Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Faulkner and the "Doomed Wilderness" of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Faulkner and the "Doomed Wilderness" of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta

Article excerpt

WHILE WILLIAM FAULKNER IS RECEIVING GROWING RECOGNITION AS AN environmental writer, the historical acuteness of his vision has yet to be fully appreciated. (1) The best-known example of the theme of human-induced environmental change in Faulkner's work is, of course, "The Bear," an account of a black bear hunt in the river bottoms of the northwestern part of his fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Seen through the eyes of the young hunter Isaac McCaslin, the hunted animal, affectionately known as "Old Ben," turns into "a phantom, epitome and apotheosis of the old wild life which the little puny humans swarmed and hacked at in a fury of abhorrence and fear like pygmies about the ankles of a drowsing elephant" (Go Down, Moses 142). When the symbol of the primeval forest is finally killed, he falls, together with his assailants, "all of a piece, as a tree falls," anticipating the clear-cutting not only of Major de Spain's "four or five sections of river-bottom jungle" but also of nearly all of the old-growth forest in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta (Go Down, Moses 178, Reivers738). Though Lawrence Buell has pointed out that we certainly do not "do full justice to the place of the natural world in Faulkner's work merely by inventorying landscape items and proving their historical or geographical accuracy" (3), my essay nevertheless attempts to juxtapose Faulkner's fictional portrayal of the human takeover of the Mississippi bottomlands with the documented lumbering history of the Delta and to credit him for his work as an instinctive but accurate student of the region's natural and environmental history. (2) Faulkner's portrayal of the human takeover of the bottomland hardwood forest ecosystem, from Go Down, Moses in 1942 to The Reivers in 1962, furthermore demonstrates his deep and consistent concern about environmental degradation in the 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. …

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