Travel & Tourism

An untamed Horn Island meets its match

As I stood on the splintered boat dock with John Anderson looking south across Mississippi Sound to Horn Island, his lion’s mane of hair blew straight back, as if we were already bumping across the water, underway for the island. But the Gulf of Mexico was especially choppy, and the boat I hired was heeding small-craft warnings. Horn lay eight miles offshore, a hyphen on the horizon’s hazy line. Still, it felt within our grasp. “The fact that I can’t always go makes me value the island even more,” he said.

John became an expert on the island by way of his father, artist Walter Anderson, who made more trips to Horn than probably anyone else. He called spring “battle of the equinox,” when Boreas, Greek god of the north wind, and Notus, of the south, fought for supremacy and kept the sea in constant turmoil. I’d seen the battle many times over the years while I was researching a book about the Gulf.

I’ve been fascinated with Horn since I first visited the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, years ago. From the end of World War II until his death in 1965, Anderson completed thousands of drawings and paintings on Horn. Rowing and sailing out in a leaky skiff, he spent weeks at a time among Horn’s many living things, turning his boat over for shelter when need be, surrendering to the island’s way. He became, as he said, “fortune’s favorite child.”

I was eager to see the island, where he so often sought creative and spiritual wholeness, a place without scenic canyon, waterfall or mountain, yet one that moved him, in his word, to “realize” his relationship to nature.

Horn has its own splendors. Ten miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide, it rises to a 20-foot peak in a spine of white dunes Anderson venerated as the “back of Moby Dick.” In late March, migrating birds drop in by the thousands for rest and replenishment. Autumn brightens with blooming goldenrod, sea pinks and arrowhead, inviting bees and butterflies, including migrating monarchs. In all seasons, the sun rises from the Gulf and sets into the same, sometimes quietly from beneath “vermilion streamers of cloud,” other times with “wild explosions of color,” but always, as Anderson said, “arranged with taste.” During this “magic hour,” a time for feeding, gannets, gulls, pelicans and terns plunge-dive into the fishy sea, as plovers and sandpipers glean tidal flats. Ghost crabs stay hidden in their sand burrows.

Horn is a low-lying sliver, but it has a craggy birthright. Sediment washed down from the Appalachian Mountains and carried by shore currents piled into dry land 4,500 years ago. Most Gulf islands came to be in the same manner, and, by the very nature of their existence, they also constantly transform in size and shape. “Everything,” Anderson wrote, “seems conditional on the islands.”

For some years, Horn had a lighthouse and keeper, until a storm washed both away in 1906. A family who tended cattle and pigs lasted until the 1920s. During World War II, the Army came ashore to develop biological weapons and to incinerate, in open bonfires, those captured from the enemy. Thirty years after vacating the island, the Army disclosed that it had also scuttled poisonous munitions in surrounding waters.

People no longer live on Horn, but it’s not uninhabited. Despite the toxic military interlude, much living goes on out there, from sea sponges to swamp rabbits, amid brackish lagoons, pine flats and reedy wetlands.

Horn is the largest of Mississippi’s four barrier islands, which include Cat (once used by the Army to train war dogs), Petit Bois and Ship. The quartet lie parallel to the coast, in the same formation barriers assume around the larger Gulf. Front bumpers to the mainland, they soften the blow from storms. They also compound freshwater river flow in saline bays, bayous and sounds, making the Gulf one of the world’s richest estuarine environments.

Sometime in the 1920s, bridges began linking the mainland to the islands. On some, humanity, cars and concrete have since grown so dense, you have little sense of being on an island.

The one that nourished Anderson’s creativity, and equally his body and soul, will never be developed. Horn and its three siblings are part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, established by Congress in 1971, and now managed by the National Park Service. Running from Cat Island east 160 miles to western Florida, the Gulf Islands unit is the country’s largest national seashore. Seven years later, citizens invoked Anderson’s legacy — “Are you going to tear down Walter’s church?” — and persuaded Congress to designate Horn and Petit Bois wilderness areas.

