A Moment Along the Mississippi River
by Paul Van Slambrouck, Jun 27, 2011
You get arrogant on the coasts. Having lived on the west, east and Gulf coasts, I know that superior attitude that believes "sea to shining sea" sums up America's essential beauty.
I stand corrected.
For the past six months I have lived within walking distance of the bluffs of the Mississippi River. Each morning, I walk my dog to those bluffs and gaze down at the big river, sometimes placid, often muddy, recently churning up white caps, and always, always moving.
There are frequently large branches and pieces of timber gliding past. They look half-submerged - like big brown alligators, giving the river a certain subtle menace. This morning a lone tug pushed an impossibly long barge of some type of raw material, upstream, against a powerful current.
On the radio I heard that the river had reached its highest mark since the 1920s. Homes were swallowed near Vicksburg, Mississippi. I was there a year ago for a wedding and recently just happened to be watching a segment of Ken Burn's Civil War documentary, an episode focused on the key battle, or siege, of Vicksburg. As I stood on the bluff here in Illinois, I realized Cajuns were abandoning their homes because of what the river below me was sending their way.
For six months, I had looked at the river as a natural artifact. Today, it came to life - almost as if its undercurrents had pushed up through its banks leaving me with a sense of vertigo.
There was a little light-headedness and it was not solely at the power of what I was seeing, but also as if I'd been asleep and had just awakened. Am I so out of touch with nature, I thought, that it took this long for the power of this natural wonder to hit me?
Perhaps there's another factor. Powerful as it is, the Mississippi River doesn't come at you like the waves on a beach. It glides past you. You are in its peripheral vision. Your significance, you sense, is small. And maybe it takes longer to grasp its extraordinariness, as it moves with relentless pursuit of the lowlands of the south, past you - always past you.
In the end, the Mississippi makes me feel small, incidental, a witness rather than a player. As I turned my back to the river this morning, it felt good to have finally met the river, understood some small part of its meaning. Then, I walked home with my dog.
About the Author
Paul Van Slambrouck was the chief editor of The Christian Science Monitor. He also served as chief editor of the San Jose Mercury News. After retiring, he spent a few years teaching journalism at Principia College in Illinois. Paul has been an avid photographer for most of his adult life and has been teaching photography lately at The College of San Mateo.