The River is a Strong Brown God
[Author’s Note: In the comments below, reader Dexter, who’s down in Louisiana, offers a correction: “The Mississippi did not have anything to do with this flood. It is basically a 1000 year rain event that overwhelmed the Comite, Amite, and the Tickfaw with those rivers back washing the bayous that fed them.” He further suggests: “If you feel like donating I would recommend Red Cross because they are on the ground. Mostly what is needed are diapers, water and food.” —JLW]
I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.
His rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom,
In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard,
In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.
–T. S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages” (from Four Quartets)
Hidden behind the Olympics, behind the daily box scores of election polls and polling models, behind the reality-show vanity that is Donald Trump’s presidential bid, behind everything currently above the fold in the New York Times (behind everything, to paraphrase the poet Louis Zukofsky, that matters or does not matter a damn)—the parishes around Baton Rouge are underwater.
This is the Mississippi [see correction above — JLW], the “strong brown god” of T. S. Eliot’s “The Dry Salvages,” that lurks, “implacable / Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder / Of what men choose to forget.” But river floods are not hurricanes or tornadoes—their rhythms seem, perhaps, more natural, less notable, whether in Louisiana or West Virginia—so we ignore them, sometimes, unless we’ve witnessed them ourselves.
I grew up in a house less than two miles from the banks of the Ohio, hearing stories about the flood of ‘37; even our synagogue displayed pictures of the water line in its original, downtown building. When I was nine, she flooded again, almost matching it. But by the 90s, Louisville had become suburban, and my neighborhood, unlike the old downtown, sprawls along hills well above the water line. The waters by us crested about a mile inland and one day we went after school, our usual route along the river impassable, of course, to stand in the hillside parking lot of Chance Elementary and gaze out at the waters that had stopped, lapping over its welcome pavilion, twenty feet deep less than a mile from our home. The moss that grew on the top of the pavilion as the waters receded was still there, decades later, the last time I saw it—the river’s own mark of where it had been, where it would seek, some day, to surpass.
Rod Dreher, who recently moved with his family into Baton Rouge, has been offering powerful accounts of this week’s flood, its damages, and the ongoing but overwhelmed relief efforts—when he can, because cell towers are out and WiFi is hard to come by:
It is hard to find the words to describe what parts of south Louisiana are contending with right now. The flooding is Katrina-like. Livingston Parish, on the eastern border of Baton Rouge, is cut off. Hundreds and hundreds of houses are underwater. Cars and caskets are floating down city streets there. Places that have never flooded are underwater. My mom is hosting my cousin and her family, who got out of Livingston just ahead of the water, and into West Feliciana before Highway 61 was closed again when the water overtook the bridge.
Which has never happened.
And, after he and his son spent an afternoon at a Red Cross station:
The stories people told, my God. I recognized one burly man who came for jambalaya as the head of a family Lucas and I had helped off the chopper. “Where’d you come in from?” I said.
“Denham Springs,” he said. “We lost everything. Our house. Four cars.”
We lost everything. Over and over I heard this. My friend Kim from St. Francisville was working next to me. She served one man who was shaky and teary. “It doesn’t feel so good to lose everything,” he said.
Lucas served one old man a plate of jambalaya. He said to the guy, “Sir, can I make you another plate for somebody?”
“I don’t have nobody to take it to,” the old man said. “I lost my wife in the water.”
Think about that.
The people who came to my station were a picture of humanity. There were Vietnamese and Latino immigrants who barely spoke English. Black people. White people. Children. Lots of elderly. And you know, they were almost all unfailingly grateful. These were folks who had nothing left but the clothes on their backs, and what they were able to get onto the roof before the boat or the helicopter rescued them, but there they were thanking us volunteers for serving them food.
What do you even do with that?
There was a man from Livingston Parish who waited on his roof for a couple of days to be rescued, and when nobody came, he blew up an inflatable raft he had with him, and used that to get out of the flood and to dry land, or at least to a passing boat. He was using his raft as his mattress there in the shelter.
“This is way worse than Katrina for us in Baton Rouge,” the plainly exhausted officer said. “We had a bunch of people from New Orleans in the Pete Maravich Center and the LSU Fieldhouse, but we were all fine here. It’s different this time. This is our Katrina. And it’s gonna be worse tomorrow. The rivers are cresting, and there’s gonna be all this back flow coming at people. A lot of places that are dry today are gonna be underwater tomorrow, and people aren’t even expecting it.
Meanwhile, watching the rain come down, far from the South, as I wrote this, I kept thinking of Randy Newman singing (always the perfect whiskey to pair with Eliot):
Featured Image by Kevin Woolsey Photography via Wikimedia Commons