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Of Myths and the Mississippi River

September 20, 2013Patrick NunnallyFormer Featured Posts, Program & AnnouncementsComments Off on Of Myths and the Mississippi River

DSC_9569All the stories about record alligators being caught and killed in the Mississippi River recently (Google “alligator Mississippi River” and you get 568,000 hits) has got me thinking about myths and the Mississippi River.  Students of the river’s folklore will of course remember Mike Fink, the mythical riverboatman who was “half horse, half alligator and can whip [his] weight in wildcats.”  So that’s one kind of myth, the exaggerated story that’s not true in any exact way but that speaks to the ethos of a time and place.  Minnesotans have Paul Bunyan, and so forth.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn offers another kind of myth, a narrative that speaks to something almost ineffable that describes core beliefs, values, or structures of knowledge. (the university’s back in session, can you tell?)  As scholars have shown for generations, Mark Twain’s master work speaks to deeply held American views on freedom, journeys, the ability to “light out for the territory,” as well as central 19th century moral qualms about race and slavery.  We could go on, but won’t.

But there’s something going on–maybe just Twain revisited, maybe something else–when we read things like “she (a photographer with a web project) “travels the Great River Road and finds America.”   There’s mythmaking at hand when a group of ten young adults and a videographer set off from the river’s headwaters in canoes to visit towns and cities and ask “How do you interact with the Mississippi?

After all, this is no ordinary river; it’s the Mississippi (interject Mighty before Mississippi if you must).

And that’s my point: have we so overladen the physical river with stories, queries, Deep Meanings (or cliches)–with myths, in short–that we can no longer see it?  Maybe more important, do our myths of the Mississippi keep us from taking the actions that are needed for the river to thrive?

This will be a counterintuitive question for many, if not most, of you.  We don’t know enough about the Mississippi, it could be argued, and there’s truth there.  We don’t love it enough, and more people need to know more and care more about it for us to undertake the right policies to save it, as hundreds of not thousands of people are dedicated to doing every day.

It remains worth asking, though:  what are our contemporary myths of the Mississippi?  What stories about the river are told by people who have never heard of Mark Twain or seen a paddleboat?  What does the Mississippi mean, to whom, and so what?

These are questions that will take up much of our attention here at River Life for the foreseeable future, as we embark on a program funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation called the Sawyer Seminar.  For the next 18-24 months, we’ll engage in a range of activities that explore questions such as those listed above, as well as broader contextual inquiries on how we see ourselves as humans who must learn to steward our water carefully in the face of a changing planet.

We’ll get to all that in due time.  For now, tell us your myths of the Mississippi.  We’ll start with the “easy” part!


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