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"The Great River" | Reviewed by William Winkler

Calvin, the 6-year-old enfant terrible of Bill Watterson’s comic strip from the 80s and 90s, had this to say about the natural world; “Nature doesn’t care if people live or die. It refuses to be tamed. It does whatever it wants and acts like people don’t matter. It won’t confirm our right to be here.”

These words could be a distillation of the content of Boyce Upholt’s new book, “The Great River: The Making and Unmaking of the Mississippi.” A New Orleans based author and nature commentator, Upholt has devoted years to uncovering the history of the nation’s most iconic river, the motivation behind human attempts to tame it, and how those efforts have succeeded and, more often, failed.

Upholt begins his narrative with descriptions of the indigenous civilizations that flourished on the river’s banks and the lowlands surrounding them. These people lived in harmony with the river, its meanderings and floods. They learned to respect the river’s ways, and their patience rewarded them with prosperous lives and a rich cultural heritage, evidence of which persists to this day.

The arrival of the first European explorers, French and Spanish, changed all that. They found a landscape (and riverscape) unlike anything they had experienced in their native lands. To these explorers the river and its multiple tributaries, offered a means of discovering the vast landscapes in the western portion of the North American continent.

To Thomas Jefferson, the river represented the central tool for the western expansion of the newborn nation. His passion for the discovery and subduing of the river and its vast watershed set the tone of the government’s policies for generations to come, many of which continue to this day.

The field of hydrology, the science of water flow and its consequences, was a fledgling study in Jefferson’s day. It became clear to planners of the nation’s westward growth that mastery of the river was necessary to grow the nation’s economy. The construction of levees to protect lowland farms began in the early 19th century, and dams to control downstream flooding began opening later in that century.

It did not take long for the river engineers to discover that even though their interventions seemed to have their desired effects, there were unforeseen consequences; loss of native marshlands to act as natural reservoirs for excess rainwater as well as alterations to the deposition of mud, rendering river navigation more difficult.

It was only in the mid-20th century that efforts to correct these problems appeared. Upholt points out that these efforts were hindered by the river’s willfulness; every action by humans prompted a countering reaction by the river.

This well-researched book will offer readers an example of how the acts of humans can be, and often are, met with often unpredictable resistance by the forces of nature.


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