Faulkner and the "Doomed Wilderness" of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta.
The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, actually more oval than deltoid in form, is one of the many floodplains making up the Lower Mississippi Valley. The channel of the Mississippi, from Memphis to Vicksburg, forms the western boundary of the floodplain. The eastern boundary is defined by a series of bluffs that begin just below Memphis and run south to Greenwood and thence southwesterly along the Yazoo River, which meets the Mississippi just above Vicksburg. The enclosed area is approximately two hundred miles long and seventy miles across at its widest point, encompassing circa 4,415,000 acres, or, some 7,000 square miles of floodplain that comprises close to twenty percent of the total extent of the alluvial Lower Mississippi Valley. The Mississippi counties of Bolivar, Coahoma, Humphreys, Issaquena, Leflore, Quitman, Sharkey, Sunflower, Tunica, and Washington lie entirely within the Delta. In addition, varying amounts of land in Carroll, DeSoto, Grenada, Holmes, Panola, Tallahatchie, Tate, Warren, and Yazoo counties are of alluvial origin and belong to the Mississippi-Yazoo floodplain; these counties can be called "boundary" or "border" counties between the Delta and the loess hills and plains where Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha, closely modeled after the actual Lafayette County, is situated.
It has been estimated that in 1600--the approximate date of the arrival of the first European colonists in North America--the eastern half of the continent from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean, and from the 47th parallel in southern Canada southward to the coastal plains of the Carolinas, except for the northern extension of the Mississippi prairie, was generally covered with forest (Cox et al. 2; Williams, Americans 3-4). The forest types changed from coniferous woods in the north through deciduous woodlands into tropical savanna in Florida, with local variations everywhere to add complexity. Among these were the bottomland hardwood forests typical of southeastern river valleys and covering the entire Delta (Braun 291-92; Smith and Linnartz 156).
The soils of these primeval forests derived from the deposits of sand, silt, clay, and calcareous sediments left by the shifting courses of meandering rivers. Within the Yazoo-Mississippi basin, shallow water frequently covered a sizable portion of the floodplain for varying periods during the year. Although the region was generally flat, numerous physical features of relief created notable differences in drainage and hydroperiod. The result was a very complex arrangement of soils and biotic communities. Flooding was a vital feature in the maintenance of these systems. The seasonal abundance of water and rich alluvial soil contributed to the formation of vegetation, which clearly distinguished the bottomland hardwoods of the Delta from the upland forests of the hills to its east. However, several species of bottomland broadleaf trees, especially those typical of short submergence habitats, could be found on the banks of streams originating from the hills. In the moist river bottoms of the Tallahatchie and Yocona, the bottomland hardwood forest penetrated the loess hills and plains, extending the Delta into Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha. In the late nineteenth century, the Tallahatchie bottomlands formed an "eastern gateway to the still almost virgin wilderness of swamp and jungle which stretched westward from the hills to the towns and plantations along the Mississippi" (Reivers 738) and created the physical setting for "The Bear" and many other wilderness stories by Faulkner.
The diversity and species richness of plant communities of southeastern bottomland hardwood forests was immense, and on the better-drained areas of the floodplain forests became very dense, supporting enormous trees. A nineteenth-century scientific description of the Delta's bottomland hardwood forests by Dr. Charles Mohr closely mirrors Faulkner's "one jungle one brake one impassable density of brier and cane and vine interlocking the soar of gum and cypress and hickory and pinoak and ash" (Big Woods 3):
Along the elevated ridges fronting the streams the white oak, the willow oak, the shell-bark and mocker-nut hickories, the black walnut in great numbers, the yellow poplar and the sassafras large enough to furnish canoes of great size, the mulberry, the Spanish oak, the sweet and black gums are the principal forest trees, with an undergrowth in the openings of dogwood, various haws, crab apples, wild grapes, buckthorns, etc. In the forests covering the lower lands, which slope back to the swamps and reservoirs, the cow oak takes the place of the white oak, while the over-cup white oak occurs everywhere in the more or less saturated soil. Here the sweet gum reaches its greatest size, and here grow also in great perfection the bitter-nut, the elms, hornbeams, white ash, box-elder, and red maples of enormous size. The honey locust, water oaks, and red and Spanish oaks are equally common. Here, among the smaller trees, the holly attains its greatest development, with hornbeams and wahoo elms, while papaws, haws, and privets form the mass of the dense undergrowth, which, interspersed with dense cane-brakes, covers the ground under the large trees. (Sargent 535)
Undisturbed floodplains provided a diverse habitat for a variety of animals because the location of bottomland hardwood forests at the interface between aquatic and terrestrial systems resulted in the so-called edge effect: the diversity and species richness of animals tend to be greater at the ecotone, or the edge between two distinct ecological complexes. The edge effect was pronounced at bottomland hardwood forests of the Delta, as they were bounded by both aquatic systems and upland forests. This effect, coupled with the diversity of habitats found within the floodplain, provided for an abundance of fauna. The diversity of bottomland fauna was especially high in mammals, birds, amphibia, and turtles--"bear and deer and panthers and bison and wolves and alligators and the myriad smaller beasts" (Big Woods 3).
Because the bottomland soils are mostly composed of materials with a particle size small enough to inhibit the leaching of nutrients and to retain moisture, these soils are generally more fertile and moist than the adjacent upland soils with their predominantly sandy composition. Before large-scale leveeing of the Mississippi and the Yazoo and their tributaries, the fertility of the Delta soils was furthermore enhanced by the continual replenishment by flooding as "once each year," "the thick, slow, black, unsunned streams almost without current ... ceased to flow at all and then reversed, spreading, drowning the rich land and subsiding again, leaving it still richer" (Go Down, Moses 251) and "one alluvial inch higher, the rich dirt one inch deeper, drying into long cracks beneath the hot fierce glare of May" (Big Woods 169). Removal of original vegetation and adequate drainage transformed these alluvial sediments with their ample available nutrients into highly productive agricultural lands on which cotton would then grow "taller than the head of a man on a horse" (Big Woods 3). There is a marked difference between the soil composition in the alluvial Delta and the adjoining loess lands to its east. An early nineteenth century traveler noted that the "river bottoms generally, and some of the cane brake hills, not being exceeded for richness in the world, while some ridges and tracts of country after being cultivated for a few years, are so exhausted, as to become almost barren" (Cuming 350). In a few decades, much of upland Yoknapatawpha consequently became an eroded region characterized by "old fields ... gutted and gullied by ... rain and frost and heat into plateaus choked with rank sedge and briers ... and ravines striated red and white with alternate sand and clay" (Hamlet 889).
