My mother sets a pitcher of water on the white-topped formica table. Morning light pours through the kitchen window. A cluster of sunbeams pierces the small divide between the curtains, tracks along the table’s surface, and finds the pitcher. Suddenly, everything is caught in its brilliance. The water: alive. Alive with individual specks of brightness still dancing in the whirled force of the tap, luminescent filaments charged with energy and grace and beauty, like snow falling through sunlight, like fireflies sparking in a bank of fog, like the last dogwood blossoms drifting down the river. And as momentary. The dance inside slows, the momentum of the water dying against the hard container, becoming still. Then it is over. A cloud must have passed overhead for the light from the window fades. And the pitcher of water grows brown again, the usual color, darker than the white table, than the clouds outside, than even the blue sky.

This is my first memory of water.

It is true: the tap water in my little Mississippi Delta town was brown—somewhere between fulvous and fuscous—some tone out of an old sepia photograph. Not as dark as the water which ran in the creek bed outside my window, but disturbingly similar. It was always so, the water of my youth, like an accepted fact of natural science—the sun yellow, the trees green, the water brown.

Sometime just before my teenage years, on a trip to middle Tennessee, I believe, I was shocked to realize that clear water ran from spigots in other towns and regions. Once home, I seemed to finally join the hidden effort in our house to avoid drinking plain water at every opportunity. Instead, my father stocked an extra fridge with Fanta, Barq’s, and NuGrape, milk and cranberry juice, anything but a clear pitcher filled from the tap. There were disguises, too, but Kool-Aid and lemonade always looked a little wrong—the tint not what the manufacturers intended. College came before I could break the habit of shunning water as a beverage, yet sometimes, my old avoidance returns and I have to force myself to pour a glass with every meal.

When I first brought my wife down into the Delta, to her a strange and surreal place, and gave her a tour of where I was reared, we stopped at a little convenience store outside my neighborhood. Instinctually, I grabbed a soft drink from the cooler, but she asked for water. The polite cashier took a cup full of ice to the tap and ran my wife a glass. She put a lid on it and handed it to my unsuspecting visitor.

My wife slid a straw in the slit. The cashier and I both watched as she took the first sip. A faint look of perturbation was followed by a shudder.

“It has texture,” she whispered to me confidentially.

My wife removed the lid from the styrofoam cup, and as she peered into its contents, an expression of disbelief crawled across her features.

She stammered, “I think something’s wrong with your water.” And at that moment, the cashier and I laughed like two conspirators, though I had never met her—two people long conditioned to bad water.

This was the water with which I was christened, moistening my brow as an infant, and then once again, when I was twelve and asked to be immersed at the Baptist Church. I had been moved by the spirit at my first revival. And besides, all my friends were doing it.

My white robe dragged the ground and nervousness gathered in my belly as we shuffled in line, about eight of us, waiting to have our sins washed from us. The sound of the first initiate descending the steps into the baptismal pool reached me in the back. Auspicious words were spoken in a grave tone, but I recall none of these. More, I remember the sound of the water gently accepting a whole person under its surface and the dripping of it back into the pool afterward. When no one was left before me, I looked down into the tank and saw the water, the same brown water which had always been present, running from hoses and fountains, flowing in the ditches and streams outside, and wondered how this was different from the rest. How was it unique? How was it holy? As I descended, oblivious to the crowd in the sanctuary, I was fascinated at the stained water drawing into the fabric of my white robe, climbing higher and higher with every step into the pool until it rose to my chest. Then the preacher’s hand covered my eyes.


Outside my bedroom window in Leland, Mississippi, ran in its bed Deer Creek. My true homewater. Technically not a creek, it is a distributary of the Mississippi River, or was, before the river changed its course. Today, it leaves Lake Bolivar, near the village of Scott, and flows over 100 miles to its mouth, where it merges with an artificial channel of the Yazoo River. Its course traces the heart of the Mississippi Delta.

The opposite of a tributary, which feeds a greater waterbody, a distributary disengages from the mother stream and carries some of its flow and power to another recipient, often to open water. Such a stream provides an outlet for energy in a flood, spreading the overflow into a larger region. In this sense, it is at once abandonment and dominion. A feature somewhat common in larger river deltas, it is unusual for a distributary to return to the mother stream, and for this reason, Deer Creek is a rarity: it carries its waters down to the Yazoo River which in turn gives them back to the Mississippi, completing the circle. Now cut off from its source, the stream of my childhood will one day regain its purpose; the Mississippi wandering over the flatland will find its old channel in Lake Bolivar and then my homewater, as it was made in the past, will again be simultaneously a departure and a homecoming.

