Poor, Black, and Ugly

Missouri’s Governor Nixon asked the Missouri Attorney General to file suit in court to block the Army Corps of Engineers from blowing up the Birds Point Levee.

Blowing the levee will flood farmland and about 100 homes in Missouri, but not blowing the levee could very well endanger the entire town of Cairo, Illinois. A few years back, I wrote about Cairo, Illinois the town that pulls you in, as it pushes you away.

When Time covered Cairo, Illinois last year it described the town as poor, black, and ugly. It is, indeed, very poor and predominately black, but I cannot find it ugly. Or if I do, it’s an ugliness that reflects the south and our history and the civil rights fight and all that is both good and bad about this part of the country.

I guess the best description I have of Cairo is that it is a very real town.

Of course, none of this matters to the Missouri governor who wants to protect the farmland of Missourians. Missourians who happened to know they were building farms on lands designated as spillway, and that there was a potential for the Corps to breach the levee if flood proportions matched that of the 1937 floods. Well, we’re about to pass the levels of the 1937 floods.

But then again, who wants to save a town that’s poor, black, and ugly?

Forests I have loved

By accident and restless choice, I am the ultimate stone that gathers no moss and have lived all over this country. In each location, I’ve hiked whatever wilderness the area boasts, and one doesn’t truly know how beautiful this country is until you’ve walked the fields and forests, beaches and rivers.

In the Northwest, the wet rainforests of the Peninsula be-grudge every inch of the path and at times you feel as if the forest will swallow you whole, so rich and close it is. If one is fanciful, and the rainforests generate fancy, one would think to look closely at the bushes, to see if a set of eyes looks back. Cold water droplets down the back of one’s collar area is a typical Northwest rainforest experience. Elsewhere in the region, the forests are less dense but no less wild: whether walking the foothills of The Cascades, or the high hills of the Inland Empire.

As a break from the forests, one can walk the desert-like petrified forests, the rich meadows, or the beaches of the Oregon coast, getting lost among the rocks and the tidal pools, to climb sandy dunes and rocky cliffs. I have walked a thousand miles of Washington and Oregon through the years, and every mile is unique.

Roosevelt lake a few miles from where I grew up

In Arizona, the forests are in the north and consist mainly of Ponderosa and scrub pine. In the red rock country, the trees fight for a life among the rugged rocks, their green a brilliant counter-point to the rust reds of the ground, and the azure blue of the skies. In the Arizona deserts, one can turn about once, twice, and get lost if not careful, and during the summer, the wilderness is unforgiving of fools. But, oh the beauty of an Arizona desert in the Spring, with flowering cacti and cool breezes, snakes warming themselves in the sun, lizards scampering about. And the area is so rich with minerals that one can find entire valleys literally sprinkled with jasper or black or white onyx.

One might expect fierce wilderness in Vermont, but you’d be surprised. The entire state was clear cut at one time, and the trees are of a uniform sameness and type and size. But in the winter, when the snow is on the ground and the lakes are frozen, that’s when Vermont shines for me. The irony though is that there are few places to hike easily in Vermont. In the winter, on Grand Isle, the local high school opened its doors in the evenings for community members to walk the corridors, get a bit of exercise and socialize. When snow is 4 feet deep, you don’t just cut across the country for a bit of a hike. Unless you’re a red fox.

Once, when I stayed at a bed and breakfast in the central part of the state, I found a trail made by a snow trailer and was able to walk to the top of the hill the B & B was next to. The day was sunny and cold, and fresh snow was pure white, all about me. As I walked further and further up the hill, all sounds fell away until the only thing you can hear is your own heart.

Trail in Muir Woods, CA

In Massachusetts, there are miles of coasts to walk if you can find them. The water is warmer than the Pacific but more temperamental, and there are few experiences finer than to stand on a beach during a summer storm in New England. Wet. Truly wet.

I prefer hiking, but it’s hard to resist the lure of the Emerald Necklace in Boston for walking — the series of connected parks that traverse the city. In Boston, you’re always aware that the streets you walk were once walked by the likes of John Hancock, Samual Adams, and Paul Revere. It was in one part of the Necklace that I walked along a stream and a red-tailed hawk landed on a branch only a few feet away. Right in the middle of the city.

In Montana, the green forest gives way to mile after mind-numbing mile of cattle ranches before hitting rocky mountains that tear through the earth in jagged layers, dangerous to walk, beautiful to see. And In Idaho, the lakes rest like blue sapphires nestled in verdant green velvet.

In Northern California, you can walk among Redwood trees so tall that no other life grows on the forest floor, because no sunlight ever makes it past the trees. In the distance, you can hear birds singing, but not a sound at the forest floor. As you walk, you can reach out and pat a tree that was born about the time when Abraham gave birth to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Rocky Mountain forest

Here in Missouri, where mighty rivers have carved a culture unique to this region, of blues and banjos, where north and south meet and co-exist, this is a land of many faces: river fronts give way to wild mountain, which gives way to city, which gives away to parks absolutely unique in this country. One can walk every day in the year and still not touch all the trails and paths this state supports.

The mountains here are smaller than in the Northwest, but no less wild and no less fierce with brambles and tangles and rocks and soft clay ready to trip you up at every step. Here is where one is likely to meet white-tailed deer and beaver and black bear in addition to squirrel and opposom and raccoon. The bird life is as rich as the landscape, with bluebirds and red cardinals and mockingbirds and finch, hawk, eagle, and red-winged blackbird, all within a few miles of the city.