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Delta with its rich "buckshot" soils was turned into a thriving New South cotton kingdom, as "the planters with their gangs of slaves and then of hired laborers ... rested from the impenetrable jungle of water-standing cane and cypress, gum and holly and oak and ash, cotton patches which, as the years passed, became fields and then plantations" (Go Down, Moses 250). (3) In the late nineteenth century Delta, there was truly "a commodity in the land now which until now had dealt first in Indians: then in acres and sections and boundaries:--an economy: Cotton: a king: omnipotent and omnipresent: a destiny of which (obvious now) the plow and the axe had been merely the tools" (Requiem for a Nun 625). The prerequisite for successful cotton cultivation in the bottomlands was extensive flood control of the Mississippi and its tributaries in "a mad and pointless merry-go-round, ... [where timber] had to be logged and sold in order to deforest the land in order to convert the soil to raising cotton in order to sell the cotton in order to make the land valuable enough to be worth spending money raising dykes to keep the River off of it" (Big Woods 166).
With the continuous development of the Mississippi River levee system since the mid-nineteenth century, awareness of the flood problems on tributary basins became more pronounced. During the twentieth century, tributary basins of the Mississippi consequently became subjected to increased improvement activity in the form of new dams, reservoirs, pumping plants, and auxiliary channels, and flows from the hill country into the Delta became completely controlled by the operation of four storage reservoirs, constructed between 1936 and 1955. These projects dramatically reduced the occurrence of floods in the interior Delta while reconstructing the natural hydrological regime of the floodplain beyond recognition. With the completion of the Sardis reservoir on the Little Tallahatchie in October 1940, the "Big Woods; the Big Bottom, the wilderness," where Old Ben had made his last stand, "was now thirty feet below the surface of a government-built flood-control reservoir whose bottom was rising gradually and inexorably each year on another layer of beer cans and bottle tops and lost bass plugs" (Big Woods 170).
The anthropogenic alteration of the Delta was not restricted to the rebuilding of its hydrological regime and extensive conversion of bottomland forests to cotton fields. Lumbering had been widespread on southern plantations and along coastal waterways since colonial times, but modern lumber industry in the South emerged only after the development of sufficient economic infrastructure. The lumber industry in the United States expanded enormously during the nineteenth century; the lumber cut increased from less than 0.5 billion board feet in 1800 to more than 35 billion board feet by 1899 (Cox et al. 266). The Civil War abruptly ended the first boom in southern lumbering, but soon the region was again on its way to becoming the nation's leading lumber-producer, a status won by the turn of the century. The large-scale lumbering industry had begun in the Northeast, extended to the Central and Lake States at mid-century and reached the Southern states during the last decades of the 1800s (Williams, Americans 238-88, "Clearing" 21-26). As the northern timber resources were depleted, the South emerged as the center for forest exploitation in the United States, and after a quick and massive transfer of Northern capital and technology, the production of Southern lumber increased from 1.6 to 15.4 billion board feet between 1880 and 1920 (Williams, Americans 238). In 1909, the all-time peak of lumber production in the United States was reached; over 44.5 billion board feet of lumber was sawed that year, with almost 20 billion board feet of it coming from the South and South Atlantic regions (Historical Statistics 542). Eminent forest historian Michael Williams has estimated that this assault on the Southern forest as a whole reduced the original wooded area in the region from nearly 300 million acres to 178 million acres, or by nearly forty percent (Americans 238). Agricultural clearing had played a significant part in this process, but there is no doubt that the greatest inroad was made by lumbering. The growing utilization of the bottomland hardwood forest resources of the Delta during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reflected these developments. (4)
From the beginning of European settlement in the South, there had been a market for the durable baldcypress (Taxodium distichum), a softwood characteristic of the bottomland swamps (Cowdrey 92-93, 97-98; Herndon 135). Cypress was highly valued for shipbuilding and roofing purposes, as the wood efficiently resisted moisture. Cisterns, cooper's staves, rails, and fences were among other applications for cypress. There had been sawmills concentrating in cypress products in the vicinity of the Delta since the 1820s. In 1828, the first sawmill in the state of Mississippi was founded in Natchez by the Scotsman Andrew Brown, while the first sawmill on the Yazoo was erected by one Stephen Howard in the early 1830s (Moore 22-36; Bowman 430). The major assault on the cypress stands, however, was delayed until after the Civil War because of the inaccessibility of many swamp areas.
Although the main focus of the northern invasion after the Civil War to Southern woodlands was directed toward the region's intact pine reserves, the vast cypress stands of Southern bottomlands offered lumbering interests additional opportunities for quick gains. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the amount of surviving acreage of high-quality cypress began to reflect the expansion of lumbering in Mississippi. An 1880 federal report of Mississippi's forest resources noted that while resources of various hardwoods in the bottomlands remained "almost intact," "the condition of the cypress growth in the great Yazoo valley" was "[q]uite different." Still, in the central and upper Delta, "more or less limited areas of undisturbed cypress forest" were to be found; cypress brakes remote from streams and surrounded "with a mire of forest swamp impassable to wagons" could retain "their best timber" in the beginning of the 1880s. The most extensive cypress groves were found "along Steele's bayou, between Deer creek and the Sunflower river, in Washington county; between that stream and the lower course of Bogue Phalia, and between the Mississippi river and Black creek above Greenville." There was also "a very large body of cypress inclosing the 'California brake', upon the Little Sunflower, in the counties of Bolivar and Coahoma, extending through Tallahatchie county to the Yazoo River." The report furthermore noted the connection between growing cypress consumption and the emergence of a New South cotton kingdom in the Delta: "No manufactured lumber is shipped from here to farther south than Baton Rouge, nearly the whole production being consumed in the erection of small dwellings in the Mississippi and Yazoo bottoms" (Sargent 530-36).
