Dams · Free flowing rivers · International Water Issues

Mississippi and the Singing River

Mississippi is a phenomenon. A large body of water flowing down a slope towards the sea is perceived as so many disparate things by different people at different times and places.

Some say that if you want to understand the continent, you have to understand this river. Some say this is no river, it is an Ocean. Some say its a Strong Brown God.

Mississippi in New Orleans Photo: Parineeta Dandekar

Some say its a channel which moulds and creates music in ts wake, each place adding its own note, its own quirk, its own story. Some say its a cold-hearted beast.

Some want to be just like this Ol’ Man..indifferent and unseeing..”What does he care if the world’s got troubles, What does he care if the land ain’t free”

Slave Trade
On the banks of Mississippi Photo: Parineeta Dandekar

Some say its a road of ‘molten sliver’ laid before us only to further human endeavor, to do business, to usher enterprise, to trade cotton and oil and sugar and strong bronze men, bound at their hands and feet.

Freight Ships on Mississippi Photo: Parineeta Dandekar

Some say its a willful devil to be tied: tied in walls so high and so hard that it will never dream of taking the path it wishes. It needs to be “bossed around”. Yessir. Shown its damn place.

Mississippi is a wrinkled, leathery giant, shadow of its earlier self. A virile man tied in an institution. Straitjacketed for so long that only a raging flood now makes him lose his mind and destroy everything that comes in his way. Like a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.

In moments of lucidity, Mississippi remembers an old friend, an old timorous friend, a nimble, whistling old friend flowing a basin across. The Pascagoula.

Pascagoula River has only one famous story. How many stories can an 80 mile river have? Her people use it to name their shops and motels now.

Lower reaches of Pascagoula River, Photo Parineeta Dandekar

Pascagoula did not make big bustling cities. She flows in a State not known for commerce. For forests and lands full of emerald grass and tiny white water lilies and Sandhill cranes who fly in strings, for magnolias growing close to the river, dropping their scented white petals into the lazy waters, for folks easy with their smiles, maybe. But not for money.

Pascagoula only flows. That’s what rivers do. It snakes and meanders and steps into the Gulf of Mexico gently, in its own unhurried pace making swamps of waltzing grasses at the delta.

An osprey looks out for that bald eagle’s nest. He knows that the tree and the nest will remain. He may nest there next year. There’s time.

When she floods, the Pascagoula spreads her limbs lightly into her forests. Ancient cypresses gather their knees around them as the water rises. Then the friends come over.
Pelicans and storks and birds of passage, taking a short halt on their remembered journey.

Flooded Cypress forests of the Pascagoula Photo: Parineeta Dandekar

They know the river and her forest with an ancient certainty, now new to the world.

Gulf sturgeons swim up the sea to spawn. They travel miles upriver without banging their heads in futility across a dam wall. The Pascagoula is undammed throughout its length.
Her banks are not plastered around her body.
She has the luxury to be confused and indecisive and to change her mind.

Not many prospectors come here. Nor people raw with ambition to build dams and embankments and ports and jetties. Some folks do come a long way to visit her though. To listen to her story from people who love her.

A boy looks at the river with wide open eyes. The river looks back at him, unblinking. He has never seen a river flow that way. He doesn’t say much. He is from a place where “Worse things have happened”, where a flowing, undammed river is a sort of crime.

Flowing for centuries lends a song to the lips. Like thin women milling flour in drought stricken villages of Marathwada or boatmen taking their tattered boats on the Padma.

A song is an inevitable effect of time.

Deep notes rise from the waters and then people say Pascagoula is a singing river. But if you try too hard to listen to her song and bring your baggage of ambitions and frustrations and a record player to make her famous, she will not sing to you.

Maybe she doesn’t want anything from you. Not your praises, not your paens, not your stories, not your poems, not your jazz.

Maybe she doesn’t want to be a mighty river at all.

Not a swollen Mississippi, flowing on steroids, who cannot stretch a limb when it aches so much.

Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP (parineeta.dandekar@gmail.com)

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