What the River Carries.
The first bridge to connect Hamilton, Illinois, and Keokuk, Iowa, was a drawbridge that opened to wagon, buggy, and train traffic in 1871. Even though the placement of the piers and the nearby presence of the treacherous Des Moines Rapids made this, in the opinion of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, "the worst bridge for the passage of [lumber] rafts, and one of the worst for the passage of steamboats, on the Mississippi River," the bridge stood until 1915, when a new bridge was built on the old pillars.
Not long after the first bridge opened, a dispute arose between Iowa and Illinois as to how much each state could tax the owners of the bridge. Iowa claimed the right to tax to the middle of the river. Illinois claimed the right to tax to the navigation or commercial channel, which at that time and place ran closer to the Iowa than the Illinois bank. The Keokuk & Hamilton Bridge Company complained that because of these different opinions about the location of the state line, it was paying double taxes for 716 feet of the bridge. Was the border at the river's midpoint or at the thalweg, the part of the channel with the greatest depth and fastest flow? The answer to this question had far-reaching implications because nine other bridges spanned the Mississippi River between the two states.
In State of Iowa v. State of Illinois, 147 U.S. 1 (1893), the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that "all the recognized treatises on international law of modern times" identify "the middle of the channel of the stream" as "the true boundary between the adjoining States up to which each State will on its side exercise jurisdiction." When there were several channels, the boundary was to be drawn at the middle of the principal one. Between Keokuk and Hamilton, the steamboat channel was 880 feet from the Iowa shore and 2,162 feet from the Illinois shore, which meant that Illinois was justified in taxing most of the bridge. Yet, when Justice Stephen Field, who delivered the court's opinion, wrote that the navigational channel "varies from side to side of the river, sometimes being next to the Illinois shore and then next to the Iowa shore, and at most points in the river shifting from place to place as the sands of its bed are changed by the current of the water," he was telling the two parties that when the state line is drawn by water, it is a moving thing.
But shifts in the river channel are seldom followed by changes on the map or in jurisdiction. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the Mississippi made a sharp turn to the west and then the east at a point about halfway between St. Louis and Cape Girardeau. On the peninsula within the meander, land firmly attached to Illinois, French settlers built the town of Kaskaskia, which became a bustling commercial center and the capitol of the territory and later the state of Illinois. But in 1844, the river began shifting its course. During the Flood of 1882, the river abandoned its channel and captured the former valley of the Kaskaskia River. This cut off the big meander and turned the area into an island. Now, the terribly flood-prone Kaskaskia Island is separated from Missouri by what appears to be only a creek but is, in fact, the old river channel, and can be reached only by boat or a bridge from St. Mary, Missouri. The river's thalweg flows on the east instead of the west side of the island, making this soggy piece of land the only part of Illinois that lies west of the Mississippi.
Nonetheless, Illinois has fought and won numerous court battles with Missouri so that it can ignore where the river draws the line and keep the 2,300-acres of prime bottomland on its tax rolls.
Depending on where you live on the river, mayfly nymphs emerge from the water between April and August. They break the nymphal skin, unfurl elegant, many-veined, transparent wings, and molt again. Then they take to the sky and head toward the shore in swarms so large and dense that the National Weather Service's Doppler radar records the phenomenon. When I was a child, we called them Mormon flies, a name that harkens back to 1846 when waves, legions, swarms of Mormon refugees, perhaps as many as twenty-five thousand, escaped their persecutors by crossing the Mississippi in boats or ferries from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Montrose, Iowa, where my mother's mother's people lived.
The order name Ephemeroptera, announces the short-lived, transient, fleeting nature of the mayfly. What is ephemeral or short-lived about this aquatic insect is that in its winged, adult form, it lives only a few hours to a few days. The adults mate; each female lays as many as eight thousand eggs over the water; then, the adult flies die. Fish, birds, bats, frogs, snakes, and other river dwellers feast on the live or freshly dead bodies. No sooner have the mayflies emerged than the riverfront is littered with their corpses, piled into drifts on bridges and heaped beneath electric lights, crunching and squishing beneath our feet. It is good and fitting, at times like this, to remember that the "stink bugs" carry tons of phosphorous and nitrogen out of the water and back onto the land. These nutrients lower oxygen levels in the water and are responsible, at least in part, for the Gulf of Mexico "dead zone."
