Friday, December 04, 2009

Mississippi Delta Landscape: a Reading

(These photos are very wide. Click to see the full panoramic view.)

The Mississippi Delta, so the saying goes, begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg, a distance of some 200 miles. It is really an alluvial plain, not a delta, and was flooded every year for thousands of years - until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built levees to keep the river in its channel and stop the flooding. The flooding, of course, made Delta soil among the richest in the world. In the days of plantations - and slavery - it was a source of great wealth for the few who owned the land. Today pockets of great wealth remain. The legacy of slavery also remains, and the Delta is among the poorest regions in the United States.

The cotton field above, though small for the Delta, is a typical landscape. The masses of color and texture, the patterns caused by mechanized farming and harvesting, create images of considerable visual interest, evocative images rich with possibility.

Apart from its history, the Delta landscape is extraordinarily beautiful, a vast flatness continuing for mile after mile. Because the land is so flat, the sky and the quality of light is an essential part of the landscape.

Here, a monster irrigation system moves across an already harvested cotton field with a sky tinted by the gathering colors of sunset.

This is a levee, gravel road on top, with a distant view of the Mississippi through the trees. The levee is very high, far above the level of the river, at least at this time of the year.

A closer view using the camera's optical zoom.

Getting to the river's edge wasn't easy. Here we found a road over the levee to a cement loading plant, one emblem of the commerce the Mississippi supports.

Loaded barges awaiting transport.

Close-ups of the opposite side, above and below.

Later, having left the river, we stopped on the side of a road to watch the sunset before heading into Clarksdale for dinner and a blues club. As has been said before, the camera always lies. I can't account for the varied visual effects of the sunset shown below. Phil was using a new point and shoot Canon; I was using a Canon Rebel.

Looking in the opposite direction, to the east, a hedgerow silhouetted against a background of changing pastels.

The Delta is a landscape where sense of place is palpable and complex - horrendous environmental damage caused by the Corps of Engineer's attempts to control an uncontrollable river, the horrors of slavery and a culture that built its wealth on that horror, the fantasy of the "Gone with the Wind" South, birth of the Blues, Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - in an ancient land that still yields some of its primaeval past. Reading the landscape here is like archaeology, uncovering layer upon layer of history, geology, topography, ethics, art, and culture.

(Phillip Saperia contributed about half the photos in this post.)


  1. What a fantastic post - pictures as well as print. I enlarged the photos and like how you cropped them so they were more horizontal, it shows the flat land better. I have never been to the Delta before, but I feel as if you have captured the place.

  2. Les,
    Thank you. I value your opinion. I hadn't been to the Delta in years, since college really, and was amazed with its beauty. Only wish we had had more time to spend there. Try Clarkedale some day, where you'll find the Delta Blues Museum, and a restaurant, Mididi, and blues club, Ground Zero, co-owned by Morgan Freeman. A tremendous amount of musical talent there too.

  3. I have to correct the town's name. It's Clarkesdale.

  4. The wordhawk's Clarksdale, old friend.

  5. Nice photos. I'll have to check it out myself some day.

  6. What descriptive writing and atmospheric images, James. We have driven through there, but never stopped. The flat is something I run from, never seeing the beauty that your narrative explains. My eyes crave mountains and hills, but the misty sky and damaged land have a unique beauty. Thanks for helping me see.

  7. Frances, I saw the Delta as just a curosity when I lived in Mississippi years ago. I came to realize it's really a beautiful and unique landscape only from a distance, and a place of immense social and cultural richness, as well as poverty. One might ask why the poorest state in the Union has produced so many outstanding writers.



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