What the Flooding Mississippi Means for America's Dinner
In 1944, a cartographer named Harold Fisk traced the mighty Mississippi River, as it flowed in his day, with a thin, snaking line of white. He pored over geological maps and added a series of earth-toned ribbons showing where he thought the river had flowed in previous decades.
The map captures the ever-changing course of America's defining river over time. One of the more poetic descriptions of the river delta comes from John McPhee in his essay "Atchafalaya" from The Control of Nature:
The Mississippi River, with its sand and silt, has created most of Louisiana, and it could not have done so by remaining in one channel.... Southern Louisiana exists in its present form because the Mississippi River has jumped here and there within an arc about two hundred miles wide, like a pianist playing with one hand—frequently and radically changing course, surging over the left or the right bank to go off in utterly new directions. Always it is the river’s purpose to get to the Gulf by the shortest and steepest gradient.
The circuitous twisting and turning of the river defined the way we eat, depositing minerals and nutrients onto some of the richest alluvial silt plains, where some 130,000 acres of farmland are now underwater because of record spring rains (and exploded levees). Catfish spawned in the mud and further downstream, oysters flourished in the river basin.
Today, if one were to revisit Fisk's journey, the trip would be much shorter. The Army Corps of Engineers straightened and reigned in the mighty Mississippi with locks, dams, and levees. And yet, despite all the federal money poured into their projects and all the agricultural subsidies poured into farmland, the wily river still flouts our attempts at control.
The reengineered river has reengineered the traditional foods of the Mississippi—diminished catfish catches and algae blooms formed at the terminal points for nutrient run-off. Now, if there's any upside to worsening spring floods, it will be to signal the return of the river's catfish and the region's fertility.