Some environmental comments from Mark Twain

Submitted: Sep 21, 2014
By: 
Badlands Journal editorial board

 As the drought crisis grows and the flood of scientific-technological fixes flow through the media, we thought to consult Mark Twain on the nature of a relationship between humanity and water, which is the opposite of the one we Far Westerners are experiencing at the moment.

Mark Twain returned to the Mississippi River where he had been a steamboat pilot after a 21-year absence. We meet him on the packet Gold Dust a few miles upstream from Memphis about to listen to an oration about the river and the Army Corps of Engineers projects on it after the Civil War. Uncle Mumford is second officer on the Gold Dust. -- blj

 Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain,(1874)  pp. 234-238

...One who knows the Mississippi will promptly aver -- not aloud but to himself -- that ten thousand River Commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it, "Go here," or "Go there," and make it obey; cannot save a shore which it has sentenced; cannot bar its path with an obstruction which it will not tear down, dance over, and laugh at.  But a discreet man will not put these things into spoken words; for the West Point engineers have not their superiors anywhere; they know all that can be known of their abstruse science; and so, since they conceive that they can fetter and handcuff that river and boss him, it is but wisdom for the unscientific man to keep still, lie low, and wait till they do it. Captain Eads, with his jetties, has done a work at the mouth of the Mississippi which seemed clearly impossible; so we do not feel full confidence now to prophesy against like impossibilities. Otherwise, one would pipe out and say the Commission might as well bully the comets in their courses and undertake to make them behave, as try to bully the Mississippi into right and reasonable conduct.

I consulted Uncle Mumford  concerning this and cognate matters; and I give here the result, stenographically reported, and therefore to be relied on as being full and correct; except that I have here and there left out remarks which were addressed to the men, such as " Where in blazes are you going with that barrel now?" ...

UNCLE MUMFORD'S IMPRESSIONS

Uncle Mumford said:

"As long as I have been mate of a steamboat -- thirty years -- I have watched this river and studied it. Maybe I could have learned more about it at West Point, but if I believe it I wish I may beWHAT are you sucking your fingers there for?--Collar that kag of nails!  Four years at West Point, and plenty of books and schooling, will learn a man a good deal, I reckon, but it won't learn him the river. You turn one of those little European rivers over to the Commission, with its hard bottom and clear water, and it would just be a holiday job for them to wall it, and pile it, and dike it, and tame it down, and boss it around, and make it go wherever they wanted it to, and stay where they put it, and do just as they said, every time. But this ain't that kind of a river. They have started in here with big confidence, and the best intentions in the world; but they are going to get left. What does Ecclesiastes vii 13 say? Says enough to knock their little game galley-west, don't it? Now you look at their methods once. There at Devil's Island, in the Upper River, they wanted the water to go one way, the water wanted to go another. So they put up a stone wall. But what does the river care for a stone wall? When it got ready, it just bulged through it. Maybe they can build another that will stay; that is, up there--but not down here they can't. Down here in the Lower River, they drive some pegs to turn the water away from the shore and stop it from slicing off the bank; very well, don't it go straight over and cut somebody else's bank? Certainly. Are they going to peg all the banks? Why, they could buy ground and build a new Mississippi cheaper. They are pegging Bulletin Tow-head now. It won't do any good. If the river has got a mortgage on that island, it will foreclose, sure; pegs or no pegs. Away down yonder, they have driven two rows of piles straight through the middle of a dry bar half a mile long, which is forty foot out of the water when the river is low.
What do you reckon that is for? If I know, I wish I may land inHUMP yourself, you son of an undertaker~ -- out with that coal-oil,  now lively, LIVELY! And just look at what they are trying to do down there at Milliken's Bend. There's been a cut-off in that section, and Vicksburg is left out in the cold. It's a country town now. The river strikes in below it; and a boat can't go up to the town except in high water. Well, they are going to build wing-dams in the bend opposite the boot of the island and plow down into an old ditch where the river used to be in ancient times; and they think they can persuade the water around that way, and get it to strike in above Vicksburg, as it used to do, and fetch the town back into the world again. That is, they are going to take this whole Mississippi, and twist it around and make it run several miles up-stream. Well, you've got to admire men that deal in ideas of that size and can tote them around without crutches; but you haven't got to believe they can do such miracles have you? And yet, you ain't absolutely obliged to believe they can't. I reckon the safe way, where a man can afford it, is to copper the operation, and at the same time buy enough property in Vicksburg to square you u in case they win. Government is doing a deal for the Mississippi now--speaking loads of money on her. When there used to be four thousand steamboats and ten thousand acres of coal-barges, and rafts, and trading0scows, there wasn't a lantern from St. Paul to New Orleans, and the snags were thicker than bristles on a hog's back; and now, when there's three dozen steamboats and nary barge or raft, government has snatched out all the snags, and lit up the shores like Broadway, and a boat's as safe on the river as she'd be in heaven. And I reckon that by the time there ain't any boats left at all, the Commission will have the old thing all reorganized, and dredged out, and fenced in, and tidied up, to a degree that will make navigation just simply perfect, and absolutely safe and profitable; and all the days will be Sundays, and all the mates will be Sunday-school suWHAT - in - the - nation - you - fooling - around - there-for, you sons of unrighteousness, heirs of perdition! Going to be a YEAR getting that hogshead ashore?"

 

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