The Trees of Mississippi: A Strange and Bitter Crop

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For as long as I can remember, something about traveling to and through the state of Mississippi has put me ill at ease–a feeling that only intensifies with the onset of dusk. Even today, as a grown woman who knows all too well that monsters are just as apt to walk boldly about in the light of day as they are to creep beneath the cover of night, and who fully acknowledges that her home state of Tennessee and damn near all of the rest of the South, if not the nation, owns a history fraught with racial transgressions and malevolent misdeeds against people of color, I still prefer not to let the sun set on me in the Magnolia State.

My Mississippi roots run deep, particularly on my mother’s side of the family. My great-great grandfather, Alford Hawkins, was a well-respected and relatively prosperous Mississippi farmer and landowner. Both my mother and her parents were born in Water Valley, Mississippi, lived in the area for a number of years, and were frequent visitors after their relocation to Memphis, Tennessee–roughly, an hour and a half away by car.

As proud as I am to acknowledge and pay homage to my roots, my actual “on-the-ground” experiences in Mississippi have been few. As a child, I doubt I visited my Water Valley relatives more than a handful of times. The few vivid memories I possess of those visits are laden with equal portions of melancholy and amusement. In the earliest, I remember dissolving into tears and begging to go home on being told that if I wanted to relieve myself, I’d have to go outside to the out-house. As a teen, in the early ‘80s, no less, I can recall looking on in astonishment as a young relative made use of her home phone’s party-line, something until then I’d only experienced via old black and white movies on television. 

While I certainly don’t remember my Mississippi kin ever being anything other than loving and kind, to this day, what has remained a constant with regards to my visits to the state is a smoldering sense of fear, especially on those drives to and from the area. In recent years, I’ve come to suspect my feelings of apprehension have a lot to do with the trees, particularly those that line I-55 once one leaves the southern suburbs of Memphis and enters into Mississippi proper and likewise mark the route in reverse on the trip back.

Something about all those rows and clusters of trees, many of them half-submerged beneath still bodies of water, never fails to spook me. Depending upon the time of year, the tree tops visible above the waterline are lush and full of leafy branches, others are bare, their dark trunks and thick limbs, split, cracked and reaching toward the sky. And yet others, though appearing firmly rooted in the ground, stand huddled together in tight groupings, as if seeking warmth and reassurance from one another. At dusk and on moonlit nights, dark forms emerge from amongst the trees, ghost-like at first before slowly materializing into shapes that are distinctively human. Sometimes they move, not toward me, and never in a threatening manner. But even if I close my eyes, I can sense them there, sure-footed haints as my MaDear (my father’s mother) might call them, darting behind trees and beneath the brush, wading through the still bodies of water, hiding, fleeing, seemingly forever on the run.

More disturbing, perhaps, what I see most often while traveling through Mississippi at night is the stiffly swinging outline of bodies–bodies I know to be black and broken, both the dead and the not yet dead, dangling from the long crooked sprawl of tree limbs. A visual that intellectually I know to be a figment of my overactive imagination, but feels terrifyingly real, so much so I sometimes find tears welling up and leaking from the corners of my eyes. 

What I’m describing is not an aversion to trees in general. If anything, just the opposite is true. On numerous occasions over the course of my life, I’ve sat in the company and shade of a variety of woody perennials. Awkward and clumsy kid that I was, I even managed to scale a few of the suitably forked and amenably trunked trees I happened upon in the yards of friends and relatives. I’ve smiled with delight at the sight of the palm trees adorning the streets of New Orleans and in awe at the towering Angel Oak that I stood beneath while visiting Johns Island in South Carolina. The maple trees that line the streets of my Charlotte, North Carolina neighborhood are never more beautiful and impressive than in the fall when their leaves signal their imminent demise in the most brilliant shades of yellow, orange and red. In recent years, I’ve gone as far as to grace my home with over-sized calendars depicting a wondrous array of trees from all over the world. Thus far, the only trees I’ve ever known to give me the heebie-jeebies are those I’ve encountered in Mississippi.

Not too long ago, the intensity of my feelings became all too apparent. In hopes of further exploring my family’s Water Valley roots, I asked my eighty-some-year-old Uncle Robert–the youngest and sole surviving member of the eight offspring born to my great-grandparents Alberta and Vernon Hawkins–if he’d mind visiting the area with me. So, on December 26, 2017, with my uncle behind the wheel and my husband tagging along for the ride, we set off on the approximately ninety-mile trek from Memphis, Tennessee to Water Valley, Mississippi. 