Technological advances during the last years of the nineteenth century revolutionized cypress logging (Mattoon 11-13; Williams, Americans 248-50). It would have been difficult for antebellum loggers, wading hip-deep in the swamps with their crews and floating their cut, to imagine the rapid mechanization of the trade in the near future. Southern float logging was largely replaced in the 1890s by the pull boat method: a stationary engine, mounted on a barge, skidded the logs over the soft surface of the bottomlands for distances up to two thousand feet. A dredge boat worked in advance of the pull boat and opened canals in the swamps, giving access to cypress brakes in areas where natural channels were lacking. Around the turn of the century, the overhead-cableway skidding method came into use in connection with railroads, and opened previously inaccessible cypress stands for logging. In this method, the cypress logs were brought in to the railroad track by a carriage traveling over a cable suspended between two trees some six hundred feet apart. Heavier machinery and other developments soon enabled longer distances to be covered.
In 1915, a U.S. Department of Agriculture bulletin noted that much of the cypress lands, acquired by nineteenth-century speculators for between 25 cents and $1 per acre, commanded prices from $70 to $125 for the standing cypress alone. Because of the large investment required for logging, cypress lumbering had become a highly concentrated industry after the abandonment of float logging. While there were "various forms of waste in logging" in certain cypress regions, utilization was "complete, in the most literal sense of the term, among the Mississippi River operators." Stumps were cut low, top logs were also taken, and "not a living cypress tree" remained after the logging, as "practically everything left by the axe" had been broken by the overhead skidder (Mattoon 13-19).
The decimation of Northern timber reserves following the Civil War had not been limited to conifers such as the white pine; beginning in the late 1870s, scarcity of high-quality hardwood in the North turned the lumbermen's attention to America's last great hardwood reservoir in the Lower Mississippi Valley. The scarcity of wood in the central prairies, undergoing rapid settlement, acted as an additional stimulus for lumbering in the South and led to the emergence of a continental system of timber transportation (Williams, "Clearing" 16, 24-25). By this time, lumbering had depleted much of the Delta's most accessible cypress stock, but other species of bottomland trees were still found in abundance, despite the inroads made in the forests by agricultural clearing. Covered by "these splendid forests of hard woods," the Delta possessed "a wealth of timber of the most valuable kind and in surprising variety." Besides, the beneficial effects of the Civil War on forest growth could be detected in the landscape, as "[m]ost of the clearings made in this region before the outbreak of the war, by the planters settled lower down, have since been abandoned and are again densely covered with the young growth of the trees of which the forest was originally composed" (Sargent 535).
According to responses to an official circular in 1875, nearly one third of the border county of Holmes was covered with "heavy swamp forests" and still sustained large quantities of cypress. Regarding the core counties of the Delta, about 80% of Leflore and Washington were still heavily timbered with bottomland hardwood forest, while Bolivar County was "reported as one dense forest, with a few clearings, including immense quantities of cypress, cottonwood, ash, the gums, and all the oaks, except live oak." Tunica County claimed to possess at least 50,000 acres of cypress in addition to other kinds of timber, the latter still remaining "valueless, for want of enterprising capital" ("Statistics" 279-81). In the beginning of the 1880s, it was generally believed that "not one acre in fifty over this whole region of hard-wood forest has yet been stripped of its tree covering" (Sargent 535).
In 1880, the highest concentration of sawmills in the core region of the Delta was found in Bolivar County with eight mills in operation. Leflore and Washington followed with three mills each. Of the border counties, Panola maintained nine sawmills, Holmes five, and Carroll and Tallahatchie four each (Industrial. The situation was summed up in a federal report: "The industries, however, which depend upon the hard-wood forests for material are still in their infancy in Mississippi, and are capable of enormous development" (Sargent 531). At the time, Delta residents replying to a federal forest questionnaire could boast at possessing "the largest supply of fine timber and the best country in the world," while there was nothing "but the hand of man to destroy them" for the needs of cultivation (Egleston 220-21). Nevertheless, the hands of the late nineteenth century Delta settlers could prove exceedingly destructive, as a botanist explained:
During the last few years, however, the country has been entered again for cultivation by a class of small farmers, who from being farm hands have now risen to the position of independent landholders. It is astonishing to see the utter disregard of these settlers for the forest wealth of the country, which in a short time could not fail to be of great commercial value. On the shores of Indian bayou may be seen clearings with hundreds of the finest black walnuts among the deadened trees, while many of the noblest specimens of this valuable timber are felled for fence rails or trifling purposes. The amount of oak and hickory timber destroyed here annually is amazing. (Sargent 535)
Backing for hardwood lumbering operations in the Lower Mississippi Valley could prove difficult to come by as local banks clearly preferred to finance the production of cotton to lumber. After initial troubles in financing, which resulted in numerous bankruptcies for fledgling lumber companies, the development of hardwood industries in the region was rapid. "Yankee dollars" were now "arriving ... to open the wilderness, nudge it further and further toward obsolescence with the whine of saws; what had been one vast unbroken virgin span was now booming with cotton and timber both. Or rather, booming with simple money" (Big Woods 165). Flooring, veneer, wheel, and box manufacturers flocked to the Mid-South region in the wake of lumber operators. In the beginning of the 1880s there had been only one sawmill in Memphis; by the end of the decade there were fifteen (Cortese 137-38). Effects of the wasteful practices by both locals and lumbermen on the species composition of bottomland hardwood forests could now be detected: "black walnut, formerly so abundant as to be used freely for fuel and for fence-rails," was nationally "quoted in the market at nearly as high a price as mahogany" (Egleston 192).
