Posts Tagged With: louisiana

“The Mississippi River is out of joint”: fusing floods and poetry

There is no such thing as an ideal river in Nature,

But the Mississippi River is out of joint.

Still image from The River shows a familiar scene.

As the Mississippi River flows well beyond its usual course, I cannot help but think of the poetry of Pare Lorentz’s documentary film, The River (1938). When I first saw the film, I was mesmerized by its hypnotic narration. Today, I find the poignancy of its images remarkable. Rushing muddy water, houses half-covered in stagnant ponds, dogs on the roofs of homes, and refugees in small boats drifting along what were once dry streets are all images I’ve seen in recent newscasts about the 2011 flooding of the same river.

Pare Lorentz was a film critic when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt hired him to oversee government films. After his portrayal of the Dust Bowl, The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936), the Farm Security Administration commissioned a film that would highlight the improvements to the Mississippi River and its valley since the devastating 1927 flood after which they created a series of locks and dams, levees and spillways, and harnessed the power of the river to bring electricity to impoverished rural areas.

With this pragmatic mission, Lorentz instead made poetry:

Pare Lorentz' 1938 film, The River.

From as far East as New York,

Down from the turkey ridges of the Alleghenies

Down from Minnesota, twenty five hundred miles,

The Mississippi River runs to the Gulf

The Mississippi River is a central environmental feature of the North American continent. Lorentz, inspired by a spiderweb-like map of the river and its tributaries, identifies every droplet of water that flows into its course:

The map that inspired Lorentz.

Down the Rock, the Illinois, and the Kankakee

The Allegheny, the Monongahela, Kanawha, and Muskingum;

Down the Miami, the Wabash, the Licking and the Green

The Cumberland, the Kentucky, and the Tennessee;

Down the Ouachita, the Wichita, the Red, and Yazoo.

Lorentz’s lyrical listing of ordinary rivers and streams rolls off the  tongue and builds a momentum akin to flowing water itself. Clips of such powerful white water that Lorentz filmed during the 1936 flood accompany the narration increasing in speed as they reach the main artery of the Mississippi.

Combining the environmental history of the Mississippi with its cultural past, The River captivates viewers through its juxtaposition of fact and emotion. Lorentz portrays the depletion of resources, the coming of steam power, and factory production with a mixture of patriotic pride and regret. Agriculture and deforestation depleted the valley’s topsoil and it washed easily away with the river. Harnessing its power for electricity made the river “work.” Even as Lorentz praises that mission, he mourns the continuing consequences of human activities along the river’s natural course:

1903 and 1907.

1913 and 1922.




We built a hundred cities and a

thousand towns –

But at what a cost!

  • Watch the full thirty minute film, The River, on the Internet Archive.
  • Read Lorentz’s Pulitzer Prize nominated script of The River at UVA’s American Studies Crossroads.
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The mystical atonality of New Orleans

Last time I attended New Orlean’s Jazz & Heritage Festival, more commonly known as “Jazzfest,” I heard an interview with a local musician, Clint Maedgen, who described riding his bike through the New Orleans streets. The jumble of noises began harmonically, he explained, then became a mystically atonal mixture of the calliope, the bands on Bourbon Street, and the hollers of revelers. The musician painted a surreal picture and, after a few days and nights wandering the French Quarter myself, I could think of no better way to describe it.

Street musicians bring a jumble of sounds to the French Quarter.

Bourbon Street, for all its notoriety, is compartmentalized. Those who wish to adorn their bars with neon lights and sell ridiculously large alcoholic concoctions are confined to one strip that, for the most part, keeps such vulgarities from spreading to other streets in the French Quarter. Walk one block over to Royal Street and it’s a different city, lined with dimly lit homes and eclectic antique stores. The French Quarter is, after all, an historic district.

Looking for the flavor of that history, last night I wandered to the end of the Bourbon chaos to an establishment said to be the oldest continually operating bar in the city—Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop.

A gas lamp and old-timey sign promise historical charm at Lafitte’s.

The eighteenth-century brick and mortar building is isolated about two blocks from any flashing lights, on the corner of Bourbon and St. Philip streets. The gas lamps dangling outside and its open doors framed by cream-colored shutters were inviting. As I stepped inside the L-shaped interior, a fire burned warmly in the double-sided fireplace at the center of the room, a welcome sight on this unusually chilled evening. All around were bare wooden tables and chairs with dim white candles burning and, in the back, a piano sat silent, begging to fill the room with blues. Hard wooden stools lined the bar that was warped with age.

The building dates to the 1700s and is said to have been owned by the pirate Jean Lafitte.

As the bartender poured hurricanes into plastic souvenir glasses, marking our proximity to Bourbon, I was disappointed at Lafitte’s modern allowances. Atop the bar, a bright video game screen distracted from the atmosphere with constantly moving shades of pink and blue and, behind the bar, a flat screen TV flashed its technology mockingly. Yet, Lafitte’s fits well within the French Quarter’s atonal performance. Its juxtaposition of new and old, of reverent and irreverent is what intrigues me about this town. It is what makes is simultaneously real and surreal.

On my last trip to New Orleans, my aimless wanderings led me to a storefront advertising healing goods and a voodoo museum. I was studying ethnobotany at the time so was thrilled to find an actual herbal practitioner. For about twenty minutes, I chatted with the owner—a tall lanky dark-haired Evan Dando whose girlfriend, claimed a news clipping on the wall, was the “Courtney Love of Voodoo Priestesses.” The walls were lined with books and glass jars of plant and animal specimens promising various “cures.” But the oddest thing about this shop was that I never saw it again. At first, I wasn’t looking. Then, when it seemed strange I hadn’t come across it, I began to look in earnest. I walked down what felt like every street in the neighborhood until it all became familiar. But the voodoo shop was absolutely gone.

I’ve been haunted by this ghost of New Orleans ever since.

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