Choctaw Trails

It’s funny how we can grow up in a place, even own part of it, and take it for what it is in the moment. Never know the history behind it, the earth under it, the woods on it, and the streams running through it. Mostly, we take our lives for granted and never peel back from the surface or dig to find rich layers beneath. Or make discoveries. How much do we miss in life by seeing only what’s there now and not taking the time to wonder what was there before?

It scares me because I almost missed a great deal of my family’s story and how I align with historical periods. As a kid, I observed; as an adult, I looked deeper.

My grandpa was fourth generation in Kemper County, Mississippi. I’m sixth generation to still own a small tract of his portioned-out farmland, covered with woods and natural springs and a stream, along with poor dirt and scrub trees and a deep gully. It’s now a pine plantation.

Childhood summers, I visited that farm, ran over the pine-needled paths in the words, climbed trees, played in the creek, rode the old horse named Dixie, tried to dig up a grave with a tin can in the MacDonald Cemetery, and went with my grandfather to bring the cows home each evening before Wagon Train came on TV. Even picked cotton once. Ate blackberries, muscadines, and watermelons warm off the vines.

I remember the short jaunts to the watermelon patch. Grandpa took the kids—cousins, sister, me—on a slide, a flat wooden platform with runners on the bottom. He’d stand at one end holding long plow reins from Dixie’s harness, as she pulled us. We’d sit behind Grandpa as the slide scuffed down the narrow dirt lane from the walnut tree and henhouse on the left and the peanut patch on the right, past cotton and corn fields, until the road forked at the plum tree. The watermelon patch was south of the lane. One fork of the road turned north and went by the old family homesite, past a natural spring, and onto the land of my great uncle. The other road kept east and was not as well traveled.

I remember the push of the slide runners against the yellow sandy dirt prominent on Hardy Hill. This land was once covered by ocean. It was hard to imagine Kemper County, north of Meridian, under gulf waters. My grandmother hated that sand around her house because the kids were always tracking it onto the porch. She carried bucket after bucket and dumped it in the woods.

I looked at the weeds and cotton plants and dried corn stalks go by as the slide sashayed through the deep, soft sand, making a “sh” sound. The road was deeper than the surface ground. Maybe two feet in places. Little cliffs that kept getting eaten into and washed away by heavy rains rose up from the sandy bottom. I wondered if someone had dug out that road.

No. This was Choctaw Indian land. Thousands of Choctaws lived here back in the 1700s and 1800s. The Dancing Rabbit Creek Treaty in 1833 opened Mississippi land for settlement, and white people migrated in and set up farms, towns, churches, and new ways. By the early 1900s, they’d put those Choctaws on a trail of tears and death west to open lands in Oklahoma.

My father said there are about seventy-five Choctaw graves on that land. Each one was covered with a big red-iron rock. My grandfather respected them and left them alone, but my grandmother’s brother moved in for a while and plowed all those graves up and hauled the rocks to storage in a storm shelter. A tribal community lived on our land before we did.

Those narrow roads were Choctaw trails, walked on and beaten down by the hundreds that lived and moved around on the site for two hundred years. Then came Hardy mules and wagons and horses and buggies and footsteps of a hundred children over a hundred years. Then the rains came and washed dirt from the sides and ran in streams down the trail, washing it out. It’s what you’d call a worn path. Worn deep down.

I try to imagine all these people of bygone days living, working, and walking across my land. And I figure their time overlapped; the Choctaws and the Hardys lived on the land together for some time.

I know this because when I did genealogy twenty years ago, I learned in church minutes that my great-great-grandfather’s sister got pregnant and had a child out of wedlock and got kicked out of the church. Her brothers covered it up, and she went down in family history as a “spinster, never married.” After this baby, she got married and had a family. I remember when I was a little girl, my grandmother snickered and told me one of the great aunts got pregnant by an Indian chief. I merged those two pieces of knowledge. Martha Hardy and a Choctaw Indian chief. So the Hardys mixed with the Choctaws, and it was not a good thing at the time, even if it was the chief, and even in my time, people didn’t want to believe it.

