Travelling with my mother in Quebec, we saw the statue of Champlain that stands outside the Chateau Frontenac. ”People dressed so strangely in those days,” she said. I let her continue the thought. ”A lot of times they had people dress them – can you imagine? Needing someone to dress you?”
She continued: “You know, when I was a kid, I felt sorry for rich people. As a kid all I really saw of them was when they walked from their cars to their apartment buildings. And I felt they must be sick, something had to be wrong with them: they were so weak they needed people to open the doors for them.”
This is actually a profound insight, one so profound only a child could have it. And I can see how much of my life has been built around this one insight into life which my mother had as a child and passed on to me as a kind of unconscious inheritance. Don’t have someone do your living for you.
Coming down Oak Street, New Orleans blew me one last kiss: a glimpse of Jacque-imo’s and its famous gator-painted pickup truck. Every time I see something interesting in New Orleans, I realize how unimaginative and boring everyplace else is. I’ve seen pickup trucks and restaurants all over America, but only in New Orleans have I seen this: a pickup – wildly painted – parked in front of a restaurant, with a table in the pickup’s bed, with tablecloth, silverware, and everything, the server coming out and taking orders leaning over the side of the pickup-bed. It’s not a terrible idea for a fun date, pulling this off somewhere else, making an arrangement beforehand with the server.
Many people who travel the river treat New Orleans as its southern terminus, and now that I was going north it seemed like the trip was really beginning. I had ridden 110 miles to reach New Orleans, a brief trial run to see if I could handle such a long trip. Since arriving in the Big Easy I had ridden 49 further miles, and had been all over the city from the Lower Ninth Ward to Carrollton. I had been in terrible physical condition when I started, but I was rapidly getting better. My spine was slowly resuming its proper shape, and though all the muscles of my lower back were still sore, the numbness had left my right leg. The numbness had been replaced by pain, particularly at the hip. In fact the pain was so bad I wondered if my femur was actually in its socket, and occasionally I would punch my hip repeatedly hoping to drive the bone back in. – I don’t know if there’s any way to avoid a certain amount of hypochondria. I’ve never had any patently serious ailments – no broken bones or trips to the hospital – and I could probably calculate pretty accurately the number of pills I’ve taken in my entire life (including painkillers like aspirin) because the number is so small (certainly less than three hundred in thirty-eight years). But sometimes I wonder – is this because I’m lucky or because I have a masochistic indifference to my body’s comfort? Maybe I’m terribly sick somewhere inside, and have ground all the inner gears in my body to stubs, and don’t know it because I’ve never been to a doctor to be tested. So even though I rarely let my body serve as an excuse for not doing something, I still fear my body’s fragility, and sometimes also its silence. I presume my body will tell me if I am doing something wrong, but who knows – perhaps these daily aches and pains are its messages, and I have learned to ignore them at my own peril. A long trip like this makes you wonder just how in tune with your body you really are. Was I really going to be able to bike over two thousand five hundred miles without any training beforehand? I hadn’t ridden thirty miles on a bike in the previous three years.
I had divided the trip up into five segments, to be punctuated by long breaks at each of the river’s major cities. The first leg was from the Gulf to New Orleans; then New Orleans to Memphis; Memphis to St. Louis; St. Louis to Minneapolis; and Minneapolis to Lake Itasca. The first leg was short, just a test-run, really. The second leg was long: 850 miles to Memphis. Not only was it a long way, it was probably the most dangerous part of the trip. It was a mighty river below Memphis, and the flat ground here had always been prone to floods; the river had been too dangerous to build near. The hot, muggy climate discouraged development, and the alluvial soils offered no mineral wealth save in farming. The farms had long ago been latifundia where slaves worked beneath the lash of the overseer, but I didn’t know what was there now. On the map I saw few towns, and most of them small: this was the most deserted, wild part of the river. And one of the most feared areas of the country: this was the Deep South, and it was not clear that everyone was welcome there. I was a Yankee, on a bicycle, one of the most vulnerable forms of transportation, going through the poorest, most poorly educated part of one of the most violent countries in the world.
Before I arrived in Venice I got an email from my friend Tommy. He had lived in Louisiana most of his life, and he cautioned me about this trip, and in particular the stretch between Baton Rouge and Memphis. After telling me how horrific the bugs can be, he wrote:
Also note that much of this kind of trip will take you through some very remote areas, so be careful of the locals. Also note the location of Angola Prison along the Mississippi river in Louisiana. You do not, I repeat, you do not want to wander anywhere near the boundaries of this prison, as you will be arrested. It is in a remote area, look it up, and keep your distance. You will be traveling through the Delta, which has some of the most poor villages and towns in the South. Be careful to tread lightly, and not draw alot of attention to yourself, as you will be encountering folks of all stations in life, i.e. outlaws. These are the kind of places that you can come up missing, and not even the X-files can find trace of you or your bike.
I didn’t think it was that bad. I treated the fears of other people as I treated the pain in my body: I recognized that I could get into trouble, and that I needed to be cautious and needed to be aware, but ultimately I felt that neither fear nor pain was going to stop me. The river-levee was at the end of Oak Street, and I climbed up onto the levee and headed upstream. I was hoping to make Vacherie, sixty-five miles away, by nightfall.
A friend who is going through some difficulties told me that she was outside her house recently, sitting in her car, and she realized she had been angry for a long time: and all of a sudden that she was not angry anymore: it was all dissolving, and it was just turning to sadness – a great, terrible sadness. I am a believer in practicing the religious wisdom we have inherited, and so I told her what I had heard from my religious teachers: that this was good, that anger and sadness were the same thing, but that sadness was pliable, it could be let off as tears, it could be discussed, it was social and so could be healed: but anger was brittle, it was rigid, it was hard to work with and ultimately solitary.
Now whether all this is true is a good question. There is certainly some received wisdom of a secular sort which counsels precisely the opposite, that we should not be sad, but get mad instead. Preferring sadness to anger sounds like it could be the age-old Christian idolization of the doormat. But I was reading a book by the Dalai Lama, and he too preached against anger, saying quite simply that his religion sought peace and happiness, and the angry person is never happy and at peace, and so he felt it was always better to avoid anger.
I thought it was worth exploring. I began by asking the question: what might the evolutionary purpose of anger be? I thought the answer was bipartite. First of all, anger increases our energy level, and is designed to help us through times particularly when great strength is required, for example self-defense. In modern times this is only rarely useful; sometimes when doing demolition work or something similar a little bit of anger makes the work go more quickly. But more commonly anger is a social emotion, and its basic function appears to be to discourage certain behavior in others. A juvenile ape keeps poking the silverback with a stick, and after bearing as much as he is going to bear, the silverback erupts in anger, shows his teeth and whacks the little one in the side of the head: the juvenile never does that again. I think most of us can remember incurring the wrath of our parents or teacher for some misdeed or other, and thinking, “I never, ever, ever want to have to experience this ever again and I will never, ever, ever do that again.” Besides its initial purpose of deterring certain behaviors, for us primates with memory anger is also instructive: it burns the lesson into the memory. The anger of others is often particularly memorable, even years after the fact.
