Early one morning I went out with a cup of coffee and watched an old man walk down to the dock carrying a cast net in a five gallon plastic bucket. His hair was gray and cut very short. He wore long pants, a short-sleeve plaid shirt and dirty tennis shoes without socks. His face was weathered from a working life outside, and he stood a long time reading the water as if he would learn something from it. He had the dock nearly to himself just as day broke, and he seemed out of place in a resort full of mostly young people decked out in expensive beach fashion. I imagined him a grandfather brought along on the family's beach vacation, but no more inclined to sit in a beach chair or body-surf than I was. Under other circumstances, he might have preferred to stay home, but he could not pass up a week with his children and grandchildren. He was right at home when he lifted the cast net out of the bucket and began to work the incoming tide. The beach may not have appealed to him, but he knew the lagoon, even though he may never have set eyes on it before. Throwing a cast net for mullet seemed habitual for him. The net he used was big--I guessed about twelve feet--and he threw it time after time in a perfect circle. A twelve-foot net with lead weights around the skirt is heavy, and yet the old man's movements were economical and effortless, energetic and liturgical. Done right, throwing a net is a graceful activity--an ancient dance, the steps of which are as old as the first fisherman.
I saw the old man with his net for several mornings and enjoyed his unselfconscious concentration. We never had conversation, but each morning I nodded as he approached, and he lifted his chin in my direction. He did what he did for its own sake, and the work absorbed him. When his net brought up two or three mullet, he put them in the plastic bucket; when it came up empty, he simply began to lift folds of the net over his left shoulder for the next cast. Not once did I see him look around to see if he had an audience. Toward the end of the week, about the time the old man usually quit for the morning, a young father walked down to the dock with a small plastic box from which he removed a small cast net--I guessed a six-footer--the sort sold to tourists in souvenir shops or the Walmart. He glanced briefly at a sheet of written instructions, wadded it up and stuffed it in the pocket of his linen shorts. He spoke to his son, who looked to be around eight, and gestured at the net and toward the water. They walked around the old man without speaking. He did not seem to notice. The young man and his son were fashionably turned out, he in linen shorts and an expensive ugly Hawaiian shirt, a large Rolex watch and Sperry Topsiders with no socks. The boy was a miniature copy without the Rolex. The father was evenly tanned and looked fit as a triathlete. He clearly thought he cut a dashing figure, and periodically his eyes swept the dock to see if he was being observed.
On his first throw it was apparent that the young father had never thrown a cast net before, and the net entered the water with all the weights together, tight as a fist. Each time he made a bad throw, he looked quickly around and said something to the boy, who began to watch the old man. Learning to throw a cast net is not as easy as it looks, and when you are trying to learn without a teacher, you must be prepared to look silly. If your vanity won't abide that, you'd better find a remote island on which to practice. The young father persevered, and by the third morning he was making one decent cast for two lousy ones. On the fourth morning he caught a mullet. His son had long since lost interest in his father's odd idea of family fun, and the only witnesses to the catch were the old man, who nodded approvingly, and I. But again I was struck by the young man's apparent interest in his accomplishment being noticed. The moment he realized he had actually caught a fish, he began to look around, ready to receive the praise and admiration of strangers. Such attention was what he was accustomed to. He was no more interested in the fish in his net than I was. He was pleased to have added another outdoorsy skill to his repertoire, and he had gone about it with the same energy he had devoted to improving his putting or making money. He offered the fish to the old man, who accepted it by nodding at his bucket.
I never saw the young man again. Perhaps I've judged him too severely, but there is a world of difference between the ways these two castnetters went about their business. Both were on vacation, I believe, but the old man was doing recreationally something that he had previously done essentially. At some point he learned to throw a net to put food on the table. People without much leisure don't have the inclination to think about cutting a dashing figure or perfecting activities that will make interesting conversation over a drink in the evening. The old man was not showing off. The young man was, and the activity was tainted by his vanity. Vanity separates serious from frivolous people and their pursuits. Frivolous people are never absorbed by what they are doing, for they never achieve the freedom of self-forgetfulness. Young people find self-forgetfulness all but impossible. They worry about how they look and imagine all eyes are on them. For some people outgrowing that handicap can take a lifetime.