As it winds its way through the flatland, Deer Creek is the center of many Delta towns and villages—Leland, Hollandale, Rolling Fork, and others—my town among them. Its banks are often turned into small town parks, landscaped with blossoming trees, where the Delta residents take daily strolls or celebrate annual festivals. Chief among Deer Creek’s reputation in the Delta is the tradition of decorating it at Christmas time. After Thanksgiving in Leland, trees of colored lightbulbs on triangle metal frames cast their reflections over the water, punctuating the evening yuletide darkness in greens, reds, and blues. Tethered to the shore are floats depicting Biblical scenes or the season’s icons: wisemen, snowmen, and even angels. While puttering on my family’s many ten mile-per-hour tours of the creek during Advent, my mother always remarked that her favorite was the nativity scene which, I believe, was sponsored by the First National Bank. Baby Jesus and Mother Mary among the catfish and gar. Here, Santa Claus is not encountered in the local mall, he floats down the creek on a prescribed day, inanimate reindeer in mid-course, pulled by a johnboat. He tosses candy to throngs of waiting children on the shore.

This was my world in childhood, where every day had a red letter, where all my firsts came to pass. I hooked, cooked and ate my first fish from these waters—a small mudcat, foul-tasting even in victory. I learned to shoot a gun here, a 12 gauge which I aimed at cans and compressed air canisters, lobbed from my father’s hand into the middle of the creek. I tasted my first kiss on its banks at the age of twelve, under a young pecan tree.

The creek was the great adventure of my childhood, as was the case with all the children of our squat sixties neighborhood of brick ranches that bordered its banks. We camped on its shores, we hiked its length as far as our legs would take us, we paddled it in an abandoned johnboat taking turns with a broken paddle. When it rained, we made mud slides like beavers down its steep banks and rode on our bellies until we splashed headfirst. We trapped small mammals for study, though our original designs were to grow rich from the fur trade. We caught insects for our collections beneath the single street light beside my house. We daydreamed of the unseen treasures we knew were buried in Indian mounds on its banks, yet we were always too skittish to dig for fear of curses. In the summers, we floundered in its shallowness, and once, during the coldest snap of my youth, though forbidden, we crossed its frozen surface on foot, heeding every pop and creak with trepidation and serving as lookouts for our parents. Had the color of the water the ability to stain permanently, we would have been brown from head to toe before we were thirteen. And only our parents would have cared.

Knowing it so well as a child—every bend, every tree for miles—I was startled to discover a simple and singular fact as an adult. The water of the Delta, the water of my town, the water of Deer Creek had not always been so brown. Once, the waters of my region were almost as translucent as any other, a discovery as much to my surprise as was the discovery of clear waters elsewhere. I remember stumbling across the quotation while in the library, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the aisle, reading from John James Audubon. In 1820, at the mouth of the Delta’s principal river, he observed, “The Yazoo River flowed a Beautifull Stream of transparent Watter, Covered with 1000ds of Geese & Ducks and filled With Fish.” At the end of the sentence, the book dropped from my hands into my lap, and my mouth gaped in my struggle for comprehension. Really?

The March 28, 1863 edition of Harper’s Weekly contains more evidence as to the historical clarity of Delta waters. In an article entitled “The New Outlet to the Gulf,” the writer offers a brief description of the navigability of many of the region’s watercourses and their military importance in the current war. In the central section of the report, the author’s analysis glows with praise:

By means of a short canal cut through the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, 8 miles below Helena and 3.26 miles from Cairo, and near where De Soto first stood on its bank, the waters of the river are let into Moon Lake, a beautiful sheet of clear water in the midst of forest trees. From this lake runs a rapid, crooked, and narrow stream, Yazoo Pass, uniting with the Coldwater River. This river, after a tortuous course of about 40 miles, empties into the Tallahatchie River, and this about 50 miles father south, unites with the Yallabusha River. These rivers together form the Yazoo—a river of fine navigable qualities, being deep, clear, and tranquil, and flowing through an extensive region of highly-productive cotton plantations.

Adding to this J.C. Burrus’ description from the Bolivar County Democrat’s February 23, 1923 edition, I had a better grasp of the Mississippi Delta’s water quality in the nineteenth century. In an essay entitledMy Recollections of the Early Days of Bolivar County,” the former Confederate soldier and later judge recalls the condition of Delta waters just before the turn of the century: “Our lakes and bayous, which were nearly all clear running streams at this time, were teeming with fish. In winter wild fowl, swan, sand hill crane, wild geese, and a variety of ducks were here in vast num­bers; while the wild pigeons in countless millions, when the mast was plentiful, passed overhead.”

