People have been trying to engineer uncertainty out of the Mississippi for generations, building an ambitious system of levees to keep the river in check. But Mississippi poet and planter William Alexander Percy, in a 1941 reminiscence called “Lanterns on the Levee,” acknowledged that the river could be tamed only so much.
“Man draws near to it,” Percy wrote, “fights it, uses it, curses it, loves it, but it remains remote, unaffected. Between the fairy willows of the banks or the green slopes of the levees it moves unhurried and unpausing ... in spring, high and loud against the tops of the quaking levees.”
Percy wrote as a veteran of the Great Flood of 1927, a case study in the limits of human ingenuity. My generation got a similar reminder after Katrina, when levee failures left most of New Orleans underwater.
There’s no reason to believe that a catastrophe like that will shake my city because of current conditions on the river. Officials have been working hard to prepare our levees before the Mississippi’s expected crest in a few days, and the mood here is one of measured vigilance yet widespread calm.
But in these days of waiting, I’ve also been thinking of Twain’s recognition of the fragile relationship between the Mississippi and those who live near it. Glancing at levees along the river, Twain noted that there “is nothing but that frail breastwork of earth between the people and destruction.”
Danny Heitman, a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”