Compared to the winged adult's brief and messy existence, the mayfly nymph or larva is particularly long-lived. For a few weeks to a few years, it lives in a U-shaped burrow dug in the sediments at the bottom of the river. Unlike the adult mayfly that breathes air, the nymph depends upon dissolved oxygen (DO), microscopic bubbles of oxygen gas in the water, which it absorbs through its gills.
Oxygen enters the river water by diffusion and by the aeration caused by wind and waves or by water tumbling over riffles and rapids, falls and dams. But the most important sources of DO are phytoplankton and aquatic plants. Through photosynthesis, they release oxygen into the water. Organic wastes--such as untreated or partially treated sewage; animal droppings; leaves; grass clippings; algae blooms; fertilizer runoff (i.e., phosphorous and nitrogen); dead plants, pigs, and people--deplete the DO, since the bacteria that break down these wastes consume oxygen. Too little dissolved oxygen is as harmful as too much.
Mayfly nymphs can alter their behavior and metabolism to accommodate some changes in the DO levels. The nymph has ten abdominal segments, the sides of which are lined with feathery gills. In sufficient levels of DO, the nymph flutters its gills to create a current that increases the flow of fresher, more oxygenated water across its tracheal gills. It fans and rests, fans and rests. If the amount of no in the water decreases, the nymph compensates by increasing the average number of gill movements per second followed by briefer periods of rest before the next round of rapid fanning: the mayfly's equivalent of panting.
When dissolved oxygen levels drop, pollution-sensitive organisms--including mayfly, stonefly, and caddisfly nymphs; beetle larvae; and pike and small-mouthed bass--either move or die. The number of pollution- and turbidity-tolerant sludge or sewage worms, blackfly larvae, leeches, curly-leaf pondweed, and various types of carp increases. What results is a less ecologically complex, more polluted, breathless, and hungrier river.
Just before the Iowa River enters the Mississippi, it takes a hairpin turn north. Nestled in the crook of the bend is Oakville, Iowa, population 439. When the levee broke on June 14, 2008, the flooding was so extensive that news reports declared the town was gone for good. Of the thirty-five thousand and perhaps as many as forty-five thousand swine in the Oakville area, all but about one thousand were evacuated. After the levee broke, the remaining hogs and the feces from the flooded confinement barns entered the Mississippi. Most of the pigs drowned. Some were stranded on roofs. Some swam to the levee but when the sheriff's deputies saw their hooves were cutting the plastic sheeting on the slopes, they shot them. The decaying carcasses and feces had entered a river already toxic with diesel fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, chemical waste from industry, chemicals from flooded garages and basements, garbage, and--because of flood damage to water treatment plants--raw human wastes.
Dead bodies turn up in the river with regularity. Despite the presence of Lover's Leaps up and down the river (in Life on the Mississippi, Twain says there are fifty), none of the corpses I know of were the result of suicides. Each was thrown, dumped, or pushed. In 1983, two anglers found the torso of Joyce Klindt lodged against a riverbank near Bettendorf, Iowa, her intestines floating nearby. Klindt's chiropractor husband, James, had thrown her in the river after chopping her up with a chainsaw. Three times in eight years, the bodies of infants were found in the river in Goodhue County, Minnesota. November 1999, a female was found wrapped in a white towel by a dockworker at a boat harbor in Red Wing. December 2003, a male, with a blue towel nearby, was discovered near the shore in Frontenac. March 2007, a female was discovered floating at the marina near the Treasure Island Resort and Casino in Welch. She may have been in the water for months. In 2006, the body of University of Minnesota student Chris Jenkins, who was last seen leaving a bar on Halloween night in an Indian costume, passed beneath one of the arches on the Third Avenue Bridge over the Mississippi in Minneapolis. Lynn Diedrich, who saw the still-costumed body as she was walking home from work said, "I had to take a double take because you just can't believe that what you're looking at was a person."
