Paddling to Walter Inglis Anderson’s Horn Island
The island won’t stay still. It breathes and moves, grain by grain westward with the prevailing winds, ever closer to the main nerve of the American imagination. It is also shrinking, caught between two dredged channels: one that withholds sand from its tail, the other that stares it in the face. Horn Island is an hourglass, a wise man once told me. It keeps its own time, and ours.
—JOURNAL ENTRY, APRIL 25, 2019
he skeletal white hull of a shipwrecked Wellcraft fishing boat made for the centerpiece of our camp infrastructure. The fiberglass eighteen-footer had run aground sometime in years past, was stripped of its motor and valuables, and left to the tides. We had steered through the waves of the Gulf and landed our twenty-nine-foot voyageur canoe beside it. The vessels made for a stark pairing. One, a resin-and-fiber shell neutered of its power; the other, a paragon of human locomotion. On the sill of the wrecked Wellcraft, our party assembled an ever-growing curio cabinet of found objects: a Kentucky Derby visor, purchased as a souvenir by some bourbon-drenched soul at a crowded Churchill Downs before finding its way to this unpeopled barrier island; conch shells and sand dollars; a thong sandal and assorted shoes and gloves, orphaned and uncoupled; a plastic water pistol, yellow; sharpened skewers of driftwood that looked like whaling harpoons; a deflated rubber ball, trademarked Disney, that read NEVERLAND PIRATES, featuring illustrations of a mischievous Captain Hook and his crocodile nemesis; and a 5 x 7 waterproof card, loosed who-knows-how-long-ago by researchers at Florida State University as part of a study on water currents, which urged its finder to relay back exact coordinates. “We found it,” I would have to tell them, “off the coast of Mississippi at our Horn Island base camp under the guidance of a captain, nicknamed Driftwood, who swims as though he has gills and wears spandex leggings adorned with tropical fish, not far from the slash pine, home to the nesting ospreys, overlooking the lagoon where the gators sunbathe. Or, if you prefer, at 30°13'32.5"N, 88°37'34.8"W.”
Along with a crew of buccaneers (a captain, an artist, a gallery owner, the manager of an engineering firm, a nonprofit environmentalist), I was here following the ghost of Walter Inglis Anderson, the enigmatic Southern artist who found transcendence on Horn Island, the Gulf barrier island twelve miles from his Ocean Springs home. Ocean Springs is centrally located along Mississippi’s coastline—eighty miles northeast of New Orleans and fifty southwest from Mobile. Anderson was born in New Orleans in 1903, upriver from where the Big Muddy explodes into the sea. He is perhaps best known for his block prints, which include his alphabet Animalia that hang above the nursery cribs of Southern boys and girls from Athens to Little Rock. But his most revolutionary work was made on humble typing paper during long ascetic stints on the barrier islands camping beneath his upturned skiff, in the company of raccoons, frogs, turtles, fish, snakes, butterflies, and grackles. He called them his “familiars” and held “house warmings” for them, feeding them rice, prunes, and peanut butter. He would often catch and release these creatures in a wide-brimmed hat, his definitive multi-tool. “Such a hat has such uses,” he wrote in his logs, later published as The Horn Island Logs of Walter Inglis Anderson.
Walter Anderson’s watercolors of nature—pelicans and frigate birds, alligator gars and rabbits, sunsets and cosmos—were rendered in the elements, a superlative plein air process that saw him, brush in hand, crawling through marsh and fighting off stinging insects. Horn Island was worlds away from what Anderson experienced as myopic modernity—what he called the “dominant mode” on shore. His isolation was in pursuit of a larger unity, and his two-dimensional works vehicles for metaphysics; “birds are holes in heaven through which many may pass,” writes the artist. Redding Sugg Jr., a writer and educator who edited and helped publish the Horn Island Logs, noted that Anderson astutely dubbed himself “Adam in the hat—not a high hat”—strolling around the island naked as the day he was made save for his signature chapeau, one human being standing in for all human beings, subsisting on the fruits of paradise. On Horn Island, Anderson was free. I hoped I might be, too.
Horn Island received its name after a 1699 expedition in birchbark canoes by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, sieur de Bienville, better known simply as Bienville, the founder of New Orleans. Bienville’s elder brother, vernacularly known as d’Iberville, colonized the region, and Bienville reconnoitered the surrounding waterways. The island was dubbed Isle a la Corne (Horn) because, as Bienville’s carpenter-turned-chronicler Andre Penicaut relates, “one of our Frenchmen had lost his powder horn there” on the exploratory mission. Penicaut continues in his account that the island was “quite barren,” though he and the French may have overlooked the specific character of Horn’s vitality, which thrives in adversity and drinks of austerity. As the French, Spanish, and later the British sought to map, name, and commodify the islands and coastlines, indigenous peoples, like the Biloxi and Pascagoula tribes, were already living in these sometimes humid and harsh, but ever-bountiful, landscapes. The Gulf tribes thrived prior to European settlement on the estuarine gumbo of oysters, cockles, crab, shrimp, and fish of all kinds.
