The Big Muddy: An Environmental History of the Mississippi and Its Peoples, from Hernando de Soto to Hurricane Katrina

The Big Muddy: An Environmental History of the Mississippi and Its Peoples, from Hernando de Soto to Hurricane Katrina

The Big Muddy: An Environmental History of the Mississippi and Its Peoples, from Hernando de Soto to Hurricane Katrina

The Big Muddy: An Environmental History of the Mississippi and Its Peoples, from Hernando de Soto to Hurricane Katrina

Synopsis

In The Big Muddy, the first long-term environmental history of the Mississippi, Christopher Morris offers a brilliant tour across five centuries as he illuminates the interaction between people and the landscape, from early hunter-gatherer bands to present-day industrial and post-industrial society.

Morris shows that when Hernando de Soto arrived at the lower Mississippi Valley, he found an incredibly vast wetland, forty thousand square miles of some of the richest, wettest land in North America, deposited there by the big muddy river that ran through it. But since then much has changed, for the river and for the surrounding valley. Indeed, by the 1890s, the valley was rapidly drying. Morris shows how centuries of increasingly intensified human meddling--including deforestation, swamp drainage, and levee construction--led to drought, disease, and severe flooding. He outlines the damage done by the introduction of foreign species, such as the Argentine nutria, which escaped into the wild and are now busy eating up Louisiana's wetlands. And he critiques the most monumental change in the lower Mississippi Valley--the reconstruction of the river itself, largely under the direction of the Army Corps of Engineers. Valley residents have been paying the price for these human interventions, most visibly with the disaster that followed Hurricane Katrina. Morris also describes how valley residents have been struggling to reinvigorate the valley environment in recent years--such as with the burgeoning catfish and crawfish industries--so that they may once again live off its natural abundance.

Morris concludes that the problem with Katrina is the problem with the Amazon Rainforest, drought and famine in Africa, and fires and mudslides in California--it is the end result of the ill-considered bending of natural environments to human purposes.

Excerpt

There are two Mississippi Valleys. One is wet, the other dry. The river made the wet valley by flooding it with dirty water and filling it with mud. People made the dry valley by draining it of water and hardening mud into dirt. The two valleys exist in uneasy tension, the wet valley always ready to burst into the dry valley that holds it down.

In the sixteenth century, Hernando de Soto and his small army searched for dry land in a wet valley, imagining that only dry land could sustain the thousands of people they encountered and the rich empires they hoped to conquer. They found little of it. In the eighteenth century, their French successors managed to dry a very small portion of the valley for agriculture, specifically, but more generally because a wet place to their way of thinking was incapable of sustaining a French colony. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the United States, whose citizens also believed wetlands did not suit their purposes, continued what the French had begun and eventually succeeded in drying the valley almost entirely. The wet valley persisted, however, behind the levees and beneath the fields and city streets. In each era, Spanish, French, and American, it pushed back by asserting its essentially wet nature against the dry nature people imposed upon it.

This is a history of how Europeans and their American descendants dried one of the world’s greatest natural wetlands. They did so by first imagining the valley as a dry place, and then by technologically separating land and water. They dried the valley because they believed they had to if they were going to live there in the manner in which they lived elsewhere. For French to live as French in the Mississippi Valley, they believed they had to dry it. So too the Americans. Both nations had to show themselves and the world they could master their environment. Profits were also important, and the most profitable agricultural commodities would only grow in dry soil. In time, the most compelling reason for drying the valley became the investment already made in the effort. The effect over several . . .

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