But I did. I like history and how I fit. I like to get on those worn paths and wear them down even more. I like digging around to find things nobody else has found and learn things about where I came from. I like the truth. I’m not satisfied with what I see on the surface or what little bit of information someone hands me and tells me to believe. I want more. I want it all. I want to know where those worn-down trails are going to take me.

Bleak Mid Winter

January 15. A wind chime across the street is ringing in the howling wind. My window panes are rain-splotched. It’s still dark out at six in the morning. West, a massive line of red fills the weather map. Storms are on the way. With each gust, they push closer, bringing a cold front.

Yesterday, I took the patio furniture—wicker sofa and chairs—into the garage for shelter through the worst of winter. With them went bold red and yellow cushions with designs of a hummingbird, a parrot, a pineapple. They need protection from rain, snow, ice, and green moss that will set in on them, too, just like on the yard stones and wood of the deck.

When light comes and I walk and observe, the back yard sits in confusion. In what used to be a thick Kentucky fescue, every kind and sort of weed is coming up. Weeds I have never seen before; weeds I cannot identify. Used to be that with winter, the weeds died.

Used to be that when Christmas came, the weather turned cold. January came with jackets and caps and gloves. February, still consistently cold. The green blades of daffodils didn’t break ground on New Year’s Day. But now, the clump of daffodils set out against the Rose of Sharon is four inches high. Daffodils are heralds of spring. But spring is two months away; warm is three months away. Yet it is now.

Dad’s garlic is a foot high. Come spring, Dad will be gone fourteen years. When he was living and loving his garden in Mississippi, I dug up some of his garlic plants and brought them to Tennessee to plant at the Wimbledon house. When it was time for me to move, I dug them up and brought them to the Wade House. They’ve been pulled in so many directions, here and there and up and down, they’re as lost as last year’s Easter egg.

The hydrangea bush does it right. Big showy lime-white blooms have dried to brown crisps. Some get clipped by the wind, fling themselves to the ground, and roll through the yard like tumbleweeds. The entire bush goes to brown, bare, and into self. But you can bet your bottom dollar that, come spring, it will shoot up in all its showy beauty and bigness and stand up before the world and shout, “I am me, and I am here,” and will grow the biggest flowers you’ve ever seen.

Winter is a time of introspection, when all of life falls back to earth—goes into self to think, assess, conserve strength, and prepare. Even me.

It’s quiet out. Nothing’s quieter than a low, gray sky, or a soft, cold rain, or maybe a falling snow. The trees are silent, empty, exposing every noded twig, every twist of a limb, every turn of a branch. Growth is taking place deep down, in the quiet.

In winter, the day’s light is not long with us. I must use the time I have, look deep within, and trust that a good work is taking place beyond my perception. My power begins in the quiet.

In the quiet, with growth pushing up from the deep, which way will my branch turn? Who am I? Am I being true to the stature of my former self? To my creator? In the words I say? In the life I live?

Or will I succumb to winter’s heavy winds? Will I follow that cold, dark creek as it rolls over itself, over the rocks, lost in the empty canopy of scrub trees, turning its back to the source and moving toward sundown. Because it’s easier to follow the path downward, to go with the flow, to stay quiet. To let my light stay lost in winter’s short days.

I am in the cold, dead season building up, preparing for my future. For when spring comes. For when it’s time to move out of the quiet, stand up, be bold, and show truly who I am and who I belong to.

If You Can Keep It

Fifty years ago, give or take a year or two or three, I was in high school in a small Mississippi Delta town. I was in Concert Chorus. It was almost a cult in its own right, set apart from the others, with special privileges, like hanging out together in the chorus room during lunch break and playing our signature “Heart and Soul” in many variations on the piano until we ran it in the ground. We also presented public programs and sang songs dear to our hearts and values—songs that would last a lifetime in some little corner of our hearts.

One Christmas, we sang the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah to a packed town audience: “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.” It was a proud moment, and I still remember that night.

With spring and the coming around of early daffodils in the South came a season of patriotism. This was the time of Vietnam, a time of distrust of our government, a time of protests and rallies against war from those who deemed it wrong…and it seems after years went by, they were proven right. Against the killing of what would eventually be sixty thousand boys, men, who answered the call because they knew they’d have to or they were drafted to go. These were our classmates, our boyfriends, our friends’ boyfriends, and the boy across the street…who didn’t come home. Instead, two soldiers arrived in a black government car, stepped in unison up the front sidewalk, and told his mama he was dead.