When I explained this inchoate theory to a friend – who is prone to anger and has been recently trying to reform – he said, “But that’s really not true. Anger doesn’t actually deter other people from doing things. It’s not effective. When people have to work with someone who gets angry, they don’t stop doing whatever angers that person: they just start working on ways to get rid of that person, or at least do stuff without telling that person. Anger is just a dumb social obstacle, and in the end the work that has to get done just goes around it.”
He then added a slight modification: “If a person is really powerful – like the silverback you spoke about – yes, you can push people around with your anger. But if you don’t have that power, then it always backfires. It makes you less powerful – it makes other people start scheming to cut you out entirely.”
I think everything he said was true, and I will add that people start scheming to cut powerful angry people out of the loop too: they just have to wait longer, to amass the resources necessary to get rid of the powerful person. “No one robs the house of the strong man, without first tying up the strong man.”
This was a decent start to what I felt was the problem: anger is natural, and sometimes useful, and so I am loth to simply label it a “deadly sin” and seek to get rid of it. But it is more ineffective than effective, especially as we age, and in particular it causes problems for the people around us. And the problems we cause others have a way of coming back to us.
Let us take a look at this social aspect of anger. Even to speak of an emotion with a purpose sounds odd, and anger I think is particularly paradoxical: is an inner emotion but its deterrent effect is generally elsewhere. Inside of us it feels like a reflex reaction, like something we can’t even help – we speak of someone else making us angry, as if we had no control over it – but to others it feels manipulative, because the anger is directed at changing their behavior. Hence one person’s anger often sparks another’s: when a person is angry with you, it feels like they are infringing on your freedom. They are not dealing with you as a mature, thoughtful person to whom appeal can be made. They are just trying to stop you from doing what you just did by making life unpleasant for everyone.
Anger has another social aspect – also aimed at changing the behavior of others – as a cry for help. We all know the situation: a group of people – perhaps a family – are working on a project together, and one person, unable to complete his or her task, starts getting frustrated and starts making angry sounds. The fact that anger tends to be vocal, even if it has no words, is a sign of its social nature. The others in the group hear these sounds of frustration, and the person in charge of the project either gives instruction as to how to do the job more effectively, or relieves the person of the duty of this particular task. In instances where the job requires extraordinary physical strength, the anger might make the job easier, but usually the anger is designed to manipulate the other people engaged in the task. Typically it is designed to reveal our hope that our job will be done by someone else. If we didn’t believe it was worth doing, we might just abandon it. But instead we get angry, publicly angry, and hope that someone will come to the rescue. It is more than anything else a kind of wish: a wish with a certain amount of manipulation built in to help it come true. “I hope whoever hears this is made uncomfortable enough to come to the rescue and do this for me.”
Other times people get angry at things which in themselves cannot be changed – like death or weather or something similar – and here anger becomes most problematic. The anger has a physical effect on the person who feels it – causing blood pressure to rise, adrenaline to flow, and so forth – and it also causes discomfort to everyone who knows it is happening, but the wish that is expressed – “I wish I weren’t going through this” – cannot be granted. And here I think the received religious wisdom I spoke of at the beginning of this essay becomes relevant, even necessary. Here we have to translate our anger into its actual content – the wish – and acknowledge that the wish cannot come true. The closest we can get to its fulfilment is the comfort and consolation of the people around us. But anger – which puts other people on edge, and often makes them angry themselves – is not a good welcome mat to invite in the consolation of others. Sadness, however, is. Tears are far more likely to bring consolation than anger.
But of course there is a difference, a social difference, between anger and tears. Anger is lordly, it dictates to others, while tears acknowledge weakness. But when confronted with the things we cannot change, tears are more true. And for this reason we must, for our spiritual health, know when to convert our anger back into sadness. When news had to be rought to King David of his rebel son Absalom’s death, the messenger must have quaked with fear: the king loved his son, and never wanted any of what he experienced – first his son’s rebellion, and then his death. Would this desire be expressed as anger – “Cursed be you who bring this news to me” – or sadness? Anger, in traditional terms, is the more regal feeling: it expresses power not weakness. In countless Middle Eastern tales, the lordly king executes the messenger who brings bad news – that’s almost how you know he’s a king. But David wept for his dead son Absalom. This is the higher path with all we cannot change. There is a humiliation in grief and sadness, but it is the truth, and we must bow to it in the end. Ultimately you cannot have peace and happiness – and cannot help bring peace and happiness to the people you love – without acknowledgement, before them, of your own powerlessness. Each individual ego controls so very little of the universe – even so very little of his or her own life.
But David probably reacted to Absalom’s death honestly and instinctively – he was sad, rather than angry. It was not a choice. If he had been angry – could he have done anything? Is our anger really controllable? It feels so much like a reflex reaction, like the shape of our selves, like something we cannot change. You cannot stop your leg from kicking up, when your knee is struck in the right place. And similarly, the logic goes, certain things, or certain people, just make you angry: so those topics should be avoided, or those people need to stop coming to your social events. I know one woman who, it is true, can make me angry faster than any other person I know. She can do it just about every time. Shouldn’t I just avoid her?
Of course for a time the answer might be yes. But when you are ready to gain self-knowledge, and ready to grow as a person, then that is precisely the person to go to. All vehement reactions are doors into self-knowledge. The word-association experiments done by the early psychologists were all done with a stopwatch, because they found that people had more complicated reactions to certain words – whatever the word might be, “mother” or “pregnant” or “wrist” or “money” – and those words could typically be discerned with a stopwatch: the word-response would be slightly slower – or slightly faster! – for such words. The brain had more to process for such words – the reaction was a little more vehement – which could be perceived as a slowing or quickening of speech. The reaction was “complex” – the term we now use as a noun, a complex. A person or thing who can make you angry is touching on a complex – a bundle of associations which can be untangled, and dealt with thread by thread. A deeply unhappy person is often terribly knotted up in these complexes, and makes the people around him unhappy as well, because he is so brittle and vehement and unpredictable, having overblown reactions to small stimuli. This drives other people away, making the angry person even less happy. Unraveling these complexes is often the key to the peace and happiness the Dalai Lama spoke of as the goal of the spiritual life.
