Mapping the conflict between man and the Mississippi

Is the Mississippi River, as Mark Twain saw it, a living organism, "the body of the nation"?

Or is it, as the Army Corps of Engineers saw it, a plumbing problem to be solved?

Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning Anuradha Mathur spent much of the last four years traveling through the lower Mississippi Basin - both in person and via maps and historical documents - in search of answers to that question. The result of her effort to bridge that wide dichotomy is now on display in the "Mississippi Horizons" exhibit in Meyerson Hall.

While the silk-screen prints, photographs and paintings in the exhibit are laden with metaphor and symbolism, Madhur's interest in examining the Mississippi Basin environment grew out of more practical concerns. "I had proposed some projects to lessen the destruction in the floodplains of Bangladesh," the Bangladeshi native explained, "and the response I got was 'It's the poorest country in the world - it can't control its floods.' Then the 1993 floods hit the Midwest, and I thought, This is the richest country in the world, and it can't control its floods."

This in turn inspired her to look at the places where Americans have tried to control their principal river. That search led her not to the Midwestern region hit by the 1993 flood, but to the river's lower reaches, where nearly six decades of Federal projects have tried to achieve multiple goals: to make the river's flow more efficient, to protect the economy of southern Louisiana, and to prevent a recurrence of the disastrous flood of 1927.

Her travels led her to the Delta region of northeast Mississippi - "the richest land in the country with the poorest people you can find," she called it; to the stretch between the Atchafalaya River and New Orleans, which has been dubbed "the American Ruhr" because of the petrochemical facilities that line its banks; and to the actual delta of the river itself, the site of the earliest, and probably most successful, American intervention in the river's course, the Eads Jetties of 1878 that let the South Pass of the river scour out its own shipping channel.

All of the engineering projects along the lower Mississippi share a common vision: to transform an indeterminate, shifting river - and by extension the landscape around it - to something fixed and permanent. This, Madhur suggests, is somewhat foolish: "The question should be, How do we navigate [around] the landscape rather than control it?"

Madhur spent some time with people who know the answer: the pilots of the barges that ply the river, who learn how to "read" its curves and channels. But she also spent much time examining the projects based on the opposite view, such as the now-abandoned scale model of the Mississippi Basin the Corps of Engineers built outside Jackson, Miss., in the 1950s.

Madhur is not opposed to engineering projects on principle: "They're doing what they're paid to do," she said. But she feels that some projects have had unfortunate results, and that others will ultimately prove futile: "The river claims back its meanders," she said.

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Originally published on October 1, 1998