Wilderness seemed out of reach to John and me until, after weeks of waiting, we caught the sparring wind gods between rounds and set out for Horn. A trip that took Anderson several hours to sail and row took us just one. Relying on the noisy haste of a motorboat, John says, is not the same as approaching Horn under sail, when you cross meditatively into a “natural reality.”

Still, the machine completed our passage, and the island became our focal point, our new world. We could look back to the old one, visible as a faint realm of architecture, but our perspective had fully shifted. Time was no longer on our wrists or smartphones; it was in migrating light and shadows and habits of wildlife. A great blue heron’s forked footprints encounter those of a crab, but only the heron’s continue. Lines made through the sand from the trailing alligator tails mark a thoroughfare between a pond and the beach, giving warning to pitch your tent elsewhere.

Real-time events arrive on the wind, itself an agent in the natural reality. A constant, it buffets not so much as it wraps you, making you a part of the island by heightening your senses. You touch, taste, smell and listen to the island — the massaging sand under your feet, the sweetness of artesian ponds, and the shushing needles and resinous scent of pines. Nothing is glaring or loud, yet everything is amplified. “The butterfly here stamps its feet,” wrote Anderson. Even a clutch of common nighthawk eggs, camouflaged in the sand, catches your eye. Will they survive the resident raccoons? The island does that to you, starts you thinking about connections.

Horn makes you aware that “forces larger than yourself shape your existence,” John said. I found myself periodically stopping to take them in as we followed trails maintained by the National Park Service, winding from the Sound to the Gulf through scrub and beside wetland, passing into a white valley of dunes. We are “walking through Daddy’s footsteps,” John said, “and looking through his eyes.”

I saw Anderson’s art everywhere. His lithe brushstrokes are in the flourish of a silvery wind-rubbed tree trunk. They were in the limber sea oats and in snake tracks swooshing up a dune. His warm and cool colors lie across the islandscape and among the animals, alive and dead. To him, the mutating tones of the departed were nature’s art. Death was not a punctuation but a hyphen or em dash in the continuum of life.

The island shows everything — nature’s reality — and Anderson despaired of none, not even destruction. To the contrary, destruction fired his curiosity.

In 1965, when Hurricane Betsy whipped 150-mph winds across the Gulf, training its eye at Horn, Anderson refused to evacuate. He struck for high ground and tied himself to a sturdy tree to witness destruction and the island’s reaction in the aftermath. Renewal was instantaneous. Ants reclaimed his camp, ducks the ponds. A yellow-crowned night heron popped up at its usual spot on a bayou. “I’d like to know where it had been,” Anderson wrote.

John said his father believed that “destruction paves the way for creation.” We were walking Horn 12 years after Hurricane Katrina swamped the island. Its impact remained evident, yet so did its creation. In an area called Big Lagoon, trees stripped bare and topped by Katrina’s winds present an apocalyptic vision, except that ospreys built big stick nests atop them, with parents sharing duty sitting on eggs. “The island is looking healthy,” John said.

We walked to the Gulfside shoreline. Plastic litters its many miles: children’s toys, car parts, ice coolers and a Wilson volleyball. Anderson knew a long clean stroll. He died before the heavy onslaught of ocean garbage, and before BP sent its lost oil to a wilderness beach.

He did not see the swelling waters, either. No continental shore in the United States is more vulnerable to rising sea-levels than the Gulf’s. Louisiana’s Chandeleur Islands, an integral way station for migrating birds, have long been breaking up. On Ship Island, water laps against the clay bricks of Fort Massachusetts, built high-and-dry in 1859. Horn will likely disappear within three generations of Anderson’s death.

When we stopped in the shade of a slash pine, an osprey flew toward the Gulf. John seems called to share one of his father’s essential beliefs: “To realize the beauty of humanity, we must realize our relation to nature.” These words and the tree’s cool shade won’t allow me to think of Anderson’s life work as an elegy to a doomed, wondrous place. Both art and island can speak to the future. In Horn’s insular community of life, each member exists for itself and for all others: predator and prey. This is synergy, mutualism and adaptation awaiting rediscovery on the mainland. The osprey returns with a fish. Life is never at a standstill.