- [Latria] I love this place and I hate this place, like I am this place, you know.
- [John] I found my freedom here in the deepest dankest mud of the Mississippi River.
- [Latria] I will come and sit here for five minutes and I go back and I have to put my armor on and go back to work.
- [Mark] This river is a lifesaver for me, man, it has become my church.
You know I think everybody has something in their life that changes them.
[ambient music] - [male announcer]: Support for Reel South is provided by: Additional funding for "Stay Here Awhile" is provided by: [insects chittering] [birds chirping] [bird tweets] [water sloshing] [gentle music] [birds chirping] [music continues] [water burbling] [feathers flutter] [bird chirps] [gentle music continues] [birds tweeting] [insects chittering] [gentle music fades] [leaves rustle] [bird tweets] [footsteps pattering] [bird trills] [insects chitter] [bird tweets] [wings flutter] [crickets chirp] [rain patters] - Yeah, I had a transient life, that is very true.
You know, coming up to having a summer job at Pickett State Park, and I really didn't know what to expect.
It made this one field trip here with a great old botanist professor, and I was intrigued by it.
And the fellow that hired me, he met me up here, he walked me down to Hazard Cave.
He was doing me a big favor, he knew he was.
And I really hadn't been around that kind of architecture before.
I found it so accessible, in a way, powerful, you know?
[footsteps patter] [insects chirp] [leaves rustle] [bird trills] You know, I've been out west to the Rockies and stuff with a buddy, out camping and stuff, but this felt more like I could really be in it.
I don't know, I guess I felt like I'd be comfortable with it for a long time.
Everybody gets to make their choices, and that's been my choice ever since.
[bird chirps] [insects chitter] [bird warbles] [wind whooshing] [bird trills] [birds tweeting] [bird trills] [dog barking] [birds chirping] [dog barks] - Blooms make me so, so happy.
Like, there's something living.
Winter is always the hardest time for me anyway.
Outside of the pandemic, just the fact that the skies here are often gray, and we have rain, and it feels there's that famine of beauty moment.
And then you have these flowers that show up anyway, that bloom anyway, and getting out and appreciating those a little bit, even if it's just five minutes.
I come in here, in between editorial calls, and I will come and sit here for five minutes, and then I go back, and I have to put my armor on and go back to work.
[dog barks] [birds tweeting] [leaves rustle] [dog barks] [paper flutters] [birds tweets] [mug clinks] [Latria slurps] [rain pattering] [birds trill] [pencil scratching] [pencil scratching continues] [birds tweet] [crickets chirp] - I was born and raised in the Colorado Rockies.
But even still, so close to God and Heaven in those towering Rocky Mountains, I grew up at 8,500 feet on the edge of Arapaho National Forest, even still, I found my freedom here in the deepest, dankest, some people would say dirtiest mud in North America.
And decades later, I'm still finding myself inexplicably drawn inwards and deeper and deeper into this mud of the Mississippi River.
So this plaque, "Utram Bibis Undam" is fulfilling the wishes of Sean "Danger" Rowe, who was my partner, and blood brother, and soulmate, who I graduated from high school with.
And then later, he passed away in a tragic death.
And so, this week, we're going to complete something that has been causing me bad dreams and uncomfortableness, and that is the disappearance of a plaque that we put up 10 years ago and the need to revisit.
And especially now, during the pandemic, I have some deep, deep feelings about this and deep reasons that this needs to be done now.
[crickets chirping] [water trickling] [birds chirping] [traffic humming] [dog barking] [dog barking] [motor hums] [tool banging] - Now this is our canoe shop.
And as you can see, we have just popped one of these frames of a canoe off the forms.
As you can see, these forms here, this is the start of the building of a canoe.
I've been building canoes since 2013.
This is really a sacred process.
And once you build them, you're so attached to 'em that you hate to see anything happen to 'em, and you're always looking to repair 'em.
And they're almost like living creatures.
When I came back from college, I went and played a little bit of NFL football for a very short time.
And then I came back and started working for UPS, and I transferred back home to St. Louis.
You know, my grandfather was from Starkville, Mississippi, my grandmother was from Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
They moved up in the 1920s.
So a lot of my family members were like, "Why would you go to Mississippi?"
But I already had a attachment to it.
It was just always in my soul.
I never looked at Mississippi as a bad place 'cause I always spent time down here.
And then as soon as I got here, I felt at home.
So a lot of people were like, at first they were like, "River's going crazy.
He's going to Mississippi."
But now they're like, "You're a genius."
So I'll take it.
I can't talk about anything in my life without talking about the river.
And it just basically has been my backyard ever since I was a kid.