ELIZABETH SPENCER HAS written that if she could put one place on earth back, restore to it its lost beauty and character, she would have the Mississippi Gulf Coast back the way it was before Hurricane Camille (1969). Fewer and fewer people remember the Coast without casinos, the enormous live oaks that made a canopy over nearly every street, the coast road itself deeply shaded and not tarted up with neon lights and souvenir shops. Mississippi Sound was the first salt water I knew. My mother and father took my brother and me to the Mississippi Gulf Coast on vacations more than sixty years ago. There I first smelled the sea. It was in that quiet water that I first felt the easy undertow that pulled the sand from beneath my heels and heard the waves lapping the seawall as I drifted off to sleep. From the hotel pier we fished for croakers with dead shrimp and set crab nets baited with chicken necks. I thought those vacations were perfect. The last trip I made to the Coast with my family was around 1954, fifteen years before Camille, and it was then still largely residential and essentially domestic. Biloxi had a hint of urban aspiration and corruption, and the proximity of Keesler Air Force Base gave it a wild reputation, but Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Gulfport and Ocean Springs were still fishing villages with a few low-key resort hotels for folks from the dry parts of Mississippi or such exotic places as New Orleans and Mobile. The Coast had the feel and smell of a real place where adventure seemed likely to me, with what I thought of as exotic islands only a few miles offshore and local inhabitants who strongly resembled the movie star Gilbert Roland. I remember staying at the Edgewater Gulf Hotel when I was a boy; it was a remarkable old pile that withstood Camille's fury. Some bureaucratic insanity that puzzles me still led to that building's being demolished a few years later by carefully placed explosive charges. It took three sets of explosives to bring down a building that had stood against one of the worst hurricanes ever to strike the U.S. mainland.
After Camille, instead of trying simply to restore the coastal villages, developers with eyes on the dollar set about creating a glamorous tourist destination complete with casinos. I fear the same kind of thing will happen in New Orleans as the city tries to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. We seem incapable of simply rebuilding. The excuse for the nutty rebuilding that follows storms is always increased safety, but greed and newfangleness taint our efforts at reconstruction. Rebuilt New Orleans may look more like a tourist theme park than the city I grew up in.
There have been more destructive storms along the Coast since Camille. Just a few weeks ago my wife Ruth and I visited my brother and his wife on their farm in Crossroads, Mississippi. Going back to Gulf Shores, Alabama, we took U.S. 90, the old coast road from Waveland to Ocean Springs, and we were amazed by the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina that is still evident three years after the storm. Piles of rubble that were once houses and businesses, as well as ragged tree stumps, still sit next to trim Katrina cottages, attractive HardiePlank shotgun structures with metal roofs. They are small, but look permanent in a way a FEMA trailer never could; they look as if they belong. The big casinos, alas, have returned with a vengeance, and the tourists seem to have found their way back, but residents along the Coast are still suffering. During hurricanes low barrier islands don't provide much protection, and the tranquil waters of Mississippi Sound are aroused by the storm's piled fury. Our older son Robert, a chef, went to Waveland shortly after Katrina to cook meals for anybody who needed food. He reported that the storm surge had been nearly twenty feet high at the 1-10 exit ramp six miles inland.
Mississippi Sound is fairly shallow, and the surf along its beaches is tame. As a small child I regarded the Gulf of Mexico as a swimming hole for children, no more intimidating than a bath tub, though my father worried about the undertow. I did not know it at the time, but I was looking at the protected waters of Mississippi Sound, not the Gulf itself. Walking with my parents and my older brother from Fort Massachusetts to the south side of Ship Island was a revelation. The vast open Gulf stretching to the horizon was intimidating, the heavy wind-driven waves roaring in a voice rarely heard on the seawall in Gulfport--a voice that has stayed with me for many years. And the barrier islands themselves fired my youthful imagination.
Mississippi Sound and its barrier islands, particularly Horn Island, were an outdoor studio for Walter Anderson, an artist and writer who spent many years exploring and painting there. Redding S. Sugg, Jr. edited The Horn Island Logs of Walter Inglis-Anderson, and he provides a helpful brief account of the ninety-mile chain of barrier islands that form the southern border of Mississippi Sound: Gat, Ship, Horn, Petit Bois and Dauphin, all of which are about ten miles offshore. Round Island and Deer Island are in the Sound itself and not part of the barrier.