Sometimes anger can be unknotted very quickly, because beneath it there is often simply a frustrated desire. I think I know why that one woman gets me so angry: I want her to love me and be my girlfriend – you can’t be more demanding of another person’s behavior than that! – and when confronted with her unwillingness, my body resorts to anger to try to establish some kind of control over her. It doesn’t work, of course – which gets me angrier. This sounds terrible as I write it – and it is – but I think it is a normal dynamic of relationships. A person who feels less loved than they desire often responds with anger. But it is exceptionally rare that such anger really makes the other person respond with more love: when it does happen, it is because that other person senses or knows what the other person wants – which might just as easily have been sincerely explained. With a less sensitive lover, the situation often merely gets worse.
We also typically see anger in people who are discussing politics. This is normal enough, because politics ultimately is about control, and so is anger, so there is a natural harmony between the two of them. But in politics we see how brittle anger is – how difficult to work with, and how liable it is to defeat its own purposes. Even the victories it achieves often insult and demean the opposition so much that they are sure to persist in their opposition, and try to undo what has been done. And in the simple conversations people have about politics, an angry tone is generally a sign that the conversation cannot go anywhere productive. That’s the time to excuse yourself on grounds of needing to get up early the next day. The only way to save the conversation is to switch there from politics to psychology: “Why are you so angry? What do you wish would happen? What would your ideal solution be?” Sometimes if a person explains himself in this way, he can hear how irrational and petulant he is being with the world – sometimes.
Watching the way people behave, I think it is fair to say that anger is not one of the things the world typically needs more of. But this is not to say it does not have a limited role. People notice anger. Sometimes a person can be taken for granted for years and years and years, building up resentment but never expressing anything, and then suddenly there is an explosion of anger – and suddenly people notice that person as they never had before. Aquinas treats of anger when discussing justice, and in this context, anger can be effective. I remember one time in grade school I was part of a group of kids who were making fun of another kid whose last name was Schnorr. “Hey Phil do you SCHNORR when you sleep?” My father publicly exploded at me, telling me I was “stupid” and “bush league.” “You never,” he said, “make fun of someone’s name. They didn’t give themselves that name.” My father didn’t really get angry at me very much, and almost every time he did it was for a reason like this: it was because I was doing something that he felt was cruel, and hence below me. I’ve never forgotten this rule of his.
Anger, then, to correct injustice may be useful, but again we should be careful, because almost everyone who is angry believes he is being unjustly treated: a child can say “it’s not fair!” to just about anything. But the process of interrogating your anger, and understanding the wish which is causing it, is the first step. Once you have determined what you really desire, it can be discussed with others, and if you involve enough honest people you can probably find out if your desire really is fair or not. But always we can presume that an angry person has some need or other which is not being met. Desire in general is a connective feeling, and even a shared unfulfilled desire can be a bond between people. Sometimes the need may be a need for acknowledged grief – that conversion into tears of which I spoke. Grief is somehow far easier to bear when it is public and acknowledged, and even better when it is truly shared. You understand then that your loss is the world’s loss, and not merely your own; your grief is not merely your own. This is a consolation, as are all the things which bridge our individual boundaries and bind us back to the people around us. Wendell Berry notes that one of the reasons Mark Twain’s successful career was ultimately an embittering journey was that he took all of the deaths of his family around him – his brother, his wife, his daughters – as personal affronts, injustices to him. Nothing embitters us quite so quickly as selfishness. Attachment to a community redeems our grief, in a mysterious way. It becomes part of the pattern. Everyone born in the Nineteenth Century is dead now, just as everyone born before then is dead too. Yet the community goes on: it bears all this, and keeps going. Without this perspective, we remain forever infantile, and unadapted to life in this world. Christians painted crucifixion after crucifixion to hammer home this point: we do not get out alive, we suffer and die and are buried, and the living have to watch it, over and over and over again. Some of us suffer terribly, as God himself suffered, and the woman God chose above all women suffered, watching her son die, “with a sword through her heart,” as the hymns say. Twain might have found this depressing. I think it a necessary realism.
If we do not start this transformation of anger somewhere around the middle of our life, I think there is significant danger that we will head off on the same embittering journey Twain went on – no matter how great our talents or success may be. Ultimately most of our anger as we age is maladaptive – it seems nature did not really plan for our living past thirty-five or so – and we need to learn to manage it. This becomes one of the most loving, caring things we can do for the people around us. Our anger affects them, and our anger is highly prone to error. But if we recognize what we desire, and use that desire in us to connect with other people, we have some chance of putting our anger into its proper place, and making our little corner of the world more peaceful and happy.
The next morning I left Johnny Angel’s house and headed for the river. I went down Carrollton Avenue to Oak, and stopped at the old bank there, which has now been converted into a coffee shop. On line waiting to pick up a few muffins, a young woman turned and asked me, “So where are you headed?”
“Minnesota,” I said flatly. ”I’m biking up the Mississippi River.”
“I could tell it was something cool,” she said. “I saw your bike out there.”
“Wanna come?” Everyone always says no, so I don’t know if it’s worth asking, but it’s fun to ask, I suppose.
“I’m finishing up college,” she said. “Got a month and a half more to go. But once I’m done, we’re all looking to break out and see the continent. You can’t believe it, everyone’s looking to hitch-hike or ride freight trains to get out there.”
“Freight trains? For real?” And then I turned to the scruffy-bearded man behind the counter and said, “Two blueberry muffins, please.”
“That’s like the new thing,” she said. “Young people are going back to it.”
“You know two years ago here in New Orleans I met a fella – maybe eighteen – who had come down to New Orleans on a freight train. I couldn’t believe that stuff still existed.”
“Oh, it totally does. I know all sorts of people who are riding freight trains, and they all end up here, because trains come here from all directions.”
The scruffy-bearded young man said, “That’s three-twenty-four.”
I took some money out and said to her, “Aren’t there guards who beat people up?”
“The bulls. They’re legendary but I don’t think it’s like that anymore. You can’t just beat somebody up anymore, they’ll sue. You can kick riders off but you can’t hurt them.”
“Amazing,” I said to her. “Though I’m not sure that’s the way I would go. I love my bicycle. I like being under my own steam – I’m not dependent on the train’s power and I don’t have to just follow the rails to wherever they go. And you see everything. Just coming up here I had all kinds of experiences that were amazing – just within the first week. On a train I think it’s all just blur America rolling by. On a bike you interact with people – people like you, for instance. I’m John, by the way.”
“I’m Haley,” she said. She looked like the sort of woman who was going to be perennially about to hike across the Himalayas to reach some new age ashram: blond unwashed hair pulled back into a ponytail; a face that was beautiful but slightly hard around the edges – the flow of testosterone in her blood revealed in a strong chin; a small stone set in her left nostril; shorts and flip-flops on her legs and a shirt hanging on her neck by a strap; the shirt was almost backless and made clear what was obvious anyway, that she was not wearing a bra. “Do you have a blog? Are you writing about your trip?”