A more quintessentially American moniker—by way of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French mapmaker F. Joussette—was Isle au Aigle (Eagle). Indeed, bald eagles are seen on Horn, and Walter Anderson depicts the majestic birds in his three-thousand-square-foot murals in the Ocean Springs Community Center. He places two eagles hinged in flight, paying homage to a poem by Walt Whitman that tells of a walk by the river road when the speaker hears a “muffled sound” and catches the birds’ “rushing amorous contact high in space together / The clinching interlocking claws, a living, fierce, gyrating wheel.”
Walter Anderson frequented the barrier islands beginning in the 1940s, on the heels of a three-year period from 1937 to 1940 spent in and out of various hospitals where he was treated for mental illness. John Anderson, Walter’s youngest son, who serves dual roles of family representative and caretaker of his father’s legacy, said that Walter Anderson experienced those years of illness as a waking dream and a living hell. In her 1989 memoir, Approaching the Magic Hour, Agnes Grinstead “Sissy” Anderson recounts her increasing awareness of the “underlying forces” in her husband that she “couldn’t understand.” Anderson’s descent was preceded by an extended bout with malaria, a disease which has long been associated with a range of psychiatric effects, including mood, behavior, and personality disorders. Anderson contracted malaria on a 1930s canoe trip taken with Sissy down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Before he became ill near Greenville, Mississippi, and before Sissy rushed him to the hospital in time to save his life, she had experienced the trip as a “fantastic and beautiful adventure.” Above Memphis, they had made camp and watched fishermen drift by. “Our long stay on the sandspit had depleted our water supply,” she writes. Walter dipped his hat into the river for a long, cold drink and announced that the water on his lips was a “distillation of America.”
Sissy also describes Walter’s violent outbursts and unpredictable tendencies that wounded and threatened the well-being—physical and psychological—of their young family. “It was an unusual relationship,” writes Sissy, “filled with bliss and despair.” Walter Anderson’s behavior instilled fear, while his artwork birthed beauty. But Anderson knew he was not himself. The family looked to medical professionals for a cure. In time, Walter looked to nature. “Give me a farm and I’ll get well,” he voiced after he returned home from hospitals in Baltimore, Maryland, and Jackson, Mississippi. He settled into a life of art making and relative domesticity at Oldfields, his in-laws’ antebellum home and family estate in Gautier, east of Ocean Springs. Oldfields sat high on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi Sound, with Horn Island in the distance. Here, Anderson became a farmer. He watered cows, sweated through many shirts while plowing fields to plant cabbage, constructed a guest house, built a kiln. Sissy gardened near the house, and he drew her in pencil, just as he had drawn his subjects from afar at the Philadelphia Zoo when he was an art student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the 1920s.
Anderson dreamed up products to earn money for the family. He carved block prints out of linoleum, often surplus “battleship linoleum,” as his wife referred to it, pioneering the large-scale linocut in American art; one of his first was an iconic pelican print that he made on the back porch. In his studio in the attic, he carved blocks all night—interpretations of legends, folktales, and his own Southern myth—leaving piles of shredded linoleum at the foot of the stairs each morning. These linocuts would later be shown in a 1949 solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum that included printed scrolls depicting Jack the Giant Killer, Sinbad the Sailor, the Pied Piper, and others. Anderson’s calendar drawings were born, an illustration for every day, scenes of life around the farm and graphic designs of melodic life on the land. He illustrated literary classics, including Don Quixote and Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, one hand flipping the page, the other guiding ink onto paper, conversing with Cervantes and giving shape to the Galápagos.
One day, circa 1944, Walter Anderson awoke to timber cutters at Oldfields, there to cut some of the last remaining swaths of what had once been thousands of acres of virgin longleaf pine forests, which Anderson thought of as his cathedral. Though it brought in money for the family, Anderson was heartbroken at the cutting. He shoved off for the crescent-shaped Chandeleur Islands in Louisiana waters, some twenty-five to seventy miles away from Oldfields, and roughly fifteen beyond Horn Island. Anderson’s belongings were packed and sealed in trash cans.
