Heart of the Delta

Discovering the back pages of John Pritchard's world.

(page 3 of 6)


The Levee

Around noon John and I come to a stop and step out of the car. The sky is large and pale blue. Shadows from the clusters of clouds above us pass quickly. The air carries the aromas of soil, and the faint, raw smells of farming and livestock. And it carries all of this up the grassy slope to the top of the Mississippi River levee where John and I now stand.

Looking east, with my back to the river, the fabled flatland of the Mississippi Delta cotton country stretches to the horizon. The deep green of the fields covers the plain, except where the earth and soil are visible on their edges. Tan hard-packed turn rows run among these, lined with fences and farm equipment. Copses of trees stand like dark green massifs, and in the distance on the horizon, blue in the haze, is the outline of the Loess Hills.

“The river’s right over here,” John says, pointing west, away from the farmland. Here, the slope of the levee descends into a thick forest that blocks the river from view. He refers to this as the bateau side, French for “boat,” or the wet side in English.

“Now, here’s the woods on the other side of the levee,” John says. “They’re wild. It’s where they hunt the deer and the turkey. This is where the 13-foot alligators were cruising around when that water was right up …” and he finishes this by pointing to the edge of the gravel road we are standing on. He was referring to the high river stages of 2011 that flooded several places around Memphis.

“You know, this last flood,” he says, “the dad-gum water was twenty feet higher than the top of their houses on the other side of the levee. George was sleeping with a dadgum rubber raft. He had an inflatable raft and a life-jacket: He was ready to go.”

We had driven past his friend George’s place only a few minutes earlier, and the levee had seemed such a natural part of the countryside I had forgotten why it was there. Even driving along the top, the view is so pastoral that the image of water breaking through it into the valley below — the way it did in 1927 — seems unimaginable. But the image came to mind of the swollen banks of the Mississippi slowly climbing into downtown Memphis in the spring of 2011 — and the miles of inland sea it created in Arkansas.

Here, though, out in the heat and humidity, the wildness of the landscape is nearer. This is a place where I could imagine the water rising, the alligators swimming through the flooded woods, climbing the bateau slope to where we now stand.

The levee is the great wall the landowners built to keep out the invading force of the dispossessed Mississippi River. That river is the key to all of the riches of the land, and the great enemy of the planters. The river watches and waits like an exiled king, taking advantage of any weakness to reclaim his lost land.

“If it had busted at his house,” John says, “it would have been like Niagara and it would have been all over — whop!”

“I love high water,” he adds, “'cept when it’s in your house.”



The People Who Came Before

"Okay,” John says, pulling the car off the highway and onto the hard-packed easement of a small field. “We’re going to park right there and I’m going to look instantly and see if I can find you a piece of an Indian pot. Let’s leave the motor running.”

I get out of the car to see John bending over, staring at the ground. Nearby are rows of waist-high, leafy green stalks. John tells me it’s a corn field, but that the crops are rotated. “Sometimes it’s cotton — sometimes it’s beans,” he says, examining the ground. Behind us, the hot engine’s fan begins to whir loudly over the sound of its mechanical hum.

“They’ve all busted them up so much these days,” he says. “The equipment the planters use is so heavy.”

I follow him, looking over the ground he is inspecting, not knowing what to look for. All I can see are dirt clods, pebbles, and a shotgun shell.

“Oh,” John cries, and then approaches me with something in his open palm. “Here you go: piece of an Indian pot.” He holds up what looks like a chunk of dirt. He then wipes it off on his shorts, and lifts it up again. I can see a salmon color on the object’s surface beneath the bright tan of the dirt still clinging to it in the sun. The edges are sharp and layered in grains and the reverse side is slate grey.
“It’s probably Woodland pottery,” John says. “It’s probably about twelve hundred years old.”

I am stunned. We had found an artifact of a lost civilization almost as easily as we might have found an empty beer bottle.

“Wait, what am I saying? It’s probably about twenty-three hundred years old,” he says. “Some of them have a little color in them — like this,” and John lifts up his hands to reveal a dozen little bits of broken pottery, covered in dust.

“I’m trying to find you a rim piece,” he says, walking in among the crops.

“Well, thirty years ago, forty years ago, you’d get big pieces,” he says, “but I can’t find a rim piece. It wouldn’t be untoward to find a nice projectile point for you, but we really shouldn’t be here. I used to ask the permission of the Johnson boys, but here’s hoping they don’t come by here.” I think of the shotgun shell I had found a moment earlier.
“That’s a piece,” John finally says. “That’s a rim.” He lifts a small shard into view.

“It’s pretty teensy,” he says, “but you see what I mean; it’s the lip of the rim.” And I can see what he means.

The piece he holds up is barely larger than the tip of my thumb, but I can see the intentionality and purpose behind it. It is small and worn, but the curve of the lip is just visible enough to betray the humanity that had crafted it. I am being introduced to the people who had once lived here — one more in a long line of visitors.

Back in the car John drops the pieces he found into my cupped hands. “Wash them off when you get home,” he tells me. “I’m sorry we couldn’t have gotten a nice big rim piece,” he says, “but a rim piece we got.”


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