Southern Art/Wider World is a digital humanities project that empowers dialogue about the historical and cultural themes present in WAMA’s collection and the Southern land. Made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Also supported in part by the Mississippi Humanities Council, and in partnership with the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.
In this lesson, environmental historian Jack E. Davis explores the history and cultural power of the Gulf of Mexico, through the lens of Walter Anderson’s art and the larger resonance of the American continent.
JACK E. DAVIS is a professor of history and Rothman Family Chair in the Humanities at the University of Florida, specializing in environmental history and sustainability studies; and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea (2017). Before joining the faculty at UF in 2003, he taught at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Eckerd College, and in 2002 was a Fulbright scholar at the University of Jordan in Amman. Upon joining the faculty at UF, he founded the department’s student journal, Alpata: A Journal of History. His Race Against Time: Culture and Separation in Natchez Since 1930 won the Charles S. Sydnor Prize for the best book in southern history published in 2001. His next book, An Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the American Environmental Century (2009), received a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. In 2014, he was a fellow at the MacDowell Colony, where he worked on The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea. The New York Times Book Review called his book a “beautiful homage to a neglected sea.” The Gulf was a New York Times Notable Book for 2017 and made several other “best of” lists for the year, including those of the Washington Post, NPR, Forbes, and the Tampa Bay Times. In addition to winning the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for History, The Gulf was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction and winner of the Kirkus Prize for nonfiction. With his former student Leslie Poole (UF PhD 2012), Davis is currently editing a new edition of Wild Heart of Florida, a collection of personal essays and poems about natural Florida. In January 2018, he signed a contract with the publisher of The Gulf, Liveright/W.W. Norton, to write a new book, employing the working title Bird of Paradox: How the Bald Eagle Saved the Soul of America. In April 2019, Dr. Davis was one of the recipients of the 2019 Andrew Carnegie fellowship award. He was one of the thirty-two fellows out of 300 nominations selected for this prestigious award.
Setting the stage for the discussion, Jack E. Davis speaks about the role of creative minds in helping humans understand the history of their environments and geography.
TRANSCRIPT: Creative minds, to me, seem more in tune to the human condition, but also the environmental condition. And, of course, that’s certainly true with Walter Anderson. I think they’re just more in tune with the human and environmental condition than most of us. And they have something the show us that others don’t. I wanted my readers to know that the Gulf of Mexico isn’t just a regional sea. And all Americans, not just Gulf-siders, have a both ecological and historical connection to the sea.
An animating force
Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), Bird in Bush, c. 1960. Watercolor on Paper. Courtesy of the Family of Walter Anderson.
“I wonder how long it will be before nature and man accept each other again.”
– WALTER INGLIS ANDERSON
Walter Anderson saw in nature a model for living. He experienced the intimate moments of birth and death through the pelicans he interacted with on the barrier islands. He saw in the native plants and the steadfast forests examples of generational persistence and resilience, even as he witnessed their frailty in the face of the insatiable march of industry. Through communion with storms and hurricanes, he felt a power greater than himself. His art and writings place humans in relation to these larger environmental systems. If nature were to fail, we would fail with it. And if we were to succeed as communities, we would do so having understood the inherent wisdom of nature's grand design.
In contrast with another American artist like John James Audubon, who was famous for his paintings of dead birds (many of which he killed and staged), Anderson sought to capture his subjects in the moment of their greatest ecstasy – while they moved, flew, or screeched across his path. He painted and drew not to disturb the natural order, but to experience it for himself, if only for a fleeting instant.
WAMA Curator Mattie Codling take us "into the vault" to discuss Anderson's relationship to nature through birds.
Jack E. Davis provides his perspective on how nature is, in fact, at the center of our human experience and history, even if we don't always think so.
TRANSCRIPT: As both a biographer and as an environmental historian, I believe that nature is this daily animating force in the lives of humans. It’s this agent that shapes the course of human history. Although most historians ignore nature as such. Nature for them is just a backdrop – “let’s paint a little bit of a picture here and then we’ll move into the tedious human stuff.” No offense to the non-environmental historians out there. But in any case, history for them is more human centered. And I don’t think life on earth is as human centered as we would like to think it is.... As far as the Gulf of Mexico, on the matter of that, as a character or a shaping force, if it didn’t exist as this estuarine-dominated sea that it is, how different would our climate be, how different would our economy be, how different would our stories and our art be? Like any historical agent, it reaches beyond the local, and the Gulf of Mexico certainly does.
