Sustainability, as I tell students, is about the perseverance of hope through the manifestation of change. I recently returned from my first journey to the American South, to Mississippi, a place I’d regarded as one with as many tears in its cultural canvas as a used-up target on the firing range. Northern-born and Western-bred, I’d never thought, not even considered, that I might one day take a holiday there–how could anyone relax in a place where millions of African and Caribbean people were enslaved, marched in chains to the New South of Mississippi from the Confederate nexus of Virginia and the Carolinas, where civil rights took gut-wrenching twists for the worst? These are the tropes I grew up with, and a number more that were drenched in religious and cultural biases and prejudices. Upon reflection, while these historical narratives exist, I can certainly point out similar atrocities hitched to the history of my beloved Southwest. Is any location truly free of historical blight?
After landing at the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport in Jackson, Mississippi, I took up my rental car, happy to be called Ma’am and have doors opened for me by people half my age. The young agent engaged me in conversation. He was interested in where I was heading and why and whether I had the proper route down in my mind. Not once did he or any other person I encountered say “no problem” when I thanked them. I’ve frequently not experienced that level of interest in my doings from dinner companions, much less rental-car agents. This was a very good start to Mississippi, and an impression that stayed with me throughout the trip.
Ole Miss–the University of Mississippi, in Oxford–to my utter surprise, houses the nation’s foremost natural products research center and the only federally funded cannabis research and growing program in the United States and has done so since 1968. I’d come to join my husband at the 13th International Conference on the Science of Botanicals, hosted by the Natural Products Research Center at the University.
As a writer, my visits to the homes of William Faulkner, Rowan Oak, and Eudora Welty wildly enriched my understanding of these two favorite authors and their works. I immediately reread pieces when I came home, and what a difference in my capture of their exquisite sense of setting and character. When I thought a bit more on this, I realized how many Southern writers influenced me as a young woman–how had I never thought of that body of work as deeply rooted in place, I’m not sure. while I’d eagerly consumed their descriptions of place, I’d not really, I do not think, gripped and tussled with the issues as I would have had I known first-hand about the context of their stories.
It was unnerving to witness the enshrinement of the Confederacy in Mississippi, but enlightening to see the vividly upheld sentiment of “the War of Northern Aggression,” the term Confederate apologists still use, said my guides, friends, and colleagues, Drs. Curtis and Heather Coats. It twisted me in knots to see how little funding and effort went into preserving Forks in the Road Slave Market, one of the major slave-market sites of the South, especially when compared to the almost grotesque worship of every commanding officer involved in the battle of Vicksburg, bronze busts of their uniformed selves on plinths lining the sixteen miles of roads in the battlefield park. At the market site, there’s a peeling sign, a manacle still anchored into the ground, and lots of sorrowful energy to go around as cars whiz by and through the y-junction of roads. Efforts are underway to commemorate this place, as an educational tool, but also as a part of Mississippian culture and history. As the blog Preservation in Mississippi says, “It ain’t all moonlight and magnolias.”
When I think of the South now, I think of a different sort of sustainability–of spirit, faith, traditions, all those things that go into the make-up of what we think of as home, blotchy and troubled, beautiful and comforting, all at once. The people I met and the environments I walked in held the perseverance of hope through the manifestation of change, be it sometimes far too slow for our liking.