Chandeleur became his refuge during this period, not Horn—where he had fished with his brothers in prior decades. Horn Island in the early 1940s, Anderson discovered, was occupied by more than birds and beasts. He had confirmed it on a separate trip to Chandeleur, when a storm met him and capsized his skiff off the west end of Horn. Had he died? Surely, he thought. For he was dragged ashore by U.S. Army soldiers with M1 rifles and dogs. How else could he explain his vision of the train, an engine puffing black smoke through the middle of the island as if through the California desert? Anderson couldn’t believe—until he saw it for himself—that the Army had built the railroad as part of the Horn Island Chemical Warfare Service Quarantine Station, where they tested botulinum toxin and ricin. And thusly he experienced his first evening on Horn Island separate from his family excursions, blown there by the winds of chance, interrogated for hours at gunpoint, and suspected of being an enemy spy. Rumors of German U-boats prowling the waters.
Walter Anderson was not a spy, the Army resolved. After examining his identity papers, which his wife had packed for him, they sent him back to sea, and he continued on by moonlight to Chandeleur and the pelican rookery. Anderson’s experiences in the wilderness were life-giving, even the snake bite and hurricane that would befall him on Horn. He felt at home with his interspecies dinner guests, much more so than he did on shore, where he felt pressure from the societal expectations of work, money, fame, and the calculus of a ticking clock. These modes of living were less and less accommodating of the odysseys of seafaring mythmakers and, perhaps, for a man like Anderson, spelled certain death. He reenacted the part of the musician Orpheus of Greek lore, who passed by boat across the River Styx and lived. Anderson made his own passage between his personal realms of life and death with Horn Island as the portal between.
Today, a large map of the Sound and the islands painted on wood by Anderson for his older brother, Peter, hangs in the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs, which opened in 1991. It is part of the museum’s expansive reinterpretation of the collection—Walter Inglis Anderson: Artist, Naturalist, Mystic. If the museum, a jewel-box cloister with walls of yellow pine, is Anderson’s church, then Horn Island is the source of his religion. The map depicts the currents and topography of the bay in a swirling mosaic of color, with Horn at the top. Its compass rose is flipped, with South pointing up, a suggestion that rowing to the island is not a purely directional endeavor, but an ascent up and away, like scaling a mountain.
The artist and river guide John Ruskey—a barefoot Anderson devotee with long locks and a beard that flow like riparian tributaries, a Bowie knife on his hip, and a perfectly cocked hat with a perfectly placed bird feather on his head—conceived of our excursion in partnership with the museum. His last trip to Horn had been in the nineties, when he made regular pilgrimages to recharge and renew himself by way of the island’s energy. It’s been decades since Ruskey first arrived in Mississippi and over twenty years since he bought his first canoe and started Quapaw Canoe Company, headquartered in Clarksdale.
Ruskey and his Mississippi Delta team pilot a fleet of nine voyageurs, most of them hand crafted in their workshop, all given names to match their personalities on the water. The canoe that carried us to Horn was named Grasshopper, made by Ruskey and company from bent strips of Louisiana bald cypress. Its namesake is painted onto its nose: an insect with coiled legs, ready to bounce over rolling waves. Our craft shares lineage with the canoes used by the Great Lakes fur traders of yore, who in turn borrowed the mathematics and materials from Native American traditions. This trip would be Grasshopper’s first to Horn Island. As we loaded our gear in the parking lot of the museum, Ruskey ran his hand across the bow and assured us it was eager.
“She’s very happy to be out here in the big open waters,” he later said, sitting on the shaded sand, sketchpad on his lap and pencil in hand, beneath an oak tree on the island. “She was getting a little muddy and sick of all that junk being flushed out of the middle of America.”
Before Grasshopper was built, she was board, and before that a log, and a tree. Ruskey sired her, and hearing him talk about the conception of the craft is like hearing a parent recall the courtship that gave way to a newborn. “The first step is not sharpening the tools and starting to hack away at this log,” Ruskey explained. “The first step is sitting with a sketch pad and sitting with the log. And ideally sitting with the tree before you make a log out of it.”
The canoe is an extremely versatile craft, what Ruskey calls a “poor man’s yacht.” The canoe, or something like it, has been in use for eons, from Polynesia to Egypt. It is the dugout, the pirogue, the Irish currach—and Anderson’s iconic seafoam skiff. An archetypal vessel. “My first canoe was the Water Pony,” Ruskey told me. “I found it in the classifieds of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.” For two hundred and fifty dollars in the 1990s Ruskey bought the boat, two paddles, and two life jackets. The Water Pony opened up the Mississippi River for him, as it had done for the Jesuit missionary Jacques Marquette and fur trader Louis Joliet in the 1670s. “As I spent time with canoes, my imagination grew and my curiosity was sparked.”
Ruskey’s bond with Anderson’s philosophies is explicit. He models much of what he does, in his art and his life, on the tenet that humanity’s role is not as dominator of the environment, but as participant in its mysteries. Anderson’s Horn Island Logs have long inspired Ruskey, part of his lived literary canon that includes a deep well of human knowledge. With Ruskey as my guide and John Anderson, who shares an uncanny likeness to his father (both in appearance and in spirit), as a fellow traveler, my trip to Horn Island was as close as anyone can come to physically conversing with Walter Anderson in the place that so profoundly spoke to him.
