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.

Whatever you think of Dreher’s politics, this is beyond them.  Read the rest.  He suggests donating to the Red Cross, if you can.

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


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J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he studies literature and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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17 thoughts on “The River is a Strong Brown God

  1. “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.”

    I assume you are talking about the ’97 flood? And you were only 9? Dang, I thought you were older than that! I was 22 at the time and remember it well. We were at a friend’s cabin on the Salt River and (true story!) one of the guys had dropped acid and was up all night. At 6am he woke us up to tell us the river was getting ready to come over the bank. We hustled to our cars and drove back to Louisville, realizing when we got there just how bad it was. But, as you say, it wasn’t like Louisiana. It was a spectator flood. We just went downtown to gawk at the flooded parking garages.

    I was rendered weepy the other night when I saw a young black man in a Bob Marley shirt helping an elderly white man to safety. And seeing people of all races filling sandbags and helping their neighbors. Why is it that Americans are at our best in the face of adversity?

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  2. What do you even do with that?

    Because

    “Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding under-current of our natural state.

    To have a temporary, isolated sense of power over all events and circumstances, is one of the privileges and the prime conceits of being human and especially of being youthfully human, but a privilege that must be surrendered with that same youth, with ill health, with accident, with the loss of loved ones who do not share our untouchable powers; powers eventually and most emphatically given up, as we approach our last breath.” (Quote from David Whyte)

    Seems to me the final residue of our humanity, of our human-ness, is what’s left of our selves and our journey after we experience significant loss, which can and will afflict us all in the end.

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  3. I am sure glad you have the time to sit around and discuss your age while Louisiana is basically getting stomped by a slow moving disaster. My mother in law has aged five years since Saturday. Three of her daughters, one granddaughter and I spent they day cleaning out my mother in law’s house. Tomorrow there will be more help, but we are at least two months from having her back home.
    I spent two hours working on a fantastic roll top desk made by her deceased husband today and hopefully will be able to get it back to its before the flood condition.
    I hope I did not come off too harsh, but, your age bash sorta pissed me off. There has been an estimated 40,000 houses hit by this flood and lots of them did not have insurance while you sit at your air conditioned computer and go “Oh, you are such a puppy.” You do not have a fucking clue.

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    • Many of us have been through natural disasters, and I’m sorry for all that you and your family are going through in this one. In addition to donating to Red Cross, as J. L. suggested, are there other things you’d like to see us doing to contribute?

      In my experience, it’s fairly normal for people to josh each other about unrelated things when a tragedy is occurring. It’s a way of catching one’s breath, almost? I’m sure Mike wasn’t trying to blow off the seriousness of what’s happening, or disrespect your family.

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    • Dexter,

      Offense was certainly the last thing I meant to give. I wrote this post precisely because I’ve been pacing around our apartment in a fury for the last few days because it hasn’t been considered national news. (That seems to be changing — the NYT appears to have finally realized it’s a big deal this morning.) Mike and I tend to shift pretty quickly toward Louisville memory/nostalgia/chat whenever we interact — it’s just a natural part of our online conversation by now, something that’s almost muscle memory (at least on my end). I think the age talk was part of that. But you’ve got every right to be a little pissed, in general and at a comment thread that could understandably be read as undermining the seriousness of the event, given that it was the bulk of the comments at the time. I’m sure I speak for Mike when I say that doing so was the last thing either of us intended.

      And thank you for the correction on the nature of the flood. You’ll see it reflected in the post above shortly.

      I’m relieved to hear that, all other things considered, you and your family are at least physically safe.

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      • , Once again sorry for the rant. I do have the same problem as you about the lack of coverage on this flood. This is a big deal. The local news were carrying nothing but flood so when I went to CNN and MSNBC all they would talk about was the Yammering Yam’s latest fleck of effluvia.
        Another problem is that, instead of us dealing with our usual insurance guy, everything has been shifted to Fema and, as of now and after three days of trying, all we can get is a busy signal. We have known our insurance guy for over thirty years and after Gustav he was there the next day. I had zero problems with his estimates.

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        • A technical aside, I doubt Gustav could be answering the calls from 40,000 households with his customary speed.

          FEMA and federal disaster assistance is available also for those without flood insurance, which apparently is the majority of affected people. Plus, no matter who fronts it, flood insurance is a federal program. Gustav would be sending the paperwork back to the federals.

          I understand it’s frustrating that FEMA doesn’t have the manpower to man the phone lines in an emergency like this (and perhaps some charity should look at helping FEMA in that respect; it’s a very useful thing for victims, and could be set up anywhere in the country), but having FEMA coordinate the federal monetary aid seems the logical way to go.

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            • , Argh, I am not in the least bit angry at Fema. One of the ancients had a minor break down and I had to go retrieve her before I did my usual rereads. The octogenarians are having the hardest time dealing with this.

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  4. , Like I said I hope I did not come off too harsh, but this is a very serious disaster. Plus, while the water did not get in our house, it got high enough that it trashed all the duct work, so we have been with no ac since Friday night and while it is not as hot as after Katrina, it is summer in Lousy Sauna. Again, sorry for the rant.
    A side note. 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.
    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.

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