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Entries in Mississippi (9)


Blue Highways: Astoria, Oregon

Unfolding the Map

We pass through Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River's titanic meeting with the sea, and think about that enormous river and the use of smallpox as early American biological warfare.  How does Oregon fit with that?  Read on, dear Littourati, read on.  Go to the map to locate Astoria, Oregon.

Book Quote

"The great sea reach of the Columbia ranges in width from about three miles to ten miles and was bridged just recently at Astoria.  When it comes to fall and force, no other American river can match this one; near its mouth, sudden whirlings of water will suck logs under only to spit them forty feet into the air....

"Astoria, the oldest city on the river and now an industrial center, began as a trading post established by John Jacob Astor's fur traders.  Soon after the founding, Indians gathered to annihilate the white men; one of Astor's partners, a devious man named Duncan McDougal, thought to save the company by threatening to uncork a black vial that he said held smallpox; the tribes quickly agreed to peace and Astoria survived...."

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 5


Sunset between Astoria, Oregon and Washington State. Photo by Gene Daniels and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host site.

Astoria, Oregon

A long time ago, traveling up Interstate 5 to Vancouver, Canada I passed over the Columbia River.  I was fifteen, and more concerned about getting my chance to drive on the freeway with my learner's permit (I never got that chance).  So what I'm saying is that I passed over this landmark without really noting it in my memory.  That was unfortunate.

Having lived along the Mississippi when I dwelt for a time in New Orleans, I have some experience of strong and powerful rivers.  The Mississippi, where it reaches New Orleans and slams up against the levees in a 90 degree turn at Algiers Point, is packing so much power behind it that it is actually higher on one side than the other by a few feet.  I can't find any confirmation of this but I believe it was told to me on some kind of tour.  The Mississippi is so powerful that you just can't jump in and swim it it - it will suck you under and carry you down.  Bodies might not surface for weeks until the river decides to let them go.  Tree trunks may surface suddenly after having been held down at the river's bottom for years.  In his classic Life on the Mississippi (a future Littourati subject), Mark Twain wrote of the Mississippi River and its character, how it might change course overnight, and how sandbars and logs that served as riverboat landmarks might suddenly disappear and reappear.

The Columbia River, on the other hand, seems like it might have a more wild flavor to it than the Mississippi.  It rises out of British Columbia, and flows northwest before making an almost complete 180 degree turn and heading south through Washington, where it again makes a 90 degree turn and heads west between Oregon and Washington to the Pacific.  It is the largest and longest river in the Pacific Northwest.

There's an interesting Native American legend involving the Columbia River, told by the Klikitat tribe.  A land bridge used to exist across the Columbia, caused by a giant landslide in the Cascade Locks area, which created a giant lake behind it.  Indians may have been able to cross the river on that bridge, which they called Bridge of the Gods.  Eventually, the water broke through and created the Cascade Rapids in the Columbia Gorge.  The Klikitat Indians explain these natural occurrences by relating that the chief of the gods and his two sons were traveling in the area and decided they wanted to settle there.  The chief shot his arrow in one direction, and one son went that way, and then he shot an arrow in the other direction, and his other son followed that.  He then raised the land bridge over the river so that he could get together with his sons.  Eventually, as is usual, the sons got into a fight over a woman.  Forests were leveled and villages were destroyed.  Angry, the chief of the gods turned one son into Mount Hood, the other into Mount Adams, and the woman became Mount St. Helens.

I love legends like this, as I explained before, when people explain through stories the natural phenomena they don't understand.  I also found very interesting LHM's story about Astoria's salvation from the hands of angry natives wanting to wipe it out.  The threat of smallpox was very real in historic America.  The disease was unknown in North America until Europeans brought it with them, and over the course of the next 200 years it decimated the Native American population.  The British supposedly used smallpox as a biological weapon during the French and Indian Wars by giving smallpox infected blankets to Indians under Chief Pontiac who were besieging them at Fort Detroit.