For the murderer, it must be a relief to watch the body sink, the evidence out of sight, food for carp, catfish, and other bottom feeders. But what most don't count on is that as the body putrifies, the gases it releases give it buoyancy, and the body rises. Soon it is snagged on vegetation near the shoreline, near enough for passersby to see the swelling, wrinkling, and discoloration, near enough for them to smell the stench of putrefaction. Cement shoes may hold a body down but rocks in the pockets only delay the rising. In the summer, when the water is warm, it takes only a few days for a body to resurface; in the spring and fall, three to five days; in November and December, ten to fourteen days; but in January and February, the body might never resurface. Safe.
Some bodies in the river are there accidentally. My great-grandfather slipped and fell down a bluff in Burlington, Iowa, into the river and drowned. People assumed it was the strong drink he couldn't leave alone that caused him to lose his footing and his fight with the river. His is yet another story about the awful Mississippi that gives and takes life and then offers up the dead.
In a rather shallow part of the river where the bottom of the channel is hard and gravelly or rocky, a male smallmouth bass vigorously sweeps an area with his caudal fin, or tail fin, until he has scooped a depression a few inches deep in the center and a few feet in diameter. Then, he goes in search of a female. To guide her back to this nest, he gently nudges and nips at her pale, yellow-white belly. At the nest, the pair of red-eyed bronzebacks swim in a circle, with him frequently nipping at her opercle, the bony covering protecting her gills. Finally, near the center of the nest, they release their eggs and milt. After fertilization is complete, he drives her away. The eggs settle to the bottom and stick to the rocks and gravel that the father bass has cleared of silt. He may court other females, ultimately filling his nest with as many as twenty thousand eggs. As he circles the full nest, he frequently lowers his snout so he can inspect his clutch by sight or smell. Four to ten days later, the eggs hatch. Until the young are ready to disperse, he guards them from predators.
What the father bass can't guard his young against is silt: fine-grained particles of soil or rock that are carried in by the water. Some fish--catfish and bullheads, for instance--don't mind turbidity, since they locate their food through smell. But the smallmouth bass, native to the Upper Mississippi, that part of the river between the headwaters at Lake Itasca in Minnesota and Cairo, Illinois, is a sight or clear-water predator; it must be able to see the crayfish, frogs, insects, and other fish that it preys upon. If the water is too murky, it can't find its food. Likewise, the juvenile smallmouth can't find the crayfish, clams, snails, worms, and mayfly nymphs it feeds upon when they're covered by sediment. In the absence of food, fewer of the young reach adulthood. The smallmouth bass is an indicator species. When it fails to thrive, something is wrong with the water.
For many millennia, silt in the Upper and Middle Mississippi was, for the most part, the result of natural erosion from riverbanks. Before construction of the twenty-nine dams between Minneapolis and St. Louis, the water flowed fast enough that sediments were carried along rather than settling. During low water, they were exposed to the air, which allowed the organic part to decompose, thus reducing the volume of the dregs once the water rose again.
Now the chief causes of sedimentation are human activities that strip the land of vegetation and allow stormwater to carry the eroded soil to the river. There are ways to stop or slow this process, including conservation tillage; taking highly erodible land out of production; terracing and contour planting; building retention ponds, erosion mats, and filter fences; grading properly; and restoring wetlands to filter runoff. Yet, far too few farmers, builders, and homeowners go to the time and expense of implementing such abatements.
The suspended sediments that drop out of the water column and settle onto the river bottom affect more than just the bass: they bury mussel beds; clog the gills of aquatic animals and insects; smother fish eggs, including those of such rare fish as pallid sturgeon and paddlefish; reduce the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water; and reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches plants living in deeper waters.
The smallmouth bass may be able to keep silt from settling on the fertilized eggs, but he can't clear the water so that he and his young can find their food.