My relationship with Ruskey developed as did my role as the director of the Walter Anderson Museum of Art—an alignment of the stars prepared for by years of engagement with the Southern land and the culture-seekers who study and explore it. My prologue includes a childhood in the Mississippi Delta and Oxford, Mississippi; eight years at the Mississippi Museum of Art; and my first book, which was about a renegade Delta catfish farmer who leveraged the promise of the loam and clay to wrest racial justice from a system pitted against him. This immersion in the Southern land’s elemental meaning connected my own journey to Ruskey’s and to Anderson’s before him.
I’m told that I am the only director of the Anderson Museum to have camped on Horn Island. My first trip was by charter boat in 2018. I left on a Friday and returned on Monday afternoon for my first day on the job, still cured with salt and sand. I will also assume that I’m the only director to have a possum and a catfish tattooed on my skin by Anderson’s great-grandson, artist Matt Stebly, whose Twisted Anchor Tattoo shop and gallery is here in Ocean Springs. I came to Stebly in 2015 and asked him to give me a modernized rendering of Anderson’s Opossum block print, which hung in my room as a boy.
The possum tattoo, the job, and this latest trip to Horn Island have all been motivated by an obligation to Mississippi and the South. Like the hissing nocturnal trash eater depicted on my skin, Mississippi can be hard to embrace—its history is dark, its present often troubled. The state’s very soul treads water between divergent ideologies and visions for its future; pull, push, struggle. And while I knew the name Walter Anderson by the nature of my upbringing, I did not, until recently, discover the meaning of his epic arc. Horn Island floats in the same limbo between recognition and mystery. The island has been characterized as the back of Ahab’s White Whale. It is a frontier quintessentially American, Mississippian, Andersonian. And so it draws me back in my search for Southern resonance.
We put in at Pascagoula to the east of Ocean Springs on the day after Easter, in the shadow of the shipbuilding industry, one of the largest manufacturing sectors in the state. Here, they produce military craft like the Aegis DDG 51 guided missile destroyer, the war canoe taken to its nth degree. At the boat launch at Point Park near the mouth of the Pascagoula River, we met a skinny, grizzled local, who saw us off from the dock and told us, as we paddled away, that we “must not be from around here”—as though we came ignorant of the convenience of fuel injection. Earlier, Ruskey had laid out his map atop the trailered canoe to chart our course. “This area right here is very American,” said the husband of one in our group, pointing to Pascagoula. “War ships and oil tankers . . .”
“That’d be kind of neat,” said Ruskey. “Leaving the thick of it all.”
We were to head toward the east end of the island, a three-hour paddle, stopping first on the intermediate Round Island for lunch before skirting the tip of Horn and landing on the Gulf beach. The tips of the island were likely to be our roughest patches of waters, we were told, where the sea churned up chop. As long as we didn’t “get sideways” in the canoe, Ruskey was confident we would manage. We were not far behind Anderson, I felt, who wrote in his Horn Island logs about a trip he made “the day before Easter with a westerly wind.” When the paddling became exhausting, I channeled Anderson’s fortitude. He continued in his logs that “in this day of the machine age even a one-mile row is considered an incredible feat. Actually, it was rather pleasant.”
Our return, six days away, would be made from the west of Horn to the Lake Mars Boat Launch and Pier nearer Ocean Springs. This meant that at some point during the week, we would paddle the entire length of the ten-mile island in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
As we paddled, my awareness inverted, a shift in perspective that would continue for the entire journey. Though we were headed south, the world was tilted, and as on Anderson’s map, Horn Island was the North Star.
Grasshopper was at once invisible to the barges and the hurried craft that rumbled by, and the most conspicuous vessel of them all. As we drew closer to the tip of the island, a welcoming committee of pelicans flew by. A ray emerged and then disappeared. The acid that burned in our muscles told us we were near.
Horn Island is long and thin, running roughly parallel to shore and making up part of what is now Gulf Islands National Seashore. Less than a mile wide at its center, the island tapers down to sandy points bereft of trees. Ponds and lagoons dot the island, some opening up to the Mississippi Sound when the tides are right, an ebb and flow of brackish mix. Save for occasional crossings, the dunes run up against swaths of Brer Rabbit brush, marsh, and pine forests that separate the north and south beaches. Much of Horn’s middle is practically impenetrable for all but the stubbornest or most determined explorers. At the midway point, today one will find the National Park Service ranger station, intermittently occupied.