You know, when I'd go to my grandparents' house, that's the first place I would go down is to the river.
Then you get caught up in going to high school, and then college, and women and all that stuff.
And then I just came back to the river when I moved back to my grandfather's house.
You know, I'm sitting on that porch at night, which is a block away from the river, and I'm watching deer walk up the road, I'm watching turkeys in my front yard all the time, I'm hearing coyotes at night.
It just made me feel alive.
[water burbling] - Hey, River?
- Yo, yo.
- [John] Grab that blue pen when you come in, would you?
- The blue pen, okay.
- Off the counter.
- Do you want it personally, or just put it on the- - Oh, yeah, I'm getting a draw on it.
- There you go.
- Thank you.
- [Mark] Yep, yep.
[insects chitter] - Okay, well, we're gonna put in at Quapaw Landing and paddle out, probably go over to the bottom of 61 Island.
- 62 Island, thank you, and have lunch, and maybe do some exploration over here.
It's a really cool island.
And then Tuesday, go erect the plaque.
And we're gonna need one full day to get Sean's plaque re-erected up at the top end of the island.
- Same spot?
- Same spot, yeah, yeah.
- Okay, cool.
[traffic hums] [motor humming] [water trickling] [insects chittering] [insects chittering continues] [bird warbles] [insects chitter] [bird tweets] [banjo string chimes] [banjo twanging] [cheerful banjo music] [insects chittering] [crickets chirping] [wings flutter] - [Interviewer] Curious why you started playing the banjo less.
[string twangs] - Well, one reason is arthritis in my right hand, right thumb really.
It's a disincentive, you know?
And also, I just, I couldn't really focus on that sort of thing, you know?
But I love to hear it.
I love the banjo.
I think music that I can enjoy can be made on it by folks that play music that is fairly simple.
But you can still enjoy it, you know?
[crickets chirping] [insects chittering] It's probably simpler than the cricket songs that we're hearing right now.
I think there's some connection between the music people make and the music that's in nature.
A lot of people have thought about that and use their music to imitate the force of nature, and also, to take from it, you know?
[crickets chirping] But this is a kind of music that a lot of people don't take to.
And so I know a lot of this means absolutely nothing to a lot of people, but the people who can take it in, they deserve it.
[crickets chirping] [insects chittering] Want me to play that tune?
Well, if I can play anything for you.
[banjo strums] [joyful banjo music] [joyful banjo music continues] [joyful music continues] [water sloshing] [joyful music continues] [water sloshing] [bird squawks] [John hums] [water sloshing] [water burbles] [water sloshing] [birds squawking] [birds squawking continues] [water burbling] [wind whooshes] [waves trickles] [water burbles] [rain pattering] - We're going to Silverstreet, South Carolina, which is where my dad's from.
It's in Newberry County.
And a lot of my family still lives down there.
I love this place, and I hate this place.
Like, I am this place, you know?
It is very much like, the iron that is in that ground that makes it red is in my blood, and has been, it has been in my family for at least five generations.
And it is very hard to see that thing change.
I think deeply about that a lot.
And I realized that, one, it will never be the same, and so I'm trying to write down what I remember and trying to write down, like this area was clear cut.
You can see they left one or two pines, but this isn't something that was like pasture that people let go fallow.
They literally took all of the valuable trees out of this place and just left what they wanted to, so like all of that, obviously all of this to the right.
But then you see the majesty, right?
You see it right here for like 30 seconds, and then it just falls away, back into ruin again.
[leaves rustling] [gravel crunches] This is my grandmother's house, or it used to be my grandmother's house.
[birds tweet] [insects chittering] [birds trilling] The grandmother that lived here was Mary Elmer Graham, and she was my paternal grandmother.
And she always was growing something.
[leaves rustle] [insects chitter] But it feels like in some of these plants, she's still here.
Like this little guy.
[birds chirping] [insects humming] [bird trills] It was very unusual for a lot of people in that area to own your land.
Usually, you're step-paying somebody for it, and you never make enough money to really get out of this sort of lender indentured servitude.
[insects buzz] So to know that people who were thought of as property were able to own it, have it, thrive on it, and lose it is one of the worst feelings in the world.
[insects humming] [bird trills] [bird warbles] [insects chittering] [birds chirp] This is the beginning of my dad's parcel of land.
Jesus, the grass got ridiculous in here.
But I'm trying to find the plum trees.
But they're back over in there somewhere.
It's just been like super grown up.
So this is the front, and obviously need to do some work on it and stuff, but it's very hard to get the motivation to drive two hours to cut the grass on something that's not gonna be yours for much longer.