A GATEWAY TO AMERICA
Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), Map of New Orleans. Watercolor.
"There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three eighths of our territory must pass to market..."
– THOMAS JEFFERSON,
IN A LETTER TO HIS AMBASSADOR TO FRANCE, 1802
Though he will always be associated with the barrier islands and wilderness landscapes that inspired him, Walter Anderson is also anchored to New Orleans, the place of his birth (and his death). Like artists and writers who came before and after, Anderson was no doubt intoxicated by the city's perpetual motion. But the city is also related to Anderson – to the extent that any urban landscape can be. After all, it exists in a tenuous balance with nature, literally cleaved into parts by the mighty Mississippi River. The efforts to tame the wild must have fascinated him, as one who knew how indomitable nature could be.
It also a place of coinciding cultural history; indigenous, enslaved, colonial, epicurean. It is as ancient as any American spot, the product of eons of flow and formation, which still defines its importance as a national cultural touchstone.
In Anderson's final days, he made several trips to New Orleans. Redding Sugg, editor of Anderson's Horn Island Logs, recounts one instance here:
"On one of these two trips, he camped on the levee near Audubon Park. bedded down in the tall grass, he became aware, as often on Horn Island, of eyes focused upon him from all sides. He waited according to his custom for the creatures to materialize. As they did so, he realized they were exotic birds, freed from the great aviaries of Audubon Park when these were breached by [Hurricane] Betsy. He exulted in their freedom: Providence had populated this place very choice images; but he knew the birds could not survive outside their aviaries. It was a nice problem for the islander. In the end he reported the truants to Park authorities."
Jack E. Davis explains the importance of New Orleans to early American commerce and economy, and why it was a fulcrum around which the development of the new nation moved.
TRANSCRIPT: People overlook the Gulf’s contribution to the rise of the American economy and culture, whether it’s related to manifest destiny or in other ways. And they overlook it’s place in the history of American expansion, of continental expansion. Let me give you an example: Thomas Jefferson, who signed the biggest real estate deal in American history. That, of course, was for the Louisiana Purchase. What we’re taught in school is that Louisiana Purchase was all about Thomas Jefferson’s desire for that land west of the Mississippi River that would double the size of the U.S. Yes, he was very much interested in that. He was also hoping he would find Mastodon bones out there, by the way. That’s another story. He was equally as interested, if not more so, in the Mississippi River. Because the French controlled the Mississippi; they had New Orleans. Every European power who had any involvement in North America knew that whoever controlled the Mississippi controlled commerce in North America. And it was vitally important that the Americans get control of that river, and of New Orleans, as well. What Jefferson paid for all of that territory west of the Mississippi River, he paid double for New Orleans. Whoever controlled the Gulf controlled that commerce and access to that commerce.
WHAT LIES BENEATH
Walter Inglis Anderson, Octopus, c. 1960. Watercolor on paper. Courtesy of the Family of Walter Anderson.
“The water was alive with phosphorus and I was accompanied by Porpoises. One of them blew so suddenly that I nearly fell overboard...”
– WALTER INGLIS ANDERSON
The Horn Island Logs
Anderson compared the beaches of Horn Island to the back of a whale – a liminal space between the sea and sky. It was as if it might at any moment submerge and dive, transporting him to a new civilization occupied by creatures of the deep. For a man fascinated with myth and legend, the sea was a fount of mystery. In his mind, he was at times Odysseus, pitted against Poseidon. Yet he knew these fantasies were merely humanity's desperate grasps to explain and conceptualize an unknown and inaccessible world that they could only begin to truly see.
In some of his designs and patterns, Anderson uses spiral motifs to depict cresting waves that simultaneously connote curling clouds. Like the cosmos above, the depths of the sea are boundless.
Jack E. Davis speaks about the relative distance that exists between our understanding of life on the land – the terra firma – and the flourishing life that populates the sea.