New uses for formerly ignored bottomland trees were sought eagerly. Richard Abbey, a Yazoo City cotton planter and Methodist preacher, emerged as an ardent promoter for increased utilization of the Delta's sweetgum (redgum, Liquidambar styracitlua) supply in the early 1880s. Abbey contacted potential manufacturers, wrote articles on the undervalued bottomland hardwood species for the magazine Southern Lumberman, and published a circular to accompany his wood samples, exhibited at the Atlanta Cotton Exposition. Abbey soon found an interested audience: inquiries and requests for samples began to pour in from both individuals and companies. (5) By 1884, a federal report on the natural resources of Mississippi could claim that sweetgum, due to its immense supply, durability, and "adaptability to supply the place of walnut and other high priced ornamental woods," deserved "more than a passing notice" and contributed more than three pages on its potential uses (Hurt 80-83). Among the three contributors to the section was "Rev. R. Abbey, of Yazoo City, who has given a great deal of attention to the subject of red gum and its uses...." According to the report, black walnut could still be found "to perfection in the rich Yazoo delta." So was pecan, sometimes with circumference of over five feet (Hurt 85).
During the last years of the nineteenth century, the rapid extension of the railroad system into the interior Delta was imperative to the enormous growth of lumber industry--"it was as though the train ... had brought with it into the doomed wilderness, even before the actual axe, the shadow and portent of the new mill not even finished yet and the rails and ties which were not even laid" (Go Down, Moses 238). The first railroad in the region, the Louisville, New Orleans & Texas Railroad, had been "granted a heavy subsidy in lands" in 1881. By the turn of the century, much of the two million acres had been sold, either to investors or planters. Both were, however, opening it up for cultivation "with great rapidity." Indicative was "a recent sale of 150,000 acres" of "average" Delta timberlands "by the Yazoo & Mississippi Railroad Company to Messrs. George T. Houston & Company, lumbers dealers in Chicago," reported at "approximately $ 1,000,000." The lands were expected to "be thrown upon the market as farm lands" as soon as they were "denuded of the marketable timber" ([Tompkins] 499). While the early plantations in the Delta had been carved from old-growth forests, the later ones were founded on cutover bottomlands, not unlike Major de Spain's hunting reserve, where merchantable timber had been removed by sawmill interests.
Soon the hardwood timber of the Delta was being cut down at an unprecedented rate. The growing utilization of the bottomland resources was reflected in the expansion of local economy, largely driven by lumbering activities. According to the Greenwood New Era, the city, in addition to "two good restaurants" and "three flourishing banks," by 1894 possessed a lumber mill, a "barrell" factory, a hardwood factory, and a "barrell" head and stave factory. Among items wanted by the townspeople, besides an opera house, remained a "furniture and spoke factory." Another expanding Delta town, Greenville, boasted "several" sawmills in 1901 and extended "a cordial invitation" to "capitalists seeking location for any kind of industrial enterprises, either in cotton or wooden manufactures" ([Tompkins] 515). The invitation was accepted not only by established businessmen but also many aspiring entrepreneurs.
LeRoy Barry Allen's family left "the fast-eroding hills of Calhoun County" in the early 1890s for the town of Greenwood in Leflore County, where his father realized his long-time dream of becoming "a real live, honest to goodness Delta merchant." After a fire had destroyed Allen's Greenwood store, the family relocated up the Yazoo in Philipp, Tallahatchie County, in the mid-1890s. Philipp, named after an official of the Schlitz Brewing Company, was a sawmill town, and Allen became the manager of the company commissary. A subsidiary of the Milwaukee brewing company, the Delta Cooperage Company, had purchased thousands of acres of surrounding bottomland hardwoods, with the intent of manufacturing oak staves for beer kegs. In addition to a large-band sawmill, Philipp therefore sustained a stave factory. A narrow-gauged railway hauled sawlogs from the company forest to the mill. During high water, additional timber was floated in rafts down the Tallahatchie to Philipp. The brewing company's experiment of manufacturing staves from Delta hardwoods, however, proved unsuccessful, as beer stored in the containers became discolored. Consequently, the stave factory was soon closed, and the sawmill and timberlands sold to the John O'Brien Land & Lumber Company of Chicago (Allen). Other considerable processors of Delta hardwood timber on the eastern edge of the floodplain included the Lamb-Fish Company at Charleston in Tallahatchie County and the Carrier Lumber Manufacturing Company at Sardis in Panola County (Hickman, "Mississippi" 136). Much of the hardwood timber east of the Delta in northeastern Mississippi had already been exhausted by 1900, and the scale of lumber operations in the hill region was consequently limited, with the sites of sawmills "marked only by the mounds of rotting sawdust which were not only their gravestones but monuments of people's heedless greed" (Hamlet 889).
Despite all the agricultural and lumbering fervor in the bottomlands, turn-of-the-century boosters could still claim that "probably not more than thirty to thirty-five per cent of the lands of the fertile Yazoo-Mississippi Delta" were in cultivation. "Even between parallel lines of railways not more than fifteen or twenty miles apart, there lies almost unexplored territory of the most fertile land to be found on the face of the globe, and peculiarly adapted to cotton raising." The heavily timbered lands, however, were "being rapidly brought to the front, large tracts of land having recently been sold to investors and sawmill men, and many large mills of the latest type are being erected to cut into a seemingly inexhaustible wealth of timber" ([Tompkins] 485). The Delta had truly become "that doomed wilderness whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with plows and axes who feared it because it was wilderness" (Go Down, Moses 141).
