One summer night I piled into a friend’s car with a group of girls and we headed west, to the Mississippi River. We parked under an overpass and walked through the tangled underbrush along the river’s edge, stumbling blindly along the bank. The night was humid, blanketed in heat, and the overgrown bank of the river felt near-tropical. When one of us fell into a pit hidden by kudzu, the rest of the group stopped to pull her out in a heave.
By the time we reached the Memphis-Arkansas Memorial Bridge, we were scraped, bruised, and exhilarated. We walked halfway across the bridge on the narrow pedestrian shoulder. I held tight to the shaking metal railing and shut my eyes against the headlights of the trucks rushing by. When one of my friends knelt down and opened a riveted trap door, I saw a small corroded ladder which appeared to drop into nothing. We climbed down the ladder to a maintenance platform connected to a maze of catwalks, suspended a hundred feet above the water. Standing on the edge of the platform I could feel the bridge swaying under the weight of the trucks that streamed across it, just over our heads. Maybe I only imagined it, but I thought I could feel the push of the river’s current against the bridge itself—it seemed we could be swept away.
In the darkness, moonlight played off the waves in slivers of white punctuated by quick black streaks: birds flying so low over the water, they looked like flying fish. My friends and I settled on the north end of the platform, swinging our feet over the edge. We didn’t speak. Memphis’ electric skyline spread across the river’s surface like an aurora borealis. If I looked long and hard enough, I might have found my own hazy reflection amongst all the city lights. Either way, that night, I experienced a sense of recognition. Suspended directly over the river, I felt myself caught in the river’s temper, its waxing and waning like a liquid moon. I sensed I was not just from but of this place, this tumbling expanse of water.
I sensed that night what Wendell Berry described in his essay “A Native Hill” as the “complex inheritance” of a homeplace. “A Native Hill,” originally published in Berry’s 1969 essay collection The Long-Legged House, strikes me as a prophetic exploration of a person’s relationship with his place, and the care and attention that grows from this relationship. Maybe it is not so remarkable that this essay still resonates with me, across decades and geographies. I am, like Berry, a person with a homeplace that I yearn for, am confounded by, and have strayed from. Where Berry explores his Kentucky farmland, I walk the river’s edge, and wonder what it means to belong to a place—to this place.
From its start at Minnesota’s Lake Itasca to its end at the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River runs for over 2,000 miles. If a water droplet were to slip from Lake Itasca into the Mississippi’s marshy headwaters and ride the entire, winding course of the river, its journey to the Gulf of Mexico would take about 90 days. At Lake Itasca the Mississippi River moves about 45 gallons of water per second. By the time it reaches Memphis, the river stretches half a mile wide and moves over three and a half million gallons of water per second.
For most people in Memphis, the idea of getting in the river is laughable. We just don’t do it, for any number of reasons: fear of bottom-feeding gar, monster-sized catfish, pollutants, the swift current, all the things that might be lurking beneath the river’s milky brown surface, clouded with sediment drained from 31 states and two Canadian provinces. North America has a lot to drain: pesticides, agricultural runoff, discharge from sewage treatment facilities, eroded soil.
Maybe the river’s opaque surface is threatening on an instinctual level—we can’t see what our feet might find if we inched deeper into the water. But whenever people call it the “muddy Mississippi” I want to ask if they’ve ever gone to the river just as the sky starts to slip. In late afternoon, that broad, flat expanse of water works just like a mirror, and for a few hours the river is not brown, but bright, shockingly blue.
For the second grade boat race, I made a Viking ship out of Tupperware and raced it down the length of the model Mississippi River on Mud Island. The relief map, about five city blocks long, was cast to scale in concrete. I ran with my classmates alongside the tiny, winding river and its needle-width tributaries, cheering our boats along. The race ended at the model Gulf of Mexico, the size of a large duck pond, where couples thumped by in rented paddle boats.
After the race we sat on Mud Island’s observation deck, watching the real river in its relentless hurl south, its surface smooth and slow, masking a tangle of undertows. While the model river followed a path set in concrete, the actual river rolled past us, its currents spilling over new ground. Sitting on the metal benches of the observation deck, sticky with kid-sweat and sunscreen, I watched the river trail off shining into the horizon. The only thing I knew about the river, then, was to stay out of it.
