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For several years I've had a tee-shirt with a rather extraordinary picture on it. The design was sharp and continuous when the shirt was new, but multiple washings have battered and peeled it. Now the face of the Mardi Gras princess almost seems to be looking out though a heavy rain shower:


Nothing lasts forever, neither a shirt nor a city. John McPhee in his 1987 book The Control of Nature writes about the unsustainable attempts made by humans to keep a great river from following its natural course:

The Mississippi River, with its sand and silt, has created most of Louisiana, and it could not have done so by remaining in one channel. If it had, southern Louisiana would be a long narrow peninsula reaching into the Gulf of Mexico. Southern Louisiana exists in its present form because the Mississippi River has jumped here and there within an arc about two hundred miles wide, like a pianist playing with one hand—frequently and radically changing course, surging over the left or the right bank to go off in utterly new directions. Always it is the river's purpose to get to the Gulf by the shortest and steepest gradient. As the mouth advances southward and the river lengthens, the gradient declines, the current slows, and sediment builds up the bed. Eventually, it builds up so much that the river spills to one side. Major shifts of that nature have tended to occur roughly once a millennium. The Mississippi's main channel of three thousand years ago is now the quiet water of Bayou Teche, which mimics the shape of the Mississippi. Along Bayou Teche, on the high ground of ancient natural levees, are Jeanerette, Breaux Bridge, Broussard, Olivier—arcuate strings of Cajun towns. Eight hundred years before the birth of Christ, the channel was captured from the east. It shifted abruptly and flowed in that direction for about a thousand years. In the second century a.d., it was captured again, and taken south, by the now unprepossessing Bayou Lafourche, which, by the year 1000, was losing its hegemony to the river's present course, through the region that would be known as Plaquemines. By the nineteen-fifties, the Mississippi River had advanced so far past New Orleans and out into the Gulf that it was about to shift again, and its offspring Atchafalaya was ready to receive it. By the route of the Atchafalaya, the distance across the delta plain was a hundred and forty-five miles—well under half the length of the route of the master stream.

For the Mississippi to make such a change was completely natural, but in the interval since the last shift Europeans had settled beside the river, a nation had developed, and the nation could not afford nature. The consequences of the Atchafalaya's conquest of the Mississippi would include but not be limited to the demise of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans. With its fresh water gone, its harbor a silt bar, its economy disconnected from inland commerce, New Orleans would turn into New Gomorrah. Moreover, there were so many big industries between the two cities that at night they made the river glow like a worm. ...

McPhee concludes:

... For nature to take its course was simply unthinkable. The Sixth World War would do less damage to southern Louisiana. Nature, in this place, had become an enemy of the state.

It may soon be time to think the unthinkable. Mardi Gras—"fat Tuesday"—is the last party before serious belt-tightening begins ...

(see "Atchafalaya" from The New Yorker issue of 23 Feb 1987; cf. CommemoraTees (24 Apr 2001), IndianRiver (30 Jul 2004), GeekyTee (30 Sep 2004), GeekyTee2 (31 Oct 2004), ...)

TopicArt - TopicLiterature - TopicScience - Datetag20051005

(correlates: GeekyTee2, UnimaginableTimelessness, FirstYearWorstYear, ...)