Books: Adrift in the Flow

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Review, May 1997

Books: Adrift in the Flow

By Miles Harvey

Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, by John M. Barry (Simon & Schuster, $28). This gripping account of the epic flood that killed at least a thousand people, left nearly a million homeless, and inundated an area roughly the size of New England is much more than a natural-disaster horror story. It's a tragic tale of decades of unwise dependence on levees and of the rivermen and engineers who spent lifetimes trying to corral the monstrous river. Take, for example, James Buchanan Eads, a shipbuilder who surveyed the river's murky depths in a jury-rigged diving bell made from a 40-gallon whiskey barrel, and who was said to know the Mississippi "more intimately than he had ever known any man or woman." Two centuries of holding back the water created a culture in which white farmers got rich off the fertile delta and African-American laborers suffered unspeakable horrors. "On the levees," writes Barry, "mules were worth more than blacks." But the 1927 flood, coming after months of torrential rains, had conseqences that reached well beyond the Deep South — and it is here that Rising Tide is most compelling. As Barry explains, the floodwaters sent blacks to the industrial North in record numbers; catapulted Herbert Hoover, who led the national flood-relief efforts, into the White House; and set the stage for a vastly expanded federal role in American life. The author doesn't attempt to address the long-term environmental ramifications of the disaster — the story John McPhee told in The Control of Nature — or to compare it with the devastating Mississippi flood of 1993. Still, this is a first-rate work, and given the recent predictions that this spring will see calamitous flooding throughout the country, a timely one.

River: One Man's Journey Down the Colorado, Source to Sea, by Colin Fletcher (Knopf, $30). It has been almost 30 years since Colin Fletcher, now 75, inspired legions of backpackers with the first edition of his classic handbook, The Complete Walker, and gave us a graceful narrative of his hike through the Grand Canyon in The Man Who Walked Through Time. In his latest irresistible chronicle, Fletcher decides in the late 1980s that "what I most wanted to do with my life just then was to follow a major river, under my own power, from its source to its mouth." After getting a couple of angioplasty operations out of the way, he buys an inflatable raft and sets out for the northern Rockies and the headwaters of the Colorado. The lone mariner rows past oil tanks on the Wyoming plains, watches a serene beaver family in Whirpool Canyon, floats through the blue-black "dead water" in Lake Powell, and comes to the suprising conclusion that the great waterway is "spoiled in places, true. But still not despoiled. Certainly not tamed." This book is as much a reflection on Fletcher's life as a habitual wanderer as it is a richly eventful river tale. Not until his raft spills out into the Gulf of Mexico, more than 1,000 miles downstream, however, do the two stories merge. Looking off into the "vast and open grayness" of the sea and realizing that his journey — and the river's — has come to a quiet end, he offers us a final musing: "If that's how dying was — well, all right."

Questions of Heaven: The Chinese Journeys of an American Buddhist, by Gretel Ehrlich (Beacon Press, $20). At the start of this book, Gretel Ehrlich notes that "the Chinese phrase for 'going on a pilgrimage,' ch'ao-shan chin-hsiang, actually means 'paying one's respect to the mountain.'" Upon arriving at a rat-infested monastery on Emei Shan, one of China's four holy Buddhist mountains, she is appalled to discover that the monks are listless students of the dharma and have little passion for their calling. "We chant twice a day," one tells her. "Then we watch television." Ehrlich, author of The Solace of Open Spaces and A Match to the Heart, travels eastward hoping to "pick up a scent" of the once-thriving religious culture whose sacred sites were transformed into tourist attractions — its monks and nuns imprisoned and temples defaced — under Mao. Ehrlich, who writes with tremendous grace and passion, reminds us that China's Buddhist civilization remains under siege. "Remember, use soft words," a Taoist musician warns her. "There is still danger for all of us."

In Light of India, by Octavio Paz, translated from the Spanish by Eliot Weinberger (Harcourt Brace, $22). India celebrates the 50th anniversary of its independence from Britain this year, which means we can expect a number of new books about the immense Asian subcontinent that's home to 900 million people, 15 official languages, and a multiformity of religions and political factions. This collection of new essays by Nobel Prize-winning Mexican poet Octavio Paz, who served as a diplomat in India in the fifties and sixties, is sure to be one of the best. Exploring a range of topics from "the undeniable similarity between curry and mole" to divergent Western and Eastern notions of time, In Light of India rarely fails to fascinate. Paz himself considers the book "nothing more than a long footnote" to his complex and sensual poetry on India, much of which has been collected in A Tale of Two Gardens (New Directions, $8).

Photograph by Clay Ellis

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