Today’s post comes to us from Christopher Morris (PhD, 1991), a history professor at the University of Texas-Arlington and a graduate of UF’s doctoral program in history. We asked Professor Morris to fill us in on his new book, which we are very proud to link to via the image to the right.
The Big Muddy
by Christopher Morris
I had nearly completed my environmental history of the lower Mississippi Valley, the section of the river below the mouth of the Ohio River, when Hurricane Katrina struck and New Orleans flooded. For a moment I tried to ignore the event as I completed my final chapters, but in the end I simply could not avoid it. If, I asked myself, my history of the interaction between people and environment in the Mississippi Valley, which included New Orleans, after all, left me with nothing to say about the disaster at that moment playing out on my television, then what good was my book? What good was environmental history? Not much good at all, was my answer. I had to extend my book project to include the Katrina disaster. But writing a history that would help explain a specific current event was not what I had originally set out to do, nor was I trained to write such a history. Most historians write about the past and leave it to their readers to infer connections to the present. I was stepping onto foreign ground.
The argument I was making in Big Muddy was this: for over ten thousand years the lower Mississippi Valley was wet, in fact, it was one of the wettest places in North America, or any continent for that matter. Then, rather suddenly in the scheme of things, it was dry. Beginning with French landowners and their enslaved laborers in the eighteenth century and culminating with the Army Corps of Engineers and their bulldozers in the twentieth century, people drained the floodplain and separated it from the river. What had been a valley of mud, a vast and very wet land—in some places more wet, in others more land, but everywhere in the valley a mixture of both—was reconfigured so that dry land lay on one side of the levee and water on the other side. The entire natural environment of the lower Mississippi Valley was reconfigured. The Big Muddy re-imagines the Mississippi Valley as a naturally wet place, and the drying of the valley as the repression of the valley’s true nature. Such disasters as the Great Flood of 1927 and the flood of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina were, I argue, the consequences of a normal and natural Mississippi Valley struggling to make itself heard from behind the levee. Nothing in the Mississippi Valley is more natural than floods. The real tragedy, therefore, is that people in the valley, and across the nation have in recent times forgotten that truth and are thus so ill-prepared for water when it returns to the land.
To me, the situation of the 2005 Katrina disaster within the long history of disasters was obvious. It was just one more. I learned, moreover, that before the valley was so thoroughly dried floods and droughts were not regarded as natural disasters. Or at least they were not described by those who lived through them in terms such as the people used to describe disasters like the Great Flood of 1927 and then Katrina in 2005.
And so, my final conclusion, the one that made this particular environmental history so worthwhile to me, and I hope to readers: The long history of the valley suggests ways of living with its wetness. When the Spanish first arrived, native populations in many places lived off their harvests of corn. But in the lowest and wettest reaches of the Mississippi Valley, some of the most complex cultures of North America thrived off of small animals, water fowl, fish, and shellfish, all creatures of the wetlands. For the Plaquemine people, agriculture was an afterthought, so ecologically productive were the wetlands. The French and many people they imported from West Africa adapted to the wetlands when they began to plant rice, which they ate with fish and shellfish in a dish that came to be known as gumbo. Only later, and gradually, did the French begin to dry the land for indigo and sugar. Even then, they prepared for floods by, among other things, building homes upon stilts, and in New Orleans, building upper stories. American farmers invested all in a crop, cotton, that cannot tolerate floods. Urban residents built homes closer to the ground. And yet the flooding continued. The promises of a dry valley were never quite kept. Wet nature kept returning.
Since the collapse of the cotton economy in the mid-twentieth century the cost of keeping the valley dry hardly seems worthwhile. On many former cotton fields are catfish and crawfish ponds, and wet rice fields. Rice has replaced cotton as king in the lower valley. In many ways the valley has returned to its former self, sort of. That is to say, it is wetter now than it has been for over a century, and yet it is more productive and profitable than ever. Problems remain, but the primary one of learning to accept the valley’s true nature is being addressed.
Big Muddy does not suggest that we need to return to the days of the mound building Plaquemine culture that Hernando de Soto witnessed. But it does argue that the nation must divest itself of the dry valley, and carefully invest in the wet valley, and that this is possible because other people have done it before.