Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Lyrical & The Profane

Blame it on the trees. In sunset swamps after a long day of travel, the trees stand like a forest of ship masts from a bygone era. Birds roost high up in the tattered sails. Small biting insects bore into the wood and swarm the dead air. We roll past it all on bicycle, the dim light just right to create the illusion of flying. It’s a rare moment that is all too fleeting.

And so we fly through the trees, Diane and I. But then I notice something. The closest trees drift past, as they should. But the more distant trees, row upon row of spindly soldiers, appear to move along with us. Indeed, they outpace us. It is if they are tracking us, menacing, waiting for just the right moment to close ranks and attack. It’s a strange sensation. I know what I’m seeing is a simple optical illusion. I know that we’re safe, riding as we are on a flat wide road in a state park. I know that comforts of our bus are minutes away. But I also know that the malevolent forest stands tall, all around, waiting for us to come too close. It’s an unsettling feeling, one both lyrical and profane. I blame the trees.

Then again we had just we left New Orleans. We tracked northward, following the Mighty Miss, finally coming to rest in the riverside hamlet of Natchez.

It is an old patch of ground, continuously inhabited for thousands of years, and is named for the Indians who last called it theirs. It is also home to the second largest temple mound in North America, the so-called Emerald Mound. It's impressive.

Really impressive. It is an eight acre earthen cathedral of sorts, constructed from a natural hill, that was built and used between 1300 and 1600 by the Mississippians, ancestors to the Natchez Indians.

In the time of Thomas Jefferson, Natchez was the end of the road prior to the Louisiana Purchase. America ended there.

That Natchez Trace (trace is a French word for path) still remains as a vestige of a bygone era. Which is to say it's a pathway that's been in constant use for thousands of years...

... and a roadway that harkens back to a time when there was no such thing as a fast lane.

During the Civil War, Natchez was an occupied town: the yellow-bellied mayor surrendered to Union troops without a fight and, well, saved it. The town today, as it was then, is filled to overflowing with Antebellum mansions. Some are as stately as they day they were finished…

… while some are destined to remain forever unfinished.

Then again we are in the Deep South, a place where some things will never end.

Just up the road from Natchez is another river town, Vicksburg. It’s more famous than its neighbor to the south, and for good reason. The mayor of Vicksburg didn’t surrender the town to the Union Army. In fact, the town dug in and held fast for six agonizing weeks in the summer of 1863. Backed up against the Union-held Mississippi River, the town was blockaded on all sides by Grant and Sherman troops. The starving citizens of Vicksburg dug into the hillsides and held on as their town was blasted into rubble. The Confederate line, trenched into the high ground, held the line until their food and ammo ran out.

Though the war is long over, in some respects the battle of Vicksburg rages on. Indeed, the battle lines remain, just as they were.

On a pristine one-way road, you first inspect every single Union position. Every battery, every hillock, every swale remains, labeled with heroic statuary and blue commemorative markers.
You then cross the line as the road loops back in on itself until history repeats itself with more statuary and red commemorative markers. In some cases, the trench lines are about a hundred yards apart.

Make no mistake, the park itself is big and beautiful. Its historical events are painstaking researched and immortalized with sacred stone. From the rows upon rows of unnamed solders to the bones of a famous sunken ironclad, none of the 100,000 men and boys who participated in this great battle are forgotten.

And that is precisely the trouble. This lyrical place is, in reality, a tribute to the most profane of all human activities. Siege and trench warfare; labor and sweat, rage and bewilderment, panic and shame, vomit and blood and pain and death.

And in a rare and fleeting moment, a moment that lasts forever, you are there.

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