The sand on these islands is from Appalachian rock ground and dumped long ago by rivers flowing into Mobile Bay. The sand is finer on the beaches of Cat Island, the westernmost island because "a westering along-shore drift," according to Sugg, deposits heavier, coarser sand first. Because of the alongshore drift, the islands are slowly moving, their eastern parts being gradually washed away, and the western parts built up. This natural process has been disrupted in recent years by the dredging of ship channels, but various current projects are attempting to restore the flow of sediment.
West of Cat Island is a "geologically unrelated" group of islands, the Chandeleurs, says Sugg, which "are the remains of the ancient St. Bernard delta of the Mississippi River." All of these islands have been damaged by hurricanes over the years, and in some cases the damage has been severe. The Chandeleurs (named by Pier Le Moyne, Sieur d'Iberville who anchored nearby on the eve of Candelmas, February 1, 1700), once high enough to support some farming and a small fishing village, have now all but vanished under the waves.
During my childhood I visited Ship Island, and its old bastian, Fort Massachusetts, several times with my family. It was one island in those days, and an excursion boat has taken sightseers and fishermen to it from Gulfport, Mississippi, for many years. In 1969 Hurricane Camille divided Ship Island in two--now designated East and West Ship--and Horn Island was nearly bisected by Hurricane Betsy in 1965. More recently Katrina destroyed the old lighthouse on Ship Island and took off the southern tip of Cat Island. Most of these islands became part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore in 2002, but a large part of Cat Island is still privately owned, and Dauphin Island has been heavily developed, despite being repeatedly damaged by hurricanes. For all these changes and for all their transitory nature, some of these islands are among the last barrier islands from Maine to Mexico still close to being wild places. They are being more frequently visited by recreational boaters these days, and pollution and careless behavior degrade both sea and land, but in the winter or whenever bad weather keeps most boaters at home, the beaches and maritime forests of the islands are a world away from the casinos squatting on the mainland. Out there the attentive mind can catch a glimpse of the world the people who made the arrowheads that turn up occasionally once knew.
AS A BOY I wanted to live an adventurous life. Growing up in New Orleans in the '40s and '50s, I had a lot of unsupervised free time and easy access to boats and woods, fishing rods, flounder gigs, rifles and shotguns. In that world adventure was easy to come by close to home, and we had opportunities to prove ourselves and test our courage, marksmanship and strength--opportunities that were pretty tame, all things considered. Our standards were not high. All adventure was fun, and it was all tinged by our imagining how we looked doing what we were doing. Gilbert Roland wore a leather wrist strap in every movie I saw him in, and he typically played characters we were disposed to admire: commercial fishermen, charter boat captains, bullfighters; and so my friend Bill and I wore leather wrist straps. We buckled them tightly and admired the veins in our arms and hands. You have to wear the right clothes and accessories if you're going to be believable as an adventurer. A friend recently tried to say something kind about a football team that had lost ten games straight. "They looked good getting off the bus" was the best he could do. Considering the time we devoted to wardrobe matters, we must have thought that looking good was essential to every enterprise. We were convinced that if we looked the part we could play it. This is a lie that young men are apt to swallow.
Nine or ten miles offshore and uninhabited, as far as we knew, Cat Island seemed a likely destination for young men with a boat and an image of themselves as explorers. The origin of the name is debated, but most think early visitors saw raccoons and called it Isle-aux-Chats. The beaches of Cat Island were beautiful and deserted in 1958, and the slash pine and live oak forest seemed deep and dark. Bill and Mat and I had fished within sight of the island on several occasions, and so it was not surprising that we discussed going out to Cat Island for a weekend camping trip. We would go fishing near the island in the afternoon and then make camp on the beach for the weekend. Between fishing and swimming we would explore the island like latter-day Robinson Crusoes. We did not know that during World War II the island had been a base called the Cat Island War Dog Reception and Training Center or that it had been a training area for Japanese-American units who were taught to hunt Japanese soldiers with dogs. Imagining dogs or soldiers mysteriously left on the island and out for blood might have dampened our sense of adventure.
