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Take five: Historian takes long view regarding environmental issues on lower Mississippi

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Historian Christopher Morris will be at the Missouri History Museum Wednesday evening to discuss his extensive environmental history of the Lower Mississippi River Valley. The book is a little like the meandering river: It spreads over a wide expanse -- five centuries -- and fills in all sorts of nooks and crannies along the way.

The work is titled "The Big Muddy: An Environmental History of the Mississippi and Its Peoples from Hernando de Soto to Hurricane Katrina” ($35; Oxford Press), though it focuses primarily on the lower Mississippi, south of Memphis.

Morris, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington, said he expects to be questioned about his usage of “Big Muddy” during his presentation in St. Louis, where the Missouri River owns that nickname.

During a phone interview with the Beacon, Morris said that people all over the U.S. refer to the Mississippi as "The Big Muddy.”

"If you said 'The Big Muddy’ they would think you were referring to the Mississippi, not the Missouri,” Morris said and then good-naturedly passed the buck to his publisher, adding, “It’s a title that was actually picked by Oxford University Press. They didn’t like my title. My book focuses on not just the river, but also the valley. And the relationship between the water and the land is really important in the lower valley. So my title was 'A Big Muddy River Runs Through It.' ”

Oxford apparently didn’t want to borrow from the title of Norman Maclean’s famous work.

Suspect title aside, "The Big Muddy" is a fascinating history that reaches back to the mound-building cultures -- the Mississippians of Cahokia and the Plaquemines of the lower valley -- linking their attitudes toward the river to their lifestyles. Morris, who worked on the book for 12 years, also dusts off the early explorations of the Spanish (de Soto) and French (La Salle, Iberville) and explains how their perspectives on culture and wealth laid the foundation for development along the river.

We learn, for example, that the French settlers were fond of fish, but Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto – who equated agriculture with wealth and powerful civilizations -- was not impressed at all with the gifts of fish he was given by native people of the lower valley as he set about "discovering" their homeland.

"By taking such a long view, I was able to see the importance of fish from the time of de Soto up to the farming that goes on now and the importance of those fish in local cuisine,’’ Morris said.

The book also tackles current environmental concerns over levees and flood management, but Morris presents them against a broader backdrop: the relationship of water and land in a place where the two are by nature not separate at all.

Here are excerpts from the Beacon’s interview with Morris:

Why did you focus entirely on the lower Mississippi? After all, what happens along the northern stretches of the river often has an impact on the south.

Morris: They really are very different rivers, north and south. The lower valley with its floodplain is where the river spread out -- at least it did before it was all leveed. It spread out and deposited all of the silt it had collected from the north and its northern tributaries. The process of the river’s interaction with the land up north is more about erosion, and in the lower valley it’s more about deposition. The lower valley is, technically speaking, not a real river valley. It’s a continental depression, and the river has filled it in over thousands and thousands of years by depositing sediment in that depression.

In the meander belt, it’s also been a different river because of its relationship with agriculture and slavery and also with poor laborers, primarily African Americans who were used to construct the levees. So the sociopolitical history of the river is different there.

In St. Louis -- the middle Mississippi -- there is this transitional zone that is neither Minnesota, nor Louisiana; that area has its own history. I’ll talk a little bit about that in my talk on Wednesday because of the differences in the prehistoric cultures that lived in the valley. There was a big difference between the people of Cahokia and the Plaquemine culture farther down the river below present-day Memphis in the way that they lived with the river and interacted with it, despite similarities in the ceremonial architecture of their earthen mounds.

Cahokia was really centered around the cultivation of corn, and that was not the case farther down the river. And that has everything to do with the environment for people living in what is now the Arkansas delta or the delta in Mississippi or eastern Louisiana where agriculture was impractical because it was so wet. And it was not necessary because so much other food could be gathered from the wetlands.