So, by the time of Astoria's founding, smallpox was very much a fear.  In fact, one of the characters in Astoria's history is a Kootenay womnan named Kaúxuma Núpika, or the Manlike Woman, who was a prophetess who said that the white men had changed her sex, and who got in trouble with her tribe by predicting smallpox.  She appeared in Astoria with a young woman she called her wife, and was there for a short period of time because her life was in danger.  That Duncan McDougall, then in charge of Fort George as Astoria was called for a time under the British, could take a small vial out in front of hostile Chinook chiefs and cow them into leaving the fort alone testifies to the fear that the native population had of the disease.  He was called "the great smallpox chief" and even later, some tribes feared that if they made any missteps that angered the whites the commander of the fort would level a plague at them.

Of course, nowadays biological warfare, even the threat of such, is outlawed by international law.  However, I understand that research was done to develop smallpox as a weapon only a few decades ago, and that stores of smallpox still exist in the US and Russia, as well as in North Korea.  The degrees of separation between a small city in Oregon and such topics such as biological weaponry is hard to imagine.  However, given that one man saw a threat and in turn threatened to loose upon his enemies a deadly disease and given that until 30 years ago biological weapons were considered to be valid weapons of war by governments (and some governments and groups might still consider them to be on the table in a crisis) shows that human nature hasn't changed much.

Musical Interlude

Did you know that the cult film (at least I call it a cult film) The Goonies was set in Astoria?  I must admit that I've never seen The Goonies, though I know it was the big break in the career of future Notre Dame icon and hobbit sidekick Sean Astin.  The following song, So Long, Astoria is from the soundtrack to that film.  It is by The Ataris and is also the title song to their album of the same name.

If you want to know more about Astoria
Astoria-Warrenton Chamber of Commerce and State of Oregon Welcome Center
The Daily Astorian (newspaper) Astoria
Port of Astoria
Wikipedia: Astoria

Next up: St. Helens, Oregon


Blue Highways: Kaplan, Louisiana

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapThe land is flat.  Very flat.  It's humid and there's lots of rice grown here.  We are in Kaplan, Louisiana, passing through with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) as he drives around America.  Click on the thumbnail at right to see where Kaplan is located, and bring out your bug spray - there's mosquitos.

Book Quote

"The rice fields began near Kaplan, where the land is less than twenty feet above the sea only thirty miles south, and kept going all the way to Texas."

Blue Highways: Part 3, Chapter 14


Rice dryers in Kaplan, Louisiana. Photo by Alysha Jordan on Flickr. Click on photo to go to host site.

Kaplan, Louisiana

Since not much comes to my mind from reading the quote, let's see where we go with it.  I haven't been in this part of Louisiana, and I don't know much about rice.  I know that there isn't much difference in the landscape between New Orleans and Houston along the Louisiana coast - bayous and swamps.  It's all part of an immense river basin drainage system.

In times past, before the Army Corps of Engineers put flood control features in place to control the route of the Mississippi River, the Mississippi was like a snake lashing its tail.  The mouth of the Mississippi has been in various places over the millennia - near Houston, through the Atchafalaya Basin, presently past New Orleans and down to its mouth at Bird's Foot Delta (or Balize Delta, as some call it).

The river has changed course for a variety of reasons.  Along the upper parts of the Mississippi, course changes have occured because of geological obstructions and seismic activity.  In 1811-12, the earthquakes along the New Madrid Fault temporarily reversed the flow of the river, carved new lakes and left communities once on the river high and dry when the earthquake moved the course of the river farther to the west or to the east.  The mouth has changed it's location too, primarily due to sedimentation.  The silt carried by the river gets deposited near the mouth, raising the level of the mouth and causing river to thrash west or east to find a more direct way to the Gulf.  This happens every thousand years or so.  Currently, it seems to want to shift west.  LHM makes reference to this in Blue Highways, when he quotes a Cajun named Cassie Hebert:

"The Atchafalaya's a shorter way to the Gulf than the Mississippi take.  Big river gonna find us down here.  Corps be damned.  One day rain gonna start and keep on like it do sometimes.  When the rainin' stop, the Mississippi gonna be ninety miles west of N'Orleans and St. Martinville gonna be a seaport.  And it won't be the firstest time the river go running from Lady N'Orleans."

What this has done has created fine land for growing rice.  Rice needs wet, wet land to grow, and a belt extending from roughly Lafayette, Louisiana to Corpus Christi in Texas is known for long and medium grain rice, and specialty rices.