TRANSCRIPT: I think that what happens with historians and writers and people generally, in looking at our history, looking at our geography, we’re drawn more to the terra firma, right. It has things we can see. It has mountains, has forests, has gorges, has rivers and streams, and waterfalls, and so much more. But a sea, like the Gulf of Mexico, what do you see? You see the surface. It becomes one-dimensional. It becomes an abstraction to some degree in people’s minds. They don’t know what lies below the surface. Virtually everything they see on the terra firma is duplicated below the surface, with the exception of trees. But there’s a vast diversity of plant life underneath the sea.
THE ISLAND CHAIN
Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), Horn Island Map, c. 1950. Pen and Ink. Courtesy of the Family of Walter Anderson.
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... Horn Island is an hourglass, a wise man once told me. It keeps its own time, and ours.
– JULIAN RANKIN
Horn Island journal entry, April 25, 2019
Walter Anderson's knowledge of the islands come through experience. In his maps of the islands, the 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.
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. It was worlds away from what Anderson experienced as myopic modernity—what he called the “dominant mode” on shore. The watercolors he made on the islands—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.
Before he began visiting Horn Island regularly, he was making trips to the Chandeleur Islands in Louisiana waters. It wasn't until after World War II that Anderson could safely visit Horn. During the war, the Army commandeered it as the Horn Island Chemical Warfare Service Quarantine Station, where they tested botulinum toxin and ricin.
Even at seventeen years old, Anderson had seen his share of drama at sea. The below newspaper clipping recounts his harrowing experience clinging to a channel beacon for fourteen hours in the Mississippi Sound after a storm swept away his boat.
"It was another case of 'water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink,'" a young Anderson told the newspaper, referencing Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner.' "Believe me, that little boat that rescued me looked like floating palace of gold..."
TEXT EXCERPTED IN PART FROM "SACRED PLACE" | FALL 2019 ISSUE OF OXFORD AMERICAN
Jack E. Davis discusses the unique geography of barrier islands, and their contributions to the larger identity and character of the Gulf of Mexico.
TRANSCRIPT: Well, if you look at a map of the Gulf of Mexico, if you look at an aerial or a satellite map of the Gulf of Mexico, you’ll see that it’s fronted by barrier islands from Florida to Texas on down into Mexico. There’s no other coast in the United States that has such a high concentration of barrier islands. These barrier islands tell a geological, but also an ecological story. And they tell a human story. Imagine what the Gulf would be like without these barrier islands. We would not have our estuarine environments, for example. They cordon in the saltwater, and the fresh water that comes from the rivers, and that’s the kind of elixir or mix that estuarine environments need. And, of course, along with those estuarine environments are the livelihoods of so many people that are connected to those estuaries, which is something we tend to forget when we destroy those estuaries. We’re destroying jobs, we’re destroying livelihoods.
Walter Inglis Anderson (1903 - 1965). Oyster Tonging, from Ocean Springs, Past and Present Public Works Art Project Mural. c.1935. Oil on Canvas.
Walter Inglis Anderson (1903 - 1965). Fresh Water Waves (detail). c.1945. Linoleum Block Print and Gouache. Gift of the Family of Walter Anderson
Jack E. Davis explains the continental origins of the barriers islands, formed by sand and sediment that travels thousands of miles.
TRANSCRIPT: And those islands, the other thing about those islands, is they don’t have local origins. They are products of the geography of the wider region and beyond. The sand that builds those islands doesn’t come up from the Gulf, or doesn’t originate from the Gulf floor, it originates – at least in my part of the Gulf of Mexico – from the Appalachian Mountains. Over on the western part of the Gulf of Mexico, sediment from as far away as the Rocky Mountains washes down and builds those beaches, builds those islands. And as I write in the book, when you walk on a beach, particularly when you walk on a beach on a barrier island, you’re walking on a mountain. So they’re products of the geography from faraway places.
a deserted island
Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), Horn Island, Feb. 1956, c. 1956. Watercolor on Paper. Courtesy of the Family of Walter Anderson.
“Although Horn removed Anderson from the conventions of mainland living, he was no Crusoe. He was never a castaway, and he never tried to replant to the island some semblance of mainland imperatives... Horn’s denizens of feather, fur, and scale were to Anderson the essence of a natural order that deserved the respect and admiration of humankind.”
– JACK E. DAVIS
from The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea
Horn Island, more than any other place that Anderson visited, held cacophonous creation. At every turn, motion, from the sun and moon to the grasses in the lagoons that the alligators called home. For the artist, the island vibrated with energy, heightened color, shape, and form that never stopped. Even if he might be the only human on the ten-mile long island, he was never alone. The soundscape at night was full of rustles and echoes and the chirps of insects in the darkness; not to mention at sunset, the "magic hour," when it seemed that every living thing entered the stage to perform its dance.
