To see more images of Hodding Carter's 300-mile ride down the Mississippi at flood stage, check out guide John Ruskey's blog at Deltabohemian.com.
It was my grandfather, the second W. Hodding Carter, who taught me to love the Delta, and in particular Greenville, which for decades was its most prominent city. He was owner and editor of the Delta Democrat Times, and he always called things as he saw them—which, in the immediate post–World War II era, meant arguing in favor of equal education for “Negroes.” His outspoken editorials won him a Pulitzer Prize, as well as lifelong enemies like the White Citizens’ Council, a bastion of militant resistance to desegregation that assailed him during the 1950s and ’60s with threatening anonymous phone calls and advertiser boycotts.
His escape? The river, including Lake Ferguson, which had formed between the Mississippi and the rebuilt town of Greenville when the Corps cut off an oxbow from the main channel in the 1930s. Big, as we called my grandfather, went there to fish, once hauling up a five-foot blue catfish; to hunt deer with each of his three sons; and to net the delicate river shrimp (now in severe decline due to channelization and pollution) that were once common fare for steamboat lunches. He wrote many books about the area, but two specifically concerned the river: one, Lower Mississippi, a natural and human history for Farrar and Rinehart’s Rivers of America series, the other a hyperbolic coffee-table book called Man and the River. Every page extols the river’s beauty and virtues.
Although Big moved to the Delta well after the flood, he knew that his adopted town, and the entire area, owed its continued existence to the new and improved levees, especially given that, old-timers say, some of Greenville’s downtown buildings were buried under Lake Ferguson. To his way of thinking, and to many in the Delta even now, the engineers and officers of the Corps could do no wrong as they turned bayous into drainage ditches, connected backwater levees to mainline levees, constructed hundreds upon hundreds of stone dikes (“wing dams”) to deepen and maintain the main channel, and sliced out countless cutoffs to drain floodwaters. Everything the Corps did was OK because its ultimate goal was to protect the Delta’s towns, farms, and livelihood.
But today the Delta is mostly a depleted, depressed region with a shrinking population. In Greenville, a painful number of businesses are boarded up downtown, and one-third of the population falls below the federal poverty level. Bad as these facts may sound, the river has fared even worse. As far back as I can remember, its definable features have been its muddied water and the irrepressible Mississippi funk, a suffocating mélange of rotting mud, decaying fish, fertilizer, and some unidentifiable industrial by-product that is probably best not dwelled upon, at least when you’re swimming in it. Each spring the bloated river, choked with nutrient-laden agricultural runoff and channeled by levees, races straight into the Gulf of Mexico in unnatural volumes, setting off such dizzyingly fast-paced algae growth later in the summer that the plants use up all the surrounding oxygen. This process creates oxygen-free dead zones, huge swaths of lifeless ocean that first appeared in the 1970s. The record dead zone, in the summer of 2002, covered 8,500 square miles, larger than the state of New Jersey. This year’s is predicted to be at least 5 to 10 percent larger.
Yet, in mid-May, as the river was predicted to crest at 65 feet and Greenville mayor Heather McTeer Hudson urged citizens to stock up on water and fill up their gas tanks, we couldn’t help but be excited. The same force that led others to fight or flee the river was the same force drawing us (in Faulkner-speak) inexorably toward it. Rising dozens of feet higher than its normal level, the river simply swept over the confining wing dams and, gathering swollen tributaries under its arms, spread itself far and wide.
If we weren’t defeated by massive currents or antsy levee guards, we would come closer to experiencing America’s greatest river in its natural state than anyone had in 75 years.
TWO MORNINGS EARLIER, our crew of three had been skulking around downtown Memphis in John’s massive Suburban, trailing a huge wooden canoe. John was circling the same eight-block area of upscale residences on Mud Island—the tourist-friendly peninsula that juts into the Mississippi River—but failing to find the semi-secluded launching area that had been suggested by a friend. His worried look made me realize that his most recent high-water adventure, in 2008, was still bothering him.
“I guess I should tell y’all, I almost got arrested before when we tried this,” he’d said on the drive up from north Mississippi. We’d met the previous night at John’s headquarters in high-and-dry Clarksdale, but we didn’t hit the road until around midnight. Now we were still playing catch-up at 5 A.M.