The War Eagle, a side-wheel riverboat, 255 feet long, with forty-six staterooms, barbershops, and washrooms, and costly furniture resting on elegant velvet carpets, was reputedly one of the finest on the river. The ship served various purposes until 1866, when it was purchased by the La Crosse & St. Paul Packet Company to transport mail, passengers, and freight from La Crosse, Wisconsin, to St. Paul, Minnesota, with stops along the way.
On the night of May 14, 1870, the War Eagle docked at the Milwaukee Road Railroad Depot in La Crosse, where passengers boarded and the crew loaded mail and freight, including unprocessed lead from the mines at Galena, Illinois, and barrels of Danforth's Non-Explosive Petroleum Fluid, a lamp oil. Some of the barrels were leaking, so the ship's carpenter tightened the hoops. As he worked, his lantern tipped over and the fuel from the leaking barrels caught fire. Soon the ship, warehouses, depot, train cars, grain elevator, a barge, and other steamboats were ablaze. The War Eagle burned to the waterline and sank. Since the ship's records burned, no one knows exactly how many people died, though most sources report either five or seven.
Some of the immigrants on board had carried all of their worldly possessions with them. Lost were trunks from the Old Country filled with family Bibles, embroidered shirts, hand-carved whistles, the only photograph of the old folks, sausage stuffers, wedding gowns, and fiddles. Also lost were the burned remains of the ship's furnishings and the possessions of those traveling for pleasure or business: jewelry boxes, silverware, goblets, chamber pots, china-head dolls, pocket watches, ship records, spyglasses, canned goods, pans, and mail, from a time when people spread the news through handwritten letters. For decades, these treasures lay at the bottom of the river. When the drought of 1931 caused the water level to drop far enough that the upper part of the War Eagle was exposed, people entered the shallow water and looted the artifacts. When the rains returned, the water rose, once again covering the ship. In the early 1960s, scuba divers brought up artifacts, many of which are now the property of the La Crosse Historical Society.
So many things on the river could destroy a steamboat. Not only could the wooden ships be ignited by grease fires in the galley, smoking passengers and crew, sparks from the tall, fire-breathing iron chimneys, boiler explosions, and tipped-over lanterns, but encounters with snags, ice, bridges, or other boats could tear the hull. Steamboat wrecks were so common and the loss of cargo so costly that early in his career, James Buchanan Eads, the builder of the St. Louis (now, the Eads) Bridge, invented and patented a double-hulled boat with derricks that could lift a steamboat out of the water and an airtight diving bell that supplied oxygen to divers as they walked on the bottom of the river salvaging freight. Eads earned a fortune on his invention.
In 2002, National Geographic reported that seven hundred to eight hundred documented steamboat wrecks are embedded in the Mississippi mud. Yet, because riverbeds are what Eads described as "a moving mass," forever shifting, forever moving south, because objects on the river bottom roll and toss in the currents, because sediments can quickly bury anything, the contents of these wrecks, as well as that which floods lift and carry and deposit, and those treasures that people intentionally or accidentally drop into the river--wedding rings, cell phones, messages in bottles, bottles of whiskey, cameras, arrowheads, rods and reels, pickup trucks, illegal drugs, war medals, toe shoes, trophies, diaries, keys, and chain saws--are not where we left them.
You have always believed that what bounces off the surface of the water is an exact but upside-down image of the real thing. But on this day, you look again and again at the cottonwood tree several feet upstream from where you stand and the wavering tree in the water before you, until finally you realize that the tree in the water is smaller and farther away than the actual tree on the bank. You notice that the leaves on the reflected tree aren't green but a darkness that suggests green; that the leaves are in double motion, fluttering in the breeze and rippling in the water; and that when reflected in the water, the actual sky, cerulean, lightly salted with wispy white clouds that give it depth and dimension, isn't blue but a silver-blue glossiness. The really surprising discovery, though, is that the water shows you a forked extension, not a branch but a place that once held a branch on the underside of the cottonwood. It corresponds to nothing you can see on the actual tree from where you now stand.