Jack E. Davis explains why he doesn't believe in deserted islands.
TRANSCRIPT: To me there’s no such thing as a deserted island. To Walter Anderson, there was no such thing as a deserted island. Whether it was Cat Island, whether it was Horn Island, whether it was the Chandeleurs. They’re not deserted – I hate that expression. And I correct my students, I correct my writer friends, when they use that term. Because Walter knew there was so much life out there on those islands, and they are just busting places. And to suggest they are deserted is a horrific idea to me. It denies nature and its place both on earth and within our lives.
Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), Blue Crabs, c. 1955. Watercolor on Paper. Courtesy of the Family of Walter Anderson.
“It was an embarrassment of riches. While I was painting pelicans with white bodies against the dark clouds of the squall, first a terrapin, then a crab and last a king rail came tiptoeing out between the mangrove tubers.”
– WALTER INGLIS ANDERSON
from The Horn Island Logs of Walter Inglis Anderson
Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), Boat Tailed Grackles at Sunrise, c. 1960. Watercolor on Paper. Courtesy of the Family of Walter Anderson.
THE EDGE OF RUIN
Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), Dead Pelican, c. 1955. Pencil on Paper. Gift of the Family of Walter Anderson.
"... this bird, which is the most perfect symbol of change, from darkness to light and from light to darkness, holds its place effortlessly against the wind and the opposing cloud."
– WALTER INGLIS ANDERSON
The Chandeleur Islands are nesting grounds for pelicans. The bird also happened to be Walter Anderson's favorite animal. He rowed his skiff out to see them often, once spending three consecutive weeks among them, when he believed he even began to decipher their language. As Anderson's daughter, Mary Anderson Pickard writes:
"In the 1940s he explored pelicans as though seeing them anew in hundreds of ink drawings – the expanse of wing, tilt of head, of beak, the mechanics of flight, the awkward grace, ugly beauty, weightless mass, union of opposites – all the dichotomies of this bird with whom he seemed to identify so strongly. The pelican became his totem and spiritual guide...
In the late 1940s and early 50s, Anderson reveled in the 'tremendously beautiful' harmonies' of thousands of nesting pelicans at the Chandeleur rookeries on North Key, more than thirty-five miles from the mainland."
But the populations soon declined, the result of the pesticide DDT that weakened the eggs. It was not until the final months of his life that Anderson began to see them return. The full recovery of coastal bird species wouldn't occur until after he was gone. Anderson died in 1965. DDT was finally banned by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1972.
Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), The Nest, c. 1955. Pencil on Paper. Collection of the Family of Walter Anderson.
Jack E. Davis on DDT and the near extinction of coastal bird species like the brown pelican and bald eagle.
TRANSCRIPT: The pelican, the brown pelican, disappeared from part of the Gulf Coast in the mid-1960s. Of all places, Louisiana. And what state around the Gulf of Mexico do we associate the pelican with? Louisiana. It disappeared for a couple of years. And from parts of Mississippi and western part of the Gulf of Mexico because of DDT. The bald eagle disappeared as well because of DDT. So DDT was introduced into the commercial market right after World War II. And it unfortunately had a profound impact on wildlife. What happens is when DDT gets into the body of certain species, it atomized into another chemical, DDE, and DDE is the chemical that affects the development of eggs in many birds. You know, the bird life has come back since I was a kid, since the 1970s. That’s because we cleaned up those estuarine environments that be brought to edge of ruin around the Gulf of Mexico, primarily with raw sewage but also with industrial waste. And what do they bring? They brought the marine life – the sea grasses – which brings the marine life, and the marine life brings what? Brings those pelicans, it brings those osprey, it brings the bald eagles, and all the other fishing birds – the egrets and the herons, as well. We’re fortunate to have that thriving gulf environment again, when we almost lost it like we almost lost the bald eagle in the 1960s.
Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), Pelicans on North Key, c. 1955. Pencil on Paper. Collection of the Family of Walter Anderson.
“Such poisoning of waters set aside for conservation purposes should 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.”
