Monday, October 29, 2018


Red clay hills near Brandon, Mississippi

A friend of mine recently told me that I have a migratory spirit, and I have to agree with him. ‘Seems like when I’m in Sewanee, Tennessee, I make at least six visits to sites in surrounding states during my six-month sojourn. When I’m in Louisiana, I search for places to explore in Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas. I know the old adage, “A rolling stone gathers no moss,” but the idea of becoming a mossback has no appeal for me either. Last week, I stopped in Meridian, Mississippi to visit the MAX Arts Center there and had an envee to stay awhile but continued on to Louisiana. Since that visit to the magnolia state, I’ve been yearning to return to the birth site of my maternal great-grandmother in Brandon, Mississippi.

This morning I was reading an old edition of Off the Beaten Path published by the Reader’s Digest, and I discovered a notation about Flora, Mississippi, site of a Mississippi petrified forest. A photograph of what I call “frozen red dirt” had been placed beside the article, and I developed pangs to explore the only petrified forest east of the Rockies created from remains of primeval forests — driftwood buried in and preserved by silt and sand. I looked at the picture “long and long” before putting it on a list that I’d made to satisfy my migratory spirit. The photo showed deeply-eroded cliffs studded with petrified logs. According to the article in Off the Beaten Path, the red sands that identify them to me as “frozen red dirt” were river deposits in which the petrified process had begun —the vivid red dirt fascinated me.

Brown Cotton and Red Dirt by Karen Bourque

In 2017 I asked my friend Karen Bourque, glass artist in Church Point, Louisiana, to create a glass piece that I could photograph for a book of poetry I’d written entitled Sifting Red Dirt, and she gifted me with her version of Mississippi hills around Brandon, Mississippi where my maternal great-grandmother was born. The book contained a collection of poems about my forebears (the red dirt side that balances out my Cajun side).

After seeing the photo of the petrified forest in Flora (near Jackson, Mississippi), I went out on the glass porch where I keep some of Karen’s art and stood before the glass piece she entitled “Brown Cotton and Red Dirt.”

“We have to make a trip to a petrified forest in Mississippi,” I told my traveling companion, Dr. Victoria Sullivan. “The spirits of my Mississippi ancestors must be hovering in that area. The petrified formations are 36 million years old.”

“Your ancestors’ spirits hover everywhere,” she said. “They’re ubiquitous. Where are we going now?”

“Flora, Mississippi. It’s near Jackson.”

“Population under 2000, I’m sure.”

“How did you guess? I know you like cities, but the most interesting places are those less frequented.”

“Your ancestors were country hicks on both sides. They must have been afraid of tall buildings,” she said.

“It’s important to visit places that carry the spirit of your cultural identity,” I retorted.

Dr. Sullivan sighed and went to the computer. As publisher of most of my poetry writings, she keeps a file of photos that appear on the covers of my books, so I knew why she had sought out her computer. 

Pandora C. Runnels Greenlaw

“It’s under Sifting Red Dirt,” I instructed, and before I could continue, she brought up the photo that had been the model for Karen’s glass piece. “Just think about how arresting that frozen red dirt will be on another cover.” I began to recite the first few verses of “Pandora’s Legacy” (That was great-grandmother’s name, but she shortened it to Dora. As far as my family knows, she was pure-dee redneck, but whence the name “Pandora”??)


Great Grandmother Dora Runnels
planted her feet in red dirt,
her happiness, not of this earth;
in barren places among soughing pines
she rode a path to martyrdom,
her boots making snail tracks in dust,
the traveling feet of a missionary,
a pilgrim marching toward Calvary.

The night I was born
she disappeared into earth
leaving me faded photographs,
the promise of another light beckoning.
She was an old woman gone mute,
puffs of red dust sifting into a grave,
the past slipping between her fingers
passing on her love, a bidding to me.

Dora Runnels knew her way
through red clay hills,
remote light guiding her,
narrow rails through empty towns.
Her life, now a silent movie reel
out of focus, slowly unwinds
each time I pass red mounds
and fallen needles…”

There are five more verses to this elegy, and as I re-read it, I pencil in “Flora” on my wander list, knowing that I may not be lingering in New Iberia beyond November before taking a trip. As I quoted in the epigram of Sifting Red Dirt: “As though memory/were a large orchestra/without a repertoire/till it began.” Erratic Facts, Kay Ryan

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