A Fundamental Boundary: What the Mississippi River Means to America


Nearly a decade ago, I drove north from my home in rural Mississippi to Memphis. I was headed to a conference where I knew I’d be a strange fit. Most everyone else was an engineer or a biologist or a state game commissioner—representatives of the various agencies interested in making sure the Mississippi River remains a viable home for nonhuman creatures. I was a fledging journalist, with a vague dream of writing a book about the river.

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At one point, I eavesdropped as one scientist leaned in to whisper a question to another: What is the purpose of a river? The United States of America has claimed this waterway for more than two centuries, and we’ve never been able to settle on an answer.

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I am a latecomer to rivers. The major waterway where I grew up, in suburban Connecticut, was officially labeled a “brook”; long before my birth it had been trapped in a concrete channel meant to keep its water out of nearby yards. Still, for a kid with a bit of wanderlust, its small meanders offered a way to cut through the rigid geometry of suburbia. A friend and I used to walk along its weedy banks, seeking, I now realize, the wildest place we could find in our hometown.

The river, meanwhile, was too big to ever fully tame. That’s what made the river so entrancing to me.

I always dreamed of being somewhere else. In my twenties, I took a job with a nonprofit in Mississippi—a state I’d not only never visited but, until the job offer, had never imagined visiting. Which is how I found myself living on soils that had been carried south by the continent’s biggest river. Even then, though, I rarely thought about the Mississippi. There’s a massive wall in the way: The levee that holds back floods stands 40 feet tall or higher.

In 2015, I spent a few nights camping on the river so I could write a magazine story about a river guide. I found a wilderness: miles and miles of raggedy forest, unkept because it’s unkeepable, soaked by water many years. This is known locally the “batture.” It is unmistakably somewhere else, a fact that is deepened by that levee: once you’ve crossed over, you can no longer see the settled world. I became obsessed with the river and its batture.  By the time I visited the conference in Memphis, I was at work on a series of essays about life out there. In a notebook, I jotted down the scientist’s question.

What is the purpose of the river? Perhaps the only real answer comes from physics: A river is the path the water carves as it submits the imperative of gravity. But the fact that so much water has coiled together here, in what we call the Mississippi River, has led humans to dream up other purposes for that flow.

For as long as humans have lived along the river, it’s served as a passageway; more than three thousand years ago, before anyone along the river had bothered with farming, Indigenous traders were carrying goods to Louisiana from as far afield as Florida and Indiana. The river’s potential as a highway is why Thomas Jefferson bought out the watershed, too, doubling the size of America with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803: farmers on the far side of the Appalachian Mountains needed access to the river to ship their crops downstream.

That era revealed a second purpose for the river, or at least for one major part of the river. In the floodplain, the low-lying land that was covered in water for only part of the year, the soil was river-carried muck, rich in organic material—some of the best farmland you could find. So the river became property. The problem, of course, was those floods, which is why it took until the twentieth century before the floodplain was fully tamed into farms.

The river, meanwhile, was too big to ever fully tame. That’s what made the river so entrancing to me. I found that, despite the engineering, it was as wild as any national park. In 2017, after my father died, after the U.S. electorate had recently chosen an openly racist reality TV star as its president, I knew where to go. I embarked on a six-week voyage by canoe, from St. Louis to New Orleans. Here was the purpose that drew me to the river: It offered an escape, a ribbon of wildness amid our American empire.

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The world needs quiet places—preserves uncluttered by commerce and machines, zones where the rest of biology can thrive. But as I paddled, it occurred to me that there’s a flaw in the idea of wilderness, which seems to exist only somewhere else—wherever the people are not. Don’t we want beauty to be something that persists in every space we inhabit?

It occurred to me that there’s a flaw in the idea of wilderness, which seems to exist only somewhere else—wherever the people are not.

The poet Gary Snyder has made a compelling argument that the watershed is the most fundamental boundary on this planet. Unlike the strange geometry of our states and counties, this is not some arbitrary declaration by a government; it’s a shape literally carved into the Earth itself. Here, then, is one last purpose to a river: It marks the outlines of our homes.

Not long after I finally finished that six-week paddle trip, I flew to Colorado for a wedding, and decided to stay a bit, to see the mountains. An old friend from college, an avid climber, made arrangements to camp overnight in the backcountry. We hiked seven miles, rising past yellowing aspens and then, above the tree line, through a field of scattered boulders, a bare wasteland with just a few stunted pines struggling through the rocks. The evening dimmed early; mist hung over everything, at one point splitting open before us to reveal a black, silent pool. It was September, and snow had fallen the night before—the first snow of the season—and that blanket of white only made the setting more alien to my Southern sensibilities. Wonderfully so.

We slept in bivy sacks, in a cave formed by interlocking boulders, and in the morning we clambered up snow-covered rocks toward the nearest peak. The day was warming. Ice cracked loudly, and water dripped from the sheer faces of rock that encircled us. As we climbed, the slope turned nearly vertical. Snow tumbled downwards in pinwheels. This climb, in these conditions, was far too dangerous without ropes. So we retraced our steps back down. The next morning, I would be flying back east.

Given my recent trip, the conversation turned to water—how it moves and where it goes and what it means. Eventually our attention settled to the creek at our feet. It was a seasonal waterway, ethereal; I couldn’t remember if it had been there the day before, as we ascended, but it burbled now, revived by the fresh melt.

I thought of its journey: it would descend more than ten thousand feet and trace two thousand miles before it reached an ocean—the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, I realized, it would pass through the river bottomlands in Mississippi where I lived.

I had been happy before to be in a wild place. I was happier now to feel like I was home.

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From The Great River: The Making and Unmaking of the Mississippi by Boyce Upholt. Copyright © 2024. Available from W.W. Norton & Company.



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