Mat had an uncle who lived at Pass Christian on the eastern side of Bay St. Louis, and we frequently enjoyed his hospitality and the use of his boat, a heavy wooden skiff with a 25-hp Johnson outboard motor. We needed his uncle's permission to keep the boat out for a weekend, and having to ask his permission and blessing made us aware that we were not the open water adventurers of our fantasy. Real adventurers don't ask permission. At least one responsible person would know our plans. Ruth and I raised two sons in a world increasingly obsessed by the fantasy of keeping its children safe, and we did what we could and worried. In my old age I have been struck by how remarkable the freedom and adventure of my childhood were and how unremarkable they seemed at the time. It was easy for us teenagers to get permission for our trip into what seemed the great wilderness of sea and island. We planned to take an eighteen-foot boat across roughly ten miles of open water, spend two nights on an uninhabited island, with no cell phone, no radio and no way to call for help if something bad happened. If I were in a position now to say yes or no to such an adventure, my first response would be no, and I would only say yes if it could be demonstrated that cell phones would work from the island. When we spoke to Mat's uncle, he said, "Sounds like fun. Take plenty of gas, and, hey, don't wreck my boat." As recently as 1958, seventeen-year-olds were thought to be old enough to fend for themselves, and adults assumed, often incorrectly, that we would exercise more or less mature judgment. At fifteen, Mat had been with his uncle on Mississippi Sound when they were overtaken by a late summer squall. He got a quick and frightening lesson in unpredictable weather and basic seamanship, and as a result he was more cautious than many adults when threatening clouds were anywhere in sight. But we would have been given permission in any case, because most of the adults we knew had grown up spending unstructured time outside, and many still spent free time the same way, and they frequently did it alone. Some would gladly have carried cell phones if they'd known what they were missing, hut, not knowing, they did what they wanted to do and did not worry much about what might happen. Most had survived boating mishaps and other adventures and assumed we would, too. Our proposal was generally regarded as unexceptional.
Considering our age and level of experience, we made careful preparations. We loaded the boat with fishing rods and a well-stocked tackle box, a cast net to catch bait and some canned beef stew in case we failed as fishermen. Our provisions included loaves of white bread and a jar of peanut butter, candy bars and apples. We took water in army-surplus canteens, and each of us had a flashlight with fresh batteries. Even though the weather was hot, we packed sleeping bags, which we expected to use unzipped as something to put between ourselves and the sand. Three boys from New Orleans should have known better, but we did not pack mosquito repellant, an oversight that would spoil the trip. I don't remember taking a change of clothes, though we may have done so. We wore bathing suits under our trousers and planned on our clothes drying quickly. Robinson Crusoe had no change of clothes. We knew nothing of sun screen and were tan enough not to worry about burning. None of us wore a hat. They made us look goofy, and we didn't think that Gilbert Roland wore hats, though Bill reminded us that Hemingway did, and he brought it off. We each had large sheath knives on our belts, and we brought along a machete. The knives looked right, and all explorers carried machetes. We also had a snake-bite kit consisting of one single-edged razor blade, rubber tubing for a tourniquet and a suction cup in a can.
Our trip from Bay St. Louis to Cat Island was smooth and uneventful. The day was bright and hot, and the Sound was calm; gentle swells kept the ride from becoming monotonous. We saw schools of porpoises, and small fish we could not name jumped ahead of the boat as if they were escorting us. In the late afternoon we fished for supper near the island, but we caught nothing edible--just a couple of catfish and a small sand shark, a very game little fish that was fun to catch, but our canned beef stew would be at the top of the evening menu.
Undaunted by unsuccessful fishing, we beached the boat on the lee side of Cat Island while there was still enough light left to gather firewood and set up camp. As soon as we set foot on the island, we were covered by clouds of mosquitoes. In pants, T-shirts and tennis shoes with no socks, we were defenseless without repellant, and after a few minutes of frantic slapping, we dove into the water to escape. On the lee side of the island we were out of the wind, and that was not helpful. Under water, of course, there were no mosquitoes, but they hovered above us in the calm, and when our heads came up for air, they landed on every bit of exposed skin. Our lips and eyelids were swollen with bites. Gathering driftwood for a fire was impossible, though we all knew that smoke from a fire would help keep the bugs at bay. We climbed into the boat and pushed back off the island and into deep water, and after a few minutes the mosquitoes were gone. Staying in the boat all night was not an appealing prospect. Had Gilbert Roland had to put up with mosquitoes? Our sense of high adventure needed adjustment; there was nothing heroic about battling insects. Even the leeches Humphrey Bogart battled in African Queen would have been preferable, we believed.
