Tag Archives: flood

the mystery of how much

“The mystery in how little we know of other people is no greater than the mystery of how much,” wrote Eudora in The Optimist’s Daughter. Perhaps the implication is that the same mystery applies to places as well as people.

My visits to Rodney with Chris and Mary in the last six months are as far distant from Eudora’s visits to Rodney in the 30s and 40s as hers are from the Civil War.

I’ve just gone through and added some excerpts from the Welty story At the Landing to a small set of selected images.

To explore more photos of Rodney and the surrounding river country, please go here.

One, Two, Three, Brim

Jerry fishing for brim

Mary Rowell and I have been talking about putting together a band for a while now, and we spent a few days together at Montalvo in late March developing more rep for that project. Along with new work that’s still in progress, we made new versions of It Happens Like This, which you can listen to here, and Landscaping for Privacy, which I will post soon as well.

On Good Friday, when H. C. Porter and I were wandering around the almost-ghost-town of Rodney, we came upon a man named Jerry, who was fishing in the swamp on the edge of town. The water in Rodney is even higher than it was around Thanksgiving, when Mary and I visited there the first time. The river has moved about three miles west of where it was during the Civil War, orphaning the town in the woods. You can’t actually get to the river without a boat, because the intervening land is flooded most of the year.

Jerry is one of very few residents of Rodney — there are perhaps three families actually living here — and he lives off the land. While we watched, he was catching brim at the rate of about one a minute: hooking a worm, throwing in his line, pausing a moment, pulling the next fish in, taking it off the hook, and beginning the cycle again. Some guys we met later in the day told us that they had asked Jerry how many fish he caught and the answer was “Brim.” Jerry is a man of very few words, and it is possible he was answering a different question — what kind? rather than how many? — but of course the bucket was indeed full. Jerry was on his way to Lorman, walking the ten miles of back roads as he does several times a week to sell his fish at the market in town.

Mary and I have agreed that the name of our new band is Brim.

Jerry on his way

Bayou Farewell


Several months ago the composer (and Louisiana native) Frank Ticheli recommended I read Mike Tidwell’s 2003 book Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast. I strongly recommend it to all of you in turn: it is a beautifully written and distressing eyewitness account of what’s happening to the wetlands of Louisiana. Here are a few clippings I copied out, but the whole book is better, lots of wonderful character sketches and a real feel for the region:

Commercial fishermen are more likely to be maimed or killed on the job than any other profession in America. The work is more dangerous than coal mining, being a cop, or parachuting from planes to fight forest fires. (p. 25)


The marsh is disappearing at a rate of 25 square miles per year. “Dere won’t be no more nothin’ left anymore, forever.” (p. 58)


The total number of birds detected by radar crossing the Gulf of Mexico each year has decreased by half within the last twenty years. (p. 62)


For help [getting out of the big ocean and into the estuarine coastal marshes], the infant crustaceans, roughly the length and width of grains of rice, turn to a spherical body 92 million miles away in outer space, a G2 dwarf star otherwise know as our sun. Twice a month this fiery body of hydrogen gas nearly a million miles in diameter joins forces with the earth’s moon, a mere 238,000 miles away, to create a combined gravitational and centrifugal force of enormous power. This force generates ocean tides on earth — so-called spring tides — which are much greater than the tides occurring daily throughout the rest of the month. Every two weeks, when the moon shows itself to the earth either as a barely visible new moon or as a blazing full moon, the phenomenon is at work: the moon and the sun have fallen into a straight line relative to the earth, reinforcing each other’s gravitational tug, pulling the earth’s oceans into two bulging masses of liquid on opposite sides of the globe. These fantastic waves, these great heaping ridges of water, are brought into collision with the earth’s landmasses twice a day as the planet rotates. this, in the simplest terms, is how tides happen, and spring tides are the bimonthly champions. So strong is the combined pull of the sun and moon during this period that even the earth’s atmosphere bends outward and parts of the continents bulge ever so slightly. (p. 144)


Among many of the fishermen whose support is critical, virtually any form of ambitious government action is seen as synonymous with the whole sorry history of state corruption and the Army Corps’s incompetence. (p. 161)


If nothing else, my time in the bayous has made me conscious–acutely so–of just how great the Mississippi’s influence is everywhere you turn, all across lower Louisiana, its presence felt even hundreds of miles from its actual course. It’s a river which, one way or another, is always calling the shots. Always.