During the first five years of the twentieth century, the hardwood cut in the states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, plummeted by nearly fifty percent. With the exhaustion of hardwood reserves in this traditional center for hardwood lumbering, cutting aimed at meeting the growing needs of the vehicle, furniture, and other hardwood-consuming industries shifted to the Appalachian states, which furnished almost half of the country's hardwood by 1906 (Timber Depletion 26). The hardwood reserves of the Delta had, however, already attracted the attention of lumbermen and the city of Memphis on the northern edge of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta had begun its rapid rise toward the status of "The Hardwood Capital of the World." By the turn of the century, the Memphis lumber industry rivaled cotton as the city's foremost business, and a local editor could support the claim that "cotton could be removed entirely from the market and lumber alone would support the city." In 1905 the city's position as the premier hardwood producing center in the United States had become obvious by the presence of over forty manufacturers and wholesale dealers of hardwood lumber in the city, employing over 6,000 people and receiving over 75,000,000 feet of hardwood logs by river transportation (Cortese 138).
Detailed study of Southern bottomland lumbering is complicated by the natural fact that, unlike pine and other softwoods, hardwoods typically grow in highly mixed stands. The very heterogeneity of the bottomland hardwood forest led to the evolution of a highly specialized industry for the utilization of its different tree species. Manufacturing and marketing of hardwood products centered on highly diversified products and, consequently, the hardwood industry became much less concentrated than the commercial operations utilizing pine. There were no holdings comparable to the ones worked on by the largest softwood operators in the Southern pine belt, and individual holdings of hardwood stands and the output by typical hardwood mills averaged much smaller than in the case of pine and other softwoods. For example, in 1920, less than thirty companies in the alluvial Mississippi Valley could report an annual lumber cut exceeding ten million board feet (Timber Depletion 60-61).
By 1910, Delta hardwoods had clearly shifted "from the position of an encumbrance to that of a considerable asset." A tract of 6,240 acres of mixed hardwoods in Yazoo County had been sold in 1897 for less than $10,000 at an average price of $1.50 per acre. Ten years later, a $100,000 offer was supposedly made for it but refused (Lumber Industry 196). By the beginning of the 1920s, the output of hardwood timber in the Appalachian region was rapidly declining, and the remaining hardwood reserves in the Lower Mississippi Valley became an increasingly important supplier for hardwood industries elsewhere in the eastern United States. Between 1900 and 1920, the proportion of the hardwood lumber cut in the lower Mississippi Valley increased from fourteen to twenty-five percent of the total U.S. hardwood cut. Accordingly, "the last of the great hardwood regions" was "well on its way toward total exploitation." However, the supply of mature hardwood timber had already been largely exhausted in the northernmost part of the region, including the Delta. Close to Memphis, the exhaustion had reached a point where it was "profitable to return to cut-over areas for trees that were formerly regarded as too small to log and for less valuable species, such as tupelo and water gum," which at the time of the first logging were unmerchantable but now commanded "a ready sale" (Timber Depletion 26-27).
By the mid-1920s, Faulkner and his hunting characters "could already see the doom" as they "switched off their automobile engines to the sound of axes and saws where a year ago there had been only the voices of the running hounds" (Reivers 739). All timber found in the Delta bottomlands was subjected to cutting, as there now was "a steadily increasing interest in the utilization of smaller trees, inferior trees and logs, and species formerly rejected." In the first years of the twentieth century, the most heavily logged hardwood species had been different oaks and sweetgum, in great demand by the veneer industry. The rapid depletion of oak and gum stands of adequate size and quality was, however, beginning to result in the cutting of secondary species, such as sycamore and tupelo. The exhaustion of old-growth forests in the northern part of the Mississippi Alluvial Valley was furthermore reflected by the change in the size of operations: small, portable mills had begun to replace large ones which were "finding themselves forced either to buy logs in order to continue operation or to move down river into southern Mississippi and Louisiana" where "a reasonable prospect of a 20 to 25 years' supply of material" existed (Timber Depletion 27). Still, forest industries continued to rank second only to agriculture in the Delta economy, being important especially in the southern portion of the floodplain. While plantation owners continued to own most of the forested land, the principal supplies of merchantable timber were now firmly held by lumber companies and timber operators (Eldredge 2).
It is a difficult task to estimate the exact amount and condition of hardwood forests supported by the Delta bottomlands until the first Southern Forest Survey, authorized in 1928 by Congress through the McSweeney-McNary Forest Research Act. The earlier federal surveys had been carried out at a time when hardwoods "were regarded as having comparatively little value, and satisfactory estimates could not be secured" (Timber Depletion 14). For example, a 1913 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor noticed with regret that little effort had been made to determine the amount of hardwoods in the South, and the quantity of even the more valuable hardwoods remained much less known than that of various Southern pines (Lumber Industry 74-75). Still, the only American hardwood reserve of importance in the beginning of the 1920s was located in the southern Mississippi Valley, and many industries dependent upon the hardwoods were "in great need of accurate information as to the extent of existing stands and what they can count on for the future" (Timber Depletion 14). Faced with a decreasing supply of hardwood timber of high quality, the lumber industry and the federal government for the first time showed genuine interest in assessing the South's forest reserves and produced the first comprehensive survey.
According to the Southern Forest Survey, close to sixty percent of the Delta had been transformed into an agricultural landscape by 1932 (Eldredge 2-3; Stover 1-2). The overwhelming majority of this acreage was in cotton cultivation, and the surveyors noted that the clearing of land for agricultural reasons continued. The highest proportion of land in cultivation was located in the counties of Sunflower, Coahoma, Bolivar, and Leflore in the central part of the floodplain. In addition to the creation of crop and pasture lands, the emergence of modern infrastructure had made significant inroads into the original forest: some four percent of the land was classified as "other areas," consisting not only of waterways but also of levees, roads, railroads, and towns. Still, some 1.7 million acres, or almost forty percent of the Delta could be classified as forestland. Most of the forested acreage was found in the Delta's southernmost counties of Issaquena, Sharkey, and Warren. As explained by Faulkner, the forest had retreated "southward through this inverted-apex, this [nabla]-shaped section of earth between hills and River until what was left of it seemed now to be gathered and for the time arrested in one tremendous density of brooding and inscrutable impenetrability at the ultimate funnelling tip" (Go Down, Moses 253). Because the Southern backwater area of the Delta continued to be flooded on average of once in five years, only seventeen percent of it was cultivated in 1930. In addition to the backwater area in the lower part of the floodplain, the batture lands between the Mississippi and the levee line were the most heavily forested portions of the floodplain. Some poorly drained interstream sites in the middle and upper parts of the Delta also retained some forest, though described as "badly deteriorated." Except for the area subjected to backwater flooding, few unbroken areas of forest remained on the floodplain. The existing forest areas were generally found to have been "cut over one or more times for sawlogs or other products" (Stover 6).
