The Mississippi River

 

The River created this Delta.  For thousands of years the River flooded the land, annually depositing alluvium and incrementally deepening the rich soil by adding another layer transported from some far reach of the continent.  The River preserved this Delta, watering and fertilizing it, and supporting first its great forests and canebrakes and then its cotton plantations and today’s modern farms.  In the process, it supported cities like Memphis, Vicksburg, and Natchez that grew along the River’s banks.  Ultimately, the River is responsible for forming this “cradle of American culture.”  Without the River, there would not be a Delta.  We simply wouldn’t have the fine alluvial soils that David Cohn described as “…endlessly deep, dark, and sweet," soils that allowed the rich cultural heritage of the region to develop.

 

Occasionally, the River has destroyed this Delta too, breaking through the levees and flooding vast expanses, reclaiming the land that it formerly created.  This is what happened at 8:00 on the morning of April 21, 1927, when the River crevassed at Mounds Landing, in Bolivar County near Scott, flooding the whole lower half of the Delta from Boyle to Vicksburg, all the way east to Yazoo City.  At the time, this was the greatest natural disaster in America’s history, eerily presaging the disastrous destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. 

 

The Mississippi River is the lord of the Delta.  William Alexander Percy wrote “With us, when you speak of “the river,” though there be many, you mean always the same one, the great river, the shifting, unappeasable god of the country, feared and loved, the Mississippi.”  

 

The River is a cultural corridor.  It may have been first seen by Europeans when Desoto and his men encountered it in either Tunica or Coahoma Counties, but it had been used for millennia as a transportation route by that time, carrying traders with cargoes of copper, corn and salt, among other things.  Later, it gave access to the swamp forests of the Delta, supporting plantations along its banks while the rest of the Delta remained wilderness.  Today, it is a major carrier of anything heavy, from petroleum products to fertilizer, ore, concrete, grain, and scrap.

 

The river is also a physical reality, the greatest geologic force in North America.  It is some 2,300 miles long and flows at an average speed of 3 miles per hour as it passes New Orleans.  It drains waters from 31 states and two Canadian provinces, and carries an average of 436,000 tons of sediment every day of the year.  It has a maximum depth of about 200 feet.  What we call the Mississippi is actually the Lower Mississippi River, beginning at Cairo, Illinois, when the massive Ohio River meets the much smaller and tamer Upper Mississippi River.  Much more water flows past the Delta than past New Orleans because much of the water flows to the Gulf through the Atchafalaya distributary rather than through the Mississippi River itself.  The River is as big as it gets as it flows past Vicksburg and Natchez.

 

Living in the Mississippi Delta means living in the River, not the main channel of the River, but in its lair, its home.  This entire Delta has been flooded repeatedly by the River throughout its history, right up to recent years, something that’s easily forgotten today.  In fact, it is often difficult to even see the River today since it is hidden behind the massive earthworks of the levee system, walled off out of sight and out of mind, and often protected further by “no trespassing” signs.  But the river remains, recalling T. S. Elliott’s description of the “strong, brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable” that is “watching and waiting.” 

 

(c) Luther Brown 2012