Which is why you can never quite get it out of your mind. (p. 184)


“When God created the world,” a bayou priest once told me, grinning, “he accidentally made the Mississippi more powerful than he intended, then found his mistake too powerful to correct.” (p. 216)


If you want to see what will consume the energies of Miami and New York, Shanghai and Bombay, fifty years from now, come to Louisiana today. The future really is here. (p. 326)

The Control of Nature


here are some selected bits from the chapter on the Atchafalaya in John McPhee’s 1989 book, The Control of Nature:

“It has a tendency to go through just anywheres you can call for.”
Why, then, had the Mississippi not jumped the bank and long since diverted to the Atchafalaya?
“Because they’re watching it close,” said Rabalais. “It’s under close surveillance.”  [p. 9]
“The greatest arrogance was the stealing of the sun,” he said.
“The second-greatest arrogance is running rivers backward.
The third greatest arrogance is trying to hold the Mississippi in place.
The ancient channels of the river go almost to Texas.
Human beings have tried to restrict the river to one course —
that’s where the arrogance began.”
–Oliver Houch, law professor at Tulane. [p. 11]
“The river used to meander all over its floodplain. People would move their tepees, and that was that. You can’t move Vicksburg.”
–Herbert Kassner, PR Director, New Orleans District, ACOE [p. 32]
“If the profession of an engineer were not based upon exact science, I might tremble for the result, in view of the immensity of the interests dependent on my success. But every atom that moves onward in the river, from the moment it leaves its home among the crystal springs or mountain snows, throughout the fifteen hundred leagues of its devious pathway, until it is finally lost in the vast water of the Gulf, is controlled by laws as fixed and certain as those which direct the majestic march of the heavenly spheres. Every phenomenon and apparent eccentricity of the river — its scourging and depositing action, its caving banks, the formation of the bars at its mouth, the effect of the waves and tides of the sea upon its currents and deposits — is controlled by law as immutable as the Creator, and the engineer need only to be insured that he does not ignore the existence of any of these laws, to feel positively certain of the results he aims at.”
–James B Eads, quoted on pp. 38-39
“The Corps of Engineers is convinced that the Mississippi River can be convinced to remain where it is.”
–Fred Chatry (chief of the engineering division for the New Orleans District of the ACoE)
“The Corps of Engineers — they’re scared as hell. They don’t know what’s going to happen. This is planned chaos. The more planning they do, the more chaotic it is. Nobody knows exactly where it’s going to end.”
–Raphael Kazmann, hydrologic engineer, LSU emeritus
Tarzan of the Apes once leaped about among the live oaks in the park [at Morgan City.] The first Tarzan movie was filmed in Morgan City. The Atchafalaya swamp was Tarzan’s jungle. Black extras in constumes pretended they were Africans. [p. 84]

mac is back!


I started this river trip with Mac Walton more than four months ago: he and I drove from Vermont to Minnesota together, met up with Richard Steadman-Jones, and paddled down the river for several weeks before Mac headed back to Maine from the Quad Cities in September. So I am totally delighted that he’s flown back out to join on for the last few days of the journey: it really feels like the completion of a beautiful circle. Mac has let his beard and hair grow this whole time, and I haven’t had a haircut either, not something we discussed in advance, but I really love this shared physical marker of the trip’s time’s passage. And Richard has lately begun posting some material relating to our Archives of Exile project, which is another excellent circle radiating from this river project.

I had promised myself to go to a megachurch before finishing the journey, but as I mentioned, I just couldn’t bring myself to deal with Jimmy Swaggart. My St. Francisville friend Luke mentioned that there’s a next-generation megachurch in Baton Rouge called The Healing Place, so Mac and I headed there for one of the three Sunday morning services. The parking lot was full of SUVs and luxury cars, the church was packed with probably fifteen hundred people, about forty percent of the service was devoted to asking for money, there was a nine-piece band, three soloists, a full chorus, flashy spiritual infomericals, but as far as I could tell, the entire Healing Place experience was virtually content-free. It’s not that I heard things that offended or disturbed me. I really didn’t feel anything at all, didn’t even feel like I’d been to church, and I left feeling just as ignorant of the allure of this megachurch phenomenon as I had been before. It’s clear that I’m completely missing something, some key that would clarify the appeal of all this to thousands of people. If you get it, please explain it to me!


We drove up to Livonia, and I biked about thirty miles down to Plaquemine Sunday afternoon along a back bayou. It was a beautiful ride, and I saw my first living armadillo in the wild (there has been lots of armadillo roadkill before now), and then I saw another… and then another. But no alligators, sorry to say. It may be the wrong time of year for alligator sightings.

On Monday we drove back up to Plaquemine and got a tour of the defunct lock from a very kind man named Stan, and visited the really beautiful Catholic church in town, and then wandered down the river road, past the tiny Madonna Chapel, and various plantations, and stopped for lunch and a bizarrely stilted tour of Oak Alley. The trees really are gorgeous, but this whole plantation thing is just not for me. In a hundred years are people going to be taking tours of that Merrill Lynch guy’s bathroom fixtures? I really really hope not.

