J500 Media and the Environment


An afternoon on the Mississippi by justinlev7
February 20, 2009, 4:59 pm
Filed under: Food + Health, Nature + Travel

He was just a feller, worked on the river most days, teaching himself the pulse of the Mississippi. When he wasn’t shoveling coal he’d hang off the stern rail, near the paddle wheel, and enjoy the breeze whipping his hair and  the sour river air curling in his nostrils.

A children's book by Gavin Coates.

An inspiring book from my childhood.

Brown  rust  stained his calloused hands, the same hands he used to pluck at his banjo for the  rich passengers on their way to New Orleans as they drank aperitifs on the forward deck. Their spare change and wrinkled bills he used to buy  lemonades to keep him cool during his day off down in Cape Girardeau, which he spent baking in the Missouri sun, on the bank of the river,  picking out tunes.

The Indian crouching farther down the bank was somber, expressionless. He must’ve lived past his 30s but can’t’ve been older than 55, and his eyes flickered here and there in his gentle, unwrinkled face. The feller’d glance at him now and again, but the Indian stayed stock still, gazing out upon the river, silent, so the feller let him be and turned his eyes to the water as well. The current shifted, leaving scattered driftwood in spinning eddies that would break and re-form and  leave lines of silt and foam in their wake. Shapes would appear for a moment, pause, then melt under the intractable will of the water, leaving no sign they had ever existed. A heavy silence fell between the two men, as turbulent and meaningful as the forms moving  past, and weighed upon them with the implacable sense that time was passing them by.

And as they rested, picking banjo tunes and watching the river, time did pass them by. Fog settled on the water and they witnessed the sun set, rise, and set again, back and forth, faster and faster until the colors blurred and the scene took on a sepia tone and ceased to change. Loyal steamboats and their low steam whistles became scarce, and when they disappeared, so did the crowds of affluent New Orleans-bound folks, who began to take trains, then cars, then planes. Tall buildings rose on either side of the river, and farms spanned the vast countryside.

Then, droughts and dust storms wracked the farmland, driving folks west to fertile land, and the Indian’s ever-moving eyes flickered with concern. He stood to watch; the feller started a new tune. Rich men flung themselves from tall buildings and died for their money; young men flung themselves into war boats and  died overseas. Cities became squat and spread out, linked together by a system of concrete roads. Farmers sprayed chemicals in their ever-shrinking fields, and city people began to drain oil from the  earth and tear-gas their rebellious children.  The feller packed up  his banjo and stood to watch.

When the fertile land in the west began to dry up and New Orleans and southern Florida began to sink  into the tempestuous Pacific, the Indian turned to the feller, who now had tears running down his cheeks. The Indian glanced at the river, where shapes spun and broke and formed and re-formed under a glimmering amber haze. Its water was just as it had been — muddy and fast, stained with silt and foam.  What had become of the  steamboats with their loads of coal and paddle wheels and whistles? What had the rich passengers done with their wads of wrinkled bills?  The Indian looked into the eyes of the feller, put his hand on his shoulder, and spoke, “Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish caught…”

He took the feller’s hand and placed in it a nut. “…will we realize that we cannot eat money.” The Indian then turned and walked away, disappearing into the distance.

Justin Leverett is (shhh!) secretly channeling John Hartford.

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5 Comments so far
Leave a comment

This story has great imagery. I can see everything that you describe. It also reminds me of “the city of reality” in “The Phantom Tollbooth” if you’ve ever read that. (And if you haven’t, you should!)

Comment by Lauren Keith

That’s beautiful, Justin. When was the last time you had a pause to watch the world like those two do? Everything moves so quickly, I feel like if we only stepped back, we would see what they see.

Comment by brennad87

thanks Brenna! You know what’s odd, Lauren, someone else this very weekend was telling me how great the Phantom Tollbooth was. I’ve got to find a copy!!

Comment by justinl7

Beautiful.

Simran

Comment by j500

Vivid an compelling imagery– and a lovely Mississipian voice so reminiscent of Twain. And a lesson that makes me feel like I taught you something worthwhile to know.

Comment by Elizabeth Herman




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