Every day, I journaled, although I found writing difficult on the island. The sensory avalanche had buried my ability to articulate. Words cannot fully harness the genius loci of such places. The best I could do was to leave myself bread crumbs. I grasped for phrases and symbols.
Leaving behind the reticulated cranes of the Pascagoula port for the open Sound, we paddled alongside a manmade rock wall, on which gulls gathered. Already we could see Round in the distance, but first we passed an unnatural island, a blinding deposit of white sand built up from the spoils of dredging the Pascagoula ship channel. The canoe moved soundlessly and without trace, save for the rhythmic pull and push of paddles and the swirling eddies that they left in the wake. Little spiraled galaxies of microscopic life springing forth six times every second. We cut the water and the water passed around us, and we floated as through a cloud on a magic carpet. . . . It was late afternoon when we cleared the east end of Horn Island. A boy ran across the sand with his father. A man with a cooler fished in the waves. When we pulled the canoe ashore near the fisherman, he moved away from us up the beach. While the crew stretched their legs, I took a walk around the dunes. The wind blew steadily. No trees here on the point. All sand, everywhere, and the island only a few hundred yards wide. I walked across to the Sound and found a cross made of salvaged wood and netting, an Easter icon built by visitors who had also found religion here. Rested, we prepared to paddle further down the island to find camp. By the time we had Grasshopper back in the Gulf, the people we had seen earlier were gone.
We made camp by the beached Wellcraft and ate a simple meal of raw and ready ingredients. By nightfall, I had successfully transitioned to island time. There is light and dark, and orange, teal, green, and purple in between. When the moon rose for us around midnight, it lit the earth with a new incandescence. I walked west along the beach that night, mostly by feel and sound, flanked by the waves to my left and the mysterious middle island to my right. Venturing inward, I walked slowly, listening for rabbits and raccoons and cottonmouths. I lost my nerve less than a quarter mile inland. Every shadow was perilous and fantastic, every bush a nocturnal resonator. As I stood on the edge of the dunes that dropped into a vast nest of bramble, nothing moving but my blood, I could not hope to know all the various forms of life that stared back. I felt the limits and atrophy of my senses, outmatched by the self-assured wild, and I went to sleep in that state, without any plans for the day to come. Others, too, were searching to comprehend the island’s energy, and to reconcile its beauty with the inescapable post-consumer detritus that pockmarked the sands. I heard Wendell Berry’s voice: “There are no unsacred places; / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places.”
I dreamed that John Ruskey and I were stargazing. “Lyra will pass over us,” he told me, referring to the constellation, and its bright star Vega, that takes the form of an eagle carrying the poet Orpheus’s lyre. I dreamed that a long serpent canoe passed above and we climbed aboard the sky-craft. Ancient Americans rowed, and Bienville with them, tattooed with snakes. Ruskey took his place alongside the figures. He pulled from a bag his guitar and played Spanish folk songs. The scene changed and I was alone, sitting on the wheel well in the back of my father’s 1970 Dodge Adventurer pickup that we called the Green Lizard. We zoomed along a rural road, headed for the county dump. I fell over the side of the moving truck, toward speeding gravel, or into water. Before I hit, I heard distant music, played on strings.
The island is prone, and the things that live here know this. Guided by the elements, the oaks do not tower. Instead, they spread and spiral outward like windswept ancestors offering a long-armed embrace. Their roots dig in, ever expectant of a wallop from an unruly storm. The pines are sparse, with branches clustered in the upper reaches like long, wide-bristled paintbrushes stuck in the sand. Animals make shelter in the brush and the trees or below ground. The railroad vine—or seaside morning glory—crisscrosses the earth in its own organic network. Bird and raccoon make intersecting prints up and down the slopes, ships passing with individualized destinations, ports of call befitting each.
Today the island spoke, and it shamed me. I stood atop a dune near the lagoon with my camera, looking toward the nesting osprey and the Mississippi Sound beyond. Spotting me, one of the birds took flight, circling above in a protective pattern, shrieking. I stood behind the tripod and aimed. The second adult osprey—we’ll call her mother—stared me down from the nest, countering my
intruder’s gaze. This bird, too, called out. The shutter clicked. Clicked. Clicked. I inched closer than nature would prefer. A jet passed through and disturbed the frame, cutting the towering tree just above the giant nest. The bird in flight landed and shook the pine canopy. He locked eyes with me. Sharp eyes that could cut glass. I took a step back and felt exposed. One more photograph. And then I packed things up.
On the way back to camp, my belly burned. Had I overreached? What did I know of, and what consideration had I paid, these winged beings? Had I even seen them at all?
“You were just following your curiosity,” Ruskey assured me later. “But it’s like John Anderson said—perspective. What’s it like from the perspective of the osprey?”