Mulling all this over while driving past roofless houses, trailers, bungalows, and sheds, we headed back to camp at Bayou Segnette, just outside New Orleans, changed clothes, and went in to town. Yay! We did the absolutely essential tourist thing of wandering around the French Quarter and having a cafe au lait and beignets at Cafe du Monde, and then we found a great little takeout place and went out and sat in the park looking at the river eating our insanely wonderful po’ boys.

We went back to camp, and at about midnight the wind started. And kept going. And then the rain came. And kept going. And then the lightning and thunder. And the combination of all three was enough that I got a bit wet even in my en-tarped cocoon-like hammock, but not badly enough to bail and head for the car. And when I did emerge in the morning, I was really glad I hadn’t tried to get out in the night. A pond about six inches deep had materialized under my hammock. Check it out!


when the levee breaks


Monday morning, I drove down to Rosedale and headed first to the library, where Martha the librarian gave me an excellent orientation to the town and its history. Turns out this area was a big center for making moonshine during Prohibition — instead of the requisite cannon displayed in front of the State Park visitor center, there’s a whiskey still. The most famous moonshiner was a guy named Perry Martin, who was the son of a successful rice farmer, and had trained for the ministry. He lived on a houseboat on the river side of the levee, and had a bunch of stills set up on Big Island. He eventually built a house on the dry side of the levee, got sick the first night he slept there and never did again. But he would come over the levee every day for lunch with his wife.

I camped out for two nights like Perry Martin, on the river side of the levee, in the state park. The weather is beautiful–clear and warm–and I can sleep in the hammock without the tarp over me, so I get to look at the stars as I fall asleep, and wake up with the dawn. I’ve been doing a good deal of reading: finally got to Lanterns on the Levee, which is a heartbreaking book. The wisdom and the wrongness are so inextricably interwoven, there’s no way to pull them apart. And it’s not just that Will Percy is a white supremicist aristocrat living past his time, it’s also that he is so obviously a closeted self-lacerating gay man who knows he will never live up to his father’s standards. It is a tragic and awful book, but it is beautiful. Read it and weep.

The towns here are hideously far apart: to find an internet cafe, I had to drive 35 miles to Cleveland, where there’s a great coffee place in an old gas station, they roll up the garage doors and you sit in the former repair bay as if it were a terrace.

On Wednesday, I drove down a bit, past the town where Baby Doll was filmed, up to the levee and then biked around the area where the levee broke in the 1927 flood. There were No Trespassing signs everywhere, and I was spooked into imagining someone might shoot me for ignoring them, so I loaded the bike back on the car and drove down into Greenville, which, like all these Delta downtowns except maybe Cleveland, the college town, seems at first glance to be in such a state of decay and poverty that you can hardly imagine how people continue to live here. The buildings in best repair downtown are the churches, including the one built by Will Percy’s Dutch tutor and priest with his own money, (see pp. 86-91 of Lanterns on the Levee), and the synagogue (there has always been a thriving Jewish population in Greenville), and the First AME, which has been visited by Langston Hughes and Leontyne Price (and Herbert Hoover during the flood.)

I had made a plan to meet up with the musician and ethnomusicologist Mark Howell and his wife, Stephanie, at the BB King Museum in Indianola, so I drove out the back way through Leland, site of the old Percy plantation, where there is now quite a nice town with houses along a bayou, and arrived in time to meet up with Mark and Stephanie and hear an interesting panel discussion about this book. Afterwards, Mark and Stephanie and I had dinner and headed over to Lake Village, which is the town across the river from Greenville on the Arkansas side. Mark, with the help of his father and brother, has built a house right on Lake Chicot, based on a design adapted from excavation data for a Mississippian-era house in the Delta. It is a totally great place, surrounded by just enough trees to feel cozy but not obscure the view of the lake. And the light is gorgeous! I went down to the dock and watched the sun set into the lake while having a fine long call with Despina in Athens, and a little gray cat came and sat on my lap and sang a song to me, and I am very happy to be here.

flow in flux


Leaving St. Louis was sort of hard: spending time with Amy and Frank and Emma and Spencer is fun under any circumstances, and my excellent uncle Joe arrived Tuesday night, adding to the pleasure, but hanging out here is especially comforting when I feel a bit like I’m about to launch into the unknown. I’ve spent very little time in the south before now, (Los Angeles doesn’t count!) and St. Louis is the last place along the river where I have family or close friends, where I know I can land for a while if need be. And it’s rainy and gray and unseasonably cold out, so it really took some self-discipline to get in the car and drive down to Cliff Cave Park, where Mike told us we could put in to avoid the crazy-busy port of St. Louis.