My only experience in country similar, perhaps, to the area where Kaplan is located has been in Bangladesh.  That whole country is really a river delta and river mouth.  On the west, the Ganges flows into Bangladesh, becoming the Padma.  It combines with the Jamuna River and takes the name Padma, which then joins the Meghna and takes the Meghna's name, finally emptying into the sea.  In this delta land, uncontrolled by humans, floods are yearly and spectacular.  The country literally fills up during the monsoon season, leaving only high bits of land and roadways above water.  After monsoon season, the waters subside, and rice and other plants grown in paddies and very wet soil thrive.  One is literally at the mercy of the elements, and at the mercy of all the insects that thrive in wet climates, and the deadly diseases that they bring.

I don't know if I'll ever get to Kaplan, but I imagine it to be flat, hot in summer, and very steamy.  It's climate is probably much like New Orleans and Houston.  Kaplan calls itself the "Gateway to Acadiana," and it is the childhood home of country music star Sammy Kershaw.  It has an interesting past - even though it is the gateway to Cajun country, its founder was a Jewish rice entrepreneur named Abrom Kaplan.  Passing through here will bring you into the Cajun country we've visited with LHM previously.  In ensuing years, Kaplan may be tested by possible human-caused events like climate change - should sea levels rise, Kaplan may become ocean-front property, or be underwater.  Or, should droughts become more common, rice growing may become more difficult.  But until those events become reality, Kaplan can still serve as the entrance, or in our case exit, to Cajun music and culture.

If you want to know more about Kaplan

Institute of Southern Jewish Life: Profile of Kaplan
Kaplan, Louisiana - Gateway to Acadiana
Real Cajun Recipes (Cajun recipe site compiled by three Kaplan natives)
Wikipedia: Kaplan

Next up: Lake Charles, Louisiana


Blue Highways: Vicksburg, Mississippi

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapWith William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) we visit the "Key to the South," Vicksburg.  Why is it the key, you may ask?  Read on, fellow traveler and Littourati, and it will be made clear.  If you want to see where the key was turned so many years ago, click on the thumbnail of the map to the right side of the page, and feel free to comment on anything you want!

Book Quote

"...and drove northwest to cross the Mississippi at Vicksburg. South of town, I ate a sandwich where Civil War earthworks stuck out on a bluff high above the river. From these aeries, cannoneers had lobbed shells onto Union gunboats running the river. Anything - a rock, a stick - falling from that height must have hit with a terrible impact."

Blue Highways: Part 3, Chapter 8

Confederate cannon in downtown Vicksburg. Click on photo to go to host site.

Vicksburg, Mississippi

Vicksburg sits at a strategic point on the Mississippi River.  From on high it overlooks the river where it bends around a peninsula.  This high point made the city a terrible gauntlet that Union boats had to run under withering cannon fire from the city.  By holding this area, the Confederates maintained a unified country stretching from the Georgia and Florida coast to Texas and beyond, and also kept the Union from being able to run supplies up the Mississippi.

Not only that, but the city was fortified from the land side by earthworks and defenses that made it a formidable place to try to take.  But in 1863, Ulysses S. Grant and his sub-generals, including William T. Sherman, decided to try to take the city.  The Confederate forces, depleted by battles, retreated into the city, and after several unsuccessful attacks, Grant settled down for a siege.  The Confederates hoped for help from another Confederate army to the east, but that help never came.  Eventually, tired and starving after a siege of just over a month, the Confederate army surrendered on July 4th, just one day after Robert E. Lee was defeated by Union forces at Gettysburg.  Grant allowed parole to all prisoners, who he expected never to fight again after the horrors of the battles and the siege.  As a result of the battle, the Confederacy was cut in two, never to be reunified.  It marked the turning point in the American Civil War, and truly shaped the character of the South and helped define the nation's path forward through history.  The surrender was so emotionally and politically charged that the city of Vicksburg refused to celebrate the U.S. July 4th Independence Day for eighty years.