That spring, we in the Concert Chorus put on our navy skirts and pants and white shirts and traveled to other schools, singing patriotic songs. We wore silly little crepe banners in red, white, and blue across our chests. Red, white, and blue. Like our flag.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands….”

I remember the Friday we went to Clarksdale to sing—a forty-five-minute drive to the north Delta. I remember the smell of Bob Neal’s black leather letter jacket as I sat beside him in the back seat of somebody’s car full of chorus kids. I remember someone had told us to be sure and stop at a hamburger drive-in just outside town. Be sure to order barbecued potato chips, they said, and see what you get. This was a time of plain potato chips only. But chips dusted with a little dried barbecue had just come out on the market. That drive-in wasn’t aware. And sure enough, with our order came a red and white cardboard tray full of plain potato chips with liquid barbecue sauce poured over them. We laughed and laughed and thought those owners were so backward.

We sang our hearts out that day—songs I still remember today and hold dear and know all the words to and take them all to heart. One of those songs was “This Is My Country,” composed in 1940, a year before Japan bombed us at Pearl Harbor and we entered a world war that my daddy fought in.

“What diff’rence if I hail from North or South
Or from the East or West?
My heart is filled with love for all of these.
I only know I swell with pride and deep within my breast
I thrill to see Old Glory paint the breeze.

This is my country! Land of my birth!
This is my country! Grandest on earth!
I pledge thee my allegiance, America, the bold,
For this is my country to have and to hold.”

Now, we’re in another time of divisiveness and rallies promoting separation of our own American people, and we’re in another long, long war. It’s hard to even finish the pledge now: “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” That’s not true. I’m sorry, but it’s not. Maybe it never really was. We are divided, and we don’t give liberty to all. Nor do half of us honor the flag, the Constitution, and our own dear beloved America above one man.

This could be the year… This could be the month… That we lose our democracy. That we decide to dismiss truth, place one man above the law, deny our oaths and pledges to the flag and the Constitution, and pledge loyalty to one man.

Have we got a republic or a monarchy? Benjamin Franklin was asked this at the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He answered: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

Can you?

Power of Phlox

January 1. I open the front blinds and catch a glimpse of pure fresh white appearing against brown, dead earth. I look closer. My phlox is blooming.

It’s winter, thirty degrees out, an even frost covering ground, cars, and rooftops. First day of a new year, first day of a new decade.

Creeping phlox, the Greek word for “flame,” boasts starry flowers—five-point petals densely packed into clusters. Perennials, they are sun-loving, bloom in spring and summer, and spread over rockery or tough clay soil. Their needle-like foliage stays green all year.

Now the green is juxtaposed against the fallen, red-tan leaves of the Japanese maple, the blanched-lifeless strands of leftover butter-yellow day lilies that spend their summers stretching high toward the sun, and the helpless wild geraniums curled in on themselves. The Hawaiian ginger is laid out flat for dead. Atop the green foliage, I see maybe twenty white blooms.

Why now? These little creepers love sun, drought, and heat. Winter is gray, cloudy, mostly wet, with chill. Is their blooming a sign?

“Flame” or fire in some cultures symbolizes God’s radiant glory and holiness and can be used as an instrument of his power. Many cultures view fire as a symbol of wisdom and knowledge.

And so . . . the new year begins, and I step into it seeing a need to look at the earth, at nature all around me, and know God and his ways and wisdom, as he manifests these in his creation. It’s for me to seek and find and know.

Crooked Creek Rolling in the New

With the dog I walk the trail beside the little river and stop to appreciate the old ghost tree, a sycamore, white, tall, winter bare. Three holes in its trunk have housed feathered families in the past. Behind it, across the creek, sits a big yellow earth mover. Progress?

I sit on the wooden decking beside this little river that runs the edge of the city park. It flooded here three days ago. The bridge about four hundred yards east of me on Port Royal Road sustained structural damage. The speed limit has been reduced to 20 mph, and driving over it was somewhat unsettling. The little river called Crooked Creek is almost blocked with packed debris of fallen trees and branches, all pushed into a heap. In kayaking, we call that a “strainer.” The obstruction affects the river flow. The water is quiet under the strainer, but rushes around it, gurgling and churning dangerously.