We got to the park, which is the antithesis of North Riverfront Park — all manicured, with a gorgeous shelter and bathrooms and everything, but of course it’s in a wealthier area — but there’s no official boat launch, so Mary helped me get the kayak down to the water, and I put in and paddled off, uncertain until the very last minute if I had enough juice to do it.

And of course, once I was paddling I was no longer cold or uncertain. For one thing, it’s really fun to be able to do thirty or more miles in the time and effort that twenty took before. The current is really moving, there isn’t much traffic other than towboats pushing barges, and they are the best drivers on the river, and most of the logs and stuff are already downriver ahead of us because we’re behind the hump of the highest water. The trees are turning, so in the midst of all the gray-brown water and gray-white clouds, the reds and yellows and greens of the trees on the bluffs look positively gaudy. And now and again huge flocks of birds will fly over, dancing against the clouds, turning in the wind, and I just stop paddling and watch them go. Yesterday the clouds were really low and the wind was pushing them at about the same speed and direction I was traveling in the water. Only the land was still, everything else visible was moving together in concert down towards the delta.

We have camped out every night, and it’s been pretty cold, but there have been an excellent succession of campsites: Magnolia Hollow was a tiny hunter’s hideout way up a back road, three fire pits and a few picnic tables; at Kaskaskia State Park we hung our hammocks in a stand of pines away from the official campsite; and at Trail of Tears State Park, we had the tent camping area all to ourselves. It’s beautiful country, rolling hills and farms, and fewer towns than anywhere I’ve been on this trip except maybe at the very beginning.

The Trail of Tears is well-documented in the visitor center at the park, and also commemorated in highway signs in this whole area, as are the paths of Lewis and Clark and Marquette and Joliet. When I then add the multiple layers of Mark Twain (Huck Finn and Life on the Mississippi), it feels like I am traveling with hundreds or thousands of people, and the virtually unpeopled landscape that is actually before me is really surprising. There are places on the river where I can see five or six miles up and down and not only not see anyone, but also not see evidence that people currently inhabit this place, even though I know that this part of the river has been settled by Europeans for centuries now, and by Native people for millennia.

But then I remember that this part of the river keeps changing its mind, moving course so as to orphan towns away from the river or flood them into oblivion. Islands appear and disappear, attach to one shore or another. Nothing here is permanent, everything is in constant flux. The maps Nick gave me are out of date here, 1991 is too long ago to accurately document the river of 2009. It’s a strange sensation to look at this imposing, serious river and think that it will be likely flowing some yet new way in another twenty years.

counting stuff works

Last night, Lori and I stopped off at the River Music Experience, where Terry Dame happened to be setting up for a show, an unexpected pleasure, and we caught a few songs, but couldn’t stay to say hi, because we had to head back north to Bellevue, where we had left Lori’s car these last days, and we wanted to set up camp before dark. We camped right by the river, haven’t done that in a while: it’s a real pleasure to wake up and watch the dawn come up right over the water. I said goodbye to Lori, who’s been a great fellow-traveler these last days, and then headed down to Le Claire and caught a service at the Presbyterian Church before driving down to meet Susan and Jim in Davenport. I’ve known Susan for a couple of years now on Walker Tracker, a site for counting pedometer steps (totally nerdy, I grant you, but a really fun community.) We’d never actually met in person until today, and I was really happy they drove all the way from Tremont to spend the afternoon with me. Susan is part of my inspiration for doing this trip: I really respect and enjoy her whole approach to life, and love all the very deep commonalities we share despite our ostensible differences. And Jim is great: a tall, handsome, laconic Republican pacifist. (But still not much of a TV watcher(!)) After a leisurely brunch, we went to the Figge Art Museum, which has a pretty great collection, augmented by work that was displaced from the University of Iowa collection by last year’s flood, including a really fine Jackson Pollack that captures something amazing about the river and the farmland, and an Odilon Redon pastel woman on cardboard, which I think Despina would love a lot (and I’m really happy because I just found an online photo of it.)

After Susan and Jim left, I drove down to Muscatine and realized I’m tired enough that a motel and a day off are the answer, so I found a fabulous Econolodge and gratefully settled in. There is absolutely nothing interesting to look at or take in or experience in this motel room, and I have running water and a hot shower and free wifi at my fingertips, and it feels absolutely luxurious to be able to take a day to clean up, take stock, and get ready for the next leg of this journey.

managing water

from The Guardian: “America, now entering its hurricane season, was today urged to abandon the outmoded “patch and pray” system of levees – whose failure magnified the devastation of Hurricane Katrina – and borrow from the Dutch model of dykes and management.”

click the photo for the whole article: