In his The Adirondacks (1997), Paul Schneider wrote, If theres one thing that the history of the Adirondacks teaches, its that the meaning of wilderness, like love, changes as soon as its defined.
Change also provides the leitmotif in Schneiders new Old Man River, his fast-paced and affectionate tale of the Mississippi Rivers long and meandering path and its historical meaning. Its impossible to imagine America, Schneider writes, without the Mississippi. The rivers history is our history.
Schneider combines travel narrative, historical research and autobiography as well as archaeology, cultural and physical geography, ethnography and folklore in telling the Mississippis story. He pays ample attention to canoes, flatboats, kayaks, keel boats and steamships. Also present are the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans Jazz and the BP oil spill.
Pirates, gamblers, slaves, loggers, catfishers, hustlers and landscape painters populate Schneiders book. So, too, do Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Mark Twain and Paul Robeson.
The interaction of water, land and all manner of riverine creatures, native and volunteer alike, consumes Schneider. He confesses to having succumbed to river madness, one symptom of which includes his alleged ability to hear Old Man River speak.
Schneider traces the Father of Waters history back to the ice age when continents collided, glaciers receded, mastodons bellowed, and humans arrived.
The Mississippi began life as a trickle emanating from Lake Itasca near present-day Canada. By the time it flows to the Gulf of Mexico, the river has merged the waters of almost 40 percent of the continental United States. Eleven states lie entirely within the Mississippis basin, and more than 50,000 dams alter its watershed. The Mississippi constitutes the third largest drainage basin in the world, following those of the Amazon and the Congo.
Wade into the Mississippi, Schneider insists, and as long as your soles are on the ground you remain what you were, a part of the rest of the continent the Rockies and the Appalachians, the prairies and the woodlands. You remain ... the object upon which the strong brown god is applying its relentless and patient will.
The strength of Old Man River is Schneiders detailed narrative of the peopling of North America along the Mississippis vast tributary network. Native peoples and their cultures rose and fell in the Mississippis watershed. For example, Schneider examines the massive ancient effigy mounds earth art modeled after serpents, birds and bears. He also charts the history of Cahokia, North Americas greatest pre-Columbian city prior to the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century.
Spanish explorers came north on horses while the French came south in native canoes. Hernando de Soto, Jacques Marquette, Louis Joliet, Robert de La Salle each sought to conquer and then to master the Mississippi watershed. In doing so they etched their names in Mississippis rich colonial history.
The Mississippi and its tributaries also played a major role in shaping the young United States. Maj. George Washington first tasted battle in the watershed over whether Britain or France would control the Mississippi. The Civil War resulted in part over the question of slaverys extension into territories west of the river. Their early victories in the Mississippi Valley brought Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman to President Abraham Lincolns attention. And the Unions July 1863 capture of Vicksburg divided the Confederacy, giving Lincolns Navy control of the river, hastening the wars end.
The longer you spend on the river, the more likely it is that the stream will draw out of you what needs to be drawn out, Schneider concludes. The flow itself is the thing that will catch your conscience like a fallen leaf.
John David Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at UNC-Charlotte. His latest book is Race and Recruitment: Civil War History Readers, Volume 2.