And I'm sure that makes me an #*#*#*#*#*#*#*, but that doesn't make it any less true.
[insects chittering] I didn't decide to sell this land, I was kind of forced to sell this land.
And I have a half-brother that thinks that this land is worth something monetarily, and he wants his portion, right?
And I can't afford to buy him out.
I've spent the majority of my career and my freelance money in trying to keep this place from taking on water and fixing the roof and anything else that was wrong with it because this land meant so much to my family, and we wanted to keep it in the family.
But I've run outta money, I've run outta time.
I have to settle this somehow, and so I signed the papers for this to go up for auction.
And so I don't know what happens next.
[Latria sighs] Yeah.
[bird tweets] [hopeful music] [water splashes] [hopeful music rises] [hopeful music continues] [water burbling] [seagull screeches] [hopeful music continues] [water burbling] [hopeful music rises] [water burbling continues] [hopeful music continues] [water burbling continues] [seagull screeching] [water sloshes] [hopeful music continues] [wind whooshing] [utensils clink] [fire crackling] [hopeful music fades] [insects chittering] [seagulls squawking] [chisel tapping] [water trickling] [birds chatter] [chisel tapping continues] [chisel tapping continues] [sand scraping] [bird squawks] [water trickling] [water trickling continues] [insects chitter] [water trickles] [reel clicking] - It's one of those things that, like I said, people freak out all the time, but I don't necessarily have to catch fish, you know?
Just being out here, man, it makes me feel great just being out here.
When I was, I think it was like when I was five is when the first time I got a chance to see my oldest brother Earl play football.
And my oldest brother lived with my grandfather, so he got to go to a suburban school.
And I remember my brother took the opening kickoff, and he ran all the way back for a touchdown.
And all these people, all these people, man, I mean, I'd never seen Black folks and white folks get along until that.
And so I was in the stands, I'm a little kid, and all these people, all these white folks kept coming up to me and grabbed me, picking me up.
They're celebrating that my brother made a touchdown.
I was like, "What's going on?"
You know, I didn't know that Black and white folks got along, this is where it's at.
So we went back to East St. Louis.
And I remember walking all over the town, looking for a football field.
And I came back, and I told my mom, I said, "Mom, I can't play football over here," you know?
I said, "We don't have football here."
And she told me, "Don't worry about that, baby."
And it seemed like it was like [chuckles], you know, as a little kid, it seemed like it was like a week, couple weeks.
But next thing you know, we had a new house over in the suburbs.
And then, man, that was, I was in third grade.
I remember being the only Black kid in my class.
No one really liked me at first.
No one liked me until they seen me run.
And then I realized that I started getting treated differently then.
And so I think my mindset set me up to think, "Okay, if I want to make it, I gotta play football, 'cause that's the only time people are nice to me is when they see me play football."
[bird chatters] [insects chittering] Go get 'em.
[reel clicking] Go to college, play football, play a little bit of pro.
I was signed as a free agent for the New York Giants in 1991, and I played defensive back.
But once football was over, I realized people, all of a sudden, I was back just being a regular Black guy again.
You know, I wasn't performing for anybody, I wasn't making anybody any money playing football anymore.
So I was like, "Well, hey, I'm gonna take my life back, and I'm gonna do what I wanna do."
I remember that question John asked me, "Why would a 44-year-old man wanna come down to the Delta?"
And I told him it was time for me to give back.
And I love the Mississippi River.
[reel clicking] [water trickling] [bird tweets] [water burbling] [birds tweets] [wind whooshing] [birds chattering] [birds chirping] [insects chirping] [bird trills] [dog barking] [leaves rustling] - This was a dogwood my dad had in the backyard, and I just made the decision to cut it down.
He would kill me if he knew that I had cut it down, but it was just time to sort of reorient the landscape for what I think I wanted back here.
So it was just, I took out everything back here, in some ways that reminded me of him, with the exception of the dad tree, which is kind of too big to take down.
This is the tree that I come and talk to when I needed to communicate with my dad in some ways.
You know, you just sort of miss someone and you find an object that you feel like you can at least give your energy to.
And it's the biggest, oldest tree in the yard.
It's like one of the oldest, maybe the oldest on the street.
Lots of coverage, it kind of hovers over the house.
And we have a very complicated relationship with it, kind of like the relationship I had with my dad, because it provides great shade, but also creates lots of damage, which is what happened to the deck.
A major limb fell off of it.
But as I get older and get a little further in my grief, I talk to the dad tree less and less.
So, we've talked about having some of the limbs removed or having it cut down, but it's gonna be a major change to this yard if we do.