Across Crooked Creek is new construction, a neighborhood in the making. Also over there is an old barn, dilapidated, many of its weathered planks missing.

The sun shines down on me and the dog. I feel the warmth. I also feel the cool breeze brushing against my face. And I listen to the running of Crooked Creek.

The creek is full of the old. Old trees that have probably been there a hundred years. Old leaves on the ground from the last seasons. Old dirt banks holding the water since the beginning of time. What secrets this river could tell! South of the river, a new city park–walking trails, football and soccer fields, picnic areas, a splash pad, tennis courts, basketball goals. North of the river, muddy fields and new black asphalt streets with frames of new houses erected. And the old barn, which I’m sure they will tear down soon.

The old rolling along between the new. It has rolled through the farmland and pastureland for years, decades, generations. Now the new is inching in toward it, taking over the landscape.

I know how it feels.

Goodbye 2019!

2019 came in quietly and stayed that way all year. It seems I didn’t do much the last twelve months. I guess the biggest thing that happened was that I took a few months to work on my own project instead of everyone else’s. And I took the time to do some little things I never did before, like visiting a salt room with friends, sending out Christmas cards, putting up three Christmas trees.

Here are a few fun and memorable things:

Led a session at a women’s retreat on blooming after loss in Columbus, Mississippi, with a few other A Second Blooming authors. Some of the ladies shown here playing drums.

Edited some good fiction and nonfiction books.

Served on a panel at the first-ever Franklin Book Festival.

Joined a new writers group: Harpeth River Writers.

Participated with the Authors Circle at Main Street Festival and Pumpkinfest.

Participated in a Salon Reading with two other local authors – first time I ever did that!

Enjoyed baking with lavender. Made cupcakes for my granddaughter’s birthday.

Had my own big birthday with everybody in the family in attendance! That never happens. Shown here, all the women of the family, one facing the wrong way.

Watched the grandson play basketball. (He won the Super Bowl in football, but I missed that game.)

Went shopping with the granddaughter. (Oh mercy me!)

Went to the mountains. Had Thanksgiving with Son 2 in Asheville, went to the National Gingerbread House Competition, and journeyed up a mountain to a Christmas tree farm, where I found fodder for a story. Shown here, Grove Park Inn (my favorite place).

Went to the beach. Spent Christmas with Son 1 in Pass Christian, Mississippi, and his family. Had Christmas Eve brunch at Brennan’s in New Orleans and went to see Little Women on Christmas Day. Shown below, Bananas Foster at Brennan’s.

AND THE BIG THING: Wrote a novel and finished first revisions.

Thank you 2019 for being soft to me.

Pond Fail at Wimbledon House

All the digging, installing, the hard work of stone gathering and stacking, the view of mirrored water full of lilies and hyacinths, the sound of a waterfall, and visits of birds, even a blue heron once, ended abruptly one summer afternoon. I was sitting by the pond in a wooden Adirondack chair reading a book when it happened.

I heard the shifting clunks, the scrapes of rocks sliding against each other, the grinding collapse of the stone sides. Chipmunks had tunneled and hollowed out solid ground beneath the rocks around the pond, and the rocks, unbalanced, fell. I watched as loose dirt dug up by those little creatures sifted into the pond water, turning it to a silty, cloudy brown that would challenge the pump and cause it to fail.

It was a helpless feeling, this loss of the pond. This pond I dreamed about from the moment we moved into the house. I was consumed with the idea; I had to have a pond. Charlie groused about it at work, even named the new office computer server DAMN POND. He didn’t want to fool with it. Said it would be a lot of work to maintain. But he went along. We collected stones at the new development on Carothers south of Cool Springs Boulevard, then he engineered their placement around the black rigid pond form in the ground. He set up the pump, installed piping, and created a waterfall. Every spring, he helped scrub out the algae and scoop out the plant rot; he knew how to reverse the pump and drain the pond. We named the eleven fish and talked about them like they were children.

Then he died.

I was alone with my pond.

