restricted access Sleeping Kudzu. Bruinsburg, MS. December 2004
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Sleeping Kudzu. Bruinsburg, MS. December 2004

An old buddy and I were driving back roads in Mississippi for a few days at the end of 2004. I was still relatively new to the state and was doing a lot of exploring. Just north of Alcorn State University, near the old town site of Bruinsburg, I saw the dramatic scene shown in the photograph on the cover of this issue of Southeastern Geographer. Dormant kudzu vines lay over an eroded stream system in the loess soil formation. Forest patches of mostly deciduous hardwoods stand mostly leafless and a young pine plantation stands far in the distance, across the heavily eroded drainage system. Beyond the trees on the right are the remarkable ruins of Windsor Plantation.

The dramatic landscapes created by eroding loess soils and by kudzu have always fascinated me. I find them aesthetically beautiful. Places where they come together often hold some striking scenes: large old tree trunks, long since killed by the vine, covered in lush growth reminiscent of the famous tower karst of south China or high, eroded bluffs covered in lush kudzu blankets. The high bluffs of Natchez and Vicksburg, between which is the photo’s location, are so covered in some places.

But I like kudzu best in wintertime. I think its dormancy and the smooth textures just make it look so cool sometimes. As a kid in north Louisiana, we learned that a kudzu-covered bluff in winter offered a great place from which to fall in dramatic display after being “shot” by hostile others, played by buddies with BB guns. You just kind of bounce and roll down this tangled mat of vines. As a grown up, particularly as a geographer, I have learned lots more about both kudzu and some of the places where it grows (e.g., see Alderman and Alderman 2001).

This particular place (enter Bruinsburg, MS or Windsor Ruins in a map search to see it) is in a curve on Highway 552, the Lower Mississippi Great River Road, a name that can seem a bit misleading, as the road generally follows the bluff where the loess formation drops off steeply to the river flood plain. Few people live in the area and most of the area is covered with second-growth hardwood forest and a few small pine plantations. Some of the steepest areas nearby, too steep for a plow, still hold ancient forest patches with some very old and impressively large beech, hickory, sweet gum, and oak trees, along with small waterfalls (see MS Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Parks 2012).

The fertile loess soil that blankets the area happens to erode very easily. Road cuts must be vertical. Old roads in the region sometimes sit deep between high banks after many decades of down-cutting. [End Page 133] This quality of loess makes large-scale agriculture challenging in areas of topographic relief. This explains the kudzu, brought in across the South roughly a century ago and planted to mitigate accelerated soil erosion. Now it grows across the region, abundantly in some places. The Loess Bluffs of western Mississippi is one of these places.

Up here atop the bluff, the old trees were mostly cleared long ago for some of Mississippi’s first plantations. Occasionally, driving along the narrow, curvy roads through the shady forest, you pass an old plantation house; its agricultural lands are likely now covered in trees again. Some of them are now fenced in tall enclosures known as “game fences” as land use for many in the region has shifted to a focus on hunting.

As early Europeans arrived, this area of fertile soil next to the Mississippi River became an area of great wealth and intensive plantation agriculture. Nearby Emerald Mound reminds one that earlier, pre-Columbian residents also had success using the area’s resources. Natchez and Vicksburg were centers of wealth and influence and the region buzzed for nearly a century. This was particularly true during the height of the U.S. Civil War. General Grant actually crossed the Mississippi River with thousands of men and came ashore at what was then the port settlement of Bruinsburg, where...