And I just haven't settled on what to do about it yet.
[insects chittering] [dog barking] [bird trills] [hopeful music] [insects chittering] [leaves rustling] [hopeful music continues] [match scratches] [flame hisses] [hopeful music continues] [leaves rustling] [hopeful music continues] [match scratching] [birds trills] [fire crackling] [bird tweets] - I'd love to be around to see my kids, have another kid or something like that.
That'd be a new experience, that's for sure.
But, you know, I have multiple myeloma, which is a blood cancer, so it's just something that's treated through chemotherapy with pretty powerful drugs.
They have made me, they've given me a new normal.
You know, I don't have the breath, for some reason, that I had before.
That's what I'm most worried about in terms of backpacking.
I'm not as, well, I feel I'm sort of stupefied to some extent.
I can't find my words sometimes.
That's a blessing to everybody.
[chuckles] You know, I feel all right.
What I have is something that can't be cured.
It can be suppressed for a while.
And that's just the way it is.
I mean, everybody's gonna die.
I've known a lot of people my age, who were born the same year I was born, and they're gone now.
And we're that kind of critter.
So gotta do what we're all doing.
You gotta keep learning, you know?
Every day the calendar changes, and that's wonderful.
[fire crackling] [leaves rustling] [bird tweets] [insects chittering] [birds chirp] [flame crackling] [wind whooshing] [leaves rustling] [water burbling] [rain pattering] [banjo strumming] [banjo strums] [rain pattering] [bird chirping] [John slurps] - We were just four high school graduates.
This was in August of 1982.
We were on a homemade 12 by 24-foot raft that we built from found materials, a result of Sean's romantic tendencies and my equal romantic idealism to follow kind of a crazy dream and follow it through all the way to the end.
We were headed to the Gulf of Mexico.
But we thought, we were just dumb kids at the time.
We'd literally had no experience navigating big water.
It was a day not too unsimilar from today.
It was cold and overcast, [pots clinking] playing a game of chess, which is something we'd spend a lot of time doing to pass the miles.
And we came around President's Island and noticed about a 350-foot-tall power line tower.
[water splashes, trickles] And we jumped to oars, and the river just pushed us right into one of the pylons.
There were four of 'em supporting the four corners of the tower.
And February, 1983, after five months on the river, the Old Woman River, she said, "Your trip is over," and folded us up like a neat package.
Well, not so neat, it was kinda ugly.
It's kinda like crushing a saltine cracker into your bowl of chili.
And we both disappeared underwater, slurped up by the river and swooshed underwater for a long distance.
And when we finally popped up downstream, we were way downstream of those pylons.
[water trickling] [rain pattering] Decades later, we are on the same river.
And I'm here in person, Sean is here in spirit, because decades later, he committed suicide with the wishes that his ashes be spread on the face of the water.
[bird tweeting] [insects chittering] [wind whooshing] [leaves rustling] [table creaks] [John slurps] [liquid trickles] [birds tweet] [fire crackling] [chisel tapping] [water trickling] [fire crackling] [John hums] [insects chittering] [wind whooshing] [bird screeches] [water rushing] [water trickling] [bird chirping] - This river is a lifesaver for me, man.
It has become my church.
My mother died when I was 13, and my father remarried very, very quickly.
And so I've always, I never had a chance to grieve her death.
So a lot of times I'm on the river, paddling, a lot of times I'm grieving too, you know?
But it's the best form of grieving for me.
[insects chittering] When you get a chance to get away and find your own peace, you know, you can stop the healing there.
But I'm just blessed to be doing what I do.
And yeah, man.
- [Interviewer] It's sad that your mother passed away, isn't it?
- She was diagnosed with brain cancer.
[water trickling] My whole life so far, man, I've had a pretty good life, even though I've had that tragedy of losing my mother.
I think that was, I think everybody has something in their life that changes them or wears on them.
And I think that's my thing, 'cause I don't, knock on wood, but I really don't have a lot of other issues in society.
But, you know, I have issues with, when I see people with their mother or hugging their mother, it's just like, man.
And then you hear those people complain.
You're like, "You got it made," you know?
So it's tough.
And when I'm out here fishing, man, it's just the best, just being part of this whole thing, you know?
The river, you always have to respect it.
It gives to you, it takes away from you.
I come out here and I fish, and I lose a lure, one of my favorite lures, you know?
And then I'll be on the river again in a couple weeks and I'll find one.
[chuckles] And it's just an incredible balance for me, and it's given me hope.