When it came time for cleaning, I emptied the water bucket by bucket by bucket. I sat in the dregs and scrubbed and cried, overcome with grief. I had scum all over me. The pump failed. I replaced it somehow. It failed again, and the summer sun grew algae so thick it took over the pond. Winter came and ice formed over the water. When spring rolled around, I cleaned it again and installed a new pump.

Now this. Chipmunks. An outside attack. A mess. I was tired, worn down, defeated. The walls of my life had already crumbled and fallen. Now, the walls of the pond. You can’t expect to build something or have something or fix something and have it remain in its healthy state. Things break. Things die. Things end.

Meanwhile, above the pond, the flowering abelia stood undisturbed beside the dirty water, bees visiting its blooms, getting their fill in a higher level of life, unaware of the fail.

The pond died that day. A little of me died, too.

The next day I removed all the stones from the pond’s perimeter and slung them out in the middle of the yard. I was angry. I didn’t like ends. Or change.

I ripped out the plastic pond liner and dragged it to the curb for the garbage man to pick up. Then I filled in the vast hole with dirt, twigs, and pinecones and put down a layer of flat stones on the surface. I stacked the rocks in a wide circle, repurposing the pond into a firepit.

I transitioned from water to fire. Two of the earth’s elements. Water is symbolic of death, as well as rebirth. Fire enables life. It symbolizes strength, courage, energy, power.

All good things end; the ends can be transformed into new beginnings, which may never be as good, but will be.

Hard Heads, Red-painted Lips, and Open Eyes

I don’t remember ever making a Christmas list as a child. I’m sure I did, but I don’t remember. I remember the Sears Wish Book. I mostly looked at dolls. I don’t remember wanting anything in particular or having an aversion to anything. I’m sure I did, but I don’t remember.

Christmas morning, there were always all kinds of gifts under the tree from Santa—things I don’t remember wanting or asking for or that I even knew existed. A deluxe chemistry set. A pogo stick. Monopoly. Game of the States. A bike when I was seven or eight—a turquoise bike with tan trimmings (beautiful!), the only bike I ever had. Pop beads. A white jewelry box with red satin interior. I still have it. Dolls—the Bannister Baby, a Madame Alexander I named Sidney, the big baby Angela. Never Barbie. She came at the end of my doll era. I got dolls every Christmas until I was maybe eleven.

Whatever I got, I was pleased. Except maybe for the pop beads. I remember all those years ago being surprised at the jewelry-making kit. I mostly got educational toys and toys that stimulated my imagination. The bike, for example. It could easily become a horse and I was on a tan leather saddle on some narrow western dirt trail instead of the sidewalk on Fifth Avenue. I clothes-pinned a few playing cards to the spokes, and the sound was that of a horse clomping on bedrock.

And the dolls. I didn’t dress and bathe and feed them. I didn’t play mother. I made up stories with them. They were always crossing the prairie, migrating west, running into danger. Stagecoaches, long dresses, and campfires under a starry sky mingled into the tales.

Because I had so much fun (and I didn’t have daughters), I tried to pass this doll adventure on to my granddaughter. But. She hates dolls. Always has. I bought them anyway. American Girls with books, a Madame Alexander, a lookalike Cabbage Patch I had birthed and named Lucille Deering (after my mother and my growing-up street), a multitude of Barbies—at least three a year. And then there was Anne of Green Gables that I bought in Prince Edward Island, gave to her, and ended up bringing back home with me.

Jillian doesn’t like dolls. “They creep me out,” she says.

I guess I can see that. Big and hard plastic heads with manufactured-molded hair and wide eyes that never close and a red-painted mouth. I never saw as a child that their expressions were creepy or scary. I saw them as real people. With feelings and thoughts and interesting lives. I lived in fantasy. Jillian lives in reality.

So this year, along with a precious, personal handwritten scroll letter she wrote to me and a canvas oil painting she created, she bought me a doll to make her point. “It’s just a joke, Grandmomma,” she said. But I think this is how she sees all dolls.

This Christmas, I gave her purple low top and black hightop Converse shoes, a string of penguin lights, headphones, and books—from a list she texted me from her Apple phone to mine. I’d already learned my lesson on the dolls.