The Civil War interests me because it was probably the first modern war.  While previous wars had been fought according to specific guidelines - armies lined up in ranks shooting at each other until one or the other broke - the Civil War was an all out contest where the rules of war were redefined.  In a sense, the United States had gained experience in fighting such a war in the Revolutionary War, where the Colonial Army sometimes fought according to the established rules, but sometimes used guerrilla tactics to fight as well.  The Civil War was much more of an all-out fight, from what I've read, with the true horrors of war made possible by advances in engineering and explosives.  In the siege of Vicksburg, for example, the Union soldiers tunneled under Confederate defenses and packed over a ton of gunpowder into the shaft, exploding it and breaking through the lines.  The resulting crater was 40 feet wide and 12 feet deep. All in all in the siege, casualties were numerous.  The Union casualties were close to 5,000 men, and the Confederate casualties numbered some 3,500 men with 29,000 surrendering.  Deaths over the entire campaign for Vicksburg numbered about 10,000 Union killed and wounded, and just over 9,000 for the Confederates. 

Many times it was better to die on the battlefield than have to face infection, gangrene, the loss of a limb, and perhaps even addiction to painkillers.  The lyrical excerpt below is from a Michelle Shocked song called Soldier's Joy, which recounted the horrors of the battle aftermath:

I took a rifle ball in my shoulder
But my entire body filled with pain
I pleaded with them all at the field hospital
Oh god, another shot of morphine.

Soldier's joy, oh what's the point in pleasure
When it's only meant to kill the pain
Lay down my arms and take the coffin's measure
Or take up arms and send me out to fight again.

Shaking hands, was I a coward, was I brave?
Shaking hands, I took the bitter pill
Tell the story on my grave, my soul they could not save
What the bullet couldn't kill, the needle will.

Michelle Shocked
Shaking Hands (Soldier's Joy)
from Arkansas Traveler

While the Civil War was a defining event in American history, it also cost more American lives than any war before or after. In 1865, those deaths accounted for almost two percent of the U.S. population, and these are just estimated deaths as record keeping wasn't very precise back then.  If you add in the wounded, the number of Americans and American families affected by the Civil War is even greater.  To compare, World War II deaths only accounted for three-tenths of the population of the United States.

Vicksburg is thus an important place in our American history.  As LHM sat on the bluffs over the river, imagining the cannon shot raining down on Union gunboats, I'm pretty sure that he was aware of the importance of the city.  As for me - well, it took me blogging this book to realize just how important Vicksburg is.  It's pretty lame of me - but when I make that trip into Mississippi I promise I won't pass up a chance to visit. 

If you want to know more about Vicksburg

Destination 360: Vicksburg
Vicksburg city website
Vicksburg National Military Park
Vicksburg Post (newspaper)
Vicksburg Tourism
Wikipedia: Vicksburg

Next up: Ville Platte, Louisiana


Blue Highways: Learned, Mississippi

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapWandering along the Trace, still, past Learned and on our way to the Mississippi River.  Check out the map by clicking the thumbnail at right, and leave a comment with your comments on racism or whatever else you think important.

Book Quote

"I went to the Trace again, following it through pastures and pecan groves and tilled fields; wildflowers and clover pressed in close, and from trees, long purple drupes of wisteria hung like grape clusters; in one pond a colony of muskrats.  I turned off near Learned... "

Blue Highways: Part 3, Chapter 8

Old country store in Learned, Mississippi. Click on image to go to host site.

Learned, Mississippi

Learned, Mississippi is a place where I'd like to think about the nature that LHM describes.  But unfortunately, it is also a place which houses a relic of Mississippi's racist past.  The Nationalist Movement (note: by linking to the Nationalism Movement website, I am not indicating any sympathy or agreement with their position), is located there.  The Movement was until recently run by an attorney named named Richard Barrett, who was stabbed to death in April 2010 by a black man who accused him of making sexual advances and who now faces the death penalty.  This makes the juxtaposition of the beauty of the Natchez Trace described by LHM, and the ugliness of Mississippi's violent racist history, a bit uncomfortable.

I suppose I could have grown up a racist, because I lived in a town that was once a bit more intolerant than it is now, like a lot of places.  My town had various cultural groups, including Italians, Portuguese, Finns, Irish and some Mexicans when I was growing up.  These were not the usual groups you associate with racism, but the feelings expressed were often that way.  Portuguese families were called "Portagees."  Italians were often made fun of - I have an Italian uncle who even made fun of his own ethnic heritage.  There were sections of town where you could find a predominance of one culture over another.