“Yes,” I said. I wrote it down on a piece of paper and gave it to her. “I think it’s time for me to get on the road. But get out there yourself and have some adventures. It’s amazing.”
“I can’t wait,” she said.
As I walked to my bike I felt a little pang of regret: I hadn’t gotten her number, and while she could find me if she wanted to, I knew that she never would: women never do. I could use a friend like her: adventurous people of either gender were underrepresented among the Latin teachers and responsible contributors to society that I knew. But I remembered a conversation I had with a nineteen-year-old several years ago. This young woman said, when discussing the roundabout pathway a friend of mine was taking, “Well, I guess in the end we all get to where we’re supposed to go.” And the comment struck me with great force: at nineteen perhaps I had thought that. And now, at age thirty-eight, it seemed nearly absurd: to me the oddest, most unusual thing in the world was a person who actually got to where he was supposed to go. It almost never happened: we were all curtailed, deformed, malnourished, astray, and in the end so little of what we could be. And I thought of how sacred and beautiful this faithful innocence of youth was; and how many long years separated me from it. So many years, in fact, that, beautiful as it was, it held little charm for me. My friends were the ones who knew how difficult it was to be what we could be, who realized life was sacred even in its brokenness and imperfection. They weren’t the college kids. The college kids should be allowed to go run around and see the world, without all of our mature gloom and doom. But I wondered what Haley would find out there, riding the rails of the world. Would she find that the rails were safe in the age of legal liability, and that they always brought you where you were supposed to go, or did life have something else in store for her?
But as for me, I was back on my bike, and heading upstream.
Heading back from the Atchafalaya we had to stop to get gas. The gas station at the exit had a big sign which said “TIGER,” which I presumed was just a local filling station’s way of copying Exxon, which used (uses?) a tiger as its mascot. But this was Louisiana, of course, so it had to be more insane than that. ”Oh my God,” Randy said. ”I’ve heard of this place. I never knew it was here.”
At the gas station, in a large cage, was a live tiger. Of course there was. It was Louisiana. The tiger was called “Tony,” and apparently it had been the subject of political controversy: animal rights activists wanted the tiger out of there.
Everywhere there were signs claiming that Tony was happy and loved and so forth. He certainly didn’t look abused – he was fast asleep when I saw him – but of course a cage at a gas station is no place for a Bengal tiger. (Then again, a Manhattan apartment is no place for a kitty-cat either, nor is alone all day in an empty home any way for a dog to live). Tony had apparently become a flashpoint for the “culture wars”: you could get t-shirts that said
ANIMAL RIGHTS ACTIVISTS
taste like chicken
THERE’S A PLACE FOR ALL GOD’S CREATURES
right next to the biscuits and gravy
and so forth. Angry signs told the story:
Animal Rights Organizations Like ALDF, PETA, And HSUS Want To Ascribe Equal Rights To Animals. We Will Lose Property Rights To Own Any Animals. Animal Rights Terrorists Are Anti-Hunting, Anti-Fishing, Anti-Circus, And Anti-Caging. We Will No Longer Be Able To Use Animals For Entertainment, Horse Drawn Buggies, Hunt Or Raise Them For Food, Cage Them, Or For Medical Research. Animal Rights Activists Are Vegetarian And Their Ultimate Goal Is No Meat On Our Plates.
The anger, the sense of victimhood, the demonizing of the other side – all very interesting. For more visit their site.
Heading back to New Orleans from the Atchafalaya I spoke with Randy about the possibility of the Corps opening distributaries from the Mississippi in order to build the coastline back up. The way he spoke had been encouraging. He spoke of the current model – channeling the river so it flows fast and deep straight to the deep water of the Gulf – as being great for navigation (which was what the Corps had been empowered by congressional mandate to engineer the river for) but wasteful of an important natural resource – the sediments carried by the river. “Like I told you, once they get shot into deep water, they’re unrecoverable,” he said. “It’s a waste.”
“So what has the Corps been doing?”
“Well,” he said, looking behind him to merge onto the highway and dropping into high gear, “this is all very new. But we have several sediment distribution pipelines that we’ve been putting into the river, so we can dump the sediments into the swamps and marshes.”
“I saw some coming up, I think. What do they look like?”
“They’re just pipes. You see them coming up over the levee?”
“Precisely. Well, the idea sounds great.”
“Well, there’s been opposition,” he said. “See, here in Louisiana there’s always opposition. There’s so many interests all around the river; some people have homes, some people have businesses, there’s crawfish fishermen, oyster fishermen, shrimp fishermen, and they all want different things. And basically, no one wants it in their back yard. We have another big spillway, which you’ll see as you bike up, the Bonnet Carre spillway, which enters Lake Pontchartrain. People don’t like us using this, because when we dump all those sediments into the lake you get a big algae bloom which kills the fish in the lake. And it’s not very pretty, and people have all their lakeside homes right there.”
Atchafalaya Basinkeeper was an example of this. They were complaining that the Atchafalaya basin was silting up – in other words, it was receiving sediments. This was changing the ecosystem, and in particular turning swamp into bottomland forest. This was bad for the existing forest. But the other options were probably worse. If the river came down the Atchafalaya, it would completely alter the existing ecosystem, flooding out some parts and dumping huge banks of silt and mud elsewhere. And the only way it would not come down the Atchafalaya is if the Corps kept on doing what it was doing: by putting sediment there, it was slowly building up the level of the basin – plugging the hole, so to speak. Lake Pontchartrain was another good candidate for receiving sediment: it was the ocean lapping right at the edge of New Orleans. It was dangerous. “I think Lake Pontchartrain should just get filled in and turned into swamp completely.”
“Right. You can imagine how that would go over with the people who have their houses there. ‘We’re going to take your nice lakeside property and turn it into a mosquito hole.’ It’d be safer for New Orleans, although I’d say that New Orleans really does benefit from having all that navigable water on its north side. There are tradeoffs. There are always tradeoffs.”
“I read about the Corps sediment diversions online, and read that some of the opposition was for environmental reasons: the water is not clean – it contains pesticides and agricultural runoff and pharmaceuticals and all sorts of other things in it, and there was a study done suggesting that diversions from the river will kill the swamp vegetation, making the coast even more vulnerable to being ripped apart by storm surges.”
“Right. That’s possible. And that’s why the Corps projects are small. We’re just running pipelines. It’s nothing like the Atchafalaya. The Atchafalaya is thirty percent of the water.”
