This passage is a little scene from the road between the prothonotary warblers that thrive in the cypress swamp remnants of southern Illinois and the Henslow’s sparrows that have colonized former strip mines in southwestern Indiana. April 2021.
When you’re in Southern Indiana and Illinois, driving north, mid-April, the things we always assumed were true about motion and direction get challenged. The road is flat, straight, empty. You must be moving—forward and 5th gear, in fact. Somehow, though, season and era are both regressing. A flag waves, TRUMP 2020 taking another beating, this one dealt by the cold north wind.
It’s easier to find inspiration to stay in the truck than to leave it. This morning, things were different. A dalliance, me and the canoe, deep into cypress backwaters lit up with prothonotary warblers. But now, further north and further into the day, water has lost its power of seduction. Channels are straight; banks are steep, bare, eroded. First, the vegetation gave up. Then, the substrate followed. Up on the bridge, the word “river” is on a sign, hanging on, a relict. But I’m surprised it hasn’t also given way, been swept downstream in silty current.
The thing that’s persisted best through the day’s travel has been the color yellow. First, this morning, prothonotary warblers—small points of light glowing gold on cypress knees: the happiest hue of the color. Later on, fields fallen fallow bloom with mustard. Mustard greens are a little spicy, a little bitter. They’re a favorite; they’d pair well with the chicken-of-the-woods that’s been riding with me since yesterday. I’m tempted. But I’ve been passing billboards, too, billboards promising things like FIND 5-15 MORE BUSHELS/ACRE YIELD THAN WITH OTHER HERBICIDES. Yellow, caution, like a light about to turn. Most of the houses, like the fields, are empty. Feral shrubbery encroaches on old stoops. In the yards of places still occupied, flags wave in the yards of those still occupied: DON’T TREAD ON ME. Too late for that, I think; from an outsiders perspective, it’s clear they’ve been trodden on. Yellow might have made it through the day, but its meaning has changed.
There’s a word, “overburden.” In these parts, it’s got a couple meanings, too. In verb form, to overburden is to load something—a field, a ditch, a farmer, a heart—with too much to carry. As a noun, the word refers to the rock or soil overlying a mineral deposit. In this region, quite a big chunk of that overburden’s been stripped away to get it the coal beneath.