– RACHEL CARSON
BIRD OF PARADOX
Walter Inglis Anderson, Venus panel from the Ocean Springs Community Center, c. 1951-52. Collection of the City of Ocean Springs.
In his monumental 3,000 square-feet of murals in the Ocean Springs Community Center, Walter Anderson gives an expansive vision for art's place in civic life. Several panels are are associated with Roman Gods, as seen interpreted through his coastal lens, including Venus depicted through two eagles locked in a mating ritual. Anderson witnessed bald eagles on the Mississippi Coast until they, too, nearly disappeared forever. His work is a fitting tribute to a bird with whom America has had a tumultuous and nearly disastrous love affair.
The panel also references American poet Walt Whitman's "Dalliance of the Eagles":
THE DALLIANCE OF THE EAGLES
Skirting the river road, (my forenoon walk, my rest,)
Skyward in air a sudden muffled sound, the dalliance of the eagles,
The rushing amorous contact high in space together,
The clinching interlocking claws, a living, fierce, gyrating wheel,
Four beating wings, two beaks, a swirling mass tight grappling,
In tumbling turning clustering loops, straight downward falling,
Till o'er the river pois'd, the twain yet one, a moment's lull,
A motionless still balance in the air, then parting, talons loosing,
Upward again on slow-firm pinions slanting, their separate diverse flight,
She hers, he his, pursuing.
Jack E. Davis explains the bald eagle's fraught history as a species and as a national emblem. The bald eagle is the subject of his book, Bird of Paradox.
TRANSCRIPT: When I was a kid growing up on the Gulf, I didn’t see a bald eagle, I think, until the 1990s, and I was an adult by then. I didn’t even know they lived on the Gulf Coast. But the interesting thing is, here is the bird of America throughout the 19th century, and unfortunately, Americans are blowing it out of the sky left and right. It has this bad reputation as a thief, as a scavenger, as a dishonest bird, as many people called it, including Ben Franklin. And while we revere the symbol, we were murdering the species and so it’s a story of that paradox, in part. But again, it’s really a love story in the end, because by the late 20th century, we fall back in love with the bald eagle, and we save it from extinction. And that’s what the language was – “Oh my god, it’s going to go extinct in the lower forty-eight states if we don’t do something.” And it was. In many states it was gone. It shows us what we do well and what we do wrong in our relationship with the natural world. How can we ignore that, how can we ignore that gift from a species like the bald eagle?
“One single image is inexhaustible—man is a wasteful fool.”
– WALTER INGLIS ANDERSON
Jack E. Davis closes by telling the story of how Walter Anderson helped him conceptualize his Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental history, The Gulf.
TRANSCRIPT: I lived in Mississippi in the early 1990s. and that’s when I was introduced to Walter Anderson. I thought he was just fascinating from the very start. And he always stuck with me. There was something about his spirit, something about his art, obviously. But also, something about his spirit that I learned in reading about his writings. I wasn’t sure how to write this history of the sea. I wasn’t sure how to get into the book. And it was an environmental story and I was going to approach it somewhat differently from a conventional historian who might launch into the economic history or the social history. But I was going to launch into the environmental history, but without ignoring the human relationship there with the natural world. that’s centrally important, that’s what environmental historians study.
And then it occurred to me, Walter Anderson would show me how to write this book. So Walter Anderson is the central human character in chapter twelve of the book now, which is a chapter about barrier islands. And so, I wrote that chapter first, because I knew Walter would show me the way into this book. I wanted his sensibilities, which were similar to mine, to really be the voice of the author, myself. I wanted to shape the narrative. The whole thrust of the book. Without being political. Walter Anderson wasn’t political. He certainly had his opinions about humans and nature, but he wasn’t this political animal. When I started writing Chapter 12, opening up with a story of Walter Anderson sailing out to Horn Island, he instantly showed me, he navigated me, if you will, into this book. Once I finished that chapter, I knew that this was the formula. This is how the rest of the book, the other chapters, should look. And so, I’m forever grateful to him for showing me the way into the story of the Gulf of Mexico.
Jack E. Davis, The Gulf: The Making of An American Sea (2017), Liveright/W.W. Norton
Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962), Houghton Mifflin
Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (1978), Harvard University Press
Michael McCarthy, The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy (2016), John Murray Press
Julian Rankin, "Sacred Place," Oxford American (2019)