Silver Threads: Mississippi River musings
I first saw the Mississippi as a 3-year-old in 1938; my own parents had briefly lived south of New Orleans when the Huey Long Bridge was going up, and they wanted to drive over it. I remember less about the river than I do the sight of the big trees underneath the bridge; I’d never been so high in the air.
Twenty-three years later, that bridge and the river it crossed would become almost a daily part of my life: My husband and I, our son and daughter moved to the West Bank, and the supermarkets were on the east bank. Another move took us to Algiers and a newer Mississippi river bridge with daily commutes to work over that one.
Old Man River is about a mile wide and 90 feet deep at Canal Street; it’s the standard by which New Orleanians can’t help but compare all rivers. I had known the Red, the Sabine, the Pascagoula from childhood, and -- when I began to travel widely -- the tidal Thames, the Tiber, the Seine.
All these waterways, even the busy Nile, look small beside the one we see from the Moonwalk. But Mark Twain’s fabled behemoth has an amazingly tiny beginning, and we visited it last week on a trip to Minnesota. Our tour guide was Eleanor Ostman Aune, food writer, columnist and cookbook author (her wild blueberry pancakes are the best), who drove us hundreds of miles to reach the headwaters. Along for the ride and the company and to take snapshots there was her cousin, Betty Rostvold, whose photographs of the scenery and flora and fauna of her home state are exquisite.
The waters that will become the Mississippi bubble out over some rocks on the edge of Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota. Here, the children of sightseers wade and splash in the gentle froth. (Little did I know that a fellow Orleanian, Keith Marshall, who also writes in this space, had made his own showy splash there when he visited some 30 years ago. “I stepped over the Mississippi River and, losing my footing, fell backwards into it." Keith says that minnows scurried from beneath him as he tried to regain his footing, and he was for a time known by his companions as Minnow-Ha-Ha. )
The river won’t become worthy of the name for a few miles out of the small, glacial lake, and then it’s really only the size of a rather big creek. By the time it reaches The Twin Cities -- dividing St. Paul and Minneapolis -- it will have become a small version of the Mississippi as we know it. The drops of liquid coursing by will take three months to reach Canal Street and the ships waiting to be loaded and unloaded along the waterfront here.
Seeing the headwaters of the Mississippi made me feel a bit like a time traveler, and you know how we old folks relish fooling around in the past. I know -- thanks to a semester of college geology -- that wasn’t the way the source looked millennia ago. Like me, the Mississippi is well-aged, and both of us started out faster, more vibrant, and in a hurry to get somewhere.
Young rivers, like young people, cut deep channels rushing to their destinations, and in the process wear down their banks, often running out of them entirely; deposit a lot of silt; and carry tons of baggage during the years of their travels. If levees weren’t built to contain this power, rivers might spill and spoil their surroundings, just as people sometimes do. But if , like the Mississippi, we’re bound for the sea, it will be to join, eventually, something much grander than we’ve ever imagined.
Can you stand any more of this philosophical analogy? I can’t: This column has gotten way too deep. Pun intended and not apologized for.
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living Section, for which she wrote Silver Threads until her retirement. Email her at [email protected]
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected]