ONE MONDAY MORNING, when I was in elementary school, when my grandfather was still alive, my teacher told our class to draw a picture of something that had happened to us over the past weekend. She made us stand in front of the class and tell the story behind our drawing. I drew a picture of a Mississippi River tugboat’s narrow bunk room with its round portholes. I drew my grandma and grandpa sitting on a bunk. My teacher told me I wouldn’t get credit for the assignment because I had made it up, that there was no way I had spent the last weekend on a tugboat on the Mississippi River. She told me this in front of the class, and everyone laughed that I had been caught in a lie.
My parents divorced when I was six and they got joint custody of me, which they interpreted literally, so I spent Monday and Wednesday nights with my father, Tuesday and Thursday nights with my mother, and weekends with my grandma, who lived next door to my mother. My dad lived only a mile from my mother and my grandma, and throughout the week I traveled from one house to the next. I don’t think that from the time I was six until I was in college I slept more than three nights in a row under the same roof.
My grandfather worked on a tugboat on the Mississippi River. On weekends the boat docked at the nearest port, and if this town happened to be anywhere within three or four hours’ drive of her house in northwest Tennessee, my grandma loaded me in the car on Saturday morning and we drove either south into Mississippi or Arkansas, or north into Missouri or Kentucky to spend the night with my grandfather, sleeping on narrow spare bunks as the anchored boat swayed with the current and the rise and fall of the river stage. We woke in the morning as the sky peeled itself away from the trees, and on mornings when the sky was red, my grandfather said, “Red in the morning, sailors take warning,” and someone around that time told me that Jesus had said that, and I believed it was from the Bible for a long time. For years.
My trips to the riverboat with my grandma took place from when I was two or three until I was in the first or second grade, and I remember fishing for catfish over the deck’s railing under raging sunlight, walking through gray and dusty dime stores, and driving past cows in weedy fields; used car lots on the edges of small towns; abandoned, weathered barns sagging beneath their weight, the rusted tin panels of their roofs jutting in the air like useless wings; and rows and rows of cotton that stretched as far away as I could see. These trips provided an education that felt far richer than the one I received in the school I left behind on Friday afternoons and to which I returned on Monday mornings. My grandma, the daughter of a west Texas rancher, corralled the scattered world with words: crow, barn, maple, whirlpool, starlings. I heard how, after a huge earthquake, the Mississippi River ran backwards to fill the chasm that became Reelfoot Lake. I remember thinking how unbelievable this was, as we stood on one of the rusty, rickety ferries, now long since vanished, that carried us from the bank of one state to another. I watched the purling water, the whirlpools emerging from the smooth muddy water, swirling as they flowed downstream and smoothing out again, and realized what a force it must have been to halt and then reverse this river flowing so fiercely south. Unbelievable but obviously true because I had seen the lake with my own eyes.
LOVE HAD REVERSED the course of my grandma’s westward migration. She had fallen in love with a Tennessee soldier stationed at a nearby base, not long after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Years before, her grandmother had made the journey west, starting in North Carolina and crossing Tennessee to settle in the west Texas plains. She had been a child, my great-great-grandmother, traveling in a wagon not long after the Civil War. When my grandma told her grandmother that she was moving to west Tennessee, my great-great-grandmother began to cry, telling my grandma she didn’t want to move there because “There’s nothing but trees in Tennessee. You can’t see anything for the trees.”
The ordinary world we crossed and re-crossed on those drives to my grandpa’s boat thrilled her, and that thrill lodged itself into my memories of words, into my relations with the common world, the shared world. She pointed out the flocks of starlings flying east, delighted when they suddenly wheeled north, all of them moving as one, as though they shared one mind; laughed at the sight of zigzagging crows hounded by mockingbirds defending their nests. I could tell my mother that it was about to rain when I noticed, as my grandma had taught me to notice, that the silverleaf maples had flipped their leaves. My mother says I yelled “Silo!” whenever we drove past a pasture, which was quite often back then in rural west Tennessee, and she still laughs at how excited silos made me.
