Posts Tagged “levee”

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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“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)

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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)

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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]
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“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]
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“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]
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“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
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“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)
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“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
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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]

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It was a rainy and gray weekend, and I spent most of it at Poverty Point Reservoir State Park, doing some much needed housekeeping (my computer was misbehaving, laundry needed doing) at this quite wonderful spot that has free wifi and laundry and good showers. I did take a drive up to the town of Lake Providence, looking for a cafe that turned out to be closed on Saturday, and ended up having an excellent oyster po’ boy at a little place overlooking the lake. The town felt oddly exposed somehow: I could feel almost viscerally what high water must be like for a town like this, on a promontory almost completely surrounded by lakes and rivers, and miles from any other town. The fields surrounding the town don’t really feel like they count as actual dry land, somehow: you know that if the water breaches the levees it will just pour down and across however many miles of farmland there are. Five miles, fifty miles, once those levees are breached, the water will be everywhere.

On Sunday, I came into Vicksburg for church at Bethel AME, a tiny congregation with a new young preacher. The sermon text was from 1 John 4, about how it makes no sense to say you love God and hate your brother. “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

My first view of the river from the town of Vicksburg really took my breath away. To be up on a bluff again, overlooking the river after so many weeks of being right down in it in the Delta, was somehow deeply moving to me. I guess because I feel like the river is part of me, or I of it, I immediately felt protectiveness and kinship for this town that so honors the river.

I spent the whole afternoon at the battlefield park, which is a pretty overwhelming place. Miles and miles of statues and markers and memorials dot a landscape of hills and mounds and ravines and trenches. I had talked a bit with Shawn, one of the rangers, in the Visitor Center, and I ran into him again at the Illinois memorial, a Pantheon-like structure with really beautiful resonance. We talked for a good long time about Native American as well as Civil War history: he’s worked at a succession of parks over the years, so he knows about lots of things that interest me. He showed me a name on the wall of the Illinois Memorial and asked if I knew the story of that particular soldier. Turns out he served the Union for four years, returned to Illinois to work as a handyman and gardener, was hit by a car and taken to the hospital, where they learned Albert was actually a woman. The sad ending of the story is that Albert ended up in an insane asylum, where he was forced to wear women’s clothes, and died from a fall he sustained tripping over unaccustomed skirts.

In the midst of all these Civil War memories, in a town that perhaps has embodied the Confederate spirit longer than any other place (they did not officially celebrate the Fourth of July here until World War II, because Vicksburg fell, after 47 days of siege, on the Fourth of July 1863), I finished Anne Moody’s memoir, Coming of Age in Mississippi. Somehow I had never come across this book before, and once I started reading it, it was hard to stop, and it is definitely hard going. It’s painful to walk around rage-filled and mourning the casualties of racism as you visit a place like the Old Courthouse Museum in Vicksburg. Honestly, I don’t recommend it.

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(The caption reads: “$500 REWARD for the arrest and conviction of Johnny Black alias Possum, has black skin, white eyes, kinky hair, smooth face and has a frightened look.”)

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At a certain point on Monday, I reached a pretty dark place. I’d been looking too closely at the evil we can do convinced of our honor and virtue and righteousness, I’d been alone too many days in a row, that late-November desolation is in the air, and all of this together was beginning to be a bit too much. This journey is definitely about putting myself out there, but I had really reached my own limits.

And then in the course of a couple of hours, everything changed. Mary Rowell texted me to say she’s coming back out for Thanksgiving, dear Melissa was her unflappable and kind and competent self, organizing getting me insurance cards and audio interfaces, I talked with Mac, who told me he’s almost done with his grad school apps and he’s going to try to join on in ten days or so, and Linda Norton’s going meet me in New Orleans in December. Is that an embarrassment of riches, or what?!

But that’s not all!

