Matt Watson

It’s the Yazoo clay

Matt Watson

The late French philosopher Rene Girard was known for his theory of mimetic desire — that we desire something after seeing someone else desire it, then fight over it, then find a scapegoat to blame all the aftermath on so that we can go back to being at peace with one another.

Earth’s resources are limited, inhibiting the fulfillment of all of our desires. Without a fitting scapegoat to blame, we turn to fighting each other and power grabbing.

A lot of bad things happen in Mississippi, as I suppose they do anywhere in the world.

Change occurs rarely here, but there is one change agent that always seems to stir up things from time to time. That change agent, and all-around scapegoat, is Yazoo clay.

You see, Mississippi is home to the Yazoo Formation of the Jackson Group, a “fairly homogeneous unit consisting of blue-green to blue-gray, calcareous, fossiliferous clay, cropping out in a northwest-southeast trending belt across nearly three fourths the width of central Mississippi.”1

In fact, it’s so fossiliferous that great big prehistoric whales have been found here, such as the Basilosaurus, our state fossil. Or Cynthiacetus maxwelli, discovered in Cynthia, Miss., by Britt Maxwell, an engineer who blogs about things like Yazoo clay.

I grew up in the clay region. I lived the life of a city slicker in the metropolitan that is Jackson, so I have hardly ever seen or touched this clay personally, but I heard about it so often it feels like I’ve been digging in this stuff my whole life.

Is there a crack in the wall? Is the doorknob jammed? Do the closet sliding doors not meet in the middle exactly right?

It’s the Yazoo clay.

This special dirt, according to Maxwell’s blog, once thrived on other lands. The polygon cracked surface formations of deserts in parts of Texas, called hogwallows, are the result of prehistoric Yazoo clay-like conditions. Maxwell’s extensive blog posts on this subject show that even Mars may have had Yazoo clay, because it has hogwallows too. It’s everywhere!

Or at least it was everywhere. Texas and Mars are better off nowadays. I’ve been to Texas, and they have massive, high bridges the likes of which I’d never dreamed living here in Mississippi. The Martians are said to have better technology too. I choose to blame that on our wet soil and clay, which is very much still alive.

Sometimes I even wonder if the federal government had a hand in the shifting mess we’re in. That’s right, the feds. I was having dinner with someone in Hattiesburg the other day who told me half-jokingly that the foundation problems of a new residential development down there could be related to the atomic bomb they detonated 30 miles southward.


Yes. “Just google it: ‘hattiesburg atomic bomb,’” he said and went back to eating his pasta. It’s true. It’s all true.

Home foundations are one thing, but the roads — they are the real doozies. The roads in central Mississippi are terrible.2 Everyone else in the nation has immaculate roads compared to ours. Many a concerned citizen has brought the issue up before city councils and boards of aldermen. Investigations have been initiated to find the councilmen and -women responsible for all the potholes and bumps. News reports abound, calling attention to the matter. There is much finger-pointing to go around.

You can blame potholes on city governance, a faulty foundation on the construction company, and a door jam on the guy from Lowes.

But I like to think that on most days we just carry on with our lives and blame it on the Yazoo clay.

Because you can’t stay mad forever, and Yazoo clay, lying entombed under the ground and out of sight, is as good a scapegoat as any.

March 26, 2017, Byram, Miss.

  1. Stover, Curtis W., Ross D. Williams and Charles O. M. Peel. “Yazoo Clay: Engineering Aspects and Environmental Geology of an Expansive Clay.” Circular 1. Mississippi Department of Natural Resources, Bureau of Geology. 1988. Back

  2. As well as the rest of the roads in the state, but the clay is in central Mississippi, and that’s what I’m talking about right now, so don’t change the subject. Back