Thanks to my position in the car’s backseat and my thorough engagement in the three-way conversations taking place between my husband, my uncle, and I, the trees lining I-55 never ventured past my peripheral vision or the outer edges of my mind. But upon reaching Water Valley, my Uncle Robert insisted on taking us on a tour of both the area and the land owned by the Hawkins side of our family. At one point, in search of an old church he wanted to show me, my uncle turned off the paved highway and onto a dirt road that led into a wooded area. 

Gone, suddenly, were the open fields, the smattering of homes and occasional road-side businesses. Gone, as well, were both the sound and the presence of the other vehicles that had been sharing the road with us. Tall trees and thick underbrush hugged both sides of the narrow, uneven path–a path that just barely accommodated the width of my uncle’s late model hooptie.

It was early afternoon. The sun was high and bright in the sky. Given that it was near the end of December, surely, the canopy of the trees could not have consisted of an impenetrable spread of green leaves. So what explained the foreboding darkness I suddenly felt descending upon, around, and within me?

As my unbothered and undeterred uncle drove further yet into the thicket, determined to locate the church he insisted was back there somewhere, I found myself struggling to silence the whispering of my inner pessimist. Best go back while you still can, girl. About the only thing you’re liable to find on such a foolhardy excursion is either a dead-end or a road to hell.

After a minute or two, I leaned forward and interrupted the unsettling hush that had arisen in the car with a series of questions. “Don’t people hunt back here?” (A bullet to the head, whether stray or fully intended, was not at all how I wanted to go out). “What happens if we meet up with a car going in the opposite direction?” (Pulling to the side of the road might send us sliding into an unseen ditch or ravine, if not land us with a flat tire). “I don’t know about this Uncle Robert. Is there even going to be enough room for you to turn around?” (The last thing I wanted was for the car to stall or get stuck and leave us with little option but to get out and walk or in my case, possibly, race past all of those trees.) Thankfully, before my heightened sense of trepidation burst into a full-blown, shriek-filled panic attack, my uncle heeded my pleas to abandon the search and turn back around. 

Sometimes, when thoughts of those trees invade my mind’s eye, I can’t help but wonder what another uncle, my Uncle TC Reese, must have been thinking and feeling in the aftermath of the beating he endured. My uncle TC’s story begins, for me, in Water Valley, Mississippi where he lived and worked until the day (or night) in the early ‘50s when one or more white men took it upon themselves to treat their community’s highly-esteemed black photographer to an unwarranted and unlawful beat-down, before or after which they drove him to the outskirts of town and left him–battered, bruised, and alone to fend for himself. I don’t know many of the specifics of the ordeal. (I chronicled what I do know about my uncle in “Forgotten Images of An Invisible Man: Resurrecting the Art & Memory of Photographer TC Reese,” Mississippi Folklife, Spring 2018). All of my relatives whom I’m told were directly involved in the incident are now deceased. Second hand accounts and my imagination make for a lethal combo, nonetheless. 

 Did the beating occur during daylight hours or on a moonlit night? Did my Uncle TC stare up at those trees and ponder his fate? Did he fear his loved ones might find his limp and lifeless body sprawled near the base of one of those trees or dangling from a rope secured around some unlucky sycamore or oak’s out-stretched limb? Did the sound of his voice echo through the woods in vain as he pleaded for mercy? Screamed in agony? Shouted for help? Wept in despair? Did the haunting lyrics of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” spin on repeat across his mind, like they sometimes do mine when I’m distracted by those trees on my travels through the state? Or did my uncle seek solace in compositions of a more spiritual nature? These days, more often than not, the soundtrack accompanying my own glassy gaze involves verses from songs like “I Want Jesus To Walk With Me” and “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray.”

Of course, given that my Uncle TC, like my Uncle Robert, was raised a Mississippi country boy who came of age beneath those same trees, the possibility exists that even after being assaulted and abandoned among them, he never gave neither their presence nor their proximity so much as a second thought.

Still, for me, there’s just something about the trees of Mississippi. If they could talk, I can only imagine the sadness and horror of their witness and testimony, the sorrow songs they’d sing/shout/moan in tribute to all of those lost souls–souls lost to hate, ignorance, and lies–the vilest of which undoubtedly has to be the insistence of one man’s superiority over another.

Bittersweet, indeed, is the irony that while most members of the Hawkins clan no longer reside in Water Valley, Mississippi, the timber, yes, the trees on my family’s land still generate revenue and have for a number of generations. There’s just something about those trees. 

Lori D. Johnson’s work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Arch Street Press, Chicken Soup For The Soul, Chapter 16, The Root and Mississippi Folklife. She lives in Charlotte, NC, but considers Memphis, TN home. To learn more, visit her blog: Lori’s Old School Mix.

Image Credit:  “Maple Leaves” by Mae Raines
Read by Lori D. Johnson

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