“What are the diversion pipelines?”
“Oh, less than one percent. Much less than one percent.”
“Is that going to be able to do anything?”
“Probably not,” he said. “But you have to start small. The Corps has never rebuilt a coastline. That’s never been part of the mission. We don’t have experience doing this. No one really has any experience doing this. So you can’t just rush into it.”
“But isn’t there some kind of urgency on this project? The coast is losing thirty square miles every year.”
“Well, that’s why we’re doing the pipelines, despite the fact that some people say we shouldn’t even be doing that.”
I found myself thinking of the lady at the post office in Pointe a la Hache, who said that it was too late and everything should have been done fifty years ago. Sero sapiunt Phryges, the Trojans are too late wise.
“Are there any thoughts of opening up the old distributaries like Bayou Plaquemines, or building a new spillway for the area south of New Orleans?”
He just shook his head as if in polite condescension to someone who just didn’t understand the world very well. “Those would be big, big projects,” he said. “You have to understand, the Atchafalaya can take all this water because it’s not developed. Look around here, there’s no one here. But everywhere lower on the Mississippi, shit John you saw it as you came up, there’s houses and people and businesses all along that river. Big distributary projects would expose thousands of being to being flooded out. Projects like that are going to require a huge mandate, which we don’t have. People don’t want the Corps or the government in general making decisions as to who is going to get flooded.”
“But the coast probably does need to get flooded in order to survive.”
He looked at me and laughed. “That’s the problem. You see, it’s like I’ve been telling you, the Corps is subject to our political system. If we don’t have a mandate we’re not going to do it. The only reason we can flood Morgan City if we need to is we had a mandate to keep the Mississippi River where it was. But sediment distribution is going to be a much harder sell.”
The problem, in short, was this: we had taken over nature’s management of the river, and replaced it with our political system. This actually functioned reasonably well – I am not a pessimist in these matters – but it functioned slowly and typically lurched forward in reaction to disasters. There was, in fact, demand for rebuilding the coastline. And I think there were potential candidates for locations for replacing the levees with dams that could be opened to flood the swamps. At West Pointe a la Hache, for instance, there is a clear channel from the river to the swamp without towns or businesses; and both north and south of Pointe a la Hache on the eastbank there were several possible locations. These would be big projects, but they would be necessary. In the end, the only way forward was a more accurate imitation of nature’s system of distributaries throughout the delta. But in the meantime, it looked like the coast erosion was going to get very bad.
“One percent isn’t going to do very much, is it?” I asked. “The coastline was maintained by getting one hundred percent of the river-water in the past.”
“No, it’s probably not.”
Two, three, or five percent isn’t going to do very much either, is it?”
I think most people whose love of nature is undimmed by mechanized life fantasize about the swamp: paddling a boat beneath a dense canopy of trees; being watched by motionless reptiles and cunning panthers; feeling the thud of living motion against the hull of your boat and wondering what it is; seeing strange blooms deep in the darkness and eyes at the edge of the campfire’s light. The swamp is primal and archetypal and hence godlike, containing its opposite; it is the generator and nourisher of life, but because it is so difficult for land animals to cross and so labyrinthinely featureless in its arrangement, it speaks to us of the danger that life always poses to life.
We were now in such a place, ducking in the high water to get beneath the buttonbushes and swamp-privets that clogged the boatways, entering dark passageways beside smooth-boled cypress and tupelos. Cottonmouths darted across our paths, intent on their course; alligators peered at us from inaccessible corners of the swamp.
But my restless mind does not stay mystical for long in an obviously distressed forest, as this was. Within minutes with the help of my guide I had learned the three tree species that were there – and in the standing water there were only three: bald cypress (Taxodium distichum – by far the dominant species), swamp tupelo, and water locust. But none of these species were regenerating. The absence of young cypress was particularly striking.
“Why aren’t they regenerating?”
“The water’s too high,” was the response. “When the Mississippi flooded naturally, any one spot might flood only once every few years. Now the Atchafalaya gets water from the Mississippi every year. The young cypresses have to have a few years of low water to get established. That way they can get above the water level. They can’t get completely covered by the floodwaters for months at a time. It kills them.”
This was part of the contradiction of the area. The Atchafalaya was one of the last great cypress swamps left. But it was a fossil ecosystem: cypresses grow slowly and can live for thousands of years, and the ones growing here were relatively old (though not terribly large). But the swamp was becoming a river – a river a third as big as the Mississippi, in fact. This would not be a problem if swamps were forming elsewhere. But they weren’t. In fact, existing swamps elsewhere on the coast were increasingly falling victim to the influx of seawater, and none of the swamp species could stand salt water. The water and sediments the swamps needed were almost all in two places: in the Mississippi, where they were channeled behind levees and shot into deep water into the Gulf, where they never became part of any freshwater ecosystem, and in the Atchafalaya.
The fact that the swamp could only take a few floods per decade was indicative of the basic problem with nature: its terribly complexity, a complexity far greater than human thought, which is simple. As soon as we interrupt a natural system, we take upon ourselves the task of mimicking this complexity. We don’t typically have the patience for this kind of activity. The Atchafalaya could only reasonably serve as a floodway for the Mississippi if three or four other Atchafalayas were created, which could receive water in other years. Of course, cutting twenty-mile swaths of floodland through privately owned property would not be easy. But the Atchafalaya, big as it was, would not be able to function alone.
There was also about the place a kind of lifelessness, which I was surprised by. It was quiet – few birds, few insects, and we saw few animals. Accepting the fact that this was an unusual time – the water was very high and we did not visit a hummock where the animals might gather in the high-water – there is also simply the fact that this is a highly disturbed ecosystem. “The most important plants here are the old cypress,” Ryan (our guide) said. “That’s because they develop holes and cavities. The wood is extremely rot-resistant, so even with holes in them the trees can last for a long time. Since the birds and mammals can’t live on the ground or in the water, they need big, old trees.”
“And they’re all gone,” I said.
“They’re not all gone, but they’re mostly gone. I’ll show you one, there’s one in this way.” He turned the boat and we came up within a minute or two to a six-foot-diameter tree. “See this one here? The whole swamp was full of trees like this – and a lot bigger ones, too. There’s only one reason why this tree was left.” We circled around it and could see – it was hollow. “There was no wood inside it. It’s just a shell. Now, it’s important – trees like this are perfect habitat – but look around. There are just a few of these trees around here. I can basically take you to each one, it’s like you get to know them individually. But the swamp used to be filled with these.”
“How old is this tree?”
“You can’t take a coring of a hollow tree, but based on the way these grow, it’s probably over a thousand years old.”
“They grow slowly.”
“They grow really slowly.”
“Even though we’re in the subtropics.”