However, the real magic in this simple land is to walk the same path in all seasons; to see the land in winter, only hinted at behind lush trees and bushes in the summer; to watch a whole valley suddenly become dusted with green after a spring rain; to stand at the edge of the forest and see color that would shame the finest painters as the leaves of dozens of different trees of different heights and shapes change into their autumn colors, of gold and rust, pink and scarlet, with a hint here and there of defiant, stubborn green; to stand beneath a canopy of trees as golden leaves cascade down around you.

Trail in the fall

Switzer

Sunday, I discovered that the Switzer Building was being destroyed starting on the 14th; the first wrecking ball would fall at 10pm. This was my last chance to take pictures of the building I’ve come to be fond of.

As I was taking pictures, others would show up from time to time: to look at the building, to reminisce, and take pictures, themselves. A person I talked with on the Eads Bridge mentioned about visiting the riverfront and the licorice aroma that would gentle pervade the area. Another person I ran into at the base of the building talked about his family being here before the building was created, and how too many of these unique buildings are now gone.

With the images below, I’ve included links to other sites with more on the Switzer Building, and other buildings at risk in St. Louis. Many of these sites have pictures far superior to mine, so don’t judge my photos too harshly. I had hoped to find an image of the building when licorice was still being manufactured at the premises, but no luck.

First, though, a couple of photos of what the building was like before the storm damage that doomed it.

Switzer before damageSwitzer before damage

The rest of the photos were taken Sunday, May 13th.

Switzer SignSide of building
The Damaged sideFull view of damaged side
Through the window of the portion of the building that will be savedFront cast iron work
Building NumberSmile You Being Watch
Three quarter front view

Lady of the Lake

I went to the Mingo National Reserve this week–the last bit of bottomland left in the delta region of Missouri’s boot heel. It’s full of cypress swamps, marshes, a river and a lake, and is an important breeding ground for migratory birds. If the sounds I heard were any indication, the number of species that inhabit the grounds must be enormous.

I walked one trail and the songs were so loud and diverse that I found myself spinning about, trying to identify even a few of the birds I heard. No matter where I went, my movement always triggered a rustle in bushes, leaves, or water. What was both tantalizing and frustrating is that I would only catch a glimpse of whatever moved: a black and white hint of a woodpecker wings, the shadow of a eagle overhead, a heron peaking out at me from the trees. Never, quite seeing the whole.

As I drove the auto tour–a rough twenty mile road open four months of the year– biting and stinging insects would immediately come in through the open windows whenever I stopped, which was frequently. When I started back up again, the insects were just as quickly gone–not before leaving a souvenir, or two. I didn’t care, as it was a small price to pay to be surrounded by such mysteries.

I grew up in the Northwest, in a land full of white water rivers, huge open lakes, tall mountains, and vast fields. It is so unlike the small, secretive swamps and marshes unique to the south. There is no habitat that speaks to me more of being in the south than to walk in a cypress swamp, which is probably why I find them both compelling and disconcerting.

We rose from the depths of swamps such as these. They represent the last bit of ‘original life’, though the world’s rush to make them useful is destroying most of them and their important cousin, the rain forest. The problem with the Mississippi delta is it’s considered some of the richest farmland in the world. Deposits from the river overflowing its banks have built up a top soil that is literally feet deep in some places. However, with such richness is a price: the land is wet, boggy, swampy, and flooding is a natural part of the ecosystem.

Still, people persevered, and much of the original land where indians camped for over 12,000 years–to hunt and fish in the dense forests, the rich waters–is gone; replaced by neat hoed rows and small towns. Replaced until the Old ‘Sip reminds us, from time to time, that we don’t own the land on which we live.

cypress swamp

yellow bird

cypress swamp

white heron

dragonfly

butterfly

cypress swamp

lone duck on log

Brer Fox

I’ve only had the time for two fall photo shoots, though I hope to get out a little more in the next few weeks. I’ve included some photos from the Botanical Gardens in this post.

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When at Botanical this week I noticed out of the corner of my eye a small, orange animal running across the sidewalk. I thought it was a cat at first but when I looked over, it was a red fox, not five feet away. I later found out that she is the resident fox and that she recently had five new babies. I hope to return in a few weeks and gets some photos of fox kits.

Considering that Missouri Botanical Gardens is in the middle of the city, one wouldn’t necessarily expect to see fox. However, she’s encouraged because she makes a terrific, natural rabbit control officer.

Botanical Gardens Japanese Lake with colorful fall foliage

Seeing her reminded me of Brer Fox, which reminded me, again, of the Disney movie, Song of the South. Rumor has it that Disney may release the movie on DVD this November in honor of the 60th anniversary of the original release of the movie. Disney is still concerned about the reprecussions about black stereotypes in the movie, as well as the sugar-coating of the post-slavery south. However, I think the movie would provide a terrific point of discussion about the history of the south and the interaction and attitudes about and between blacks and whites, as compared to fictional representations of same. It is these latter day fictional representations that influenced the majority of us who did not live in the south.

Missouri Botanical Garden: Burning Bush

Seeing this movie when I was young, probably more than any other event, is what sparked my early interest in the south: the culture, the people, and the history. It may have presented a view that wasn’t real, but it was intriging to young eyes, nonethless. I would list it in my top five movies that have had the most impact on me (right up there with To Kill a Mockingbird, which just added to my interest in all things southern).

Spider Mum in Fall hues

Returning to the Botanical trip, when the fox appeared, I had already put away my camera. I kicked myself for having done so and missed a photo opportunity; however, I spent the entire time frozen with mouth open in surprised, so doubt I would have gotten much of a photo. Doesn’t lessen the moment not having ‘proof’ of the event.

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