Tracks in the Dough

A slow, cold drizzle was all the low, gray skies could give up that December afternoon. Inside, the Christmas tree with its colored lights, candy canes, and blinking, bubbling candles stirred up a cheerful, cozy warmth. I set a pot of cinnamon-scented wassail on the stove. It was time to heat up the oven and bake some cookies.

I opened my Cotton Country Collection cookbook to an oily, dough-stained page 459, “Holiday Sugar Cookies.” After creaming butter and sugar and blending in eggs and vanilla, I added flour, baking powder, and a pinch of salt and then chilled the mixture. I lined counter tops with waxed paper and greased four cookie sheets. I pulled out a box of tin cookie cutters from the top shelf of the pantry—a camel, a Christmas tree, a Santa with a pack of toys slung over his shoulder, a bell, and a star. Then I generously floured the large butcher-block table in the center of my kitchen, kneaded, and rolled out cookie dough.

As I rolled to the left and then to the right, my two-year-old dragged his “little helper” stool up beside me. He brought with him two heaping handfuls of MATCHBOX cars—a yellow Peterbilt Pace Construction dump truck; a blue and yellow Peterbilt cement mixer, Cement Company, LTD; a yellow Camaro-IROC-Z 26; and a red Metro Airport FOAM Unit #3. He lined up his vehicles beside my dough, propped his elbows on the table, and smiled at me, content briefly just to watch me work with the rolling pin.

After a moment, the dump truck began its slow, deliberate journey into the flour at the edge of the table. A roadway formed in the flour. The Camaro joined, jutting off in a new direction, picking up speed. The cement mixer followed. The little boy leaned into the flour, encroaching on my clump of dough, happily driving his vehicles. As his lips vibrated softly to make the sound of an engine, the little boy pushed in the Foam Unit #3. With flour on his hands, elbows, and cheeks, and tiny bits of dough stuck to his shirt, he took the task seriously, absorbed in his construction project. Several roads took shape.

I continued working quietly beside him, cutting out bells and stars, as he drove vehicles back and forth in the flour and over the scraps of unused cookie mixture, leaving little tire tracks in the dough.

I thought, this moment reflected the essence of motherhood. Mother and child, together, each respecting, accepting, and allowing the other to creatively express the vision and gift of a unique personality—a spontaneous, special moment to savor, to slip into a scrapbook, to stamp in my memory.

The little boy is grown up now. The yellow dump truck, Camaro, cement mixer, and red Foam Unit #3 are boxed neatly and tucked away in the attic, with pieces of dried cookie dough still in the crevices of the tires. Each Christmas season as I pull out the old dough-caked cookbook and tin cookie cutters, I also pull out my memory of a precious little son smiling up at me through blond bangs, tugging at my heartstrings, driving MATCHBOX cars through my flour, and making tracks in the dough.

The Big Woods

I grew up in the Mississippi Delta. There were no hills in that flat land. The incline of the railroad track that ran through my hometown of Cleveland was the closest thing we had to a hill. We had trees in town, but out in the rural areas between hamlets, there was nothing but flat fields. All cotton when I grew up there way back in the day. Yet south of town stood a little patch of woods I could see off in the distance. It was fascinating to see those trees–thick as hairs on a dog’s back–stand tall above the cotton. Years ago, I wrote a story about those woods. It was eventually published in a few venues over the years. Below is the original (unedited) version.


The Big Woods

Kathy Rhodes


I lived four blocks from the edge of town. It was 1960, I was a kid, and my life played out in the city block around my white house in the 800 block of Deering.

On hot Delta days, I stayed under the stream of cold air from the window unit in the living room, cutting out paper doll clothes, playing jacks, or reading a library book—one of those blue pioneer biographies with a yellow ribbon around the title. Or I rode my bicycle, aqua with cream stripes and a tan vinyl seat, up and down Deering, pretending to be on a Wild West adventure, letting my imagination run wild, but stopping now and then to pop bubbles in the boiling black tar between sections of concrete in the street.

Occasionally, I ventured out, exploring, expanding my horizons. I went to the corner and rode my bike down Fifth Avenue’s cracked sidewalk until it dead-ended at Yale Street. Yale defined the southern edge of town. A two-pump Standard Oil station stood there, backed up to a cottonfield. Beside the station, John Deere tractors, plows, and other implements lined up in a row, Johnson grass growing up around them.

