Saturday, August 17, 2013

A way I'll never be able to write

I've been reading Molly Walling's Death in the Delta: Uncovering a Mississippi Family Secret (2012). I was struck by this particular paragraph. Because it's a type of narrative that I see often. But I don't think I could ever put together this kind of landscape description:

Our first destination was Greenville, Mississippi. I wanted to see the newspaper article from the Delta Democrat Times and look for other clues. After we skirted Memphis, Highway 61 unsnaked itself into long, flat miles through millions of rows of fresh yellow-green cotton plants, corn, and soybeans emerging from their spring planting. The sky held up an occasional stratus cloud against a cobalt background. In atypical seventy-degree weather, it was a pleasant drive, and we marveled at the levees that rose beside the Mississippi River. Gaudy casinos became more frequent along the way. The occasional crop duster took off from a dirt and gravel airstrip and buzz-bombed a chemical potion onto the farms below. When we arrived in Greenville, it was as if we were wading into the great swamp of deep southern culture tainted by the blight of urban decay.
Okay, I more-or-less know what a stratus cloud looks like. And I have an idea of what a "cobalt background" would be, though I'm not quite sure. Mississippi has some spectacular sunsets, but I'm not sure she's talking about sunsets.

I'm not criticizing her style here. It just struck me that I wouldn't be able to come up with this kind of landscape description on my own. If I were writing that, it would come out something like this:

We were headed for Greenville, Mississippi. I had research to do in the Delta Democrat-Times hardcopy archives and hoped to find some other relevant material. We took Highway 61 that Kate Campbell talks about in her song "Visions of Plenty." It's a long and pretty boring drive through flat fields of cotton and soybeans and who knows what else. The enormous, flat fields stretching out on both sides of the road always give me moments of vertigo for some reason. I've never experienced that driving anywhere else, even on the occasional bridge over some impossibly deep chasm. One thing that Mississippi has over the San Francisco Bay Area is that Mississippi far more often has spectacular sunsets, and the sky was pretty breathtaking that day driving through the Delta. Except when I was distracted by those flashes of vertigo. The levees are pretty impressive to see from the perspective of the highway. I didn't grow up in the Delta, so the levee doesn't carry the kind of mythical associations it seems to for some people who grew up near them. Understandably so, since the 1927 Mississippi River flood when the Delta broke did take on Biblical proportions. There were a lot of casinos along the way, which weren't around when I was a kid. (That's actually what "Visions of Plenty" is about.) They make a lot of money for somebody. But they're kind of a tacky addition to the physical landscape. We saw crop dusters on the way. Maybe it's chemicals from the crop dusters that give me those vertigo moments here. I have a positive image of Greenville in my head as a pleasant little city. But I was reminded as we drove into town that lots of it is run-down and kind of ugly.
Walling's version is more concise and descriptive. Writing about the South is traditionally expected to convey a strong sense of Place and so often features similar descriptions.

Mine is longer, wordier and more "existential"; it conveys more a sense of what I image I would be thinking and talking to a fellow passenger about during a similar drive.

Also, even though I make up neologisms on a fairly regular basis, "unsnaked" would never have occurred to me.

And speaking of Kate Campbell and "Visions of Plenty" that she co-wrote with Tricia Walker, here's their lyrical description the casino culture in North Mississippi:

Sometimes when that Delta sun comes beatin' down
I swear those rows of cotton shine like gold
In fact, shoot, here's the whole song:

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