I don’t remember anyone telling me not to go in the water. Maybe I learned by watching the city’s example, the way the buildings in downtown Memphis crowded along the edge of the bluffs. The city comes to an abrupt end there, where the land sinks steeply into the rock-piled, water-lapped banks. Across the river, I could see Arkansas’ shoreline sprawling wild and empty for miles of flat land subject to more extreme flooding.
The scale of the river, its very mass and size, plays a kind of visual trick. It’s hard to see how fast the water’s moving when it travels unbroken, spreading a mile or more wide. I’ve seen a whole tree pop to the surface, suddenly freed from the undertows that had pushed it into the depths, or a barge pushing against the current, whitewater breaking against its edges. Yet even without submerged trees or barges, even without the visual demonstration of the force required to move against the current, when I stand at the river, I sense I’m too small for it. I’ve never been in the river deeper than my knees, and even that felt somehow daring. The river works on a different scale—one of glaciers, geologic time, ice ages, and earthquakes. A scale on which I am too small to even be measured: a blip less than a blip.
As a result of engineering along the river—dams, bank revetments, soil erosion control programs—the Mississippi River drains less than half the amount of sediment it did a hundred years ago. Still, the treated sewage and agricultural runoff collected by the Mississippi River have depleted the oxygen supplies required to sustain aquatic life in the Gulf of Mexico, creating a hypoxic area or “dead zone.” This dead zone shrinks and grows, but tends to stay roughly state-size, comparable to New Jersey one year, Connecticut the next.
Every thousand years or so, the river migrates. Deposits of sediment and silt clog the river’s channel, raising the water level until the water finds a more direct route to the Gulf. Lately, the Mississippi has been steadily creeping toward the Atchafalaya River while the Corps of Engineers try to slow its progress. A present-day shift of the Mississippi River’s main channel to the Atchafalaya would be disastrous for the economically developed present-day channel, which includes New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
But the shift is overdue, according to the river’s schedule, and I have a hard time imagining that we can stop it for good. I have an even harder time imagining what would come, a hundred or 200 years down the road, if we do stop this shift or even continue to simply slow its progress. It seems like the kind of power we shouldn’t be messing with. This is a river that has run backwards, that has flooded entire regions at a time, and that has outlived and will outlive us all. We live on its terms, despite all our efforts.
In “A Native Hill,” Berry writes that humans have lived for too long on the assumption “that what was good for us would be good for the world.” He proposes that we must learn as best we can what the earth needs and live instead “by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us.”
At the heart of “A Native Hill” is the idea that in order to take care of a place, to practice good stewardship of the land, we must first try to get to know it. “We must learn to cooperate with its processes,” he writes, and “yield to its limits.” But most importantly we must recognize “that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it.” In place of complete understanding, he writes, we must “stand in awe.”
Most of the time, I’m not sure how I can get to know the Mississippi River better. I’ve visited other cities where the local rivers meander through town, cities where people can swim in their rivers, and can even trust the water won’t rise above its banks. In Richmond, Virginia, I saw people swimming in the James River, picnicking on the rocks out in the current, and I wondered how things might be different in Memphis if we could plunge into our river. I wondered how it would be, if our childhood memories of the river were not of fear but of this kind of intimacy, the feeling of water on skin.
As it is, in Memphis, the river remains a complicated, dominating aspect of our landscape. There is something humbling about living so close to a river which can only be known at a safe distance. Yet I worry, when I read about the dead zone in the Gulf and our relentless efforts to control the river, that the river’s intimidating size and power keeps us from truly caring for it, from seeing it as more than a thoroughfare, a dump, or a danger.
I think of caring for the river, and I see myself as a nine-year-old kid participating in my first science fair project: kneeling on the banks of the river, I tested the pH levels of the water with little strips of colored paper. I don’t remember the hypothesis for the project, though I recognize that early impulse to get to know the river better. Those little slips of paper told me nothing about the river that could help me know it better, though I can see that desire in myself, even then.