John Anderson, born in 1947, truly is his father’s son. He is a thinker, a trained psychologist, and a passionate conversationalist about all things seen and unseen. He regularly gives tours of the museum to visitors and students, stirring them with emotional reflections. In brief, he goes deep. But he is also a humorist, and a sailor, and a man tethered to the ideals of family and progress and self-expression. He joined us on the island via his sailboat, tacking alongside the edge of the island and anchoring in the Sound near the landmark osprey nest that I had visited. Living is like walking a tightrope, John said to me one day at the museum. “You have to have humility to learn anything. And you have to have an ego to believe that anything you make is worth sharing.” On the island, humility takes over, when the forces of nature expose themselves in all their brutishness and grace. “Walter Anderson escaped that conundrum by making things that weren’t meant for anyone but himself and God,” John continued.
Much was living on the island, but some was dead. The clusters of thorny prickly pear with brilliant yellow blooms foreshadowed the paradox. Corpses included horseshoe crab, saltwater catfish, and lesser scaup duck. Ruskey painted a deceased grosbeak à la Anderson, who recalls in the Horn Island Logs that he “took a walk yesterday and found a dead Rail and came back to camp to do a water color of it.” And pointedly, on a walk to the ranger’s station, we passed a rotting dolphin, deflated like a popped beach ball, likely a casualty of the influx of fresh water from the Bonnet Carré Spillway in Louisiana, opened twice this year (the first such occurrence in its eighty-two-year history) to relieve pressure from the flooded Mississippi River. On a macro level, Horn Island is shrinking day by day. For centuries, prevailing winds have moved sand from east to west along the chain of barrier islands. But, in addition to sea level rise and more frequent, intense storms, dredging for ship channels has disrupted this flow; sand that might otherwise replenish the islands drops into the depths.
Horn Island and the Sound are visited upon by the same forces that affect the mainland, and they suffer largely in silence. In a 1949 essay, Anderson wrote of how pelicans hold “the song of the thrush, the form and understanding of man, the tenderness and gentleness of the dove . . . and the potential qualities of all life.” On one occasion, he spent nearly a month drawing, painting, and observing the pelicans on Chandeleur, attuning himself even to their “language”; he began a pelican dictionary of the their “common terms,” such as “Tchoo: falsetto, used endearingly.” But by 1960, the pelicans had almost disappeared, victims of hunting, habitat loss, pollution, and the pesticide DDT. In her seminal 1962 work, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson recounts the annihilation of the fish-eating bird species. In Mississippi, many of them consumed the toxins that flowed down from farmlands into lakes and streams and into the Mississippi River before poisoning the fish in the Gulf of Mexico. Impinging on waters set aside for conservation, Carson writes, “could have consequences felt by every western duck hunter and by everyone to whom the sight and sound of drifting ribbons of waterfowl across an evening sky are precious.” Some pelicans survived. Anderson jubilantly scrawled on the back of a watercolor of pelicans over Horn Island, dated July 1965, “Seventeen in one flock!” He didn’t live to see the pelicans fully recover; he died in November of that same year.
The barrier islands buffer the coast against the onslaught of storms, and the Sound swallows the muddy exhalations of America. I found a kids’ blue Power Wheels Jeep sunk in the sand, next to a discarded office chair. It was too large for me to haul to our Wellcraft display, one of many things large and plastic that will remain embedded there indefinitely, becoming part of the island, like splinters grown over with skin. During Hurricane Betsy in 1965, just months before his death, Walter Anderson lashed himself to a tree on Horn Island to feel the power of the storm. Afterward, he walked the beach and observed that the island does not always herald disaster overtly. “It is mainly trash,” he writes, “but tons of it—only a few dead birds—a turtle—suggest tragedy; it is more like a . . . house cleaning at the expense of Mississippi.” Our wilderness is not pristine. And as long as we have been here, perhaps it never has been.
Storms hit us from the west on Thursday afternoon. Tornadoes were reported on shore to the north, waterspouts in the Gulf to the south. We were caught in the middle, battered by wind and rain. I was exploring to the east when the droplets started to fall. The sky was illuminated purple, foreboding clouds backlit by the sun. I booked it back to camp, passing tree after tree of osprey nests in an area of the island that we called the bird-nest-condominium. All of the island seemed to be preparing and burrowing in. I bungeed my tent to gathered logs of driftwood to keep it earthbound, then ducked inside just as the lightning struck, bringing torrents of sideways rain. Wind and rain pelted our camp, flattening tents and sending the stakes of my rainfly into the storm. The fly whipped about like the wings of a manic tern. What would happen if nature unleashed its full payload? I thought. I’d be lifted and land, crumpled, on the inside beach—broken and without so much as my notebook in which to scrawl my final testament. Time moved in spurts and thunderclaps. Minutes stretched into hours.
