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As we approach the universal day of love, I wonder if love of place amounts to a Valentine’s tradition. Last night, I heard Paul Ott’s “I am Mississippi,” and thought of the broader rendering of the song, “I am the South.” It resonates in a world that acts against it and it’s the regional lyrics that you’ll find hanging in a position of honor at the visitors center in Natchez, Mississippi. Perched on the bluffs of the river, you have to meander peacefully through a breezeway of Corinthian columns to get there, having grabbed your dinner, tucked within the time-honed, landmarked and stuccoed petticoat of Mammy’s Cupboard along Highway 61, and if you’re particularly lucky and time it just right, you’ll be guided in by a warm citrusy breeze wafting on the air. Thanks to the extraordinary garden clubs, you can plant yourself right in the midst of Spring Pilgrimage in a town that admirably pulled itself up from its boot straps and turned its culture into a tourism mecca. “Remember who you are,” many a parent has whispered. Natchez already knows.
Perhaps because I cut my teeth in tourism and, perhaps, because this love of place is so real, Natchez is a town that I’m often inclined to turn the wheel toward – Mississippi, a state that I sometimes crave; with the Mississippi River I’ve formed an endearing love, and I show little difference to where and when, if even the sighting is as short as jutting across river bridge between Natchez and Vidalia in the Concordia Parish of Louisiana. If the soil is like our mother, then the river – water – with its hearty, mud splattered beauty, is her blood stream. If you haven’t experienced the blessing, stand near and breathe it in. It’s an honest dose of a natural therapy that possesses the means to momentarily wash away cares and absolve our sins, as sure as if drinking in the worlds of Tennessee Williams. It’s a place where I feel at once both set free and set on a path, humbled by my own myriad smallness next to the enormity of God. Those moments, I am convinced, are good for our souls. I think more clearly there. In those moments, I find inspiration; escape.
Years ago, employed by the state parks, I would take my breaks and walk along the Cumberland. Standing on a grassy knoll on the banks of the river, it was easy to be transported elsewhere, surrounded by a sense of modernity and the faint, but distant voices of families on vacation. I often thought of times before Gatliff Bridge, before state parks and cities built up around it, when the river was in her natural splendor. I often, too, replayed the pre-war talk of Gerald and Scarlett O’Hara. “Land is the only thing that matters,” he had warned her. “It’s the only thing that lasts.” For all of us, be it the Mississippi or the Cumberland, Rock Creek or the Little Rock, there is an indelible connection. It may not be a Valentine’s love, but it is a love…and it lasts.