Your book discusses evolving attitudes toward levees and flood control along the lower Mississippi. Can any of that be extrapolated to other sections of the river? You mention in your book, for example, the controversy over the blowing of the levees of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway in Missouri in 2011.

Morris: I can tell you where I think things are. We saw it in 2011, and we’ll see more of it. Agriculture in the Mississippi’s lower valley -- from Cairo down and maybe even from the southern suburbs of St. Louis and all the way down -- isn’t what it used to be.

The political clout of rural areas and states like Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana isn’t what it used to be. And the result of that is more agricultural land is being sacrificed to the river. People are being relocated; they’re encouraged to sell out, to accept buyouts. In 2011, when the Birds Point levee was blown to save Cairo that tells you how little political clout rural areas have these days. And part of this has to do with the outmigration of people from rural areas.

We’ve been hearing for a long time about the decline of the family farm. Most of this discussion points to the plains -- places like Kansas and the decline in population there. But it’s also a phenomenon all over the country, and the political effect in the Mississippi Valley is that there are fewer votes, fewer campaign contributions and fewer politicians who speak up for those interests. And that has cleared the way for engineers to consider opening up levees and flooding -- either on an annual basis or during times of major rises in the river, areas they never would have flooded before.

In the early 20th century, after the flood of 1927, the Corps of Engineers was determined to protect all this land, and they had no option. They were ordered to figure out how to do it. Now they have an option of taking down the levees in various places. That’s politically viable now in a way that it didn’t used to be.

And isn’t there also more pressure from environmentalists to do just that?

Morris: There is more pressure from the environmental side. You can look at the river as a system and say OK this is a good thing. The river shouldn’t be contained entirely within these levees. It should be allowed to flood; that’s what it wants to do, and that’s what it used to do.

That said, there are a lot of people whose lives are being disrupted by this. For me, it’s one of the reasons environmental history is so important. As a nation when we change our relationship with the land, good or bad, there are always lives uprooted and in many ways destroyed as a consequence of this. It may be good for the environment from the environmental perspective, but there’s always a human dimension to it.

There’s always been a tragic side in our relationship with the river when we look at trying to control it [in the lower valley] for agriculture. It was successful for a long time, in part, because there was cheap labor that could be forced to build those levees. They didn’t use bulldozers in the 19th century. That’s the dark side of so much of that engineering.

Today, as we talk about deconstructing many of the levees that have been in place for so long, the tragic side is that a way of life for people along the river is changing and perhaps coming to a close -- or starting a new chapter.

The chapter on Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans offers a different perspective on natural disasters.

Morris: Part of the problem in comprehending the Katrina disaster was a misunderstanding of why it was a disaster and what a natural disaster means. And what it means when we call something a natural disaster.

New Orleans is a place that naturally floods. It becomes a natural disaster when we try to pretend otherwise. It’s a lot like imagining you could live in Minneapolis and there will never be a blizzard, and when there is one you call it a natural disaster. Why did this happen? Who let this happen? Why aren’t we protected?

That’s where New Orleans was in 2005. It’s a floodplain at the bottom of a very big river and that’s what it does. It can’t be stopped. But from an individual perspective if you’re standing at the intersection at Canal and Bourbon streets you might as well be standing in downtown Dallas because there’s no sign of water anywhere. It’s only when you step way back that you realize that New Orleans is this little island surrounded by water and wetlands. It’s easy to forget when you’re living there.

Katrina was uniquely devastating. The infrastructure failed and then was incapable of removing the water. And it was made worse because of the expectations of the people.

The number of footnotes accompanying your text is impressive and the works you cite are so extensive. Your research must have been a laborious process.

Morris: It was laborious, but it was also a lot of fun because I was learning so much. By training I’m primarily a historian of the 19th century South and most recently the environmental history of the American South. To go back into the 18th and 17th and 16th centuries -- and up through the 20th century into the 21st -- and to think about the engineering and the science of the river, all of this was new to me. I had to learn an awful lot, and that kept the project over the long term very interesting to me.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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