[water trickling] [insects chittering] [joyful banjo music] [insects humming] [birds chirping] [chisel tapping] [joyful banjo music continues] [water trickling] [insects chittering] [motor humming] [leaves rustle] [wind whooshing] [wind whooshing] [leaves rustling] [pages fluttering] [crickets chirp] [birds tweet] - This magazine, the issue of "Garden & Gun," I wrote about saying goodbye to my family farm in this one.
It was a piece called "A Dream Uprooted."
[gentle music] [grass rustles] "As I walk, I think about my daddy, how he used to stroll with me back when he was strong and capable, quick to laugh and eager to teach, curious about the state of the natural world and in awe of all its bounty.
The thing that bothers me more than the money, more than the losing, though, is how will I explain to future generations why this place mattered.
How do I explain the pleasure of the first bite of that ripe fruit when there is nothing left to taste?
The way we soaked watermelon seeds in sugar water the night before planting them in order to make the fruit sweeter, the quick scan we learned to do with our eyes when we hunted poke salad in the spring.
I fret about the recipes and traditions so innate we never bothered to write them down.
[gentle music continues] When I return from walking the land, I can't breathe quite right, and I wonder, for about a week, if this is a heart attack or simply heartbreak.
I wonder if untethering myself from Silverstreet will do me in, if by losing my land, I am losing my anchor, my grasp on my sense of self.
[gentle music continues] [insects chitter] My daddy's people have always made sense of the hard times through tales.
There always seemed to be a parable, folk tale, or Bible story for the moment.
As an adult, I don't want to hear about divine intervention or miracles, knowing I can't expect either.
I have not found the story I am looking for, so I take refuge in writing my own.
I want the world to understand the Grahams of Silverstreet were here.
We loved fiercely and fought hard, and we carry this white river sand and Carolina red clay in our DNA.
We will never be erased."
[birds chirping] [gentle music continues] [seagulls squawking] [wings fluttering] [boat creaks] [water burbling] [bird trills] [bird warbles] [insects chittering] [water burbling] [bird tweets] [water sloshing] [crickets chirp] [sand shuffling] [footsteps pattering] [bird tweets] [insects chirping] [sand crinkling] [footsteps shuffling] [percussive music] [percussive music continues] [leaves rustling] [percussive music continues] [leaves rustling] [percussive music continues] [percussive music continues] [percussive music continues] [wind whooshing] - [John] Well, guys, I'd like to thank you personally for being here.
And Sean suffered from incredible potential as a human being, and a person, and a writer, and a poet.
It was kind of difficult for me walking across that sandbar and, once again, accepting my failure as a friend.
If the pandemic has shown us anything, it's that we need to take care of each other and show each other love and compassion.
And 10 years ago, we erected the plaque close by here.
And for me, [drill whirs] it's kind of like a crossroads between the past and the future.
Even though he's not here, his spirit is here.
[wind whooshing] [drill whirs] [leaves rustling] [wind whooshes] [water rushes] [hopeful music] [insects chittering] [footsteps shuffling] [hopeful music continues] [seagulls squawk] [wings flutter] [water trickling] [hopeful music continues] [insects chirping] [birds tweeting] [hopeful music fades] [bird screeches] [insects chittering] [bird warbles] [insects chittering] [crickets chirping] [leaves rustling] [bird trills] [wind whooshing] [woodpecker taps] [birds chirping] [leaves rustling] - I believe I have enjoyed my little home place as much as I ever have.
I have tried not to circulate, during the time, for health reasons.
And it hadn't been a bit depressing, to me, to be able to step outside and see some of these old friends, you know, these plants that I take for granted, look 'em over.
Let's see what Tennyson has a little quatrain, and it's broken out of a bigger poem, but it said, "To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower, hold eternity, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour."
Now that's an aspiration.
And I have tried that, I've tried to teach it to some naturalists.
Not teach it, but just challenge to, can you take a grain of sand?
You know, people are coming to this park, and they might be interested if a big old hawk flies over or whatever.
Can we be good enough, can we be clever enough?
Can we ask enough questions to have a grain of sand in our hand and hold somebody's attention and fascination to it, to its facets, to its color, to its origins, to the molecules that are in it, to what it will become?
[wind whooshes] [insects chirp] [leaves rustling] [Bobby chuckles] That's a nice little rain, isn't it?
[leaves rustling] [insects chitter] Nice sound, too.
[insects chittering] [leaves rustle] [bird chirps] Can the orchestras make that sound?
It's worth a try.
[gentle music] [insects chittering] [bird trills] [hopeful music] ♪ [banjo strums] ♪ [banjo strums] ♪ [banjo strums] ♪ [leaves rustling] ♪ [insects chitter] [leaves rustling] ♪ ♪ [bird chirps] ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