[I]n August the north Louisiana/Mississippi/south Arkansas Delta
is the most unbearable spot on the face of the earth.
So this is Hell then.
It’s bad, but today I’ll take it over escape, fleeing to the cities or the western mountains, for there is a certain wisdom to be gained from enduring the insufferable. Staying home despite the hundred percent humidity, the fog of decomposition in the air, the heavy musk of damnation everywhere.
Or so said Rushing. Sort of. Or rather, these words are the ones I heard.
He was trying to convince me. On the road somewhere in south Arkansas before I decided to leave for good. Trying to get me to come home. We’ve hashed this out before. I understand.
Rushing’s a good ole Delta boy. But not typical. Long mane and nearly permanent grin, he’s a college dropout—he’s got a problem with schedules and authority—but he’s never stopped reading, one of those rare curious rednecks who’s a seeker by nature. Like the shade tree mechanic, he’d rather do it himself. He prefers to disassemble mysteries unaided and then arrive at ingenious or esoteric constructions. Lately, he’s been preaching theosophy, reading Madame Blavatsky, and finding the spiritual in Delta prehistory. That’s why we were in his truck, speeding through the simmering Delta morning, running through the little hamlet of Eudora, and crossing the state line on state highway 17 into West Carroll Parish. Our destination: Poverty Point archaeological site.
The flatness, the low altitude, the pavement-scalding, paint-fading dog days of summer: these do something to you. Born in the blood or acclimatized—as important a process here as it is in thin air, and maybe harder won— you recognize calescence as a native element. Adopt thermophilic habits. Accept finally the Mississippi sun.
Yes, there’s all the madness and despair of Mississippi history behind us—every reason to leave—but once you’ve accepted the pressure as your birthright and endured your bones braising inside the tight container of summer, you should stay. So reasons Rushing.
The Delta needs you, he says.
So he’s brought me out here. In late August. One hand on the wheel as the fields whiz by, Rushing’s been talking about the disconnect between the Southern landscape and traditional Protestantism and the necessity for religious experiences grounded in the local. I’m thinking about heat stroke.
He’s right about it all, of course, especially the heat: August in the Delta has earned its wicked reputation. It’s ninety degrees by breakfast, sometimes a hundred by lunch, but it’s not the number that important. It’s the humidity, the heaviness of the ether on your shoulders.
The old ones take the irrepressible heat in stride, their children complain, newcomers go mad with perspiration. Time to stew in your own juices; time to obey dampness. There are but few options. You could curse the unrelenting orb that rules the long, treeless landscape. You can impune the atmosphere itself, the moisture wilting the best resistance you can muster. Better to run and hide then, close the shades, and huddle close to the AC. Don’t stray far. Or you can give in, offer yourself wholly to the heat, learn to love wet hair, pit stains, the drip at the end of your nose. Ignore, even enjoy as a child would, the smell of your body under the sun.
So we do this from time to time, to break the monotony of late summer. We trace our fingers across topo maps, track Indian mounds along the backroads, and take an afternoon or a day to trespass and sit quietly on the top of some old human effort. We find them shrouded in islands of trees among the fields or open to the sun, plowed over, mere rises among the cotton. It started, we surmised, on a grade school field trip to a nearby set of mounds named after the town of Winterville. The treeless 55-foot temple mound, center of the complex, elevated our 10-year-old imaginations. Twenty years later, we have our sights on the oldest mounds remaining in the Valley.
It’s a peculiar hobby.
Because it is a humid country, because things rot feverishly, the mounds are the abiding sign of the ancient ones who are long departed. Perhaps they foresaw this and built accordingly, eschewing the transitory. Perhaps it was their only way of breaking the endless horizontal plane of existence in the river’s country. Perhaps they only wanted a room with a view. How can we know for sure?
There are three basic kinds. Simple burials are like pregnant bellies protruding from the earth, swaddling their dead in basketfuls of dark soil. Ceremonial mounds are the Valley’s pyramids: mathematical flat-topped pyriforms with a processional ramp, they reach impressive heights. The spiritual center of a vanished culture. Last and rarest are the effigies in figures of snakes, birds, or other sacred animals. Sometimes all appear together in a bordered complex of silent worship, the surrounding old oaks and gums the last adherents.