When I was in high school, a shadowy mass showed up in the river just outside downtown. Helicopters flew low above the water and confirmed the murky shape was a manatee, and not a dead body, as some had suspected. The manatee had traveled upriver from marshes 700 miles south. I wondered what guided the manatee north, pushing against the current. I wondered what whispered in the manatee’s hidden ear that now was the time to swim against tons of clouded water to linger outside Memphis, but I never found out. The city had not planned for a manatee, and it took a couple days to figure out what to do about it. The manatee waited, growing thinner and thinner, but by the time rescue crews showed up, she was gone. I imagined her lifeless mass drifting powerlessly back downstream, all that effort for nothing.
A few months after the manatee came and went, I was sitting on the floor at my grandmother’s house, listening to her talk as I rifled through the boxes of photographs she’d dragged from her closet. In one crumbling album I found an aerial photo, black and white, showing a massive flood, a total blanketing of water, with hardly any land in sight. I had never seen so much water. The photo was tiny in the palm of my hand, but I could sense the enormity of the spreading floodwaters and the photographer’s effort to capture it. I asked my grandmother about the photo. Squinting at it through her bifocals, she told me it had been taken during the Great Flood.
In the spring of 1927, after epic amounts of rain, levees that had been raised as high as 38 feet failed, and floodwaters spread from the river across nearly 30,000 square miles of land. In some areas the river carried 22 million gallons of water per second. Black men were forced at gunpoint to work on the levees, only to be left stranded when the flood came. By the first of July, as the flood started to recede, one and a half million acres of land were still under water. At some places the river spread 70 miles wide. In Greenville, Mississippi, black men were again forced into labor, to uncover the city from layers of mud. By late summer, thousands of families left Greenville and the surrounding area in the first massive black migration north. Two years after the flood, my grandmother was born outside Saltillo, in a Mississippi still digging itself out of the mud. Twenty days after her birth, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began.
It makes sense to me that my grandmother’s life would have been bookended, informed somehow, by the actions of the river. Even after fleeing a rural Mississippi landscape devastated by flooding, she’s spent the rest of her life near the banks of the river. I’m not sure I know how to live without the river, either. When I get lost while driving in Memphis, I pull over and get out of the car. Standing still in the street, I orient myself to the river like a compass. Once I sense the way the streets lead to the river running west of me, west of everything, I can picture the water flowing north to south. Reoriented, I get back in the car and drive.
I have lived in other places where I had no compass, no sense of cardinal direction. I searched for the river’s pull and found myself too far away to feel it. In these moments my homesickness feels disorienting and insurmountable—down to the very land and water, nothing is right, and it seems I will never find my way. Sometimes I think trying to find a new home outside Memphis would be much like the manatee’s journey. I’d push blindly north against reason until, exhausted, I’d drift back south, back home, for good.
The Mississippi River has been mapped, charted, and measured, often using the fathom, a unit of measurement based on the length of a man’s outstretched arms, the distance from fingertip to fingertip. The word fathom derives from an Old English word fæthm meaning embracing arms or a pair of outstretched arms. The depth of the water underneath a ship was discovered by fathoming out or depth sounding, during which a rope, marked in fathoms and with a weight attached to its end, was lowered into the water until it touched bottom.
As it tends to, the literal language of depth sounding shifted toward the figurative. In the 1600s the phrase take sounding emerged, meaning, to get to the bottom of, penetrate with the mind, or understand. To fathom an idea, to understand it, is to encircle it with outstretched arms, touching fingertip to fingertip. I cannot wrap my arms around the river. I cannot fathom its depths, its size, its age. I drop my mind’s rope into the water and watch it sink.
In “A Native Hill,” Berry discusses the difference between roads and paths, and what they express or reveal about human relationships with a place. While a road is a means of leaving one place for another, “avoid[ing] contact with the landscape,” a path is a “ritual of familiarity.” A path allows movement within a place, and indicates intimacy with that place. I wonder if we too often see the Mississippi River as one huge road, a country-long interstate by which we can move products and facilitate commerce.