Mat suggested we move around to the south side of the island where the Gulf winds would keep the mosquitoes off the beach. It was full dark as we came around to the Gulf side. The wind-driven waves were big, and the wind felt good. It would certainly keep our tormenters away. We had a little trouble getting the boat through the heavy surf, but we managed to beach it without taking water over the stern and put the anchor in the sand above the high-tide line. In a short time we had gathered enough driftwood to start a small fire, and as we opened our cans of beef stew, we were confident we had found a simple solution to our pest problem and all would be well. The surf was loud, and the wind strong enough not only to drive the mosquitoes off of the beach, but it also made conversation difficult. We had to shout the simplest observations or comments. When the wind died, we would remember that.
Sometime before midnight the sea breeze fell, and the great expanse of the Gulf became flat calm. We noticed our fire was not bending and throwing sparks into the wind but was burning as quietly as a church candle. We were no longer shouting. It did not take long for the mosquitoes to find us; at first we noticed just a few and thought things wouldn't be too bad, but soon their numbers increased, and they covered us again. Once more we retreated to the water and found some relief sitting in the light surf in water up to our necks. A gentle breeze stirred and kept some mosquitoes away, and when we heard the singing near our ears, we splashed water on our heads. It is not easy to sleep sitting in the surf. If we dozed off, we quickly lost our balance and woke when our heads went under. We stayed awake through the night either sitting in the surf or walking around, back and forth, in water between knee- and waist-deep. If we tried to return to the beach, the mosquitoes drove us back.
With our flashlights we could see crabs, sting rays and schools of small fish. We dove in clumsy attempts to grab flounder that flushed in front of us, and some hours before dawn we kept ourselves awake by chopping needle fish in two with the machete. It did not occur to us that our casual amusement might have been dangerous, that sharks might have been drawn to the blood in the water. The sleepless night seemed endless, and as the eastern sky lightened all three of us talked of heading home. We were very tired, and our plans to explore Cat Island's dark wood seemed folly. Off the beach the mosquitoes would be unbearable. We had neither the burning interest nor the endurance of serious explorers. The islands of Mississippi Sound in 1958, of course, were not the terra incognita of our imaginations, but real discoveries would have to be made by more resolute souls. As the morning sea breeze stirred, we threw ourselves into the boat and headed north to Pass Christian. Sitting in a dry boat felt good. Under a cloudless summer sky we came to the dock shiftless in our bathing suits, tan and fit, looking like real watermen with a few mosquito bites, and we wondered who was watching as we tied up.
THE MISSISSIPPI ARTIST Walter Anderson (1903-1965), called "Bob" by friends and family, was a solitary eccentric whose work has received increasingly serious attention since his death. In 1985 John Russell wrote that his paintings "have a quietly exultant power that puts them among the best American watercolors of their date." Born in New Orleans, Anderson lived most of his life in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. He and his brothers were taken duck hunting by their father in the marshes around New Orleans, and it became clear early in his life that Walter was powerfully drawn to the natural world. His biographer Christopher Maurer (Fortune's Favorite Child: The Uneasy Life of Walter Anderson; Mississippi, 2003) notes that even in grammar school he spent "all of [his] time in class making maps of the lagoons where [he] used to hunt on weekends." As a teenager he suffered the first of many boating mishaps when he was trying to learn to sail and was separated from his small boat in a squall in the Gulf off the mouth of the Pearl River. He spent more than twenty-four hours clinging to a channel beacon, and when his empty boat was discovered, he was presumed dead. He was seventeen, the age we were when we tried to spend a weekend on Cat Island. Early in his life, however, it was obvious that Anderson's "real vocation was art," and his mother, herself an artist, enrolled her talented son in the New York School of Fine and Applied Art (now the Parsons School of Design). From there he went to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The course of Anderson's life was set, and he became one of the most prolific American painters.
