It's been a windy week: I woke at 2:30 on Monday morning to the roof of my tents sagging downward in 40 mile-an-hour winds. When the skies calmed, we paddled to Caruthersville. And when sunshine finally came that afternoon, and we ventured out again, we battled the rapids -- which sucked us at one point beneath an overhanging branch, requiring me to duck and paddle at once -- until we were forced to make emergency landing. We could go no further in this wind.
So we camped beneath the Caruthersville Bridge -- an interstate highway roaring over our heads. In other circumstances this might have struck me as dingy, even dangerous, but not that night. I was tired enough that the rush of traffic above us was little more than white noise for our sleep. And I've now spent long enough on this river to know that its banks -- in practice at least -- belong to anyone and everyone. They can be owned, yes, but the public has a right to use them; that right has been upheld time and again by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Though -- as we found under the bridge -- that right is rarely needed. The riverbanks are invisible to the world, forgotten. No one will find you here.
That's why this river has always been a refuge. It resists any attempt to conquer the land, and turn it to farms. And so in the plantation era, runaway slaves would flock here -- sometimes living in villages they built, accessible only by wading through water, and selling the fish and game they caught, and the wood they collected. Through the earliest twentieth-century, moonshiners operated on its islands, just beyond the easy reach of the law.
When we floated through St. Louis, we saw the evidence of the modern inheritors of this refuge: a tent, hidden away beneath a public landing, visible only to passing watercraft. Perhaps its owner took refuge there because he or she could not find a home anywhere else, but I know of plenty of people who live on that margin through conscious choice.
That navigable rivers are public property is credited, by some legal thinkers, to ancient animist beliefs: in the early cultures where common law was born, flowing water was holy; rivers could not be owned. So the public right to rivers is a strange remnant of ancient faith. (Of course, if we followed the values of many cultures -- including some tribes who used to live along these rivers -- we could declare that the land, too, could not be owned.)
And this month, we're seeing such ancient faiths assert themselves: just before the expedition launched, three world rivers were granted the same legal rights as humans. These rivers are no longer objects to be managed. They are beings to be kept alive.
Which brings me back to the wind: it is blowing, still, and so -- after a long, 63-mile paddle yesterday -- we are grounded, probably for two nights, on Deans Island, maybe 20 miles short of Memphis. The trees are creaking above me, as the wind gusts to 50 miles an hour. There will be no paddling today. It's silly to think it, since the barges are still out there, pushing their commerce past, but it feels like the river asserting itself, reminding of its own nature, letting us know it's alive.