“You can tell they grow slowly from the logging industry. That’s one of the things we’re fighting against. Basically, these trees grow so slowly, and are so important, that we think they should be protected. But most of this land is private land. You can log in most of the basin and people do. But the trees grow so slowly that now most of it is either mining the cypress – that’s when they find old trees under the water, and they don’t rot, so you can pull them out and still use them – or they cut the trees down when they’re small and use them for mulch. It would take too long even to wait for them to become lumberable trees.”
“I read that your father had put pressure on Lowe’s and Home Depot and got them to stop selling cypress mulch from Louisiana.”
“Yeah, that was one of the things we did here at Basinkeeper. But we just found out there’s an operation going on in Baton Rouge where they’re chipping up the young cypress and shipping them to Europe. Europe has some new regulations coming into effect about generating a certain percentage of their electricity from sustainable sources, so they’re switching from coal to burning wood chips at some of their plants. And they can get cheap woodchips from the Atchafalaya. Cypress woodchips.”
Basinkeeper was apparently trying to put pressure on the Louisiana government, but that was an uphill battle to say the least, despite the fact that the coastal wetlands are demonstrably the only truly effective hurricane protection for Louisiana’s biggest city. Louisiana was asking for federal money to rebuild its wetlands but did not want to tell private landholders what they could do with their land – the thinking being that if they wanted to make woodchips out of the wetlands they could go ahead and do it. It’s a free country.
The more time I spent with the cypresses, the more I was amazed. Their needles resemble the needles of sequoias, and they are, in fact, related. Living in hurricane country, the cypresses could never get as tall as the sequoias, but I suspect that the cypress forests that greeted Bienville and the other first Frenchmen here were as grand as the forests of the Sierras. The sequoias were preserved while the cypresses perished simply because it was so much more practical to kill the cypresses: while the sequoias fell and shattered and then had to be lugged down dry mountainsides, the cypresses plopped softly into the water and could be floated on out almost without effort to the Big Easy, which, it is no exaggeration to say, is a city of cypress.
Inveni urbem taxodinam, taxodinam reliqui.
Cypress is the reason why New Orleans is so beautiful today: all the filigree on all the houses is cypress, and even if left unpainted and neglected for decades the stuff does not rot. It is mealy-grained and odd-colored and was never used by the wealthy for finer purposes, and so the endless abundance of the swamps was used not for furniture but for building, and building anything and everything: bridges and mansions and fences and slave-quarters and shotgun-shacks and cheap mass-produced filigree, all of which gives New Orleans the appearance of being the most meticulous city in America for preservation, when in reality it is just lucky to have been surrounded by a whole hell of a lot of cypress.
Six hundred years will not be enough to grow those forests back, and it is still not clear where they would even have a chance to grow right now. Regeneration on the Atchafalaya, the country’s largest stand of bald cypress, is currently stalled.
“You can see here, when all the trees are gone, a lot of times what comes in is willow,” our guide said, “and that creates a totally different type of ecosystem.” The willow – I could not identify it to species, but it may be an exotic invader – grows like an overgrown bush, only twenty to thirty feet tall, fast-growing, fast-dying, and not creating the kind of deep shade and old-growth forest habitat the cypress and tupelo do.
The tupelos impressed me too. They do not, at first glance, look like the tupelos of the Catskills: they get extremely fat butts when growing in water, and as flowering, berrying trees they are a crucial food source for pollinators and birds in the swamp.
We saw few other plants in the swamp, which disappointed me, but the ground was so flooded there were little forbs to be seen. There was much buttonbush and swamp-privet, and on slightly higher ground much of the palustrine senecio native to the area. But there were not too many flowers.
“You want some flowers?” Ryan asked. “Take a look at this.” He reached over a plucked some Spanish moss from a tree. “It’s flowering now.”
And there, amidst the gray links of the moss – which is not a moss but a flowering plant – was a little orange flower. I was amazed – I had seen these everywhere and never stopped to notice their flowers. I loved them as I love all the small, unnoticed beauties of life.
But coming back from the tour I was pensive and even melancholy. There are times when I wish I had some other brain, that considered and imagined and appreciated less; or that would only appreciate what was there, and not look in the forest for the young trees to check its health, or ask why so many trees were the same age and suspect that the whole place had been logged at some point. I could feel how beautiful the swamp had once been; I could imagine what an uninterrupted forest of old-growth cypress would be like – a place to make the worshipper in all of us stand dumb with awe. And we had destroyed it.
Randy and I had contacted Dean Wilson, the legendary founder of the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, to arrange a tour of the area. Wilson is a member of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, the Louisiana environmentalists. Conditions in Louisiana do not tend to generate environmentalists. Not only is the state, which is one of the reddest of all red states, fundamentally committed to extraction industries, but the tropical abundance creates a sense of infinite permissibility for infinite abuse. Things grow back; animals return; the whole thing seems inexhaustible. I had expected to find a dead zone out in the Gulf and instead I found porpoises and pelicans and pogiefish; this was a place you could abuse and abuse and abuse and still find living and willing later.
Or so it appears on the outside. What I saw in the Atchafalaya gave me a sense of the tremendous problems southern Louisiana faces after centuries of environmental indifference.
The positives, however, cannot be overlooked. The Atchafalaya is in many ways an example of what could be. It is enclosed by levees, but whereas the Mississippi levees begin at river’s edge and limit the river’s width to something under two miles, the Atchafalaya is twenty miles wide, a wonderland of swamp in its upper reaches and marsh by the coast, filled with fish and birds and raccoons and alligators, and even bears and panthers. It is the single most significant wild area at the base of the Mississippi Flyway, one of the continent’s great corridors for migratory birds; because it receives a substantial percentage of the Mississippi’s water, it is almost the only wetland area in southern Louisiana whose existence is not fundamentally threatened. In fact, it is growing: the swamps are silting up, marsh is becoming swamp, and open water by the Gulf is becoming marsh.
But this growth is, in itself, something of a problem. Thirty percent of the Mississippi’s water, even spread out over twenty miles, is an incredible amount of water and sediment. The existing ecosystems are shifting rapidly. Swamps are forests whereas marshlands are grass, but it takes decades for forests to pioneer new territory. The Atchafalaya is hence gaining soil depth but losing forest cover, not least because of the fact that most of its land is in private hands and is logged.
Randy and I drove through Morgan City on our way, one of the chief cities of the Cajuns. It is the home of the Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival – an event which seems to sum up the contradictions of this part of the world fairly well. An image of a shrimp wrapped around an oil rig greeted us as we drove into town.