And you thought you knew this river.
Perfluorochemicals (PFCS) and the various PFC derivatives (PFBA, PFPeA, PFHXA, PFHpA, PFOA, PFNA, PFDA, PFUnA, PFDOA, PFTA, PFBS, PFHXS, PFOS, PFOSA, to name but a few), are human-made compounds of carbon and fluorine, remarkable for their thermal stability and indestructibility. Because of this durability, PFCS are responsible for such wonder products as Teflon, Stainmaster, Gore-Tex, Scotchguard, aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) for fire-fighters, and coating for photographic film. Because of this durability, PFCS may be the most dangerous compounds ever invented. Unlike many other toxic chemicals, PFCS are extremely resistant to breakdown through biodegradation by microorganisms or removal or degradation through wastewater treatment. Consequently, these chemicals are, in the words of Fardin Oliaei, formerly the lead researcher on PFCS with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), "persistent, bioaccumlative, and toxic to mammals, fish and other aquatic organisms." PFCS are linked to various human health problems, including liver damage, infertility, low birth weight, birth defects, immune system disorders, and cancer.
Consider perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), just one of the PFC-derivatives found in the Mississippi. Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, or 3M, a multinational conglomerate headquartered in St. Paul, used this compound in Scotchguard and other products. Since 1953, when 3M chemist Patsy Sherman accidentally discovered that a fluorochemical polymer could protect fabrics from oil and water, 3M made $300 million annually on the sale of this product, according to a May 17, 2000, report in Reuters. And since 1953, 3M has disposed of the chemical wastes that resulted from the manufacture of Scotchguard in the ground and the river. Two of the several facilities in Washington County, Minnesota, where 3M burned or buried its chemical wastes have been designated as Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund sites. In 2005, Minnesota Public Radio reported that according to the MPCA, 3M dumped at least 50,000 pounds of eight different PFCS, including PFOS, into the river each year. In 2002, the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund ranked 3M as the second worst industry in the United States in terms of its Toxic Release Inventory (TRI).
In 1999, the EPA began investigating the toxicity of PFOS. The next year, 3M, which has the distinction of being the world's largest producer of PFOS-related fluorocarbons, "voluntarily" agreed to end production of the toxin. In 2003, 3M replaced the compound with perfluorobutane sulfonate (PFBS), a PFOS "cousin," with dangers of its own. 3M continues to manufacture PFCS at its Chemolite facility in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, southeast of St. Paul.
The story doesn't end there. After all, PFCS are, in Dr. Oliaei's words, "persistent, bioaccumlative, and toxic." PFOS is found in seals, dolphins, polar bears, albatrosses, and many other creatures that have never been near the Upper Mississippi or the Twin Cities. PFOS is found in the blood of 95 percent of the people living in the United States, and samples from blood banks from all over the world are tainted with it. Among the fish collected near Cottage Grove in 2004 for Dr. Oliaei's study was a smallmouth bass that contained "the highest PFOS levels found in fish liver to date worldwide." Oliaei also found that blood collected from fish in the Mississippi River Pool #2 near Cottage Grove had the highest PFOS levels "of any animals tested worldwide."
When Dr. Oliaei called for more testing of the soil, water, fish, and deep sediments at the bottom of the river, she was ignored and denied funding. She brought a whistle-blower lawsuit against the MPCA and its commissioner and state pollution control chief, Sheryl Corrigan. Corrigan, a Governor Tim Pawlenty appointee, was a former 3M executive and in 2005 owned $20,000 worth of 3M stock. In a letter to Corrigan, the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that advocates on Capitol Hill on health-related environmental issues, wrote: "Your refusal to test for PECS in Minnesota water adds to an apparent, disturbing trend in your Agency to make decisions influenced more by politics than science, to the potential detriment of public health." Oliaei settled her whistle-blower lawsuit against the MPCA out of court; in February 2006, she was forced to leave her job. Even though she was no longer a state employee, Oliaei, the Rachel Carson of the Upper Mississippi, completed a hefty report for the Minnesota Senate's Environment Committee titled "Investigation of Perfluorochemical (PFC) Contamination in Minnesota, Phase One." In June 2006, Corrigan announced her resignation from the MPCA. Some speculate that Governor Pawlenty had come to see her as a liability to his reelection campaign. Since then, the MPCA has heeded Oliaei's suggestions by issuing warnings about the consumption of tap water and fish from the Mississippi, and it continues testing.
