The Heart of a Nation
The Missouri and the Mississippi are the same river.
Cartographers and land surveyors may disagree, but any paddler or river rat will speak an undeniable truth—these rivers beat with the same heart. They are the veins of a vast land and through them pulses the land’s life-giving blood. The mountains and the hills are the bones and the river is life.
Indians, settlers, geographers, and merchants determined the naming of each branch and shaped the unique cultures that formed along the riverbanks.
The Missouri in the summer is a river of picturesque towns and lazy days. I am from one of these towns. For the people who live here, the Missouri is still an essential part of their life to this day. It is a place to fish, swim, and, for some, a place to work.
I have early memories of sitting at boat ramps watching the river’s current. No matter the conditions—flood or drought—or the direction of the bend, the river kept moving past the horizon and into the South. Along its course, I knew that the Missouri became the Mississippi. And the Mississippi crawled through a distant world of swamps, deltas, and seas that I knew only in my imagination.
In the winter, the Missouri loses its warmth and charm. The river freezes solid in its northern stretches. Sometimes the lower parts of this frozen mass and its tributaries break free in grinding and destructive ice floes. The charming towns appear abandoned except for a few plumes of wood smoke drearily escaping chimneys and the occasional passing car. Fierce winds and snowstorms rip south across the Great Plains.
The shore of the river emerges from gray, indistinct horizons as a monochrome, lifeless, post-apocalyptic wasteland. Only the occasional brave, solitary soul appears among this starkness, clothed in a blanket of layers that meagerly shuts out the winds.
Below the city of St. Louis, the Mississippi in the summer is the river of Huck Finn. His adventures occupy a prominent place in the minds of all those plying its banks and waters. For many years, I have kept in my car a George Caleb Bingham print. Bingham was the first distinguished American artist west of the Mississippi River. The print in my car is of a young man dancing to fiddle and flute while drifting on a flatboat down this mighty river. It is an image of the steamboat era. It is embedded in my mind as a reminder of the good life—a life of carefree, laughter-filled days. The name of the original painting is The Jolly Flatboatmen.
The water of the Mississippi is always gumbo thick with some of the most beautiful silt in the world. It is slow and steady, just like the generations who have tilled the fertile soils that the river leaves behind as it carves out a plain that stretches from Southern Missouri to Louisiana.
The Mississippi is also the river of my mother’s childhood. There the family boated and played. In his youth, my grandfather swam laps from one bank to the other—it is a story that my mother passed on to me. Perhaps one day I will pass this story on to future generations of my family. The Mississippi is a river of tradition.
The Mississippi in the winter is no longer the familiar scene of Twain’s novels. The vast farms and their wealth of soil lie silent. The fishermen are few. The young river boys of fore are gone, and so is their music. The families in their pleasure boats are missing. The southern charm that one anticipates encountering is also missing, waiting for the warmer months.
What one does encounter are active and dominating fleets of barges and the giant machinery needed to load, unload, repair, and recycle them. It is a presence that knows no seasons.
The Missouri and the Mississippi play hosts to massive industrial and civil engineering efforts that persist through the generations despite existing in a perpetual state of rusty decay. The difference between an abandoned grain elevator, crane, or dock and their active counterparts is as subtle as the presence of a single human being. Structures line the shores and emerge faintly from the muddy waters as a pier emerges from the fog. These pieces of civilization are so woven into the landscape that they appear to have always existed. Their dominance over the winter floodplains—bleak and stripped of life—causes me to think that they will persevere through eternity.
Often, these hunks of iron seem natural. It is as though nature intended for them to be there—an integral part of the river and its essence. Sometimes it seems that the river and its industry, together, will endure, impervious and ignorant to the rest of us.
To keep all the machinery moving and the cargo flowing, we have altered the entire river. Since 1878, the Corps of Engineers has built dams and wing dikes, dredged and straightened the channels, and stabilized banks. It is an ongoing construction project on a scale with the Great Wall of China and the Egyptian Pyramids.
The river after the Corps is nothing like the wild and free river before.
Before the Corps, the river wandered, as rivers tend to do. It would crawl through broad, shallow bottoms, race through narrow shoots, meander across the floodplains, and collect in backwaters where fish, fowl, and game found peaceful seclusion.
But the river before the Corps was not a river favorable to commerce. Hundreds of boats wrecked after hitting snags or running out of the channel, which was incredibly difficult to navigate. Countless passengers and crew lost their lives when boats sank or boilers exploded.
To stabilize the banks, the Corps has lined them with a layer of large rocks called riprap. The riprap is limestone quarried from the hills through which the Missouri and Mississippi cut their courses.
The wing dikes are made from the same rock, but they jut perpendicular into the river at regular intervals. Wing dikes are jetties that force fast flowing water into the main channel. This action prevents sedimentation in the main channel, which keeps navigation lanes open, and slows the current near the banks, preventing erosion.
Regardless of the apparent permanence of the industry and the human-made changes to the river, the creations of civilization clash with the power of wilderness all along the river’s course. With a relentless persistence, the river tears at the foundations of the piers, rips barges free from their moorings, erodes the wing dikes, and breaches the levies. I have learned that the river always wins. Maybe not tomorrow, or even in a thousand years. But, eventually, it will reclaim everything that it rightfully owns.
I see the river as a prisoner of something beyond its comprehension. It is determined to overcome this injustice to its freedom. Its only choice is to persevere. That is the only thing it knows to do: to push forward.
Though the river is ultimately stronger than all of the machinery combined, a single machine is stronger than me. I am the weakest thing in this vast wilderness of water, earth, and metal. The presence of the industry adds to my feeling of personal insignificance. Throughout my journey down the river, I was most aware of this fact when pitted between the two parties.
The massive barges filled with grain, coal, and steel were constant reminders of how inconsequential I was in the face of the great powers of civilization. A fleet of barges could run over me, and the pilot would never know.
And then I saw what the river did to the most robust, most persistent efforts of civilization. I asked, “What will it do to me as I traverse its waters, a single human being floating among all of this power in a fiberglass canoe? If I am just a flea to the barges, then I am nothing to the river.” And yet, there we were—industry, nature, and me—sharing this expansive and wild space.