Of course, not all observers will agree. One Anson De Puy Van Buren, a tourist from Michigan to the Delta in 1859, stated flatly, “There are no clear streams here,” and he described the process by which our water gained its muddy reputation: “The rain dripping off these ridges [the Yazoo Bluffs], mingling with the soil as they go, turn torrents of muddy water into the gullies which tumble it headlong into the rivers . . . They are all roily and of lazy current.” He was partially right, though his opinion was formed with limited experience. Similar to other rivers, Delta watercourses of old followed a predictable pattern: muddying during the winter and spring rains which were loaded with upland silt, yet clarifying in the dry summer and fall. Visiting during the winter, Van Buren was witness to the first half of the pattern. We have now lost the completion of that cycle.

What happened was the second half of the twentieth century, specifically the Green Revolution: the reinvention of American agriculture on the industrial scale, with the hallmarks of increased use of heavy machinery, widespread establishment of irrigation, and intensive applications of chemical fertilizer and pesticides. The initial success of such a policy, combined with the removal of sharecropping labor from the plantation, encouraged farmers to unify operations, turning once more-diversified farms into vast monocultures and increasing the total acreage under cultivation. The Delta of today is the product of fifty years of the industrial ideal, and it bears little resemblance to the Delta of yesterday.

But the industrial ideal did not account for many problems, and one of the flies in the ointment was erosion—simply put, the reason my homewaters are so brown. Every winter and spring, the rains comes to the relief of the residents parched by dry autumn, but they pour too over the bare fields, often plowed up to the very edge of the nearest waterbody, and the soil escapes its purported owner, slides into the water, and clouds the brake, the bayou, the river. Every rain is another injury. So, in the scant space of a half century, the waters of the Mississippi Delta, as an industrial agricultural region, changed colors, choking with suspended solids and suffering turbidity.


What I remember most vividly about my first twenty years spent on Deer Creek is not camping, swimming, or even eating my first fish. The image most tangible, most present still after my time away from the creek, is learning my first bird. More than likely, it was not the original bird I was taught to call by name; there were assuredly others: the common blackbirds, cardinals, bluejays, and woodpeckers. But it was the first bird I remember by instruction and the first experience of watching a bird for no other reason than doing so. The lessons of the other birds, the backyard species, simply did not register in my young memory. The bird was a great egret, and it was my mother who did the teaching, a teacher by profession, a lover of books and birds. She was not an ornithologist, amateur or otherwise. She didn’t even own a pair of binoculars, used them rarely, and when she did, she borrowed my father’s. It was her habit, though, to walk alone the creekbank mornings and evenings and watch the wading birds if she could find any, and finally, one spring morning, she relented on my request to follow and stand silently by the muddy water while she scanned the far creekside.

The dew wet my shoes as I strayed from the front walk, veering into the front lawn, and my mother herded me back to her side with only a raised eyebrow. The blue chat gravel of Pecan Street crunched loudly as we crossed the road in the silence of dawn, and the sound made me self-conscious of my footsteps. We paused under her dogwood (that’s what my family called it, for my father had planted it on the top of the creekbank for her when the house was built) and the tree was getting past full bloom, white petals releasing from their peduncles and floating gently through the already humid air and carpeting the ground beneath. We stood on that white carpet. A haze of thin fog hung over the brown water. Deliberately, with the care of one who understands the importance of a moment, she knelt her thin frame beside me, wrapped her arm around the top of my back, and cupped my shoulder with her hand, aiming my vision in the right direction. She pointed into the fog at the western bank.

“There,” she said. “There,” she repeated patiently. “A crane.” She called it a crane like all the others of her place and generation, and it would be nearly twenty years before I revised her lesson and learned to call the bird a great egret.

The white angular bird stood on a downed tree which was half-submerged in the water. I must have gasped or made some other small noise which disturbed the bird’s search for a meal, for it bent its knees, outstretched its wide wings, and lifted off the log with the laborious effort of the beginning of flight. What happened next is the moment most real out of the lesson of my first bird; it is the image of the white bird flying upstream, lifting itself above the fog, its whiteness incandescent against the backdrop of the dark trees lining the creek, not yet lit by the morning sun.

This is the bird in my head. This is the bird cemented into the back of my brain. The archetype, the synecdoche for every bird I have ever known.