Last month I went to watch a kayak, canoe, and paddleboard race on the Mississippi. There were only a couple other people gathered at the river’s edge—some families who’d come to watch their relatives and friends paddle by. The kayaks began the race. I watched the long, colorful boats pour into the river, upstream, from the inlet where the Wolf River meets the Mississippi. I could barely see the people in their boats, and the boats themselves were tiny figures off in the distance, weaving between whole tree trunks and gnarled limbs floating on the fast current.
I’d never seen so many people out on the river. The race was short—a three-mile dash from the Wolf River to the Memphis Harbor—and as I watched I wondered if the people I strained to see against the metallic sheen of the river might be making the kinds of paths Berry wrote about. Maybe they were getting to know this place.
When the river swells to the highest rim of the bluffs, and the trees rise from the floodwater covering half their height, and the martin houses are completely submerged, I join the crowds that gather along the river’s new edge, sitting and watching. This watching feels like a kind of vigil or meditation—we sit and wait, watching the rising water as if for signs. In this God-heavy region, I wonder if Memphis’ sense of spirituality is not shaped in some way by the presence of the river. I wonder if this river is not just as bewildering as an incarnate God. As much as we try, there is no controlling the river, no adjusting the scale, no measuring up to it: in the face of a flood, we stack sandbags, we keep watch, and we wait to see how the river will answer.
People living in the Delta all have their own stories of encountering the river. For me, this encounter came on the maintenance platform of that bridge, surrounded by my friends. As I sat in silence, everything but the river faded away at the edges, and I met the river one on one. I sensed, that night, what it meant to be from a place, to see myself in it, and to claim it as my own.
Nearly 40 years earlier, my aunt Daisy was fresh from high school and working as a DJ at KWAM, a small, boxy radio station perched on stilts on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River. During the spring floods of 1973, a coworker rowed Daisy out to the station in a canoe and left her there. Daisy worked alone, changing the records, flirting with her lips brushing the microphone. At the end of Daisy’s show, the DJ working the next shift was supposed to meet her with the canoe and row her back to shore. Daisy locked up the station, walked out into the silent night. No canoe. Forgotten, she waited, suspended between the black river and sky. Someone eventually came for her, and she made it safely home, but the memory of being stranded is the story my aunt tells. For her, the story is about waiting, and the dark night, and the river lapping beneath her.
A few years before that, my mother (then a teenager) drove out to the sandbars on Arkansas’ side of the river, where she and her friends launched bottle rockets into total darkness, toward the river they could barely see but could sense, like gravity, and just as alien and as intimate. I imagine my mother watching the fireworks flickering over the water, the way the world might have felt so small, then, and the river so huge. My mother can remember her father, 15 years earlier, rising from bed in the middle of the night at the first signs of a flood. He’d stay out until morning with all the other able-bodied men, stacking sandbags along the river. When he came back he was the color of mud, caked in sweat.
Maybe these encounters are worth preserving, retelling, and handing down precisely because of the effort required to personally connect with this part of our landscape. Standing at the river’s edge and staring at that expanse is not enough. We have to cross bridges, get stranded, push past our own fear, pull ourselves from bed in the middle of the night and try to hold back the flood. Though the river is ancient, its waters carve an ever-shifting path. The river might ultimately be unknowable, but we try to know it, anyway. We monitor its swelling and sinking. We build models of it, shrink it down to our size so that, standing over it, we think we know it. We stand in awe. We tip-toe in from the banks until we feel that tug of the current pulling south, a knee-deep brush with mystery that is never quite enough.
Martha Park is a writer and illustrator from Memphis, Tennessee. She received an MFA from the Jackson Center for Creative Writing at Hollins University, where she worked as the assistant editor for the Hollins Critic and was the recipient of the Melanie Hook Rice Award for Creative Nonfiction. She is the Spring 2016 Philip Roth Resident in Creative Writing at Bucknell University’s Stadler Center for Poetry. Brandon Dahlberg is an MFA student in the University of Memphis’s creative writing program and is currently navigating the professional world of publishing. He is passionate about narrative, both written and pictorial, and believes photography is one of the most effective mediums of communication available to storytellers.
Header photo of of the Memphis-Arkansas Memorial Bridge with downtown Memphis at sunrise by Brandon Dahlberg.