There is a tree in the middle of a park, right behind Mrs. Pat Olajide’s house, on the east side of Hattiesburg, MS, that never blooms green. The tree is alive but always has the look of winter about it. It is leafless, cold-looking, yet not withered. It looks poised for spring—for a spring that never comes. Residents say that the tree has always been there as long as they can remember, but it never grows leaves, it never blooms green.
What kind of place raises a leafless tree? Or, shifting the focus to humans, what kind of park is always empty of people? The answer is that this “park” was until recently a landfill—a place where people dumped their trash—and before that a marsh at the bottom of a hill. Not unlike a lot of places in the Piney Woods, this place with the leafless tree has undergone a number of transformations—both physically and conceptually.
This essay explores how physical and conceptual changes to a landscape are connected. The land is seen differently as people’s ideas evolve about themselves, about their neighborhood, and most importantly, about environmental pollution. I use the place-of-the-tree-that-never-blooms-green as a lens into a wider landscape, the Mobile-Bouie neighborhood and its larger political-economic setting.
I argue that as the neighborhood declined ecologically, and became further marginalized and stigmatized, residents resisted the degradation of their environment by reading the landscape and developing a moral stance toward it. Pollution became the main trope through which many residents saw themselves, their environment, and their future. Cleaning up the pollution has become tantamount to rebirth, to righting a wrong, and to transforming their neighborhood into a better place.
We will go through three changed landscapes: one of separation, one of degradation, and a moral landscape. If we read this story as a rite of passage in anthropological terms (following van Gennep and Victor Turner), we have the classic stages of separation, liminality, and reincorporation. In other words, the story has a positive ending. Residents have great hope for their neighborhood.
Barbara Bender (1993) has demonstrated that the building of monuments is one way that those with economic and political power appropriate the landscape. Stonehenge, for example, was imbued with political power, with cultural ideas, and with religious meanings. The piece of land at the center of this essay is something of a monument—not to the greatness or achievement of an age or an individual but to indicate a limit or to mark a boundary on social space.
This piece of land was until recently a boundary between black and white neighborhoods. Up on the hill was a white neighborhood, nestled next to the Hercules Powder Company. In its heyday, when Hercules employed several hundred people to process pine oil from pine stumps, the neighborhood was a mix of wealthy and middle class white families. Today, most white families have moved to still higher ground, to more distant ground. The homes on the hill are occupied now by majority black, with only a handful of whites remaining.
In 1903, Mr. Montague, a prominent white businessman, surveyed and platted this piece of land, which he called the Compress Addition. Homes were built on the east side of the subdivision (closer to Mobile Street, the business street). Some of these homes are still standing today, like Mrs. Boone’s home with its old well in the backyard, a well that drew water near what eventually became a dumping field.
High water contributed to the Compress Addition from being further developed with homes. It was one of the lowest spots in the neighborhood. Floods were a major climatic factor affecting history and life in the Mobile-Bouie district.
How people dealt with high water and flooded property depended on their economic and social status. Not all people could afford moving to higher ground; moreover, many homes were inherited property, so their owners did not want to move anywhere else.
The building shown in this slide from the 1942 aerial survey of Hattiesburg is on the east side of the Gravel Line RR—inside the Compress Addition. Sometime after the summer of 1964—which is known in Hattiesburg as Freedom Summer, the summer when numerous citizens registered to vote—a fire destroyed this building, the Cotton Gin. The debris was pushed into the earth—and with that the landfill began. That event, the fire and the disposal of the trashed Cotton Gin, initiated the use of this part of the Compress Addition as a residential dumping ground for trash.
In this 1980 Public Services map, part of the Compress Addition was indicated as a marsh. This was collaborated by oral histories of “the field,” which is a local name for the empty part of the subdivision. Where the flood zone map shows the area at 147 feet above sea level, the blueline has an elevation of 143.4 feet next to an even lower piece of land that was designated as a marsh. The Illinois Central RR’s Gravel Line, is 6 feet higher than the marsh.
People living outside an area are usually the first to label that area as “marginalized.” People living next to the landfill were too busy raising their families and too busy working to give it any thought. A man by the name of Brother Stud had a sizeable garden in the SE section where he grew corn and vegetables. His garden was never fenced in by the tin that surrounded the rest of the trash dump. Kids found a way through the tin fence to play in the field. They played at camping, building little houses out of the wood and trash. They raided a beechnut machine for its chewing gum. They shot pigeons and cooked them. They built little cabins in their imaginary play wilderness out of found materials that were someone else’s trash.