My friend David Lehmann had introduced me to H. C. Porter’s gallery in Vicksburg and told me a bit about her powerful post-Katrina work. The gallery was closed on Sunday, but I stopped in Monday afternoon and met Lauchlin, who sent me to the cafe down the street and said Chris would stop in when she got home. And she came and retrieved me and immediately took me in and told me many good stories and gave me excellent dinner and a warm bed in her beautiful space that has a rooftop balcony overlooking the river, and we have approximately four hundred eighty six thousand things in common, and suddenly everything feels transformed, a light switches on in the darkness, and I can move forward, chastened by my awareness of how very much I need other people, how reliant I am on the kindness of friends and of strangers, both.

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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.

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John had invited me to join him on an all-day paddle he was scheduled to do Saturday with a father and son, so I was awakened early from the hammock I had set up behind his shop and overlooking the Sunflower River, with John offering me coffee and oatmeal and introducing me to Ellis Johnson, a younger brother of Super Chikan Johnson, one of the outstanding blues players flourishing in Clarksdale. Ellis himself is more dancer than musician, he said, and he is also a fisherman, and he told me about the huge turtle he caught the other day.

Tim, a prep-school fundraiser, and his college-age son, David, showed up and got outfitted, and then we all headed out to Quapaw landing and put in. It’s my first paddling since above Memphis, and it’s hard to articulate how happy I am to be back on the water. It’s a strange reality that as the boundary between water and land gets more porous down here, with all the back channels and bayous and swamps, getting to the river from land actually gets harder and harder, so my bike rides don’t really bring me close enough to the river to fully satisfy my river jones. It makes sense: the bottomlands are a no-man’s-land where it is not practical to imagine permanent roads or houses. The river side of the levees are in a sense already the river.

Paddling with John, who knows this river the way I know the streets of New York City, is really a wonderful experience. We did all sorts of things I would never have been able to do alone. Instead of freaking out about the big stuff floating down the river, for example, we took advantage of its speed and power. We tied off to a huge tree that was plowing downstream and just effortlessly coasted down through the windy stretch. I was finally truly rafting the Mississippi! A giant barge and tow were coming downstream at the same time, and watching it pass us at an excruciatingly slow pace — since we were traveling nearly as fast — reminded me of that endless circus trailer in Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies.

We stopped at two different blue holes to eat and explore, and then John began to take us into back channels, wending through groves of trees. I could happily paddle back through thickets finding oxbow lakes and odd back bayous for many days to come. I think what I like the very best about this lower river is these liminal spaces, neither land nor river, exactly, but some curious inseparable hybrid of the two.

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John took us through one final back channel right near sunset, and we paddled into the setting sun surrounded by birds and the departing light. I didn’t want the day to end, but paddling up a good ways and then across the main channel in the dark was tiring enough that I was happy when we finally landed and Ellis pulled us out and took us home to Clarksdale.

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Today I finally started down the river again, with David as my companion and helper. We crossed the river over to Arkansas, the eighth of the ten states on the river, and I started out biking along the levee. The Army Corp leases the land surrounding the levee to farmers, so I encountered many cows and some horses grazing below me, and long long vistas of farmland, mostly cotton fields. About every half mile there were fences to demarcate the different fields, so I would lindy the bike under the fence each time. At one point, there was a man in a pickup truck waiting as I rode up to the fence. I was afraid he was going to yell at me and order me off the levee, but instead he asked me how I was planning to get the bike past the fence. I looked, and indeed it was lower to the ground than any of the previous ones had been, too low for me to get the bike through. So he got out of his truck and told me to lift the bike up to him and hefted it over the fence for me, and after asking how far I was going, and wishing me luck, he drove off into the endless delta. As I began biking again, I really began to wonder if he had been an apparition. I mean, it’s pretty unpeopled out here. I hadn’t seen anyone for miles, and suddenly at the moment I was going to need help even though I didn’t know it yet, there was someone waiting to help me.

Eventually the road was close enough to the levee that I decided it would be okay to bike along the road and skip the drill with the fences. This country is flat! I don’t think I’ve ever ridden so far with so little elevation change. I really enjoyed the ride, there’s something delightful to me about where my mind gets to go when I do long stints of not-very-hard exercise. On more varied terrain, biking is hard enough work that I don’t usually have a chance to get into that meditative state, but here you can ride for miles and miles without really working very hard physically, so your mind is free to range. After a while I rode past a tidy resort community called Horseshoe Lake, where virtually every other house was for sale (clearly the economic crisis is hitting hard here), and down very close to the river, where I stopped to meet up with David. As we were hanging out there on the levee, two women drove up and asked us about the kayak and the trip: it turns out one of the women is the mayor of Horseshoe Lake, gotta love it!

