In 1798, it must have seemed like an enterprising plan: on a patch of land just across from where the Ohio River joins the Mississippi, Abram Bird cleared the woods and set up a warehouse. He planned to sell supplies to the flatboatmen drifting to New Orleans.
But this water doesn’t cooperate with just any dream. This land was too muddy, too swampy, too flood-prone. (Later, rail travelers would carry guns through the area so they could shoot the snakes for sport.) Two hundred years later, it looks much the same. As we drifted ashore last night -- after 80 miles of paddling in two days -- we found a narrow strip of mud, backed by a slough of brown water. Beyond that, a stand of dead willows. Killed by some flood, of course, with driftwood scattered ankle-deep across the muck.
It’s an appropriate welcome, I think, to the Lower Mississippi, which officially begins here, at this coming-together of the waters. Everything about the evening felt like coming home to the swamps: the weather grew steamy, the mosquitoes arrived; we even at catfish for supper. We are holed up here on Birds Point -- on a second, much sandier, and much more pleasant campsite, I should add -- for two nights, waiting out the southern winds.
The great levees of the Lower Mississippi begin just a few miles upstream, and stretch nearly unbroken until past New Orleans. It's one of the most massive engineering projects ever undertaken by humankind. (Depending on your point of view, you might also call it one of the bravest -- or one of the most foolhardy -- too; we have pit ourselves in a neverending battle with nature, which in the end we are sure to lose.)
After we made camp, I hiked through the batture to find the levee. I consider Birds Point an important site, for behind it lies the first planned floodway we’ll pass as we travel down the Lower Mississippi -- a kind of release valve for the river, created after the disaster of 1927, once we learned that sometimes the river needs room to run. It’s been used only twice, in 1937 and 2011, both times over the strong objection of local farmers, who have their crops and even their homes inside the floodway. For over 50 years, there has been a battle over a small gap at the bottom of the floodway, 60 miles downstream. Should it be plugged, so that the land can be farmed? Should it be open, so that wildlife can thrive? Though little remarked upon, the debate rests on essential questions: what is our relationship to land, and to nature? Should we take dominion, and be productive, or find a way to coexist? (On his last day in office, President Obama gave his answer: he submitted an executive order, halting any work on closing the gap. Surely our new president will have his own say.)
I’ve hiked in the batture many times, but I almost always arrive from the levee side: climb up that slope of green, and then slip down the other side, into the woods. So it was strange yesterday to do that walk in reverse. I followed a game trail through the last stand of forest, and then walked up the levee to see the endless expanse of farms on the other side. Many people might consider this the middle of nowhere; but after 10 days in the wilderness, you start to see a farm for what it is: the starting point of all civilization. After 10 days of sweat and no showers, I stepped back into a different world. Which one is the real world? I'm not sure. But I know that there atop the levee it felt like an entirely different day, brighter, sunnier, with purple flowers -- weeds, I should note -- blooming in the fallow fields, and new saplings blowing in the breeze.
I stood there for a moment, and then turned back and walked down the levee, back into the walled-in wild. I was surprised by the thought that stuck with me: that farm was quite beautiful. Anyone would think so. The control of nature makes our lives possible.
As I returned to the river, the smell of mud came first -- refreshing in its own way -- and then, at the bank, a cool breeze off the water. Our catfish supper was baking in the Dutch oven, and soon enough was served with fried potatoes and fire-roasted corn on the cob. We ate in a nook of trees, watching the sunset blaze across the water. Here Abram Bird failed to control nature -- and that has made beauty, too.
Update: I said above that the willows here on Birds Point were dead, killed by a flood. But as I sat and watched the storm roll in, I saw buds on the treetops, newly sprouting since yesterday afternoon. Welcome to life, and to springtime -- and welcome to the Lower Miss!