When I was a child, I heard stories about rare people who swam the river from shore to shore. These were tales of heroism but they also were cautionary tales, since some strong swimmers had succumbed to the power of the river's whirlpools, eddies, currents, and undertows. Days after the contender dove in, some unsuspecting person might find the swimmer's bloated, wrinkled body floating back up, head down, or snagged on vegetation near the bank. If the swimmer survived, he or she might need a tetanus shot because of the metal junk jutting out of the mud or the debris that the water carried. While the Mississippi has been restrained so it no longer carves meanders with bank-colliding currents, there are other, newer dangers. Now you swim in an alphabet soup, the letters spelling nothing that you can decipher.
During the Iowa Flood of 2008, two of the four lanes of the U.S. Highway 136 bridge between Keokuk and Hamilton were closed. The other two were open only to local traffic. Portable caution signs stood nearby. On the Illinois shore, trucks had dumped loads of gravel in concrete barriers thirty inches tall to raise the highway leading to the bridge twenty-eight feet above the river bottom: passable, provided the river didn't top its projected crest. Still, water seeped through seams in the concrete wall and pooled on the road, miring some vehicles. I wanted to help sandbag at either Niota or in the Warsaw Bottoms on the Illinois side of the river. But I wouldn't be joining the volunteers that day, since I was afraid to cross the river in my little, low-to-the-ground Mazda Protege.
Several people were walking across the bridge, some in the lanes that were closed to vehicles; some on the pedestrian walk attached to the north side of the bridge. I parked at the Keosippi Mall on the east end of Main Street/Highway 136 in Keokuk and joined them. Illinois seemed far away and the water far below. At Keokuk's Victory Park, strung along what normally was the edge of the river, trees were submerged all the way up to their crowns: little green islands in a gray-brown ocean. The statue of General Samuel Curtis, who had led Union troops to victory at the Battle of Pea Ridge, now battled the river. The retired paddleboat and museum, the George M. Verity, which had pushed barges on both the Ohio and Mississippi, looked as though it was in the process of turning around and heading downstream. Two people in a red Coast Guard motorboat moved through the turbulent water. Anyone else on the river would be arrested.
About a third of the way across the bridge, I stopped to get my bearings. The white-streaked, swirling, and debris-strewn water beneath me was twenty-eight feet deep; twelve feet above flood stage. I felt dizzy and nauseous at the sight of so much water beneath me. Semis rumbled past. A man with a fancy camera photographed Victory Park. Branches, logs, and a creosoted utility pole shot past in the water. Mayflies hurled their pale, winged bodies against the railing. Some fell; some flew off. Though mid to late June is mayfly hatch time in southeastern Iowa, I saw few near the river that day.
North of the bridge is Lock & Dam No. 19. When it was constructed in 1913, it eradicated the Des Moines Rapids that had made this part of the river such a dangerous place for boats, bridges, and rafts. Long before DDT was banned in 1972 and bald eagle numbers began rebounding, the Keokuk dam was one of the few places on the river where anyone could watch the wintering raptors catching silvery shad in the open water to the south, standing on the frozen river devouring larger fish, soaring overhead, or perching in trees on the Illinois shore. Now, every other town on the upper half of the river has a mid-winter eagle festival, complete with hikes led by guides with spotting scopes, radio tracking demonstrations, and bald eagle crafts for the kids.