The compelling question for fictional and real-life hunters such as Isaac McCaslin and William Faulkner was, however, the amount of existing wilderness in 1932, after roughly a century of American settlement. According to the surveyors, an immense change had taken place in the landscape encountered by the early nineteenth-century travelers who had unanimously described the Delta as an almost unbroken expanse of old-growth forest and canebrakes, teeming with diverse wildlife. (6)
"There was [still] some of [the wilderness] left, although now it was two hundred miles from Jefferson when once it had been thirty ..." and both Faulkner and his fictional hunters had to drive for hours "over paved highways to find enough [of it] to pitch tents in" (Go Down, Moses 253, R 739). Charles Aiken has convincingly demonstrated how Faulkner's personal experiences in the Tallahatchie bottoms and the Delta are reflected in the ever-changing hunting locations of Go Dawn, Moses. For example, the fictional setting of "Delta Autumn" is clearly modeled after Faulkner's 1940 hunting camp on the Big Sunflower River in the vicinity of Anguilla, Sharkey County.
By 1932, old-growth forest--the practically uncut stands which maintained the characteristics of original mature forests--was found to occur on approximately five percent of the Delta's forested area. These primeval stands made up only about two percent of the total land area on the Delta and concentrated in the southern portion of the floodplain. Another two percent of the Delta was covered by so-called culled old-growth stands from which "an appreciable quantity of high-grade timber" had been removed. Half of the Delta's forested area was deemed second-growth forest, supporting young timber in varying sizes. These forests had developed after the original forest had been removed by clearcutting, tornadoes, or fire, or after agricultural acreage had been abandoned. Some of the second-growth area could be utilized for lumbering purposes, as the trees in these stands ranged in size from recently established to immediately merchantable. An additional fourteen percent of the Delta forest consisted of cutover second-growth stands, which showed no commercial promise in the immediate future. Almost 400,000 acres, or nine percent of the whole Delta acreage consisted of forest land classified as "old-growth cut-over." This class made up over twenty percent of the "forested" area, and was described as formerly mature forest "from which practically all trees of merchantable size and quality had been removed, leaving too small a volume per acre to justify another logging operation in the immediate future" (Eldredge 4-5).
The logging operations had customarily concentrated on timber stands of highest economic value. Consequently, half of the remaining old-growth forest was dominated by overcup oak (Quercus lyrata) and water hickory (Carya aquatica), two species which in 1932 were "in limited demand." Despite their dominance in the old-growth stands, forests of this type made up less than thirteen percent of the total forested acreage in the Delta. Found on the poorly drained sites, the overcup oak-water hickory forest type was characteristic of the lower part of the floodplain. Some 160,000 acres of forest land classified as swamp would only a century before have been dominated by mature cypress, but now only 6,000 acres of old-growth cypress stands were to be found in the Delta. Much of the batture area was covered by cottonwood (Populus spp.) and black willow (Salix nigra), two species which grew rapidly and had therefore retained their commercial importance. Stands of mixed hardwoods made up the rest of the forested acreage in the Delta. Constituting roughly seventy percent of the forested land, the mixed hardwoods type had been severely reduced by logging. The extent of old-growth stands of this type was restricted to less than four percent of the total forest area. The late nineteenth-century sweetgum promoter Richard Abbey probably could not have imagined that fifty years after he began campaigning for the increased use of the abundant bottomland tree, "extensive areas of pure, virgin red gum" were considered "rare" in the fragmented forests of the Delta (Eldredge 4-5, Stover 6-9). Within a century, the Yazoo- Mississippi floodplain, consisting mostly of mature bottomland hardwood forest in the beginning of the 1830s, had largely been logged over. The predominantly agricultural landscape of the 1930s, characterized by cotton fields and cutovers, bore little resemblance to the Delta inhabited by Native Americans or even the mid-nineteenth century American settlers.
The immense ecological transformation in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta was not limited to the reduction of forested acreage or removal of mature trees: the native fauna of the bottomlands had similarly undergone significant changes. Scientific surveys of bottomland nature for other than economic purposes, however, began only after most of the habitat had disappeared. Historical fluctuations of the Delta animal populations are therefore even less understood than those of the commercially utilized forest. The Delta had formed an important part of the original range of several animals which more or less disappeared by the beginning of the 1930s. The most striking examples of local--and even global--faunal extinction were provided by the red wolf, black bear, cougar, and two species of birds, the Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), and ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) (Echternacht and Harris 112-14). The last species was the invisible bird, "the big woodpecker called Lord-to-God by negroes" which had "clattered at a dead trunk" as a ten-year old Ike McCaslin "stood against a big gum tree beside a little bayou" in the Tallahatchie bottoms, feeling the powerful gaze of Old Ben (Go Down, Moses 148). (7)
Even a superficial examination reveals that at least one human activity, in addition to habitat alteration, clearly contributed to most animal extinctions on the Delta floodplain. Hunting the abundant wildlife of the Mississippi bottomlands provided the early settlers a much-needed reserve of supplemental protein and a diversion from everyday toiling in the forests and fields. Early successional patterns and free-roaming livestock near plantations attracted both herbivores and predators, and increased encounters between settlers and wildlife. (8) Much of the hunting was carried out in order to control the number of species harmful to the settlers' fields and their free-roaming livestock. Consequently, shooting of agricultural pests, such as the Carolina parakeet, and various large predators was common in the frontier environment of the nineteenth-century Delta. The excitement of big game pursuit could, however, make antebellum hunters forget their original goal of protecting their agricultural acreage: "But before we had left the field [after the hunt], the horses, dogs, and bears, together with the fires, had destroyed more corn in a few hours, than the poor bear and her cubs had, during the whole of their visits" (Audubon 110).