If you want to see them, you’d better hurry, for as with all beautiful things in the Delta, we harm them too much. Leveled in the fields and pot-hunted in the woods, they are like great wounded beasts hibernating on the Valley floor, yet open to all who would not injure them.
But be careful. The mounds, too, can drive you crazy with things unseen, their resolute muteness reflecting your illusions, your desires, your prejudices. Nineteenth century Americans dreamed of Atlantis or lost tribes of Israel. Tall as he was, even Lincoln thought of races of giants when contemplating the mounds. And even now, fantasies of buried treasure persist.
Rushing and I have a few agreements on such errands: First, we prepare to do absolutely nothing. Not the nothing that our culture encourages, ensnared by machines—that is stupor only. But the nothing that the mounds encourage, watching clouds transform or leaves wilt in desperation, whatever is overhead, transcending the disease of boredom.
To this end, no technology of any sort is allowed: the jambox, Walkman, IPod, headphones, tablet, laptop, cell phone, Game Boy, blackberry, portable television, GPS, PDA, MP3, lap counter, pedometer, heart rate monitor, sleep sensor, pocket calculator, universal translator or any other handheld wireless modern-day distraction are all abandoned in the truck. Not even watches.
After an hour of driving through the refrain of cotton fields and run-down little towns, we slowed at an expansive, well-groomed lawn with official signs that read “Poverty Point Earthworks.” My eyes focused on strange concentric rises appearing through the passenger window, my mind drifting, when Rushing redirected my attention; he slapped my thigh with the back of his hand then pointed his finger at a spot beyond the windshield, past the heat mirages smoking off the pavement in the now late Delta summer. I followed his mark: a whole assemblage of earthworks of varying heights basking in the midday sun.
Other than the mounds, there is little left of the Valley’s oldest evident culture—older than Christ, older maybe than all the Old Testament villains: What archaeologists call Poverty Point Objects (PPO’s) or cooking tools made from fistfuls of baked clay, spearheads for the atlatl, and little stone animal beads and fetishes, abstract but gorgeoused like well-loved sentences. What we do know is that no rock was available here and that this civilization traded widely along the Mississippi River to get it. What we don’t is the meaning of the little totem animals and shapes—owls, bird heads, talons; we no longer speak the language.
It’s clear by the time we’re on foot that Poverty Point was a fully developed complex with a collections of mounds around a central plaza, bordered by a half-circle of earthen rings just a few feet in height. Just a few minutes on the ground, the eerie atmosphere that hangs above all mounds—all abandoned human places—descends, and we amble through the complex with little conversation. In a pattern we hold for the next hour, we diverge to inspect different mounds and enjoy our separate thoughts and the individual weirdness of the place, then rejoin to compare our observations. The smirk on Rushing’s face from the ride over has vanished now, and I knew that he considered our journey a religious one and that I should take it seriously, too.
He pointed again, this time to a monumental rise, the largest of the mounds before us, known as the Bird Mound. An effigy of a soaring bird, at the time it was built, it was the largest human structure in North America. I could see the truth of it when we reached the top: the wings outspread, the slightly fanned tail the ramp to the Valley floor below, the head a jut of earth badly eroded off the body of the mound. We were elevated seventy feet or so from the Valley floor, our backs to the huge concentric rings carved from the earth and ending in a far bayou, our view directly into the canopies of the white oaks and post oaks growing from the sides of the mound. I studied the withered resurrection fern covering a branch. A slight breeze played in the leaves.
Rushing directed me to what small space wasn’t covered by the viewing platform, a place out of the shade and open to the sun. I stretched out on the mound, my legs crossed, my arms behind me for support; Rushing did the same. We were quiet.
The first thing I noticed after a brief time, the most obvious presence with us on the mound, was the heat. Evaporating the sense of the otherworldly that we had both contemplated back in the plaza and on the other mounds, the hotness of the now late August immediately smothered us. An unholy heat, its moisture saturating my clothes, invading my lungs, my body leeching out all of its defenses. The usual here. I tried my best to shun the sensation of my skin broiling in the sunshine and cast a longing glance around to the nearby shade. I thought of mentioning this to my partner, but he turned to me with a stone face, and I knew then that he had placed us directly where we would be the hottest and that there would be no moving. We were open to all the force our star and the midday Delta could impose for the duration.
