I am spending a couple days in Clarksdale, Mississippi. This morning I woke up and thought, the Delta is three-times haunted.
The Delta is haunted, first of all, by the absence of those who have left. Their homes crumble alongside the sinking highways, rotting to splinters among the rusted remains of their tools and toys and old cars and things. Now and again, an anachronistic busybody will roll down US-61 and reclaim a few of the old shacks for a museum, but the pickings are slim. The rot remains to remind the survivors of what has been.
The Delta is haunted as well by the significance of its past and the seeming insignificance of its present. Here in this room, the rough-hewn, wood-paneled parlor of an old sharecropper’s shotgun house, Muddy Waters stares at the Haint Blue-painted door from a poster on the wall above the bed. By the front door and on the bathroom wall, two separate travelers have commemorated “Flyover Country Road Trip” with permanent marker. Mark Twain and Muddy Waters imbued this place with meaning in the last two centuries. What animates it now but the spirit of those who have left?
Nature haunts the Delta, too. Last night a storm raged for hours outside the shack here. The wind poked and prodded at the old wooden panels, slamming the screen doors and creaking up and down the porch like a malevolent visitor in the night. In the lull, I could hear the wind rolling through the magnolia trees and across the vast black and brown field beyond like an intelligent thing. The spirit of the Mississippi River stalks the landscape here, ambivalent to the people hanging onto the black earth for life.
A stop on the Florida Black Heritage Trail: The John H. Hurston House in Sanford.
Zora Neale Hurston’s father lived in this Second Empire style home while he served the community in Sanford as minister of Zion Hope Baptist Church in the 1890s. Later, the house, located at 621 E Sixth Avenue in Sanford, was a maternity home for local mothers.
I finally developed some film that I’ve been sitting on for almost a year. The two panoramic shots at the top of the page are my favorite from this little excursion, but I’ve attached a few more shots from the roll as well at the bottom of the page. I love this little Nikon Point and Shoot for these quick Ilford snapshots, and it lives in my travel bag alongside a Sony Rx-100 for quick, no-fuss shooting opportunities.
Taken just before sunset on the last day of 2019, in a field alongside US-331 outside of Paxton, Florida, I feel that these shots capture the cold quiet of the field in winter. In retrospect, they seem now to say a little more.
And in color..
The rural panhandle is full of these haunted landscapes. I remember watching Cold Mountain years ago and thinking about how the filmmakers had to travel to Romania to find an alpine landscape that would convince viewers the films was set in the 1860s. You can travel back roads in rural Walton County through landscapes that have not changed since the Great Depression. Time is a little more evident in these photographs, but not much. If I squint, I can still see the mule working the rows. at the edge of the field yonder. I can breathe the quiet rhythm of the plow, the sun, the wind.
Not far up the road there is a garish sign alongside which shouts, “Visit the Beaches of South Walton!” If you like the outlet mall, that’s fine. Most of the time I’d rather grab the Nikon and drive the back roads, though, searching for the past.
Well, it’s all over now save for the thinking. Of course, what is anything but thinking? Walking, eating, even breathing, are just thinking in motion. Travel is no different. The sights, sounds, smells, and feelings we seek by traveling are, at bottom, just another way of thinking through the world. The trip I’ve been thinking about for the last four months is finally over and I’m still unpacking it all, but I’m interested today in how we come to think about places in the first place.
If you played Sim City 2000, you might remember a little easter egg in the game. Here’s how it worked: build a library in your city, click on the building to view details, and then click the button marked “Ruminate.” The game would then open a window containing an essay on cities by Neil Gaiman. I suggest playing the game on DosBox and reading the essay in context, but you can read the short piece here if you don’t have the time. I first read Gaiman’s essay when I was about ten years old, and I’m convinced that it shaped the way I think about cities from the very beginning, because Sim City was the first tool I ever used to think about what a city is, how it works–and Gaiman’s essay tied it all together. Software can move you like that.