After about five hours of biking, I put the bike up on the rack and we drove on this wacky back road to Helena and across the bridge and back up on the Mississippi side, and up to Tunica for excellent fried green tomatoes and fried okra and fried chicken, and back to Memphis and my comfortable bed with Fred the cat. I want to bike that back road for the next leg of the journey, for sure!

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Today I set off in the kayak from Shady Creek with a very fun send-off crew: a group of folks who winter together in Florida and summer together by the banks of the Mississippi. (Sounds like a pretty good life to me!) Full of energy and laughter, they were just the right people to launch me on this rainy gray day for a sort of curious journey past through Lock and Dam #16, where the tender sent me through almost without a single word, a quick rest stop in Muscatine, where Caroline the Chicago poet was waiting to greet me, then past a bunch of huge factories spewing gunk right next to seemingly pristine natural vistas right next to wacky duck blinds (all the birds in that photo are decoys, in case that’s not clear(!)) Caroline retrieved me from a landing where you drive up and over the levee to get there, quite cool, and after a restorative lunch at the riverfront cafe I’ve been hanging out at every day (it’s called Elly’s and if you get to Muscatine, you too will eat there every single day, I am sure), we headed over to the Art Center, which is one of those 19th century houses with lots of Persian rugs and beautiful furniture and tasteful minor artworks — not so much my kind of thing except for this painting of the Mississippi River.

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It was tucked away near the bathroom or something. The painter is named Bill Bunn, and I just came up with this Life Magazine article from 1940, which describes how he and his 19-year-old wife were about to sail down the Mississippi in their own boat. I wonder if they did it?! He just died this summer at the age of 99, according to this article. I want to see more of Bill Bunn’s work! Somebody should get on this, don’t you think?

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There’s a really great bike path from Savanna all the way down to Rock Island called the Great River Trail, so I decided to do a biking day today to take advantage of it. The last time I biked I was beginning to curse my heavy hybrid and wish I had a road bike, but for today, the hybrid was the perfect choice. A few miles down there’s a gravel trail that loops out into the sloughs and wetlands for a few miles, allowing me to really feel like I was biking right on the river itself. Later the trail goes through a sand prairie for a while, and then up onto a levee for several miles, very cool. Eventually I got to Albany Mounds, which was a center of Hopewellian culture that flourished here from 200 BC to 300 AD, with extensive trade networks that spanned most of North America. I biked around the park on grass trails, completely alone, surrounded by tall grass, mounds, mosquitos, and ghosts. I knew nothing at all about this culture before I began this trip, my friend Lauren Gould emailed me something about it and that was the extent of my awareness, and now I’m finding all these amazing sites tucked away where I would never have found them except by traveling this way.

Anyway, I really got carried away with this bike day, ended up logging something like 60 miles, and towards the end I was passed by two obviously experienced bikers on a tandem. When I arrived at the Port Byron library, Lori had already met Bruce and Becky, and they generously invited us to stay at their house in Port Byron. The two of them have biked all over the lower 48 and Canada and Alaska, how cool is that!?! They are definitely kindred spirits, and it seemed like they totally get this journey of mine. It’s funny, in nearly two months of traveling and meeting people, I have yet to meet anyone who even watches TV, let alone supports the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or doesn’t want to reform health care in this country. I’m out here in the heartland of America, but I am fully aware that I’m not in fact meeting an authentic cross-section of Americans. Is that because I’m biking and kayaking, so generally meeting people who exercise, which skews against TV watchers? Is it because I’m so obviously a scary artsy-dykey type that only NPR-listening newspaper-reading locavores will even talk to me?! Or is the country so divided that Red Staters and Blue Staters are simply invisible to one another, living parallel but completely separate lives in the same places? I really wonder about this.

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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:

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