I didn't see black people regularly until we got cable TV and started getting the Bay Area television stations.  I think that was when I was eight or nine.  We only had one black person that I knew of in town when I was growing up, a young girl who would come stay with her white grandparents down the lane and across the road from where I lived.  Later, when I was in high school, a young black woman moved into town, and I watched as all my white male high school classmates fell all over themselves to impress her because she was, I guess, exotic and interesting.

I must say that I feel my town is more tolerant and accepting now, but even today, as more Mexicans move up through California, some illegal working and then going back home, others legal and making their lives in my town, I still hear some racist sentiments.  I cringe when I hear my mom say some less-than-flattering things about Mexicans, and gently scold her (she's 79 and probably won't change too much).  Give us your food; your salsas, tacos and enchiladas.  But don't be too visible, because we'll fear and hate you.

But I always had liberal tendencies and thought that people were people, regardless of their skin color.  When I was in college, I had a friend who was very definitely racist, and I put up with him and even enabled him sometimes rather than fight him until after college I went to volunteer in the inner city.  He called me one night, very intoxicated, and began spouting racist remarks to get a rise out of me.  After working with economically disadvantaged black children in an inner-city Catholic school and having my heart wrung out every day with their stories, I wasn't so forgiving of his views and we didn't talk again for many, many years.

I have recently been rewarded by knowing that I have some African-American blood running through me.  Two years ago I learned about my biological mother and her family, which was from West Virginia, and the fact that this family most likely has some mixed blood.  The last name of my biological mother was enough to mean that her family was one of a half dozen or so that were victims of prejudice for being less than white.  While many members of my biological mother's family want to downplay or deny this connection, others, especially younger ones like myself, are okay.  When I found out that I might be of mixed race, I was happy.  I felt like I suddenly went from being boring to interesting, ethnicity-wise!

So, I take a dim view of people like Richard Barrett and movements like the Nationalist Movement.  I respect people's right to free speech, but their speech calls for an America that is long past.  It calls for an America divided on ethnic lines, where groups of people through no fault other than the color of their skin or their ethnic heritage sit in either a privileged or marginalized place.  It denies certain ethnicities the opportunity or the possibility to participate in the building of America.  It is wrong, and it is fast becoming irrelevant as America becomes more diverse, and whites become a majority minority, outnumbered by blacks, Hispanics and Asians in combination.  This speech is the speech of fear, and rather than fearing my fellow Americans, I choose to embrace them, call them brother and sister, and work with them to keep America a vital and free country.

If you want to know more about Learned

There's not much on Learned, and there's a lot on Richard Barrett since he was murdered.  Here's what little information I could get about Learned and a couple of things about the murder.  At least Learned sits along the Natchez Trace, which looks beautiful!

Murder of Richard Barrett
Wikipedia: Richard Barrett
Wikipedia: Learned

Next up: Vicksburg, Mississippi


Blue Highways: Clinton, Mississippi

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapContinuing through Mississippi, we stop at Clinton for the night.  William Least Heat-Moon camps out in his van on the campus of Mississippi College.  We'll hang out with him, and think about astrology and other tools we can use for guidance.  If you want to know where Clinton sits on our journey, click on the map thumbnail at right.  Leave a comment if you have any thoughts one way or another on astrology, and thanks for reading.

Book Quote

"'You're a Pisces?'

'Would a Sagittarius wear a Pisces necklace?'

'How can you believe in astrology and wear a cross?'

'What a fuddydud!  Who made the stars?  Astrology's just another modality too.'  She took a computer card from her notebook. 'I've got to get to class, but here's one more modality.  In India, people pray when they eat - like each chew is a prayer.  Try it sometime.  Even grumpy fuddyduds like it.'"

Blue Highways: Chapter 3, Part 7

A shop in Clinton, Mississippi. Click on picture to go to host site.

Clinton, Mississippi

Just today, I read my horoscope in the local paper.  I'm a Capricorn.  It said I'd enjoy discussing religious and philosophical matters with my best friend or partner, and that I should understand the steps involved if I'm working out educational or legal pursuits.  This was simply the small horoscope in my local paper.  And it is true in a general way.  I do enjoy discussions with my wife and friends, and though I'm now past educational pursuits, my wife and I are discussing whether we will at least try to adopt a child before we get too old.  So, I guess I can apply this astrological guidance in a very general way to my life - but it isn't very helpful, really.

Another horoscope I like to read appears in our alternative weekly paper.  It's called Free Will Astrology by Rob Brezny, and while i find it to often be general, sometimes it does seem to speak directly to me.  Here's my horoscope for this week:

"It's not that some people have willpower and some don't," said physician James Gordon. "It's that some people are ready to change and others are not." That's why you may soon appear to the casual observer, Capricorn, as someone who's able to call on enormous reserves of willpower. According to my reading of the astrological omens, you are now more amenable to change than you've been in a long time. In fact, I suspect that in the coming weeks you'll be willing and even eager to initiate transformations that seem heroic to people who are addicted to the status quo.

"Take inventory of the extent that "No" dominates your life. Notice how often you say or think: 1. "That's not right." 2. "I don't like that." 3. "I don't agree with that." 4. "They don't like me." 5. "I'm not very good." 6. "That should be different from what it is."

From Free Will Astrology by Rob Brezny
Week of November 25, 2010

This speaks to me because for the past year, or actually two, I had been in a rut.  I got bogged down in regrets over ways my life had turned out, I had gotten myself involved in what I hoped would become a friendship but became very complicated and ultimately hurtful to me, and there were unanswered questions that I had been struggling with about which way to turn in my future.  So, is this horoscope correct?  In a way, it is.  I am trying to transform myself for the next stage of my life, and I am trying in many ways to overcome those demons that whisper such things to me as "They don't like me" and "I'm not very good," and that hold me back from happiness and satisfaction.

But this begs the question.  Do I believe in astrology?  I don't, really.  Like anything else, I can use it as a general guide sometimes to remind me of paths I have chosen or not chosen, but I think it is a mistake to use it as a daily mentor.  It is another tool in my shed.

I have lots of tools.  I have a therapist who has helped me through this rough patch and who has given me more tools to fight the demons of my past.  I have friends who have stuck with me even though I've made mistakes in my life and with them.  I have a spouse who has supported me throughout our marriage.

One of my most ardent supporters has been my sister, who lately has shown a great talent for offering spiritual advice.  She seems to have developed a clairvoyance, where she can look into one's past and future and give advice.  She has astounded people by telling them things out of their past that she cannot have known.  She discovered this talent while learning to read tarot cards, and she still uses that medium to access her knowledge, though she also tells me of spirit guides who aid her.  She's read me both with tarot cards and by intuiting the state of my chakras, and her advice always seems to cut through the clutter of my self-destructive thoughts.

I'm a scientist, trained to be skeptical, so I shouldn't be very accepting of this type of thing.  In addition, I'm a Catholic, and officially, Catholicism looks down on this sort of thing.  But she's my sister and she feels that this power is her gift and calling, and I want to be supportive of her because of all the support she's given me through good times and bad.  So, my sister constitutes another tool that I can draw upon when I need her particular type of advice and spiritual nourishment...and she's always there for me.  And, frankly, her advice has always helped me in one way or another.

When LHM meets the Christian woman in Clinton that he is speaking to in the quote above, she tells him of computerized prayer.  People can have computers pray for them, she says, and the computers can send up thousands more prayers than we humans can in less time.  When he questions the authenticity of such prayer, she tells him that it's just like the rosary or prayer wheels - they are all artificial devices, like machines, that can aid us in praying.  She points out that there are all kinds of ways to pray.

We all seek answers and help, especially when we're faced with times of trouble and our minds are at unease.  Prayer, astrology, tarot, numerology, and any of the new age methods can be found now all over the internet and as accepted parts of our daily lives.  I think all these manifestations of guidance are tools we can use.  Such tools are only as powerful as their appropriateness for the job and the belief that they will work.  I can be a skeptic, but is it hypocritical if I sometimes put aside my skepticism, relax my religious beliefs and open my mind to what my horoscope says to me?

If you want to know more about Clinton

Camp Clinton WWII POW Camp
Clinton city website
The Clinton News (newspaper)
Mississippi College
Wikipedia: Clinton

Next up:  Learned, Mississippi