During the nineteenth century, the Delta planters had come to emulate European aristocracy in their hunting practices, as seen proper for men of status and power (Bruce 260-64). Hunting enabled the sportsman to appreciate the God-given order in nature--and in the human society. While blacks and poor whites hunted out of necessity, planters throughout the South maintained that they hunted solely for sport and amusement. Hunters typically began their careers with squirrels, raccoons, and opossums, graduating through geese, ducks, turkeys, and deer to bobcat, bear, and cougar. Hunting, especially of deer and bear, became a social activity and, at the same time, a sanctioned expression of force. Hunting dogs were prized possessions and their feats were described at length in family letters. (9) Many a Delta planter--and a Faulkner character--would gladly have subscribed to Benjamin Grubb Humphreys's claim that "I was never happier than when in wild pursuit, following my dogs through the cane brakes after a bear" (241).
Descriptions of deer hunts abound in the correspondence and reminiscences of nineteenth-century Delta residents. (10) A deer hunt in the cane thickets of the Delta bottomlands could easily turn into a bear hunt: in September 1857, William Worthington and a hunting companion with their pack of four hounds came across a female bear with two cubs. "Madam Bruin" was finally brought down with the seventh shot while the cubs "made their absence." (11) Black bears must have been common in the antebellum period, for in addition to threatening the ample supply of free-roaming swine, they attacked hog pens (Jacobs). Consequently, an overseer of a Delta plantation reportedly killed fourteen bears during one fall in the 1850s (van Buren 87). Cougars and wolves, on the other hand, were encountered less often since the commencement of European settlement. (12)
During the nineteenth century, Wade Hampton III evolved into the ultimate planter-sportsman of the Yazoo-Mississippi floodplain. Even in antebellum times, this heir to a Southern planting dynasty spent much of his time in the canebrakes of the Delta chasing deer and bear. In a few April days of 1855, Hampton's hunting party killed five bears and a deer, and in the following November, a week-long hunt by him and another prominent Delta planter, Dr. Orville M. Blanton, yielded ten bears with the loss of seven dogs (Cauthen 39-40). In 1857, Hampton had "a large English party now with him [on the Wild Woods Plantation in Washington County], Lord Althorpe and his friend ... Cap Tower of the guards, and Mr and Mrs Portman." The European guests were "all hunters" but initially "killed but few Bear, and no deer at all" while their more experienced host had earlier "killed two [bear] and caught a cub" in just one day. Captain Tower, "who was in every action in Crimea," turned out to be "a very nice fellow" who greatly regretted "not being able to stay here longer." On November 8, 1857, the guests finally found some sport as Hampton "took them bear-hunting and we killed four." This particular hunt turned rather exciting as "Lord Althorp (or as Sam calls him "Lord") ... literally had his clothes torn off. I had to furnish him with my drawers, so as to enable him to come home decently" (Cauthen 48, 52-53). During the Reconstruction period, the temporarily fallen Delta aristocrat could find contentment in the bottomlands; in the middle of severe financial crises, Hampton reported in 1866 to "have killed 5 bear, one panther, and one wild turkey" in his last three hunts, while two hunts in 1875 produced three bears (Cauthen 120, 151). With his fortunes reversed in 1876, Wade Hampton III attained fame not only as a prominent politician and businessman but also as one of the nation's foremost hunters.
Wiley Prewitt has demonstrated how the populations of all large game species plummeted toward the end of the nineteenth century as the Delta was rapidly turning into a "land across which there came now no scream of the panther but instead the long hooting of locomotives" (Go Down, Moses 251). In 1893, Washington County planter and businessman Clive Metcalfe complained in a plantation ledger entry that "Harley [Metcalfe, his brother and another Delta planter,] came and we went hunting did not start a single thing. The bear have all disappeared from this part of the country" (Buchanan 149). At the turn of the twentieth century, however, the remaining Delta canebrakes still supported a few black bears and served as the setting for the most famous bear hunt ever (Buchanan 151-83). For five days in November of 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt and his hunting party camped on the banks of the Little Sunflower in Sharkey County. The nation's best-known trophy hunter had never before participated in a Southern black bear hunt on horseback with hounds, a pastime warmly recommended to him by Wade Hampton III, and he wanted to have the experience while it still was possible. The hunt was arranged by Stuyvesant Fish, the president of the Illinois Central Railroad, with prominent Delta planters and politicians as members of the hunting party. On Roosevelt's request, John McIlhenny, a former Rough Rider, Louisiana conservationist and Tabasco tycoon, joined the company of E. C. Mangum, George M. Helm, Huger Lee Foote, and LeRoy Percy. Fifty-six year old former slave, Holt Collier of Greenville, served as the chief hunting guide. Collier had killed his first black bear in Washington County at the tender age of ten, and during his fifty-two years as a bear hunter allegedly slew over 3,000(!), most of them in the bottomlands of the Delta. (13)
On the first day of the hunt, Collier positioned the President on a stand with Foote and promised to drive a bear to the spot with his hounds. After several hours of hard work, Collier and his assistants succeeded in doing this--only to learn that the hunters had left their stand for a late lunch. Desperate, Collier then caught the exhausted animal with his lariat and presented it to Roosevelt to be shot. As a sportsman of the highest class, the President refused to kill an animal under restraint, and the already wounded 235-pound male bear was knifed to death. During the rest of the hunt, Roosevelt was unable to get a shot at another bear and had to return to Washington without his trophy. To the President's considerable irritation, the incident with the tied bear became widely publicized. On November 16, 1902, Clifford Berryman's editorial cartoon for the Washington Postdepicted the scene in a humorous light, with the authentic old male bear presented as a cute little cub. Berryman and other cartoonists subsequently associated Roosevelt with the cub and gave birth to the term "Teddy Bear." The name was also adopted by makers and marketers of stuffed toy animals, creating a lasting cultural icon and international industry. Teddy Roosevelt's Delta excursion evidently prompted other Easterners to follow suit, and wealthy tourists continued to hunt down the few surviving black bear in the floodplain's fragmented forests until the 1920s (Silver 112-19).
