St. Louis: Upstream America
Cold and wet. That is what we were after an entire day out shooting in ceaseless spring rains. Only a scorching hot bath can cure that kind of shivering.
The following morning, Ben, Pablo and Ali went to the cornfields to shoot b-roll of the agriculture—mostly corn and soybeans—that dominates the Mississippi River basin. They returned shortly after noon with dripping hair and muddy pants. We teased them mildly, but found ourselves in the same sorry condition not much later.
It took nearly 45 minutes to drive from our motel in Alton, Illinois to the center of St Louis, Missouri for our visit to the iconic silver arch. It impressed us with its sheer scale and slender elegance. Duff and Pablo took off with one camera to film the views from the top. Meanwhile, Jos, Ali, Ben and MeiMei stayed on the ground trudging through the steady downpour to interview local people about their impressions of and connection to America’s longest river.
Never underestimate anyone. I am constantly reminded of this lesson. People spoke with eloquence and insight in response to our spontaneous questioning. Jos waylaid a man in his mid-60s, silver hair bursting in great bushels from around his ears and face. It turned out that he used to be a river captain. He talked of the history of the river as a major mode of transport and a route for slaves escaping the south, as well as the enduring love of people around the world for the tales of Mark Twain. “The Mississippi River is a storybook,” he said. “I love it.”
Later he added, “It’s a good thing they tamed this river,” referring to the numerous dams, levees, and canals that have been constructed over the past 150 years that virtually sever the Mississippi from its natural floodplains. “She used to be wild.” I find it helpful to have his perspective, as today the over-engineering of the river is considered a mistake from an environmental perspective. It has caused sediment to build up which makes floods worse than ever, and negatively impacts both plant growth and fish hatching in the former floodplains.
Ben snagged an early twenty-something couple as they exited the monument. The attractive, multiracial woman with curly black hair and a tender smile felt that people don’t care enough about the river. “It’s polluted because people show no respect for it. They’re too lazy. America should set a good example for the rest of the world, but we don’t.”
Of course not everyone felt this way. A stocky, square-faced man with cropped hair and glasses bravely admitted, “I don’t feel connected to the river. I don’t think many people do anymore. Most of us just think of it as the place where we can come to gamble at the casinos.”
But my favorite moment of the day may have been when Jos asked a middle-aged African-American woman from Mississippi what the river meant to her, and she answered immediately with just one word: “Freedom.”
What I loved about these interviews was how much people’s perspectives on the Mississippi River differed. To one, it is a path to liberation. For another, it is the dividing line between east and west, a geographical boundary. For someone else, it is a source of entertainment. For another, it is a symbol of the proud history of a great country. One man marveled simply at the engineering of the various bridges constructed over the river, never mentioning the Mississippi itself.
The river is a storybook. It tells not only the story of a nation, but of the people who share its water. It is a literal and metaphorical connector between states, accents, races, socioeconomic boundaries, career paths, ages, and values. We may have vastly different ideas of who we are in relation to nature and how we should manage our water resources in a philosophical or ideological sense, but from the purely ecological standpoint – as humans, beings who are part of nature, just as are the trees, the birds, the fish and the fast flowing river – we must honor our place in the world.