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Lower Mississippi River Dispatch No. 402

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

No Need to Personify a River

Valencia Watching Fire, Moon, Scorpius, Jupiter, Island 62 (unfinished sketch)

Quick Update: The expedition reaches Natchez-Under-The-Hill thanks to the leadership of Adam Elliott, Quapaw Natchez. Adam jumped into the helm in Greenville while John, River and Lena attended to Juke Joint Festival (go to FB for photos from the stage!). Thanks Erik & Linn for joining us (from Idaho). Thanks John Keen and Park Neff for meeting us at Warfield Point. Special thanks to our good friend Hank Burdine for the fried chicken and the Boston Butt, and meeting the crew at Mayersville guns blazing! Thanks Paul Hartfield for showing us just how alive the river is -- in the form of a 27 pound channel cat!

Now, 173 miles downstream of Greenville, the expedition resumes with the core voyageurs Andy McClean, Boyce Upholt and Chris Battaglia -- and the Clarksdale crew: Lena, River and Driftwood. But oh no! Winds gusting to 35 mph are in the forecast for tomorrow! What will the expedition do? Hunker down on some lonesome sandbar and explore... The wilderness within, the wilderness without. The journey continues...

Rivergator: Paddler's Guide to the 1154 (mostly) wild miles of the Lower Mississippi.

Moon over Warfield Point, Greenville Power Plant, Tarpley Islands (unfinished sketch)

Boyce Upholt Journal: Between the Levees
Watercolor Paintings by John Ruskey

Day 36: There is no need to personify a river

April 24, 2017

"There is no need to personify a river: it is much too literally alive in its own way, and like air and earth themselves is a creature more powerful, more basic, than any living thing the earth has born. It is one of those few, huge, casual and aloof creatures by the mercy of whose existence our own existence was made possible.”

--James Agee, Now Let Us Praise These Famous Men

Just arrived in Natchez for 24 hours on the town. Next stop, Japanese food for lunch; subsequently, shower.

Venus Rising, Canoes in Back Channel, Smith Point (unfinished)

Day 34: Snack Break on Davis Island

April 23, 2017

I’m going to guess that, all things considered, the Davis Island we saw yesterday is not so different than what William Selkrig found here in 1777. A British loyalist, he then received a royal land grant, but quickly learned how precarious our dreams of land use can be. Seized by Americans, Selkrig found his farm was empty when he returned: local Indians -- the land's first inhabitants -- had claimed his property as their own. Later, the new American government refused to honor Selkrig’s British grant, so he left the region for elsewhere.

We stopped at Davis Island at my request; I wanted to at least stand in a place that had defeated so many land owner’s dreams.

The island is named for Joseph Davis -- older brother to Jefferson Davis, U.S. Senator, and later president of the Confederate States, who also had a home on the island. Davis, who acquired land here in 1818, had unusual views for the time. He trained his slaves to read and write -- and many other skills; he built them a hospital; when they were accused on infractions, he had them tried by a jury of peers. (Don’t mistake this for a more moral position: still Davis viewed other human beings as things to own. He just believed he’d get more work, and better value, if he treated them halfway well.)

During the Civil War, the island was used as a freedman’s colony; afterwards, Benjamin Montgomery, one of the most talented of Davis’s former bits of property, bought up the plantation and tried to run it as a cooperative, black-owned farm. Again and again, these utopian visions were defeated by the same villain: lazy neighbors who failed to build a solid levee on the next farm up the road. When the floods came, that failure meant the water poured onto the land.

The work that’s done to turn riverside land to a plantation could be justly called geoengineering: you build up a wall; drain the landscape of water; alter the soil; introduce a whole new ecosystem. Geoengineering is almost always compromised by one challenge: if one group fails to cooperate, the whole thing isn’t going to work. (Later that afternoon, I read a New York Times article that mentioned potential "irreconcilable geopolitical frictions" that might beset any attempt to fight climate change.)

On Earth Day, on Davis Island, this was a worthy insight: saving an ecosystem -- or a whole planet -- requires more than connecting people with the land. It requires connecting people with each other: collaboration, cooperation, working hand in hand.

Under the current regime, Davis Island appears to be doing just fine. The current private owners run it as a hunting camp and timber operation, one of the busiest we’ve seen. Still, it’s nice to see its woods in bloom. I granted myself a bit of that bloom: as we stood on the riverbank -- protected forever by a public easement -- I helped myself to a snack of the dewberries growing there.

Beaver, Towboats, Passing Storm, Choctaw Island Bar (unfinished sketch)

Day 33: Drifting

April 21, 2017

I've read before that on any expedition one eventually, inevitably reaches the point of despair. Though I forgot that concept when we launched, perhaps because I thought of this as much more of an -- I don't know, let's say a jaunt -- than anything like Shackleton's journey to the South Pole.

And let me not be woeful: I'm quite far from despair. But I have felt at times this week a sort of impatience -- a why-aren't-we-there-yet, why-isn't-this-campsite-perfect, does-no-one-have-their-paddles-in-the-water whinyness that I at least know to keep inside. These are the kinds of complaints I almost never make out there in the workaday world. Often it doesn't even occur to me to make such complaints; but maybe what I'm finding is that they're down there after all, and now they are closer to the surface.

But today I let that go. Today I stopped counting miles, or worrying about when we'd hit the shore. Outside the landing near Tallulah, Louisiana, we just set the paddles down and drifted. I lay back on the bow of the canoe, backwards -- with my feet on the seat and my head dangling over the water. It struck me that this river is at once very fast and very slow, though I'm not sure there's anything meaningful in that observation.

Moon, Morning Coffee, Choctaw Island Bar (unfinished sketch)

Now we are camped at Delta Point, just across from the mouth of the Yazoo River. This, then, is the tail end of the Delta, and there is evidence here of its many pasts: there is a casino, just across the water, gussied up to look like a steamship -- a sort of boat that we so often forgot is emblematic of an era of cotton and slaves. There is the top tip of an obelisk, just barely visible on the bluff, our tiny view of the military park. There is the highway bridge, and the railway bridge, and a radio tower: modernity arrived. I thought for a moment that there was nothing visible, though, that represents the long past -- before cotton and slavery and war and cell phones -- the great Native societies that were centered in this valley, and long ago forgotten. (Perhaps I should note: I'm working on a magazine story about ancient cultures in the Delta, and so it's slightly less odd that my mind would turn to such things.)

Later, after nightfall -- before I dove into my humid tent, the only way to avoid the descending mosquitoes -- I found the lights of the casino's parking lot, strangely, one of the most beautiful elements in the tableau. Certainly its more beautiful from afar than from within: from the river it is a stack of yellow lights, arranged in an array, reflecting out across the water. The reflections, I noticed, were cut by the riffles of the fast-moving water: and there, I realized, in the fast-moving river, was evidence of that otherwise forgotten past -- and also the present, and also the future of this valley.

For more of Boyce’s writing, photographs, stories in magazines, and other essays and links, go to Between the Levees: "America's Great, Misbehaving River - and its Walled-In Wild"

Go to:

Chris Battaglia’s Villageurs:

Expedition Film-Maker Chris Battaglia (Magique) expedition website:

Check it out at:

Voyageurs, Pelicans, Paddlefish, Gar, Red-Eared Turtle, Great Arch (Unfinished)

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