My mother was always a little afraid of Delta water, didn’t like me swimming in it, or eating its fish, or loping at its edges for fear of the cottonmouths. She was the one who forbade me to cross the creek’s ice in wintertime and then stood wounded and worried at the top of the creekbank when she caught me already across on the other side. She shrank from the smell of the cropdusters which banked over the house on their way from one field to the next or the mosquito trucks which crept down our dead-end gravel road and unhurriedly turned around, fogging us twice. She distrusted the Delta, thought it dangerous, feared the pesticides and herbicides we were exposed to almost daily, and tried in some ways to protect me from it, though she loved the birds and thought them beautiful.

I took many other birding walks with my mother down the creekbank, and remember some of them well, but through all my time with her only two other species stood out: the great blue and little blue herons, both typical to the Delta. I do not have specific memories of learning those two. And this is a problem for me: remembering one lesson and forgetting all the rest. I am suspect of my selective memory for what seems to me a good reason. It is the purity of the scene that I distrust—the white petals falling, the white wings flapping, my mother idealized in her instruction. But as far as I can tell, it is the truth, and I have never discovered evidence that would make my doubt fully blossom.

After I left for college, only a few hours away in the hills but out of the Delta, the walks down the creek would be fewer. I returned, the connections running deep, yet reveled in my nascent adulthood and freedom too. I was unaware, though, that my time to watch the birds from the banks of Deer Creek wouldn’t last. The red brick ranch, the last house situated on the little archipelago of subdivision jutting into the cotton fields, the home my father built for his family, the one perched at the edge of the creek, would be my home only a little longer. The ties to my native place began to fray after my mother died.

There was a tremendous silence around our house that I couldn’t comprehend during my childhood. My parents made the regrettable decision not to tell me, their youngest, that she had endured a long battle with breast cancer, and by her second bout, when it was too late, their revelation came all too suddenly. Piecing the clues together now, hindsight is clear—the trips out of town when I would stay with friends for the weekend, the sudden absence of my parent’s regular dinner guests, the cancellation of my mother’s bridge night, the empty chair at the breakfast table—but at the time, in my self-absorption, I had little notion of what was transpiring. My parents kept the secret from me, in what must have been a terrible privacy, and thought it protection.

I mistook sickness and absence for normalcy for other reasons. We weren’t the only family with troubles on our street. The whisper of the word cancer, for it was something not discussed openly, was happening in other homes in our neighborhood. Two friends of my mother’s followed her in death from breast cancer, one of them my fifth-grade teacher who lived a few houses down. Different cancers struck men too: a researcher at the crop experiment station who worked with chemicals and another man at the head of the street whom I barely knew. In the span of a few years, the weight of disease was borne by the whole neighborhood.

Returning in the summer for the first time after my mother’s death, to visit my father, my home on Deer Creek he was about to sell, and a few remaining friends, I ambled down the same bank, past the dogwood tree, that my mother and I had taken all the years of my childhood. At the end of the trail, pausing to scan for egrets and seeing none, I finally realized that my Delta time was coming to a close.

But it took a few years still before I would no longer consider myself a resident, understanding that my infrequent trips into the flatland were merely postponing the inevitable, and that I didn’t wish for this place to be my home any longer. I concocted a fishing trip with my last Delta friend, but plans fell through, as they sometimes do, at the last minute. I drove anyway, deciding instead to walk the streets of my childhood down Cotton Row, the main street of Leland, maybe have a shake at the drug store, and see if I could rekindle something already waning. A fondness, perhaps. Downtown, I picked up the little weekly newspaper to read the town gossip and the obits—to keep up in what little way I could. The headline read “Fish Kill in Creek.” On the previous Monday, there had been such extensive damage that the police chief later said, “It looked like every fish in Deer Creek had been killed.” The article assured readers that the mayor was concerned and that the police chief had called the Department of Environmental Quality. A week afterward, a writer for the larger paper out of Greenville dubbed the cause “mysterious forces,” but everyone, despite the whispers, silences, and missing knowledge, knew the reasons why such things happened in the Delta.

I would find out later that it was the largest fish kill ever recorded in Mississippi. Over 150,000 fish were poisoned in my Deer Creek and the kill stretched over twelve miles, running right past my former home. Deep in my viscera, a sickness grew with the feeling that this place was ruined, my childhood closing with so much death, the darkness claiming a part of my family, too. I knew then I had been raised in a poisoned place.

Unlike my Deer Creek, I would not return home again.