Someone prompted me to think of Walter Inglis Anderson this evening. The Mississippi artist, naturalist and Barrier Island pilgrim made a deep impression on me for someone whose book I ran across in a university library about 30 years ago.
The book was The Horn Island Logs of Walter Inglis Anderson, and I can’t even remember what prompted me to pick it up on that distant day. He was trained as an artist and did ceramics, sculptures and WPA murals in the 1930s, married and had children. And then mental illness struck — nervous breakdown, depression, even schizophrenia are cited as diagnoses — it’s enough to say that he couldn’t function as an everyday “adult” in a busy world.
He would row from his home in Ocean Springs, usually to Horn Island, 12 miles out, and he might spend weeks there, camping, painting on typewriter paper or in spiral notebooks, sometimes using his art to start fires. His logs tell of finding a can of beans on the beach and attributing it to a gift from Providence. During the 1965 killer storm Hurricane Betsy, he tied himself to a tree on Horn Island to watch the storm.
In the meantime, his wife worked as a teacher and provided a stable home life from which to work, an outbuilding — garage or glassed-in greenhouse — for his studio, his wife and daughters giving up what they might have expected from life to accommodate their talented, eccentric father.
When he died, he left tens of thousands of paintings in stacks and piles of notebooks in that studio, as well as his logs, with insights, poetic and profound, like this:
Man begins by saying of course, before any of his senses have a chance to come to his aid with wonder and surprise. The result is that he dies, and his neighbors and friends murmur with the wind, of course! The love of bird or shell which might have restored his life flies away, carried by the same wind which has destroyed him. The bird flies, and in that fraction of a second, man and the bird are real. He is not only king, he is man. He is not only man, he is the only man, and that is the only bird, and every feather, every mark, every part of the pattern of his feathers is real, and he, man, exists, and he is almost as beautiful as the thing he sees.
Maybe he was saner than most of us.