Before I Know You

August 22nd, 2019

A project on the ephemeral art of carving water.

Contemplating the Mississippi Before and After the Petrochemical Industry

The Mississippi River is a magnificent existent ecosystem. She is “a strong brown god,” as T. S. Eliot wrote, that offers water and gives land to the North American Continent. As she saunters from her headwaters in Minnesota to her mouth in the Gulf of Mexico, she gathers strength, growing in  magnitude from water and sediment, she also accumulates fertilizers and hydrocarbons. Along her route, she is “straightened and shackled,” as the US Army Corps of Engineers once boasted, by engineered impediments. By the time she reaches New Orleans, my hometown, the river has become brutalized, toxified, and enraged. Prevented from offering fresh sediment to her wetlands, she instead spews forth a 7,000-square mile hypoxic dead zone into the Gulf. By traveling from the river’s mouth to her head, I am going back in time to meet a younger, fresher, freer river. As the Army Corps of Engineers plans to release the river from some of her dams, I will record impressions, images, and stories of a river I’ve never had the honor to meet, though she is the same river I’ve always known.

It took the Mississippi River 7,000 years to build the 15,000 square miles of fecund wetlands that form the lower third of the land we now call Louisiana. It took a mere 300 years to deform this vital habitat. In 2007, the US State Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration removed the names of thirty-one water bodies from maps of Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish, noting that the erosion of the bays, bayous, and lakes was due to the saltwater of the Gulf encroaching on the  freshwater vegetation and compacted sediment that defined their perimeters. Yet the tumultuous history of this land’s formation and deformation complicates our bereavement.

When 300 years ago the colonists “discovered” Bulbancha (meaning “Land of many languages” in Mobilian, a trading dialect of Choctaw), their vision was to make New Orleans the economic and logistic seat in the marshlands of the Mississippi River Delta. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the riverside wetlands were drained––“reclaimed” said the Army Corps of Engineers––for the seeding of plantations. As intensive agriculture increased and vegetation cover was reduced, the  banks of the river eroded into the waters, doubling its pre-colonial suspended sediment load. Sediment carried through the river’s mouth became the  famed and beloved Birdsfoot Delta in Plaquemines Parish.

In the early twentieth century, a series of locks, levees, and dams, constructed between Minnesota and Louisiana, leveled out the sediment load. At the same time, the oil and gas industry began to dredge a network of canals to access the wetlands’ subterranean riches. Forming a fraying latticework of uncoordinated and largely “orphaned” throughways, this 10,000-mile network of canals and over 75,000 wells has contributed significantly to Louisiana’s coastal erosion crisis. Since the 1930s, nearly 2,000 square miles of wetlands have disintegrated.

Land formation and deformation in Louisiana is a frenetic competition between river, hurricane, and capitalism. Much of the land we now know and once knew as the Birdsfoot Delta of the Mississippi River was born of slave plantations. The oil industry—inheritor of both upriver plantations and deltaic land—brought about Birdsfoot’s demise. What does restoration mean in the context of such complexity?

In New Zealand, Ecuador, Bolivia, India, the State of Ohio, and elsewhere around the world, “the rights of nature” have codified an ancient and reemerging worldview, which sees rivers, lakes, and other Earth forms as indivisible wholes, entities with integrity, body, even selfhood. As the Army Corps contemplates reorienting its relationship with the mighty Mississippi by removing its dams in Minnesota, Before I Know You will ask what it will take before the Mississippi River’s human communities recognize her dignity and right to persist. How can we human beings offer reparation by retreat, and approach restoration through desegregation of a fragmented history and ecology? In Minnesota, I will take the opportunity to consider rare moments where the river runs wild and free. From my northern neighbors, I will learn about a side of the Mississippi I have never known; and through photography and writing, I will contemplate a past, present, and future beyond her division and domination by the extractive industries.