THERE ARE NOT many silos left in west Tennessee.
By the time I was in high school, driving around backroads the way teenage boys in the country will, I began to notice there were fewer and fewer silos, and even more corn and soybean fields, the corn and soybeans trucked away after harvest to Midwestern feedlots and to food alchemy plants, where they were transformed into high-fructose corn syrup. I wonder now if any of my town-bred schoolmates were aware of this change, and my friends who had been raised on farms took the change as a matter of course, so common as to be beneath notice.
There are not many forests left in west Tennessee.
Beginning in the 1870s and continuing until the 1910s, loggers decimated western Tennessee’s bottomlands. The lumber, hauled to Memphis to be shipped out on the river, made the city, during that time, the largest inland hardwood market in the world. Almost all the cypress-tupelo forests in western Tennessee have been lost. River boats shipped most of the lumber to the fast-growing cities of the Midwest. The trees that are left today, all of them second growth at the oldest, mostly stand in bottomlands and along rivers and creeks, on unplowable land. My great-great-grandmother retained her girl’s memory of puny two-track paths half-heartedly penetrating the dense woods, and she could have never imagined that the wilderness she had passed through, seeming so infinite and ancient and immortal, especially to a child, could disappear in such a short time.
MY GRANDPARENTS possessed the rare gift of staying in love with each other for their whole life together. My grandmother’s father had died when she was twelve and her mother had sold the ranch and moved her into the house in town, and this began the descent into poverty that accelerated when she married my grandfather. My grandfather had come from a family that, like most country people at the time, were desperately poor, and he had to quit school after the eighth grade to work on the farm with his family, but throughout his life he bought himself books and he never stopped learning. Even though, not long after my grandmother moved away, oil began to be found under the ranches that belonged to her cousins and to former neighbors, she never seemed to regret that even though she could have married the son of a rancher, she had settled down with a poor man who lived one thousand miles from her home.
Her family in Texas had scattered, the way families scattered after the Second World War. Even families that stayed in the same place scattered, moving out of old neighborhoods, losing touch with each other though they lived only a few miles apart. So instead she and my cousin and I traveled to Texas in the summers, our drive mirroring my great-great-grandmother’s journey across Arkansas to Texas. On the drives we watched the land change from green to brown, temperate to dry, and then green again as we returned home, our travels following the circling current of her family’s migration.
By the time my grandfather died at the age of 60, my grandma had rooted herself in Tennessee and had even come to appreciate the green leaves of the summer trees that lined the sidewalks and loomed over the older houses in town, and if she ever considered moving back to Texas, she never talked about it. But she kept her house as a kind of Texas Embassy to Tennessee, its walls hung with prints of the west Texas landscape: tumbleweed and cacti, jackrabbits and barren hills beneath improbably starry skies. I looked at those pictures and dreamed, as boys will do, of riding on horseback alone, under a burning sun and through the ghost blue of a full moon, across plains, spotting deer and antelope at play. Still, I was born and raised among trees, and the blue of the sky in west Tennessee is the only blue that feels like home.
WE SCATTER and come back together and scatter again. Our lives don’t run in straight lines or even in orderly spirals. Our lives meander, like birds swooping in the air, like once proud barns slowly collapsing from neglect, like eddies whose vortices form then deepen then widen to become a shallow dimple speeding forward, inexorably forward. Our lives wander onward until some sudden shift in the plates of the earth, miles beneath the ground, reverses our course and we find ourselves rushing to fill some sudden gap. But only for a little while. Lakes fill, birds find their winter homes, old barns sag to earth and rot their way to a new life, rivers return to their natural courses.
Stephen Black is a poet and writer of narratives, fictional and otherwise. He grew up in rural Gibson County, Tennessee, and now lives in Memphis, where he teaches yoga and writing. He has participated in the Wildbranch Writing Workshop and is working on a bioregional history of West Tennessee.