Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Rising Waters

I woke up last night to the sound of rain, and hail, yet again. This has been the wettest summer I can ever remember. Nor have we ever had hail past St. Patrick’s Day until this year. The pea and nickel-sized pellets have been thrown from an angry and wind-tossed sky which hasn’t been clear for more than a few days at a time. That's a picture I took of my finger next to a piece of hail.

The good news is...this is the year my husband got interested in gardening, and our yard is brimming over with flowers. Our lawn is lush and green. The pots on my deck are full of petunias, cock's comb, salvia, coleus, ivy, potato vine, tomatoes, dill, and basil. We've hardly had to water at all.

But others aren't enjoying the wet. Each day, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch displays charts of where the Mississippi is bound to overtop the levees. Each morning, I open the paper to photos of people trying to save their belongings from mud and sludge filled homes.

I think back to the glorious road – The River Road – which runs along the Mississippi, forming a border between Missouri and Illinois. My husband and I traveled along it last fall to go eagle spotting. I remember the stone houses in Grafton, perched on cliffs above the mighty, murky river. “What a beautiful place to live,” I told David. “To wake up each morning and see the barges push their way down river! To watch the baseball heads of the bald eagles as they float from treetop nest to catch fish! How cool is this?”

Our house is nearly an hour away from Grafton, west of St. Louis proper, atop a hill in a subdivision called Wild Horse in Chesterfield. The area was named for the ghosts of the mounts of the Hessian soldiers. The legend is that on moonlight nights you can see these brave horses roaming up and down the “valley.” We live here, in the land between the Missouri and the Mississippi Rivers, and until this spring we called 1993 “the year of the flood.” Back then, a portion of Highway 40, the main east-west corridor through St. Louis, was closed as water streamed over the top. Locals shared a much enjoyed anecdote about the snippy manager of a neighborhood bank who decided to borrow a boat and to try to retrieve items from an uppermost shelf of the vault. He stuck his hand into a nest of frogs and snakes who had swum to shelter. "Served him right," people muttered and laughed. He wasn't well-liked.

That bank never re-opened. Businesses along that route had never considered themselves on a flood plain, discovered too late that they were uninsured for rising waters. Hambys, a restaurant which prided itself on “throwed rolls,” also closed after the deluge. But another, Annie Gunn’s, managed to rebuild bigger and better.

Farther west, along Highway 94, near the Daniel Boone Homestead in Defiance, a skeleton floated to the top of the water and was later found in the mud. The story goes that this was the remains of an Indian, perhaps one of those that Boone met under The Justice Tree, an elm tree, where he worked as syndic or civil and military administrator for the Spanish. Further north, up river, near Cedar City, Missouri, a forgotten mid-nineteenth century cemetery of African Americans was dislodged. The bodies that floated to the surface were a reminder of a church and a people long forgotten.

I wonder, what will the river leave behind this year? It takes and it gives.

After the water dried in 1993, a group of savvy businessmen bought up all the land along the levees a few miles from our house, along Highway 40, and sold parcels to Wal-Mart, Target, I-HOP, Bob Evans, Taco Bell, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Golf Galaxy, Red Lobster, St. Louis Bread Co., the Kemp Auto Museum, Amini’s, and many, many more. Then, they developed what we call “The Valley.” I’ve been told that today this strip of shops is the longest shopping district in the world—and it lies in the shadow of the levees of the Missouri River. Yesterday, the local Suburban Journal announced an addition to the recreational trail, 17 miles long, that runs along those reinforced levees. There will be an asphalt path for walkers and bikers, and benches where we can sit…and wonder when the next “great flood” will come. What it will bring and what it will take away.


Mark Combes said...


I have kin folk that live along the Mississippi river. Thankfully all are safe and dry. But I guess the saying, "When it rains it pours" has some validity to it eh?

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Great post, Joanna. The harsh news about the flooding and your beautifully written commentary of the past reminds us that we are at the mercy of nature, and she can both bountiful and unforgiving.

Nina Wright said...

Joanna, your observation about the river is true of Nature in all her glory and terror: She gives, and she takes away. We can prevent or control very little.

I've faced that lesson with two tornadoes and four hurricanes. Thanks for reminding us to be humble, grateful, and accepting.

Felicia Donovan said...

Joanna, loved your vivid descriptions. Mother Nature has been trying to tell us all to stop and listen for some time now. If only we would all learn to listen to her...

Kathryn Lilley said...

Great post! I think we're going to have to relearn how to live with Mother Nature, and try to avoid building in flood plains, fire-prone canyons, or on top of earth quake faults. Unless we have lots of insurance, that is!

Jess Lourey said...

Beautiful, Joanna. We are going to start having to respect our natural world instead of trying to dominate it.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

My husband reminded me last night that the levees by "the Valley" are 500 year levees.

"That means," he said, "that we won't worry about flooding for 500 years, because we've passed the water along to some less fortunate community down river from us."

It made me sad, because it was true.