Will the river remember
the land we lost?
A fragment from the project Before I Knew You for HKW's Mississippi: An Anthropocene River.
Before I knew her,1.
the Mississippi River was a magnificent existent—“a strong brown god.”1 As she saunters from her headwaters in in the body of land we call Minnesota to her mouth in the body of water we call the Gulf of Mexico, she gathers strength, growing in magnitude, swelling with the pride of water and sediment. But in her travels she is assaulted with petrochemical waste—fertilizers, plastics, oil. Men “straighten and shackle” her avulsive curves, as the Army Corps of Engineers once boasted, by engineered impediments. By the time she reaches New Orleans, my homeland, she is enraged. Prevented by levees from feeding fresh sediment to her wetlands, she instead spews forth a 7,000 square-mile hypoxic Dead Zone of the Gulf.
In September 2019, I traveled along the River’s headwaters in Minnesota—the only portion of her length that is protected as a national park—via a 24-foot voyager canoe. This part of the River’s body exists prior to the Petrochemical Corridor, which stretches through Louisiana. There, peoples and their governments are planning the removal of locks and dams. It felt as though I journied through the Mississippi’s origins, which were slowly winking into existence as potential futures as US society slowly reckoned with its violent occupation of this land. It felt as though I were encountering a River I’ve never had the honor to meet, though she is the same River I’ve always known, the same River that gave birth to my people and my place.
In January 2020, I traveled along the River’s mouth in Louisiana via a three-passenger plane. The Birdsfoot Delta reaches into the Gulf like the starved foot of a bird of prey, reaching for fish that have long since died off. The River carried alluvial sediment to build this Delta over the centuries, and then more rapidly over the past three centuries, as enslaved Africans dispossessed of their homelands were forced to displace land to carve a corset of riverside Plantations. Yet over the past century, a network of 10,000 miles of oil and gas access canals have cause this land, along with its settler-colonial names, to disintegrate into the sea.
Displacement of people prefigures the displacement of sediment prefigures the displacement of people...
Will the River remember the land that we lost?
I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god - sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier,
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce,
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers of cities - ever, however, implacable,
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget.
– T.S. Eliot, “Dry Salvages,” Four Quartets, 1941.