“Cities are not people,” Gaiman writes, “but, like people, cities have their own personalities.” When I think of Chicago I imagine a vast, brown machine straddling Lake Michigan, churning incessantly. A pulsating, breathing hybrid being made from people and steel and brick and concrete. On my second night in the city, now 950 miles away, I called it a “grand steamroller of a city… an unstoppable machine looming over the Great Lake,” and at the end of the trip I felt the same way. Of course I’m not alone in this characterization. Carl Sandburg famously described the “City of the Big Shoulders,” the “Hog Butcher for the World,/ Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,/ Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler.” Anthony Bourdain called Chicago a “completely non-neurotic, ever-moving, big hearted but cold blooded machine with millions of moving parts… that will…roll over you without remorse.” Following Sandburg, we are inclined to see these millions of people, living like anywhere else, as some sort of thing, some lovable but impersonal monster chewing up corn and spitting out steel. Why? Maybe we give each other this idea of what a place is, and we travel to reinforce it. Maybe we travel because of it. Or, maybe Gaiman was right. Maybe Chicago really is a sprawling machine made of people.
On my first day in the city I was riding the Red Line train south into the Loop and it struck me as odd that all of this should be happening just a few thousand feet away from the cold, quiet depths of wild Lake Michigan. While the train raged through a tunnel, an image popped into my head of a Smallmouth Bass, ensconced in silence and ever-so-still, suspended in the water just a few hundred yards away from this roaring, clanging madness. In my imagination, a single little bubble escapes the fish’s slowly opening mouth. It meanders to the surface, where it contributes an immeasurably tiny voice to the symphony of noise swirling in the air around the city. It is amazing that these two things–electric locomotive and smallmouth bass–should exist in such proximity to one another, and it raises the question: is the fish part of the machine, too? Tennyson argued in his way that nature is “red in tooth and claw,” but in this place the traveler cannot help but feel that the order is reversed. The city is wild; the lake civilized. It’s all a matter of perspective, yes, but the frigid calm of the lake’s depths seems to offer a poignant counter-argument to the City for living in this part of the world. The fish does not move unless it must. The people living in the city are always moving, bundled against the killing cold. Maybe this is why the city seems like a thing unnatural: it moves when it should be still.
The cold is unmistakable. The wind, infamous. It gets dark at 4:30 in the afternoon during this time of year. When I was there it was foggy and wet, muddy from the first snowfall. As the sun slid beneath the horizon and the long, cold night closed in, I thought too about how miserable Chicago must have been for the people who lived there hundreds of years ago. “Cities exist in location,” Gaiman says, “and they exist in time. Cities accumulate their personalities as time goes by.” Huddled against the cold, counting the days until the spring, Chicago’s early people–Native progenitors and European usurpers alike–must have cultivated a biting sense of humor and a firm work ethic to survive here. Joking to blunt the sharp edges of the cold and shorten winter’s long nights, then working feverishly in the warmer months to survive the cold again. The first Europeans came to know Chicago as a place to cross the river: once, twice, three times you could portage the Rivière Chicagou on this 1733 map. The city, as Gaiman suggests accumulates its character across time and space. You stamp your feet when you’re cold. In Chicago, you cross the river. Over time, millions of people found their way to the portage. They stamp their feet to stay warm. They cross the river. They do it over and over again until they start to look like millions of moving parts and the city takes on a life of its own.
Images like these are the things we use to understand cities. I’m no closer to understanding Chicago today than when I boarded the plane to visit, but neither was Sandburg when he wrote:
“The bronze General Grant riding a bronze horse in Lincoln Park
Shrivels in the sun by day when the motor cars whirr by in long processions going somewhere to
keep appointment for dinner and matineés and buying and selling”
The city is what we project upon it. It is then what we project upon the projections. Add image upon image, time upon place, and the palimpsest can take on a life of its own, like Sandburg’s General Grant in the remainder of the canto:
“Though in the dusk and nightfall when high waves are piling
On the slabs of the promenade along the lake shore near by
I have seen the general dare the combers come closer
And make to ride his bronze horse out into the hoofs and guns of the storm.”
Finally getting these uploaded after traveling and working all day Sunday and today. We had an awesome time this weekend doing tourist-y stuff at the Florida Aquarium, Ybor City, and Busch Gardens. I’m only really happy with the photos of the saxophone-playing man, but it was a great trip anyway.