John Ruskey was farther up the island when the storm arrived and had what he calls an “exhilarating, electrifying” episode. He had been on the east point of Horn with the flocks of terns, pelicans, sanderlings, and gulls.
“It had been a strong southeasterly breeze,” Ruskey relayed to me after the storm had passed, in our conversation beneath the oak tree overlooking the lagoon. “All day the waves were getting bigger and bigger. The wind calmed but it was darkening at the same time. And you could feel this ominous presence all around.”
He saw a layer of fog forming over the Sound, turning everything enchanted. The mainland disappeared into the mist; Pascagoula and Gautier were erased. With the breeze almost at a halt, it felt to him like he’d been vacuum sealed; all was compressed. His breathing changed.
“I was walking along and the idea of a snake came into my mind and I started wondering where all the snakes were and what they were doing,” he recalled. “And then I thought about alligators and started wondering where they were and what they were doing.”
Lost in thought, Ruskey skated atop the sand. When his focus returned, he found himself standing in wet earth with a deep furrow cutting across his path. He turned his head and followed the furrow. There, muscles tensed and frozen, was an alligator, between Ruskey and the Sound: as big as Ruskey, plus a long, scaled tail.
Ruskey moved farther away, over the next rise, unsure of whether the animal would snap back on him or continue toward the water. The gator moved on. A serpentine shuffle.
Ruskey had said to me that “for the canoe builder, the primary purpose is to locate the heart of the canoe and divine its spirit . . . somewhere in the canoe—it’s a metaphysical location—you can find it.” I asked him about Horn. Could he divine its heart? Its center? Its soul? He took a long pause. He took me back to the gator. It was clear the encounter had struck him.
“I was close enough to see clearly . . . an inscrutable glazed-over eye,” Ruskey said. “Almost looked like the eye of a mariner who’d been too long out at sea. Crusted over with whiteness and . . . infinitely deep. So maybe that’s the closest I’ve come to seeing the heart of the island.”
The Walter Anderson Museum of Art’s reimagined collection is organized under two banners: “Mainland,” encompassing the east galleries, and “Horn Island,” which covers the west galleries. Between them, a visitor can stand beneath Anderson’s green skiff, hung in the rafters, and contemplate his departure.
During Walter Anderson’s career on the mainland, he created products: block prints, ceramics, children’s books. He meant for these to be propagated widely, for people who might not have much money but still had “an appetite for beauty.” But Horn Island was about process. He had spent the first half of his career broadening the scope of his artistic vision so that he might make better work. He spent his time on the island creating drawings and paintings that were less objets d’art, more vehicles to expand vision itself. The products of the weeks on end that he spent on Horn Island year after year from the 1940s until his death in 1965 were secondary to what this time represented for him: raw nature and mortal man joined for an instant, and a third thing, art, born of the moment. If he needed kindling for a fire, Anderson might feed a finished watercolor to the flame rather than discard one of his precious blank sheets of typing paper, loaded with possibility.
When Anderson died, his most visionary works from Horn Island were still secrets. Only when the family unlocked the door to Anderson’s “Little Room” behind the fireplace in his cottage at Shearwater Pottery (the long-running pottery studio in Ocean Springs founded by Anderson’s brother in 1928) did they discover the thousands of drawings and paintings he made while he was away. They were not designed as products for mantels or museums or collectors, but were instead records of his odyssey and the process of his discovery. The most meaningful things of all were those he did not intend for anyone to see in his lifetime.
Inside of the Little Room, thirteen feet by eleven feet, Anderson left a handwritten copy of Psalm 104, giving thanks to Providence. “Bless the LORD . . . who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain,” reads the psalm, “who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind.”
From floor to ceiling, Anderson painted the room in brilliant celebration of the natural world that sated him. The room was moved from Shearwater Pottery and installed on the south end of the building as the museum’s crown jewel in 1991. It is Anderson’s most personal work, a counterpoint to the vast Community Center murals on the north end of the museum campus. The cock calls in the sun above the east window, and a cast of plants and animals and hues dances along the walls. They move through a never-ending and regenerative day, until night—and giant moths—overtake the northeast corner, in preparation for a new dawn.
Go far enough in any one direction, and you’ll return. Such it is with the paradoxical life of Walter Anderson. I’ve heard John Anderson say that his father sought solitude so that he might defeat loneliness, so that his work might illuminate the interrelation of all beings. Walter Anderson could not have imagined the museum that bears his name, or that his most intimate experiences would in fact become products once more. The vision that he achieved remains intact. But the objects, perhaps as nature would have it, have found new life. “Nature does not like to be anticipated,” Anderson wrote in his logs, “. . . but loves to surprise; in fact seems to justify itself to man in that way, restoring his youth to him each time.”