His best work, done in the last twenty years of his life, is closely associated with Horn Island. What art historians refer to as his "Horn Island Period" begins around 1947 and ends with his death in the fall of 1965. During those years Anderson frequently visited the barrier islands of the Sound and the Chandeleur Islands. He rowed and sailed a small wooden boat in fair weather and foul, taking meager supplies in garbage cans and bags and water in glass bottles. Horn Island is about ten miles off the coast, south and slightly east of Ocean Springs. Anderson traveled different routes to the island depending on the time of year and the weather. The Chandeleurs are roughly thirty-five miles to the southwest. Here is one account from his logs of a trip to Horn Island:
I reached Fontainebleau Beach [on the mainland] at about ten-thirty. The usual head wind had started, but--at about noon--it seemed to be going down entirely--never was I more mistaken--until it was blowing, not hard but enough to make me sure I shouldn't have started. I took a large swig of water--and--kept on. Fortunately, I had a strong falling tide which backed me up against the wind. I found that I could push and make headway, quartering to the wind. This uses entirely different muscles--and the hands don't blister in the same place--so that on a long row it is a great help (May 9th [1959?]).
As in all of Anderson's accounts of his rowing exploits, this passage contains no vanity, no sense of self-conscious adventuring. None of his traveling was a lark. The islands of Mississippi Sound drew the artist, and he responded with the only means available, his small boat. I find no hint in his logs that he gave much thought to how he looked while doing what was required. He did paint what I take to be a flattering self-portrait, and there are in his logs rare notes of self-consciousness, but in his writing and painting the center of attention is the bird or the crab or white sand and waves, not Walter Anderson. In the years he made the Horn Island paintings, Anderson spent weeks living alone in very primitive conditions, sleeping under his little boat or in a hastily constructed lean-to, enduring clouds of mosquitoes and sand flies, snakebite, sunburn and every kind of weather, including at least one strong hurricane, without complaint. Ruth and I sat through Hurricane Betsy in a small second floor apartment in Hammond, Louisiana, and the airport reported winds of 140 mph. It was not pleasant. Walter Anderson rode out the same storm on Horn Island, wading at night through chest-deep water to a high dune where he writes that he "turned the boat over, camped and slept well until time for coffee." He wrote in his log that Betsy was a "respectable hurricane."
Anderson was not simply fond of primitive camping. He was always trying through close observation and watercolor and drawing to understand, to realize the beauty of the natural world, and to be accepted as part of it. All through the Horn Island Logs the reader is reminded of Anderson's devotion to his work. He never left camp for a walk or a swim without his drawing or painting material. His watercolors and ink drawings were done on ordinary typewriter paper. "I did two watercolors of gallinules"; "I saw and drew the bittern" are typical of the matter-of-fact records he kept.
The offhand way Anderson mentions his work makes it easy to overlook the extreme measures he often took to capture his subject. In the pelican rookery on North Key in the Chandeleurs he was wading among mangroves to get closer to the birds. There is no mention of the smell of fecundity and death pervading the rookery, but this is clearly not a pleasant wading pool: "The water got deeper and the bottom softer, so I got down and crawled with my head out of water and my sketch book on top of my head. I crawled down a long straight stretch with a gradual curve at the end of it and both banks flanked with tiers of pelicans hissing and squawking. I felt a little like Satan returned to his mates from his adventures on earth." Many years later on Horn Island, Anderson was still enduring discomforts that would defeat most of us: "In the afternoon I went thru the bullrush pools to the heron tree, passing a small alligator in the cutoff. The alligator was there. I am here. I could see part of its tail above water. My lower half was in wet mud--the upper half was pushing bullrushes aside so that I could pass between. How then did I pass the alligator--(I think I've passed cottonmouth moccasins in the same place, but I'm not sure)." That he could concentrate on drawing in such surroundings and with such discomfort is most apparent in the following: "I have an open cut on my foot. I thought it was getting along pretty well. I was painting, and it began hurting--Oh lord, it is getting infected. Finally I looked and it was swarming with red ants--getting breakfast--so it is still pretty healthy.... I did several watercolors today--my foot holds me in place so there's nothing to do but paint."
He does complain about gnats and mosquitoes, and his solution was similar to ours on Cat Island. He would get into his boat and move far enough offshore to lose his tormenters. But if that solution was not available for some reason, he noted the nuisance and endured. "The gnats were frightful--there was no wind and [I] felt on fire." Unlike hapless teenaged adventurers, discomfort never made him long for civilization and a soft bed. Anderson never seemed to tire of his days and nights alone on his beloved islands.