On the road for a conference. I took these yesterday when I had some free time.
Olustee Battlefield was one of the places that inspired me to be a historian. I was a dorky little kid who was fascinated by the American Civil War–primarily because of a trip to this place some time around the first grade. I was surprised by how small everything is. I remember a full museum and a large battlefield that cast a durable spell on my six-year-old person. What I found now in my thirty-fourth year was a small, one room interpretive center with a 19″ television on repeat and a little field with a couple cannons and a confederate monument tucked into the recesses of the prison complex in Baker County. The past is larger and more majestic than the present in more ways than one.
This time around I was more interested in the beautiful pine woods in back of the interpretation center. The forest was alive with woodpeckers when I visited, the red-hooded birds rapping the trees to a wooden staccato beat in the spaces between the low rumble of timber trucks making their way to the interstate on US-90. Those trucks underline the importance of conservation lands like this. Even a quiet memorial tucked in a rural corner of North Florida offers an oasis of quiet and beauty from the nonstop cacophony of development that leaves no corner of this Dream State untouched.
The World Golf Village feels a bit like a ghost town. Vacant buildings remain where shops and restaurants once ringed the pond in front of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Even the roofs and sidewalks of the businesses that are still open look bad. The putting course for tourists is closed–abandoned and overgrown. Jacksonville tried hard to identify itself with golf when the capital was raised and mobilized for this project in the eighties and nineties. Tiger Woods exploded on the scene right around the time that the World Golf Village opened, and it all must have seemed like a great idea right around the time that my seventh grade class pulled into the parking lot for a screening of The Prince of Egypt on the Village’s IMAX screen in 1998. Now that golf is collapsing on itself, leaving only the dark remains of abandoned courses and the spectral relics of shattered HOAs on their fringe, the Village feels like an enormous folly, as ephemeral as Dog Land or Ancient America in their Florida heyday.
The Grove is a historic house that has been converted into a museum in midtown Tallahassee. It stands, behind a screen of stately oaks, next to a busy intersection amid attorney’s offices, stores, and restaurants. The mercury was hovering around 100° F when I visited recently, and the traffic on Monroe Street nearby was raging, but the Grove was like an oasis of shaded calm. The staff offer tours of the home at the top of every hour, and visitors are free to walk the grounds and soak up some peace before heading back out into the busy capital city. Check out the Governor’s Mansion next door if you have a few minutes to gawk. Though the Governor’s Mansion is not open to the general public, it is possible to schedule a tour during the legislative session.
The tour guides always point it out: look up there, they say, shining a flashlight into the pitch darkness between stalactites above our heads, that’s the original entrance. The spot where someone looked down the hole uncovered by a fallen tree and first set eyes upon this strange subterranean world glimmering beneath the middle Florida cotton kingdom. Never mind that the Indians in this part of Florida had known about the caves and used them for longer than anyone could remember. That curious explorer must have been as thrilled and unsettled by this place as the room full of tourists gaping into the inscrutable darkness. Because this place, the Florida caverns, should not be here in North Florida.
This is an endlessly beautiful region, but if you spend enough time in this part of Florida you know what to expect: rolling hills, pine flatwoods, palmettos, red clay, cypress swamps, meandering tannic rivers. It’s a shock, then, the first time you set foot in this fantasy world. The air is cool and damp, odorless. The eyes refuse to settle in one place, for there is no horizon and no distance. There is only this room, only the next room, like a Zelda dungeon. The rocks you know in the human world above are gray and bland, chips off the endless block of limestone that used to be sea floor and sea creatures underlying the entire Florida peninsula. Here the rocks are obscenely variegated, evocative, ubiquitous.
For all that, caves are not entirely peaceful. Peer through the crevices along the well-trod and dimly-lit tour path and it’s easy to imagine losing yourself in a tightening pitch black labyrinth. It’s all too easy to imagine eyeless creatures going about their sightless business, creepy spiders, bats—though you’re likely to see at least one of these without exercising your imagination–insects, even corpses presiding over the inky darkness. This is truly an escape from the Florida you think you know, and a treasure.