Keith Basso, in his highly regarded book, Wisdom Sits in Places, is a model study of being sensitive to local views of the landscape. With this work in mind, I turn now to some local perspectives of the landscape that are well known among residents but not among the general public in Hattiesburg. Most people do not know Mobile-Bouie residents’ ways of seeing their environment, or that there are greater powers than local residents at work altering the landscape. It is widely known that Mobile-Bouie residents have had to deal with floods in their neighborhood for a long time; but it is not so well known, for example, that of late they are struggling with something far more difficult. They are now confronted with all the pollution from the Hercules industrial site that has been dumped on them over the years, and which continues today.
Concerns with the degradation of their landscape came first to my attention when a local resident brought up a matter of great concern to her at the monthly meeting of the Mobile-Bouie Neighborhood Association. The Association was considering proposing to the city that they construct a neighborhood park in an open field. What concerned the woman was that just across the road from that proposed park area was “the field” behind her house which was connected to the proposed park area by the same ditch, a ditch that did not drain properly, had standing pollution in it most of the time, smelled bad, rose into her backyard every time it rained, and was a haven for snakes.
Residents close to the field were aware of its pulsations. But people further away—people who did not live next to it and did not know its behaviors, its excretions, its odors—saw a suitable and lovely place for development to take place, for beautification, for a park that adult residents could go to for a walk, have picnics, and other social events. Some knew the field was rotten, some saw it for its pastoral charm.
We decided at that meeting to circulate a petition through the Mobile-Bouie neighborhood demanding that the city look into the matter. We canvassed the neighborhood and collected around 200 signatures. City Hall received the petition and immediately began installing drainage pipes out of the Compress Addition field. They also contacted the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and arranged for them to tour the entire Mobile-Bouie district, to gather information.
On that tour—which involved ironically the City Trolley, a trolley devoted to tourist activities or the promotion of tourism—the riders were confronted with a devastated landscape. The representatives from MDEQ and City Hall saw and smelled Shempers Scrap Metal, a massive junk yard that has spread over former RR shop grounds like a giant tumor, oozing every bad odor that comes from rotting crankcase oil, moldy upholstery, and seeping battery acid. We followed the Hercules Ditch around the neighborhood, over Scott Street where, until the 70s, it had been an open ditch, requiring residents to walk over railroad ties to get to their homes. We heard the claims that Agent Orange had been buried in drums in the Compress Addition during the Vietnam War.
That the residents had now a clear sense of the damage done to their environment came through testimonials such as the following:
In sum, the Trolley riders took an excursion into a world that the local residents live in everyday. Some visitors looked at each other with puzzlement and maybe fear in their eyes, as if saying they wanted off this ride through this subaltern landscape, through another side—an unfamiliar side—of this place.
It is not easy feeling someone else’s pain and suffering, or understanding their struggles and motivations. At least these issues were confronted during the Trolley ride. Among the people who live in the Mobile-Bouie area, there is no single unified perspective toward their environment. Some felt the hurt to their environment more than others. Some had embodied this landscape and related it to their state of health.
Though I have not been able to document Agent Orange having been produced in Hattiesburg (the nearest facility was in Arkansas), that people suspected it was in their midst indicates a moral limit had been violated.
James Scott’s work on moral economies is instructive at this point. He takes pains to emphasize the moral content of people making a living. I want to do something far less momentous here and emphasize the moral place, the moral judgments that residents have toward their degraded neighborhood. My task is easier I think than Scott’s because many people see the landscape in terms of right and wrong: that it should be this but not that, for example.
Mobile-Bouie residents have seized hold of the fact that they have a moral right to a cleaner, safer, healthier environment. They are confronted with the fact that Hattiesburg is still a deeply separated city. This separation is inscribed on their lived-in landscape. It factors into most white residents treating the Mobile-Bouie neighborhood as a foreign country. Yet the black residents that I know are not giving up; rather more residents are getting together and working to do something about the problem.
Doing something about the pollution in the neighborhood has become a platform for change. People are sick of the Hercules runoff and the Shemper oil stains. Not everyone perceives the pollution the same way, but everyone agrees that their environment has degraded.
Most importantly, though race is a factor inscribed on the landscape, there is an irony to it. On the hill above the Compress Addition, people thought that they were getting away from high water and Hercules runoff. But they moved closer to Hercules, closer to the source of so much pollution in the area.
This theme of not knowing applies to the earlier residential public trash dumping: "Our parents didn't have any knowledge that trash could be bad for people." That people started dying at a fairly early age tipped some residents off that something was not right.
Will the separation and degradation of this landscape continue? No great small city--and Hattiesburg aspires to be one of those--can use "not knowing"about the Mobile-Bouie neighborhood as an excuse for ecological complacency.
Barbara Bender (ed.) Landscape: Politics and Perspectives (Oxford, 1993; idem. Contested Landscapes: Movement, Exile and Place (Oxford, 2001).
Keith H. Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache (Albuquerque, 1996).
James C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia (New Haven, 1976), vii.