A feeding frenzy broke out on Friday evening, at sunset, as we paddled in the Gulf toward the western tip of Horn Island. The dolphins who had escorted us on our daylong paddle were all together now, jumping and splashing like young border collies, and the pelicans diving on top of them; creatures of flight becoming submarine and those of the water going airborne. Birds of all size and variety joined, performing a ritual before us. And then an osprey, high in the sky, with a trout in its talons. An eagle fought the osprey for its dinner, wings wide and imposing, and talons clawing. The osprey, defeated, did the only thing he could do; he released the fish and let it plummet back to the sea.
We ate big rings of spaghetti squash with tomato sauce and canned parmesan for our last supper on the island, and made no fire. Darkness came suddenly and the bugs with it. In the morning, we would leave among dozens of arriving fishing boats and leisure craft coming to the beachy west end—one big swath of sand with no trees—for a Saturday in the sun. But this night there was no sound of engines, just arrangements of a thousand croaks and buzzes that dominated the air. The cosmos spread out above us. I left my tent in its bag and laid a sleeping bag on the sand to sleep. John Ruskey, too, slept beneath the stars.
“Anyone who spends any time outdoors is going to eventually start noticing things,” Ruskey said. “Mysterious things.”
He told me that Orion appears in the sky at the same place at the same time, year after year, in its annual rotation. Then there are other bright celestial bodies that move strangely and do not follow annual patterns. These are the planets, the name taken from the Greek word planos, which means wandering. Lying there on the sand, it occurred to me, as it had not before, that Walter Anderson’s obsession with heavenly bodies came not from books but from experience with this parabolic vista. In his Community Center murals he gives them form: the intertwined eagles are Venus; antlered stags locked in combat, Mars; the bear, Saturn.
“And then you have comets that come through every once in awhile and explosions of asteroids,” Ruskey continued. “If you spend enough time outdoors looking at the skies, you might go through the experience of Western civilization. . . . But every culture—every ancient culture—has their own version and own story line and names for what they’re seeing in the sky.”
There are something like one hundred billion stars in the Milky Way (some estimate as many as four times that), but the naked human eye sees only about twenty-five hundred on any given night. Anyone who has camped on Horn Island will understand that these billions are like the no-see-ums, the tiny bugs that hover invisible above our sleeping bodies but nevertheless leave their marks on us. After Walter Anderson’s death, John Anderson received a book of his that contained all the mythological stories associated with the constellations—he considers it a late gift from his father. It was, John said, a “very interesting book.” These were the Greco-Roman stories, but the night sky was also interpreted by Arabian eyes, and Meso-American ones, and Einstein’s, whose concept of relativity was aided by his imaginative exercises hurling himself through space after a beam of light; solar flares the equivalent of his neurons firing.
Other lights shone in the distance, not the least of which were the nearby Biloxi casinos, with names meant to conjure the American Gold Rush, pirates’ treasure, palatial decadence, or heaven on earth. There had been meteor showers in the early morning hours of our trip, but before I laid down my head, I saw another fiery projectile, likely a rocket launched from NASA’s Stennis Space Center to the west. It burned a flaming path up and away until it disappeared and all that was left was a long tail writ by rocket fuel.
In the morning, we would find starfish trapped in tidal pools, evidence of terrestrial things evolved from alien dust. Holding them in hand, our party would carry them into the waves, where we would soon follow on our own leg home. We would burn sage as a prayer for safe passage and say goodbye.
Many of us had been to Horn Island before, and would come again, but no trip is like the previous one or like any to come. The island dismisses expectations, revels in surprise, and presents itself anew with every revolution. On the return, we passed pontoon boats carrying coastal residents who have been coming here for decades to dock and drink and escape their own dominant modes on shore, bringing coolers and speakers and Toby Keith to the west end of the island, or setting up generators and inflatable sectional couches on the Sound-side sand. Some of them have never ventured beyond that west-end beach, fewer have camped, and fewer still have come by sailboat, kayak, and canoe. But all know, if only in their most ancient selves, that the wilderness nearby—whether it be Horn Island or the secret grove beyond the interstate exchange—is a wellspring. What Walter Anderson called “the true fountain of youth.”
Just a three-hour canoe trip or a twenty-minute ride on Jet Ski from modern America, Horn Island stands in the breach between who we once were and who we now are. It knows that we are afraid—of the water, and of night, and of things we cannot see. As an analog for all of nature, it does not cater to us or require our participation. But for the observant, it offers up resurrection.
A member of our crew recounted to us her first discovery of Horn Island. She had traveled to places like Hawaii and Tahiti before finding this narrow plane of Mississippi land, so near to the place she was born. And when she pondered the distances she’d gone to find paradise, and all the while the island in such proximity, she wept.
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