Eventually, thoughts came and I tried to latch on to them, thread them out, anything but obsess about the heat. Like this: On a day like today, the Delta appears like the desert or the ocean or the vast stretches of ice and snow in the north country. In the sere dreamscape of late summer, all things merge into extreme sameness. The flatness, the row upon row of field after field, the repetition of power lines along the road stretching out to infinity, the omnipresent humidity from which there is no escape. And like these landscapes, the creatures which punctuate the curtain of the similar are iconic beings or mythic beasts—like the mound upon which we are currently riding.
Time crawled and thought was insufficient. I began to watch a few birds flit from tree to tree, crossing part of the opening in which the mound sat. It was in this way my attention became directed toward the sky and what few clouds passed overhead.
Relinquishing any hope of dryness, my shirt soaked, my skin fritting, sweat pooling in my bellybutton and curling down my waistline, I closed my eyes and concentrated on thought. Not of cool places, swimming pools and ice cream trucks, but the more troublesome propositions that Poverty Point had left me with.
The biggest mystery: No bodies have been found. No internments, no graveyards. Did they remove their dead far across some river, a headstart on the journey? Or burn their dead, giving their bodies back to the heat of summer? Then there’s the name itself. We have no word for these people who built the mounds, only calling the period the Late Archaic. Our name for this place, Poverty Point, stands in contradiction to the rich culture that made the mounds. They practiced no agriculture that we know of, used no bow and arrow. And yet, all this. What will be left of us 4,000 years from now? What will they think of us, when all that remains is the levee and still these mounds?
I opened my eyes and noticed a small black speck high in the sky, too indistinct, too distant for inspection. Scattered cumulus drifted above it. I focused on the unknown thing, far above me, until I realized that it was a bird riding the currents. No longer stationary, it was dropping fast, getting closer and larger, reveling, banking, turning in tight circles. A vulture maybe. We must look pretty tasty, I thought, two fools freshly cooked.
No, it was a hawk. I could tell by the shorter, stouter wings. He descended closer to us, probably hunting a meal in the opening, and even though I occasionally lost sight when he slipped behind the canopy of the trees, I didn’t remove my gaze from where I thought he would reappear, my concentration narrowed on his every movement.
Then something unexpected happened in the middle of sameness. I could feel a part of myself rising, swimming up through the thick air to meet the great bird. It was as if I was viewing the ground from above, from the hawk’s eyes, and all of the tumulous land was below me: the grassy field, the lesser mounds, the rings of earth, and the bayou beyond. Not as if, though, the bird’s sight was my sight.
The dream continued as my eyes next saw the effigy mound itself. Our bodies prone on the center of the earthen hawk’s back. I could see my features distinctly and I watched in wonder as a single bead of sweat, one of hundreds upon my face, rolled through my left eyebrow, curled behind the top of my ear, and released like a kiss from the back of the lobe. My nostrils dilated with each breath. My eyes were closed. I felt the shadow of the hawk pass over my face.
It seemed at the time like a pleasing paradox, watching without looking, my perspective so sharp from above. All I remember was that I enjoyed it, for there was no thought and no real memory, only a fading residual sensation, like the sunburn I would no doubt be nursing tonight.
I don’t know how long I lay there in such a condition, but something startled me from my trance. A shout? A whoop? The kee of the hawk? I sat bolt upright. My shirt and face strangely dry and the sun was lower now in the west, dipping behind the canopy. The vibrations of scissor-grinding cicadas redoubled in the air, the season’s weird cadence that always promises to file off the hard edge of summer and deliver us to autumn.
Years later now, I wonder about that moment, wonder whether it was an encounter with some old shaman folding space and time to return as a totem animal or simply a hallucinatory heat stroke after all.
And I think of Rushing, too, who is long gone from the Valley now. The one who preached to me, almost converted me, who witnessed as things spun out and I lost the center, leaving the Delta and every connection I had, as so many had done before.
We fell out. It wasn’t over my abandonment of home, but a girl, as it almost always is. Then he fell in love, and they had a son. Then he worried, as fathers should. And retreated deep to the snow-capped mountains of Colorado.