*This is the final in a series of four chronicling a journey of living outside one’s comfort zone and trying to discover a new path. An artist in residency at the Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee and Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi confronted and educated while teaching acceptance.
This is my red recording chair. It sits on the backyard deck of my Refuge home. The house resides near the water’s edge with large trees hiding its contents. Unaware of its creatures, they are fully aware of my presence.
For numerous days, I documented the sounds at 6 am, noon, 6 pm, and midnight. The recordings last for 6 minutes each. I sit still not reacting to the bugs resting on my face, arms, and legs. Sometimes a snake moves through the grass, a fox prances by, frogs chirp, birds gossip, or leaves wrestle. The audio can capture my breath, a belly rumble, and an occasional slap from a persistent critter. They are real, raw, and accessible like this world.
A passage replayed in my mind during the Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee and Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge artist residency. I used it as my guide for artwork inspiration. It was from a book by H.B. Cushman titled History of the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez Indians. In 1820, Cushman lived in the Choctaw nation in Mississippi with missionary parents. His first hand accounts are an invaluable historical and respectful account.
Cushman describes a Choctaw philosophy about life and death: “They also believed that spirits of the dead, after their flight from the top of the pole to the unknown world, had to cross a fearful river which stretched its whirling waters athwart their way; that this foaming stream has but one crossing, at which a cleanly peeled sweet-gum log, perfectly round, smooth and slippery, reached from bank to bank; that the moment the spirit arrives at the log, it is attacked by two other spirits whose business is to keep any and all spirits from crossing thereon. But if a spirit is that of a good person, the guardians of the log have no power over it, and it safely walks over the log to the opposite shore, where it is welcomed by other spirits of friends gone before, and where contentment and happiness will forever be the lot of all.”
After reading the above passage, I started to visualize how this would appear. I could see and hear his words in the Refuge’s trees, water, air, and light. This natural environment carried the energy and remnants of this history.
What would the “flight from the top of the pole” look like?:
Before leaving Mississippi, I visited the Trading Post. According to the Historical Sketches of Oktibbeha County, it was called a Choctaw Agency “…for the purpose of doing business with and keeping in touch with the Choctaws.” Steve Reagan, Noxubee Project Leader and local Larry Box provided an amazing tour. Florence Box provided photocopies of Choctaw writings ranging from a 1925 educator guide to detailed descriptions of tales and legends.
Mr. Box escorted us in an all terrain vehicle through untouched and dense forest to our location. Stepping out, we maneuvered through thorns, pine needles, crowded timber and crossed a small dam. Persistent thunder and mosquitos kept pace. We arrived at a clearing on higher ground with a large and elderly tree. This was a place of significance for the Choctaws and held secrets. At that moment, Mr. Box gave me three arrowheads from this land.
I was shocked and grateful. Experiencing this history was the gift. However, to be given physical remnants was overwhelming. This generosity was stunning.
That evening, I rigged a black plastic spoon purchased at the Dollar General during my Choctaw visit to a long stick. Raced back to the Bluff Lake Boardwalk to see if Susan O’Malley’s pin would appear in the muddy waters. This was the last attempt of several unsuccessful retrievals before leaving.
To my surprise, its metal glowed with the setting sun. Scooped it out after the third vicarious try. It had lost its bright red and green color. Now it was purple and pink with a spot in the middle. It peered like an eye similar to the energy here. Even when it appears calm, there’s an undertone of unsettled business. This was my Mississippi.