I crossed Yale Street at the three-way stop and parked my bike under the canopy of the full-service station. Full service meant the owner filled up each car with gas, checked the tires and oil, and washed bugs off the windshield. I went inside, where it was dark and smelled like rubber tires. There was a tall rack of comic books inside the door—Archie, Betty and Veronica; Little Lulu; Tweety and Sylvester. Next to it were displays of Double Bubble gum, red jawbreakers, Moon Pies, and candy bars.

A two-rut dirt road, used as a tractor turnrow, ran beside the Standard station, cutting down the middle of the cottonfield. In summer, lush green cotton plants bloomed pink and then burst open with white bolls of cotton. By the end of summer, the field was white. White under a dome of blue sky, white pressed out for miles across flat Deltaland.

Sometimes I rode bikes with my friend Nancy to the service station. We parked at the end of the turnrow and looked south, the dusty trail narrowing as it got further away and the defined leaves of early cotton blurring into walls of green.

The flat, open field stretched out as far as the eye could see—except for one thing. A patch of woods a mile or two down the road. One circular structure of trees rising up out of the cotton. We called it The Big Woods.

It was mysterious. It was out of place. It was far away. Yet, it beckoned, its wailing sweetness sliding across waves of heat, wrapping around us, pulling us like it knew us well and we knew it.

I’d learned the word oasis in geography class. A refreshing, green, fertile spot in an arid region. I liked that word and always thought of it when I looked at The Big Woods.

Nancy and I often tested the dusty turnrow toward The Big Woods, the heat parching us, our tires sinking in soft dirt. We always turned back after a short piece, wondering what it would be like to go there. We had a yearning.

One day we did it. Like pioneers taking off across the desert with full canteens, we each bought a Coca Cola at the Standard station and struck out into the frontier. We must have heard the same voice that cried out to our ancestors, calling them to explore new land. We forged down the trail, dust flying behind us. If we hit a hole and slowed, we caught a mouthful. Onward, ho! To The Big Woods.

The crop rows ended abruptly at the bases of gigantic, ancient trees like logged walls of a blockade. As we stepped into the forest, we entered a whole new world. It was the difference between summer and winter, light and dark. Sunlight couldn’t penetrate the thick vegetation, making it damp and cool. It was like Tarzan and Jane’s jungle we’d seen on TV. Virgin forest. Vines hanging, twisted and tangled, much bigger around than my arm. Screeching wildlife. Wet pools of swampy water on the ground, stagnant with circles of colors—spring green, lavender, and pale yellow florescent. A lush tropical forest, it was pure and pristine. An oasis.

We swung on vines. We hiked through marshes, stepping through painted pools, getting our white Keds wet and muddy. We pushed through low-hanging branches, brush, vines, tripped over tree roots, and explored the jungle. Tropical dampness curled our hair. Mosquitoes stung our legs, leaving little red bumps. We slapped and scratched. We marveled at nature’s playhouse—this place that seemed to belong to us alone. What an adventure! What an oasis!

We were pioneers. We invaded the silence of the jungle, disturbing native creatures who’d had it to themselves. We left our footprints in this new land.

I wondered how The Big Woods got there. How could a jungle be sitting in the middle of a wide-open cottonfield in my Mississippi Delta homeland? Who planted all those trees? Why was the ground at the end of the dry, dusty turnrow muddy and marshy? How long did it take all the heavy vines to grow?

A few years down the road, my questions were answered. Once upon a time, the whole entire Delta was a jungle, covered with a lush blanket of vegetation, filled with virgin forests, thick vines, and wet marshes, all nurtured by a humid subtropical climate. It was all pure and pristine.

Pioneers cleared swamps, felled forests, and tamed the wild Delta. They changed the face of the land, stirring and plowing, awakening a fertile earth to progress. They planted cotton.

I’m glad someone left a small patch of forest for me to experience. Glad I listened to the mysterious voice, heeded the call, and returned to the loins of Delta jungleland, satisfying the longing deep within.


In German, there’s a word: Fernweh. There’s no English equivalent. Translated, it means “a longing for, or a need to return to, a place you’ve never been.”