In addition to large mammals, various species of bottomland birds were commonly shot for food, but also for sport and practice. The shooting was furthermore extended to visiting avifauna, such as migrating waterfowl and the now-extinct passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). Although hunting can lead to the ultimate demise of a species, it is highly probable that habitat destruction in the form of land clearing and logging acted as the ultimate cause for most, if not all, animal extinctions in the modern Delta. Forest fragmentation led to the species' initial decline, and various proximate causes, especially hunting, then exterminated the isolated and sedentary populations. During the late nineteenth century, the rapid disappearance of species ecologically as dissimilar as the ivory-billed woodpecker and the cougar reveals a profound change in the Delta bottomland hardwood forest complex.
Even before the arrival of settlers of European descent, the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture and trade among the Delta's native peoples had led to a general increase of human influence on the natural environment. Still, it was the region's incorporation into the greater European economy which revolutionized the way the floodplain was exploited by humans. For the first time, local economic development became dictated by the supralocal needs of the world economy, and now it was the capitalist world system which ultimately mandated how the Delta was utilized as a pool of natural resources. The Delta encountered by Euro-Americans eventually proved "too rich for anything else, too rich and strong to have remained wilderness" (Big Woods 201). During the nineteenth century, agricultural and lumbering activities expanded enormously compared with Native American practices. The first commercial products of the Delta in the industrial age, cotton and cypress, were later replaced by other crops and tree species, while land use on the fertile floodplain progressively intensified. As a result, great personal fortunes were made, always based on the biological productivity of the land. For most of the people involved in the transformation of the Delta bottomlands, however, economic gain and social mobility remained severely limited. Despite its distinctively American features, the environmental history of the Delta is but one--although extremely illustrative--example of the processes idiosyncratically duplicated on a global scale. While Faulkner also examined these developments in the pine-forested uplands of northern Mississippi--most notably in Light in August--the avid hunter and amateur naturalist seems to have felt the greatest personal loss over the annihilation of the state's primeval bottomland hardwood forests.
The factors that contributed to the successful utilization of the natural resources in the Delta are not unique to Mississippi, Southern, or American history: exploitation of disadvantaged people and the natural environment in a culture geared at continuous economic growth is an unavoidable theme in modern history--and in William Faulkner's fiction. Today we are fast realizing Ike McCaslin's prophecy that, despite being given our chance and "warning and foreknowledge, too," the woods and fields we ravage and the game we devastate will be "the consequence and signature of [our] crime, and [our] punishment ..." (Go Down, Moses 257). In 1940, camping for the very last time in the rapidly vanishing forests of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, Isaac McCaslin knew that
it was his land, although he had never owned a foot of it. He had never wanted to, not even after he saw plain its ultimate doom, watching it retreat year by year before the onslaught of the axe and saw and log-lines and then dynamite and tractor plows, because it belonged to no man. It belonged to all; they had only to use it well, humbly and with pride. (Go Down, Moses 261)
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University of Helsinki
(1) For a thorough discussion of much of the historical material in this essay, and exhaustive documentation, see Saikku.
(2) The close relationship between the fictive Yoknapatawpha and actual Mississippi geographies has been meticulously reconstructed by Aiken. See also Doyle.
(3) For the socioeconomic development in the Delta, see Frank E. Smith, Brandfon, Cobb, Willis, and Woods. On the history of flood control along the lower Mississippi, see Harrison.
(4) For studies of the Mississippi lumber industry, consult Hickman and Fickle. Both these works, however, concerned primarily with the development of Mississippi pine industry in the southern and central parts of the state, pay only fleeting attention to hardwood lumbering in the Delta.
(5) J. R. Gilmore & Co. to Richard Abbey, February 22, 1882; Thomas Kane & Co. to Richard Abbey, December 24, 1881, Box 1, Folder 13 (Z 68), Abbey Papers. See also letters from Edwin W. Adams & Co., October 25, 1881; D. E. Cheney, October 26, 1881, Box 1, Folder 12. Abbey's correspondence with the Southern Lumberman is located in Box 1, Folder 15.
(6) For some nineteenth-century descriptions of the Mississippi bottomlands as wilderness, see Ker, Nuttall, and Flint.
(7) On April 28, 2005, the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker in an Arkansas wildlife refuge was announced. There had been no confirmed sightings of the species in the continental United States since 1944. Consequently, the ivory-billed woodpecker was widely presumed extinct. See Search.
(8) See, e.g., Jacobs.
(9) See, e.g., William Mason Worthington to Dear brother [Albert D. Worthingon], November 10, 1857, typewritten copy made in 1938 by Eunice J. Stockwell, Box 1, Folder 4 (Z 0658.00 S), Worthington Family Papers.
(10) For example, see William Mason Worthington to Dear brother [Albert D. Worthington], November 10, 1857. See also Amanda Worthington to Dear Son [Albert D. Worthington], October 27, [ 1857]; and Amanda Worthington to Dear Son [Albert D. Worthington], November 3, 1857. All three letters in Box 1, Folder 4, Worthington Family Papers.
(11) William Mason Worthington to Dear brother [Albert D. Worthington], November 10, 1857, Box 1, Folder 4, Worthington Family Papers.
(12) For a record of wolf in Washington County, see William Mason Worthington to Dear brother [Albert D. Worthington], November 10, 1857, Box 1, Folder 4, Worthington Family Papers.
(13) Buchanan's study is the only full-length biography of this legendary Delta hunter whose exploits were presumably familiar to Faulkner and who may well have acted as a model for the character of Sam Fathers. Collier's old master, Colonel Howell Hinds, was killed in 1868 by another Delta planter and Wade Hampton's old hunting mate, Dr. Orville M. Blanton (125-31).
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|Title Annotation:||William Faulkner's environmental works|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2005|
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