About two-thirds of the way across the bridge a green sign announced the Illinois State Line. At first glance, the Illinois shore looked as it always did in the early summer. But then, I noticed how high the water was compared to the trees. When I looked back toward the Iowa shore, I saw another green sign several feet behind me on the bridge marking the Iowa state line. Apparently, one or both states were ignoring the 1893 Supreme Court ruling. Between the two signs lay an unclaimed strip of bridge and water. It struck me as a good place to steer one's raft--once the water dropped.
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain presents this brawny river as a place apart, a sanctuary, free from the worst aspects of civilization: social class, conventionality, hypocritical religion, lynch mobs, parents who brutalized their children, and brutal laws that protected slave owners. In his famous essay "Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn," Leo Marx writes: "The river is indifferent. But its sphere is relatively uncontaminated by the civilization [that Huck and Jim] flee, and so the river allows [them] some measure of freedom at once, the moment they set foot on Jackson's Island or the raft. Only on the island and the raft do they have a chance to practice that idea of brotherhood to which they are devoted." When he returns to the river following his misadventures with the Wilkes family in Arkansas, Huck says, "It did seem so good to be free again and all by ourselves on the big river, and nobody to bother us." But, as Marx points out, it's not that the river is a freer, more egalitarian place. Rather, Huck and Jim bring their code to the river, and the river is simply the place where they can practice it.
Other philosophies are adrift in this water. One presents the river as being in a constant state of renewal, rebirth, or regeneration. After you dump your sewage or industrial wastes, your evidence or treasures, you needn't give them another thought, since an unending supply of water from the north will carry your refuse south and away. Another says that the river in its powerful, sometimes terrorizing natural state must be broken and tamed. The Corps of Engineers, with its locks and levees, its dams and nine-foot navigation channel, isn't the only group bent on mastery. River dwellers create legends about monster catfish and record-setting bass and the strong, brave people who bring them in; about strong, brave people who swim from shore to shore; about strong, brave people who'd rather endure one 500-year flood after another than leave the river; about strong, brave people who fight the powers that be in order to keep the river safe for those who depend on it. The corollary says that the feeble, neutered river with its navigation and flood control structures isn't a river at all but a series of lakes that pale in comparison to that real river, the Upper Missouri. Because of the broken, enervated river's lack of integrity, it brings out the worst in those who live near it. "For what manmade entity has worked more evil upon the land than has this accident of nature?" asks former southern Illinoisan, Ben Metcalf in his essay, "American Heartworm." "What other waterway has been the seat of more shame, or has inspired us to greater stupidity, or has inflicted more brutal and embarrassing wounds upon our culture? Have not the basest qualities to be found in the people of the middle states been quickened by the river's example, or by its seeming impulse for self-promotion?"
At one time or another, I've held each of these views. But now, the truest thing that I can say about the Mississippi is this: it is the Great Assimilator. It takes lesser waters, the Minnesota, St. Croix, Black, Chippewa, La Crosse, Root, Wisconsin, Rock, Iowa, Skunk, Des Moines, Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas, Yazoo, and Atchafalaya into its greater waters, diluting or eliminating differences. At the confluence, the Missouri flows brown into the lighter Mississippi, but it's a single, thoroughly mixed, brown, rank, and murky river that flows past St. Louis. The river drew the two sides of my family--my mother's people, southerners of British descent who arrived at the Mississippi via Virginia, Kentucky, and Illinois in the mid-nineteenth century and probably crossed the river into Missouri and Iowa on a ferry; and my father's father's people, late nineteenth century immigrants, Germans from Russia, who entered the country not at Ellis Island but at New Orleans. From there, they traveled by boat up the river, took the Burlington Route from Burlington, Iowa, to Hastings, Nebraska, a riverless city, and a few years later, returned to the railroad town on the Mississippi. All were inexorably drawn to the river to swim, fish, work, live, and, if we are lucky, to die near the river's once shifting but now regulated channels, its bald eagles, pesticides, rippling reflections, rotting carcasses, delicately veined mayfly wings, bass and carp, toxins and treasures, history and legends.
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|Date:||Dec 22, 2010|
|Previous Article:||The Terms of My Conversion.|