Several years after Walter Anderson's death, his son John sailed a small boat to Horn Island, planning to spend two weeks in imitation of his father. Lacking his father's deep interest and connection, he thought he would simply have an adventure. "It would be fun," he wrote. Later he confessed, "It was not fun. Within the first week I was sunburned so severely that I could not lie down. If I had been able to lie down in a rare patch of transient shade, the mosquitoes and flies and ants would have feasted even more mercilessly on my raw flesh. I still carry a memory from that trip of poling my boat across a heat-hazed lagoon wondering if I had not somehow traded places with Charon on the Styx." John Anderson stuck it out for two weeks alone and believes that he understands his father better because of his own island time.
Bill and Mat and I only managed to endure a single night, and if our boat had had running lights, we might not have stayed that long. It is fascinating to realize now that in 1958 Walter Anderson was rowing and sailing all over Mississippi Sound, and that we could have crossed paths with him on the Sound or on Cat Island. I wonder what such a meeting might have been like. I wonder, had we found him camped alone on Cat Island enduring the bugs, if he could have persuaded us to persevere, if he could have revealed to us the beauty that compelled his lonely travel, or if he would have recognized us for the feckless young men we were and run us off.
It has taken me fifty years to see our night on Cat Island with the distance and objectivity that writing requires. The passage of time transforms our past and allows us to find beauty and meaning in what seemed chaotic or disconnected at the time. The worker in prose depends on memory. The artist, on the other hand, works best in the here and now, trying to catch the colors on a dead duck before they fade, attempting to re-create these waves washing this beach at this moment, drawing the bittern as it briefly stands so still. Anderson was trying to catch birds, crabs, snakes and alligators being themselves in a particular place at one moment, and one look at his drawings and watercolors reveals how steady his hand was, how good his eye, how grandly he succeeded. Our boyish desire for adventure proved insufficient to hold us to our goal. Tainted by vanity, our expedition fizzled like a wet firecracker. It is easy and true enough to say that we were not artists, but looking back at our trip I can understand the possibilities of even failed adventure and appreciate the seriousness of the solitary figure rowing the Sound in all weather for long periods of self-exile in search of self-knowledge and clarity.
SEVERAL YEARS AGO I wrote an essay about my medical adventures, beginning with kidney stones in 1967 and at the time ending with cardiac by-pass surgery in 1998. I submitted the essay to a quarterly whose editor had survived cancer. I thought surely my essay would get a sympathetic reading. It did, and it was rejected. The editor said he wanted something more than the account of my medical history. He wanted to publish an essay more personal or more emotional. How was my life different? What regrets? What unrealized dreams? I had no response, because I have tried to avoid self-pity and because I had not at that time given much thought to other lives I might have lived. I think all men have a vision of themselves in old age as still virile and vigorous, aging like old Beowulf and dying perhaps in the midst of bold action. There are such men. I have known one or two, men who were athletes and hunters into their 80s. The literature of blood sports is full of real and fictional and frequently sentimental accounts of death on the hunt. The end to aspire to is not death on the horns of a charging cape buffalo, but the peaceful slipping away in the spring woods while the turkeys are gobbling before frailty and dementia take what we regard as our dignity. When I look at the assortment of pills I am obliged to take morning and evening, I occasionally envy men fifteen or twenty years older than I who take no medicine beyond a daily vitamin.
These days I do miss the pleasures of the beach and the easy and spontaneous interaction with water. If Elizabeth Spencer can wish for the Gulf Coast as it was before Camille, I can wish that I could have the world I had before the summer of 1967--the summer I had a kind of perfect storm of medical problems. The circulation in my legs is bad, and I wear heavy custom-fitted support hose to prevent superficial phlebitis and to try to prevent painful ulcers. Without compression and support, my legs swell. When I go to the beach now, I walk in long pants and sensible shoes. Were I able to revisit Cat Island, I could not simply jump out of a beached boat into shallow water. I cannot easily and without some planning play with my grandchildren in the surf. These are real regrets, because my memories are full of salt water, Spanish moss, the smells of marsh and salt air and fish, the cries of gulls and the croaking of herons. That world, though I am not exactly a stranger to it, is a world you can only enter through water, as Walter Anderson knew so well, and I miss that old and intimate connection, the mud between my toes.
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|Author:||Benson, Robert G.|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2009|
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