“Morgan City has a kind of strange relationship with the Corps,” Randy said. “It’s a city of about ten thousand people. New Orleans, including the metro area, is over a million. Part of our official protocol in dealing with a major flood on the Mississippi is that we will open up the Morganza Spillway, which is one of the structures connecting the Mississippi and Atchafalaya. In essence, if things get too hot for New Orleans, official policy is that we’ll just send the water to Morgan City. Morgan City is right in the middle of the Atchafalaya – on an island right at the mouth of the river. And its levees are nowhere near as high as those in New Orleans. And in particular the levees facing the Atchafalaya are pretty weak. We opened the Morganza Spillway in 2011, and the Atchafalaya was able to handle the water, but still it was touch and go. If we had more water come down when we opened it that would have been the end of Morgan City. And of course if the Old River Control Structures keeping the Mississippi from the Atchafalaya ever fail, Morgan City will get completely destroyed for sure.”
“On the other hand,” I said, “if the Old River Control Structure weren’t there, Morgan City would be gone already.”
“For sure. We almost lost control of the river in the flood in 1973 – the Old River Control Structure very nearly failed and collapsed. If that had happened, we’d be floating in the middle of the Mississippi right now.”
McPhee writes about that event – he says that a camera was put down into the water by the dam to inspect the foundations under the water. All the camera saw was fish. The foundations were almost completely gone. The Corps poured everything it had into the breach to save it for the time being, and then build a new structure.
We came into Bayou Sorrel, where we were meeting Dean Wilson’s son. We met at a little convenience store, where I stopped in to use the bathroom. In the bathroom two pairs of white rubber boots – Coonass Reeboks – hung on a rack. Over the toilet was a sign: DO NOT THROW TAMPONS, PAPER TOWELS, OR TOILET PAPER IN TOILET PLEASE PUT IN TRASH CAN!!! Someone wrote over this: “What about a Pigeonite without his white rubber boots and a 12pk of Natural Light under his arm?” A Pigeonite is a Cajun from nearby Bayou Pigeon. None of the Cajuns are known for their good taste in beer.
Behind the counter was a pretty young brunette, who looked like she could dance the fastest zydeco numbers around; the liveliness of these people is always amazing to me, sweltering in their tropical heat.
The young Mr. Wilson was in place. He was dark-haired and wiry, a bit more angular than the average Cajun, and still in college, studying ecology and environmental science . Like so many in Louisiana he did not seem to have any problems about following in his father’s footsteps: he was proud to be doing what his father did, though he acknowledged he had a ways to go before he could equal his father’s knowledge. ”I’m sorry he couldn’t take you out himself. He really knows the stuff like you can’t believe. But I’ll do my best.”
He led us over to the boat launch where we boarded a little pirogue, he fired it up and off we went. At first we followed one of the main channels of the Atchafalaya, whose water was high – springtime – and with a good current. This channel is part of the intracoastal waterway, an inland water route allowing boats to move up and down the coast without ever entering open ocean. Boats heading west come up the Mississippi and then come through a canal to the Atchafalaya. We saw typical river traffic here, including a large number of barges. We then pulled off the main channel and plunged into the swamp.
As a person who thinks about things as opposed to just doing them, I generally understand human catastrophes. Human catastrophes are typically the result of thought – the result of some kind of understanding of the world. Any understanding of the world is necessarily limited, and when people act enough on such limited apprehensions, catastrophes are a common result.
Not that long ago, the Mississippi River was thought of as the source of the water for southern Louisiana. And it is. And since southern Louisiana is prone to flooding – flooding being an excess of water – the thought was that flooding could be controlled by controlling the river. I understand systems of thought like this perfectly well, and I understand how people fall right into them. The Mississippi is now tightly behind levees, which have not been breached since 1927. And yet if you look at a map comparing the Louisiana coastline of 1927 with that of today, you see that the entire southern part of the state is falling into a permanent state of flood – vanishing bit by bit into the ocean. The total loss is around 30 square miles every year – an area larger than Manhattan island getting bitten off from the coastline every year.
This was not happening until the river was effectively encased behind levees. So what happened? The problem, as so often, lies in the basic premise. Stand on the bank of the river and watch the river flow by: it is easy to apprehend that the Mississippi is the source of the area’s water. It is less easy to apprehend that the Mississippi is also the source of the area’s land. When the river does not flood the land – and it is currently not allowed to – it drops no sediments on it. Over time the goopy land compacts and subsides, and the ocean eats away at it, and there is less and less land every year. Lower Louisiana is getting flooded by the sea because we do not allow the Mississippi to flood it anymore.
Human beings have lived with floods for thousands of years, but someone apprehended that they were inconvenient at best and extremely dangerous at worst, and now not even in Egypt are rivers allowed their normal cycles of flood and dryness when people can help it. But it is now recognized that the people of the true Mississippi Delta – i.e. the land south of Baton Rouge, not the area between Vicksburg and the Peabody Hotel – will have to find some way to restore or artificially mimic the ancient floods of the river in order to have a land at all.
Going about this will be exceptionally difficult. We are talking about an area comprising thousands of square miles, which cannot survive as land without being periodically flooded – an area, moreover, which is thickly populated now and is also home to “the American Ruhr” or “Cancer Alley,” several hundred miles of chemical plants, oil refineries, grain elevators, coal transfer facilities, and all the other dirty businesses that can use the Mississippi’s ample water and ocean access. None of these homes or businesses are built to be flooded. The political problems involved in flooding out people’s land – and it is almost all privately owned – are almost infinite. Nor can sediments possibly be trucked in in sufficient supply to make any difference to the coastline. Only the river can possibly provide what the area needs in order to remain land. But the river is hemmed in, and kept there – by act of the U.S. Congress, and its enforcers, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
So I decided to take a trip out to the Atchafalaya Basin with Randy Perrin, an engineer for the Corps, who happens to be one of my friends from my days in New Orleans. The Atchafalaya – a river running to the west of the Mississippi, reaching the sea right in the middle of the Louisiana coast – was a quiet, natural area, a perfect backdrop for conversation, first of all, but also more than that. The Atchafalaya is a comparatively healthy river ecosystem. In fact, it is one of the few areas on the Louisiana coastline which is growing – land is being added, because the Atchafalaya still floods relatively normally.
But it also represents the single greatest engineering problem on the Mississippi river, a problem so brilliantly and thoroughly dissected by John McPhee in his 1987 essay “Atchafalaya” that no one has bothered to talk about the problem much since. When people think about the problems of New Orleans, they think of Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures on the Industrial Canal, Lake Pontchartrain, and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. But those are small problems compared with the danger the Atchafalaya poses. Storm surges recede. But the Atchafalaya has the potential to destroy New Orleans entirely by severing its connection to the river.
