded away, or had been repainted or whatever. It was gone. But its very evocation stirred interest. So it was that the idea of it, and the glaring absence of it now, sparked interest in remedying the situation. The result was a new can of spray paint and the resurrection of the old dumpster love message, an homage to Booger’s original. I’m not going to say who did it but it seemed, communally, like the right thing to do.

Chris then realized he’d left his phone at the Satartia store, and when we stopped back by, the ladies were going through his text messages, reading them and giggling.

“Who’s Allison?” one of them asked.

“None of your business,” Chris said.

Back at the farm, Chris and I discussed another message that adorned the local dumpsters, likewise scrawled in spray paint, apparently by a punctuationally-challenged county worker intent on stopping people from putting tree branches in the dumpsters (which no doubt cause problems with the unloading), which read: NO LIMBS? The question mark had apparently been used when what was intended was an exclamation point. Everywhere you looked across the county the dumpsters asked the same plaintive, cryptic question.

The corncrib that was the purpose of our excursion was said to be more than 100 years old, and Chris's grandmother had dismantled it and reconstructed it on her property in the 1970s because, in her view, it made no sense to destroy it (as she said its then-owner planned to do) when it could still be used to store corn. She had marked the logs with shoe polish, after which she and her oldest son had taken it apart and reconstructed it, which, in a sense, meant that it was a recreation, not unlike the dumpster message.

Later that night I received an email from Chris, who, after I left, had been hauling his garbage to the dumpster near his trailer when he ran into one of the guys in the truck Chad and I had encountered, and realizing he had the same surname that the ladies at the store had given for Booger, asked if he was related, which he was.

According to Chris, the guy said Booger had in fact once dated a woman named Sissy, but a lot had changed since then. In fact, a rusty dumpster appears to have been the perfect place for Booger to profess his love. Though I never saw the original and cannot personally vouch for this second or third hand information, it's interesting that the dumpsters of Yazoo County have more than the most obvious role to play.