Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Big Muddy: A meditation on The Mississippi River

The Mississippi River is cresting its banks again. I say again because this has been a natural occurrence since the pre-historic ages. While there are no specific oral histories relating flooding and my ancestors, it can be imagined that since they farmed the land near the banks of the river on the Missouri side for generations, they were at one time or another severely affected.

If you're a reader of this blog, you know that the majority of my ancestors on my father's side settled and thrived in Pemiscot County, Missouri, a thin strip of land between the River and the state of Arkansas. Shortly after a significant flood in 1849 and 1850, Pemiscot County was formed officially in 1851, and was named the Native American word for "liquid mud." A fertile land for growing cotton and vegetables to be sure, but also one at the mercy of a beastly and unpredictable great river.

My father and his mother were born in this county. Great-grandfather Emory Brooks, great-great-grandfathers Charles Anthony Patrick, Mexico Cole, James Franklin Brooks, and great-great-great-grandfather Midget Brooks farmed this land until they died. And the generations of grandmothers Ollie Jordan, Susie Jane Patrick, Juliette Chilcutt, Nancy Melinda Cole, and Sarah Richardson, who kept houses going, and the houses of others when circumstances called for it, who cared for churches, and sick community members, and tended the graves of their early-dead husbands and children. All the lives lived here because the river made it possible to thrive on the land. A river gives but it also takes away.

If you live in this part of the country, as I do, only a little over a hundred miles from Pemiscot, you know that a flood of historic proportions is imminent. From what  research I've done, it appears that the River floods in various areas, upper or lower, about every 10-30 years, the last great and devastating flood of the lower banks was in 1927 and 37. Below is a short film of the flood of '37 as it affected Cairo, Illinois--famous frontier town, one in which Mark Twain spent much time, and which is just north and acrossriver from Pemiscot:

Pemiscot is located entirely within the 100-year flood plain, which means that every 100 years or so, the county should expect to be completely inundated with river water. A dangerous gamble, to enjoy the fertile land, but to also live at its mercy. With the decline in farming, and perhaps with the growing threat of flood, the population of Pemiscot has spilled from the county's borders steadily in the last 30 years. If I do still have family here, they are very distant.

Modern-day residents are preparing for the flood as I write this, bagging sand, building walls, leaving their homes behind. Animal rescues are happening, but imagine all those beyond help already. In the Daily Dunklin Democrat, there are reports of abandoned dogs now roaming in packs, cresting levees, looking for higher ground. As the water rises higher, it follows, close on their heels.

A commendable, though some may say futile, effort is being made on both sides of the river, in several states, to quiet it--to hold it back, though its mind is set on spilling over. And when it does spill over into the land my ancestors worked and loved, there's nothing to hope for, except that their bones and crumbling grave markers stay put. Or that maybe the old homes, now in the care of strangers, will keep their foundations. Funny how futile and fertile are such similar words.

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