The Atchafalaya is, by itself, a tiny river, draining part of Louisiana. But several hundred years ago, the Mississippi eroded a bend for itself which touched the Atchafalaya. At the point of contact, the rivers were at the same level, but the Atchafalaya reached the sea in half the distance the Mississippi did. Do the math: that means its slope is twice as steep. In times of flood, when the Mississippi was high, the differential was even greater. Slowly but surely, the Atchafalaya started to capture the Mississippi, each year taking more and more water. By 1950, the Atchafalaya had captured one-third of the water of the Mississippi and the process was accelerating. It was headed for complete capture: a new river, the Mississifalaya.
This would be a complete disaster for all the river towns south of Baton Rouge, and primarily New Orleans. The riverbed at New Orleans is 180 feet deep, and the only thing keeping the ocean from rushing in and turning the riverbed into a sluggish brackish estuary is the constant pressure of the water coming downstream. Without fresh water in the river, the city would lose its water supply, and without flow, its sewage system. Cancer Alley would suffer the same fate – without access to the garden hose known as the Mississippi none of the old factories and refineries would be able to function. They would be abandoned within years.
The Army Corps of Engineers stepped into the gap, building a series of massive dams between the Mississippi and Atchafalaya, and stabilizing the Atchafalaya’s flow at thirty percent of the Mississippi. The result has become the Corps’ first experiment in distributing Mississippi water into other outlets, and an example of how the coastline could be rebuilt by using the river. In that way it has been a success. But the same basic problem remains: the river wants to abandon New Orleans, and it seems to be merely waiting for its opportunity. “The Mississippi River,” as McPhee observes,
with its sand and silt, has created most of Louisiana, and it could not have done so by remaining in one channel. If it had, southern Louisiana would be a long narrow peninsula reaching into the Gulf of Mexico. Southern Louisiana exists in its present form because the Mississippi River has jumped here and there within an arc about two hundred miles wide, like a pianist playing with one hand—frequently and radically changing course, surging over the left or the right bank to go off in utterly new directions. Always it is the river’s purpose to get to the Gulf by the shortest and steepest gradient. As the mouth advances southward and the river lengthens, the gradient declines, the current slows, and sediment builds up the bed. Eventually, it builds up so much that the river spills to one side.
A glance at the map shows the extent of the problem. The Mississippi has, in fact, become a long narrow peninsula reaching into the Gulf of Mexico – I had biked and seen precisely that, with open water on both sides – while nearer parts of the Louisiana coastline are nutrient-starved lowlands just waiting to capture the river. The most obvious spot is West Cote Blanch Bay, the northernmost intrusion of open Gulf water on the coast. If you were charged with distributing sediments along the Louisiana coast, this would be the place you’d start – it looks like the hungriest spot. It is also almost precisely the mouth of the Atchafalaya. Nature was working perfectly. But man had changed nature’s workings – or perhaps just postponed them.
Whether or not this project of attempting to make the Mississippi do something it had never done before – stay in one channel – would work is a question which we can leave until I got a look at the dams I found upriver, the Old River Control Structures where the Mississippi and Atchafalaya touch. As Randy Perrin said, “If you’re asking me if we can prevent the Mississippi from going down the Atchafalaya, I’ll say of course we can. Until we can’t. It really is just a question of mathematics. If you have a big enough mountain, the river will take a long time to get through it. If you have people to maintain that mountain, the river will never get through it. Unless there’s something you can’t predict. Something that’s not in anybody’s equation. And generally, something you can’t predict happens eventually.”
But it might be possible that the big dam holding the Mississippi off from the Atchafalaya might be too successful – here was something which did not enter the equation at all. The Mississippi was being held off from the entire Gulf coast, and its sediments were being routed out to sea and shot into deep water. The result was the collapse of the coastline. This made the entire area susceptible to storm surge – a process which would work gradually, but eventually eat the whole coast away if some solution were not found.
And the Corps was now looking into solutions. “Basically the buzzwords now around the Corps are sediments, nutrients, capturing sediments,” Randy told me as we drove away from Johnny Angel’s house. “We’re looking at that as a resource that we’re supposed to conserve. Right now, we’re shooting all those sediments into the Gulf. They can never be recovered there. They’ll be lost. We’re seeing that as a problem now.”
“Why wasn’t that seen as a problem before?”
“Well, you have to understand the way the Corps works. The Corps really was never here to manage the river in some holistic sense. The Corps has very specific mandates from Congress. First it was navigation – the Corps was involved with improving navigation on U.S. waterways. You can see that making sense from a military standpoint, the same way roads are a military concern. Then it was flood control. Really it was the Great Flood of 1927 that got the Corps involved in flood control and the levees. Basically, they saw that state agencies were not reliable during a big flood, because one state would fight against another state trying to get the river to flood somebody else’s land. There had to be someone impartial – or at least less partial – involved. If you want to read about there’s a great book, called, Rising Tide, about how the Corps started really paying attention to the river after that flood. That flood was a disaster, and it was clear that something had to change.”
And the Corps had, in fact, changed things. In 2011, the Mississippi River had the greatest flood it has ever had, and yet you have probably never heard of it. The river was carrying twenty-five percent more water than the 1927 flood, and yet very little damage was done. The Corps had managed the situation brilliantly – including making politically difficult decisions to blow levees. This had been done in Missouri and Arkansas, in sparsely settled farmland. Those farmers, of course, did not like the situation, but the needs of the many had outweighed the needs of the few.
“So anyway, that was what the Corps did, navigation and flood control on rivers. Shipping and the economy. That was our mandate from Congress. We didn’t really do anything else. So people who complain about building up the coastline, that wasn’t part of the mandate. If it was part of the mandate we would have a program. But that has to come from Congress. So the environment has always been something of an afterthought for the Corps. And hey, you can blame Congress for that. But in recent years the Congress has given us a new mandate to also do projects for environmental restoration.”
And the fundamental environmental restoration work that had to go on was restoring the relationship of the river to the wetlands around it – a relationship where the river nourishes the whole coast. And so we were headed for the Atchafalaya, to take a look at the one part of the Louisiana coastal wetland that was growing. The Atchafalaya had been seen as a problem: it might just be the solution.
Looking over John McPhee’s masterful essay Atchafalaya – which if you’ve never read you should just go and do – I am struck by the improvements made by our computers’ optical-recognition software. Presumably the New Yorker will fix this at some point, so we must enjoy these nuggets while we can:
Very early in the morning, a low fog had covered the fields. The sun, just above the horizon, was large and ruddy in the mist, rising slowly, like a hot-air baboon.
McPhee is fabulous, but no one is expecting him to have been great enough to come up with “rising slowly, like a hot-air baboon” without electronic assistance.