Over a swell of horns and backup singers, Leon Bridges pleads, “What can I do? What can I do? To get back to your heart?” But his tone is exasperated; he already knows his love is lost. In his song “Better Man,” Leon just isn’t good enough — the standards are just too high — so in desperation he offers a ludicrous gesture: “I’d swim the Mississippi river, if you’d give me another start girl.”
Though we knew about Leon Bridges’ desperately romantic pledge, my friend Boyce and I did not swim the Mississippi. Instead, we canoed a short stretch of it. The closest we got to swimming in the river was when, at night, I left our campsite to fill a teakettle and tripped into large pool of water that had formed on the beach.
For that one 24-hour stretch, our lives were shaped entirely by the river. Our entertainment was watching the massive, grey snake push its way around us, carrying coal and petrochemical barges on its back. For our fire, we picked up the smooth and hollow driftwood it spit out on shore. We slept on an island formed by its sandy deposits, and explored the many micro-ecosystems produced by the river’s ebb and flow. The river commanded constant respect. Swimming it would demand more than desperation or romantic gestures.
Though the Mighty Mississippi looms large in the American mind, few of Americans have ever seen it. If they have, they’ve almost never gotten close to it. It’s a river whose cultural power and symbolism is sustained largely by words. Whether in Bridges’ song in Mark Twain’s writing — it is the constant geographical and narrative thread in Huck Finn’s adventures — the river is an image people hold in their collective minds, but mostly because others tell them about it. The Mississippi is central image in a myth of American immensity that has spanned the globe thanks to folklore and pop culture.
Fiction with the Mississippi as a backdrop makes the river seem like an accomplice to the treacherous and lawless land on both its sides.
In reality, the river is a mostly “unseen” wilderness. Though it moves more than 321 million tons in cargo loads every year, its banks are relatively undeveloped for long stretches, and its extensive levee system keep it all but hidden from public sight. Between Mississippi and Arkansas — which share the river as their 170-mile-long border — only two bridges allow you to make a crossing and glimpse the water from your window. The ways in which most people know the river are financial or literary at best.
Upon landing on Buck Island — where we set up camp for the night — I was stunned by the variety of nature, more than any reading prepared me for. We explored the trail-less island bearing witness to a kind of American wilderness very few have the opportunity to see.
As soon as we let the coastline get out of sight, we were immediately lost for hours. Though the island is just a couple of miles long and relatively thin, we somehow found ourselves walking in circles in an effort to locate the opposite coast. The island’s topography was another world from the Mississippi and Arkansas landscape characterized by a straight-shot highway flanked by fields. With vines tangling around our boots and no landmarks in sight, we were fish out of water in another world.
Buck Island’s 1,500 acres contain thick forests that give way to vines and eventually yield coastal trees and sandy beaches. The river’s constant rise and fall makes the island a living natural history museum. Vegetation changes radically from one spot to the next depending on where the river floods and the age of its deposits.
Over all it is a primitive, complex, and threatening wilderness. Hundreds of years later it still suggests the kind of landscape the first colonizers to reach the American south would have encountered as they began expanding the country.
Buck Island hosts a life that has been all but wiped out elsewhere. The local river water hosts the pallid sturgeon, an endangered species that dates back 70 million years. In winter, bald eagles, ducks and geese all make an appearance. Overhead, tens of thousands of migratory birds fly south.
The colonization of the Mississippi Delta brutalized humans and nature alike. Yet spending time on Buck Island brings new and shaper sense to Twain’s romantic if not mesmerized feelings about the Mississippi, feelings that emerge time and again in his 1883 memoir “Life on the Mississippi”:
“One who knows the Mississippi will promptly aver — not aloud, but to himself — that ten thousand River Commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it, Go here, or Go there, and make it obey; … cannot bar its path with an obstruction which it will not tear down, dance over, and laugh at.”
As two white men following on that writer’s (and onetime steamboat captain’s) heels more than a 120 years later, both the river’s immensity and natural variety struck us with the same kind of awe, but unlike the memoirist in Twain’s text, we said it aloud, thanking our lucky stars it was still here to see — even if we didn’t swim it.