No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.
Catch the blue train, places never seen before; look for me, somewhere down that crazy river. -Robbie Robertson
My personal spiritual observation of the Mississippi River was a slowly evolving study in its reverence. Sure I was taught the basic geography and history of its grandeur in school but that was only part of the story. Time would teach me to connect the dots, to place geography and history into the greater breeding ground of the soul.
A friend of my father’s, would dive into the muddy waters of the river and search for cypress logs that had sunk through the years. I remember watching him go down into the currents with abated breath to see what he would discover. As you can imagine, the depths of the river held many riches from license plates and other car parts to pieces of clothing. But it was the logs, some imprisoned for over a hundred years, the remnants of accidents on the river, floods and hurricanes, which was the real treasure. Because the logs were cypress, they remained in immaculate condition while entombed in their watery grave. He and his wife would set the logs to dry and then transform them into works of art, as proficient as any sculpture working with stone. It seemed to me that the images were already in the wood, only needing someone to heed the call for liberation. I would come to feel like those logs, waterlogged, trapped and stifled in murky surroundings, unable to move, calling out for release. This is what the river can do if you listen to it.
One day standing a few feet from the water’s edge, an elderly man was tossing a small piece of wood into the river as his agile Golden Retriever dove in, paddling his magnificent appendages through the muddy currents to catch the limb settling amongst other decaying pieces of driftwood. The dog always caught the correct one, always judging the rivers volatile demeanor while mindful of his intended goal. I could sense the continuity in the dog, the whirlpools and those undercurrents; a silent but steady defiance in the midst of the waters vortex. The animal had sensed its path with steadfast determination. Though I saw the man and his dog a few times afterward, I never asked his name, I didn’t need to; it would have ruined the sublimity of the effect. In one determined dive into the strong currents, this beautiful animal displayed the simplicity and mindfulness of which one can travel regardless of everything. This is what the river will allow if you learn from it.
In 1859, at the age of 24, Samuel Clements realized a lifelong dream and became a riverboat pilot. In those days, a leadline was used to measure the depth of the river for navigation purposes. The Leadsman would heave the leadline and sing out the marks as the paddlewheel made its way through the murky water… Mark One, Quarter One, Half One, Quarter Less Twain, and then suddenly in a voice loud and clear…Mark Twain! Literally meaning 2 fathoms or 12 ft. deep, indicating a boundary between safe and dangerous waters. It was the river that gave Samuel Clement his pen name. As it was the river which whispered in his ear the Great American novel he was to write. It’s said that on a still night, one can still hear the ghost of forgotten leadsman mixed with the wash of the water as they call out “Mark Twain” informing an invisible pilot of safe waters.
It is another alias, the Big Drink, which gives a clue about the rich cultural legacy that radiates from the Mississippi River and comes to a head at a location where the French explorer Bienville, in 1718, decided on a settlement juxtaposed with the river for the potential trade route that nature conveniently provided. The colony named Nouvelle-Orleans for the Duc d’ Orleans, Regent of France; is a direct creation of the river.
Nouvelle-Orleans and the river rendezvous at a bend situated by the French Quarter called a crescent that directs the river to turn at an almost 90-degree angle. Along this crescent and on to the gulf, the river deposits assorted collections of secrets and other debris imprisoned in its bowels from its northern and western trajectories. The river drinks and accumulates all the muddy worst and best of society, shifting and churning the silt of humanity and the natural world, compounded by swift currents, filtering out and disseminating into the alluvial plain of the delta and to its inhabitants before it runs errant into the gulf where it is no longer of any consequence once the redemptive power of water acts as an exorcism. The mud is the secrets captured, driven into purification by water. And all of this leaves a mark on the soul of these people and the attitudes they emanate.
One can sit along the levee for hours at this point and be hypnotized by gazing over the currents toward the town of Algiers on the west bank. The flow of the water reminds me of a snake as its body slithers along in a steady progression bending as it travels to an unknown destiny. Even though levees were constructed in the late 1800’s to restrict and control the flooding, the floods still come and the river still controls its creation along with the crushed but undying people who call it home.
Please read- Of The River and the City- Part 1