The Flooded Heart: Singing Again at the River

 T.S. Eliot was so identified with England that most have forgotten – or never knew – that he was born in St. Louis, Missouri. It may have been a faint, visceral memory of the American heartland that informed his verse when he gave those flowing English waters an appraising glance and said,

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 recognized 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. Unhonored, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.

T. S. Eliot, Dry Salvages, The Four Quartets

The phrase “strong brown god” is apt. Anyone who has seen the roiling, swollen reality of an unbanked river knows that, like the Lord, the river giveth and the river taketh away. It can be difficult to bless the rivers of our lives when they cease their ”waiting, watching and waiting”, and become forces of destruction, implacable reminders of truths we prefer to forget. The world is the world, after all, and while we may inhabit it for a time, ultimately it is beyond our ability to control.

When the river, the “strong, brown god” gives up its waiting and overflows its banks, memory itself floods like water, breaching levees built of forgetfulness and buttressed with time. Everyone knows the Mississippi, but not everyone knows the Cedar, the Iowa, the Des Moines, the Raccoon and the Skunk. Those were the rivers of my childhood and youth, forgotten until today’s flooding started.  Today, everyone with ties to the Heartland is remembering their own rivers and watching them wash away vestiges of the past. The Missouri, Grand and Blackwater in the state of Missouri, the Rock River in Wisconsin and Illinois, the Vermillion in South Dakota, the White and the Wabash in Indiana – each has declared its allegiance to the strong, brown god.

Even the creeks – meandering bits of water with homey names like Indiana’s Mill, Plum and Sugar  – have done their damage. Along the banks of those creeks and rivers, in the small towns, down country roads as innundated as the fields that surround them, people understand the meaning of “neighbor”. In the town ofOakville, on the Iowa River, “when it became clear the levee would fail, trucking company owners Trina and Ward Gabeline scrambled to help friends save whatever they could.They gathered about three dozen truck trailers and dropped them off at houses so families could load them with furniture and heirlooms. Then the company retrieved them and carried the cargo to higher ground.

Where I come from, that’s just the way folks are, and that’s simply what people do. Part of the great frustration of watching such events unfold from a distance is knowing what needs to be done, and not being able to do it. Writing a check does help, and it’s important. But it’s not as satisfying as filling a sandbag or a tractor trailer. It just doesn’t feel “neighborly”.

So, in the spirit of neighborliness and for the sake of a lot of people who are asking, “What can I do for the victims of the midwestern floods?”, I offer a few suggestions. At first glance they may seem silly, or tongue-in-cheek, or irrelevant, but they are not. I’m perfectly serious about all of this, and if you take just one suggestion and implement it, you’ll begin to understand how serious I am.

If you ever have used the phrase “flyover country”, swear right now never to speak the words again unless you truly are from Mechanicsville, Iowa, and enjoy using them as a little joke. Referring to everything from New York to LA as one homogenous piece of turf is anaolgous to referring to Africa as though tribes, nations, ethnic loyalties and sheer geography are insignificant. The variety of peoples, locales and customs in the world is staggering. Kenya isn’t Mali isn’t Ghana, and the iron ore fields of Hibbing, Minnesota are as different from Kansas wheatfields as both are from southern Missouri hills.

Even if you aren’t religious, even if you profess no faith, even if you haven’t said grace at table in years and don’t intend to ever again, stop for a minute before each meal and think of those who have worked to produce what appears on your table. You may grow your own fruits and vegetables, you may hunt and process meat, you may even have a milk-producing goat roaming the back yard – but there is no doubt that the farmers of America bless you with something every day.

While you’re at it, learn something about the Midwest. Even if you live in Omaha, Nebraska,  you may not know a lot about St. Charles, Missouri.  When you see a picture of flooded fields, get a map. Find the town or county that’s referenced, look at the population, find out what they produce. Then, explore a little further. Which state is the land of 10,000 lakes? Where is the Corn Palace? What is lutefisk? What Broadway musical featured a song about Gary, Indiana? Why are the Flint Hills important? What are the four basic ingredients of tuna hot dish? Complete this analogy: lime jello is to salad as Crisco is to….

Speaking of lime jello and tuna hotdish, If you haven’t listened to Garrison Keillor’s tales of Lake Woebegon on the PBS broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion, look up the schedule and gather around the radio. Drink iced tea or lemonade. Get to know the Tollefsons, and the congregation from Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility Catholic Church. Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery probably has everything you need, and if Ralph doesn’t have it, you don’t need it. For pie and good gossip there’s always the Chatterbox Cafe, where the bulletin board announces the split-up of local couples as well as the price of a split cord.

In case you think this is all fiction and those silly Midwesterners are laughing just because they’re easily amused, read some good Heartland of America blogs on a regular basis. They’re bulletins from the real world, reminders of a common past and sensible guideposts to the future. These will get you started:

The Rural Populist

Iowa Tractor Boys

Flyover People

Dispatches from Kansas

Learn about the history of the Grange movement, about sod shanties on Nebraska prairies and Scandinavian migrations into Minnesota.  Find out where Mark Twain’s name came from, and who burned the prairies as easily as we email.  Listen again to Carl Sandburg and William Least Heat-Moon.  Follow the Trail of Tears, and the path of the glaciers.

And if you can, in the midst of today’s flooding, find someone who remembers the great floods of the past, someone who has learned their lessons.  It’s a favorite human conceit that things will remain as they are, that blind, immutable forces will not destroy the frail products of human endeavor and that rivers are tamed and trustworthy.  A good flood washes away that sense of false pride, as well as the belief that we can live in isolation or the illusion that we are in control of our lives. 

Above all, remember who you are and understand that, sometimes, things can be better.   After the flooding has gone its way, sweeping everything from its path and leaving people no option but to gaze with astonishment from the bank, it can become possible to see the river for what it is: not an implacable, strong brown god, but only water that rose, and will recede.  

Even in the midst of flooded fields, towns and homes, hearts can be flooded with gratitude for what remains.  Even today, if you listen carefully, you can hear the Heartland singing, down at the water’s edge. 

COMMENTS are welcome.  To read previous comments or post one of your own, please click on the tiny “Comments” link below.  Eventually, I’ll learn CSS and revise the template, but this will have to do for the time being.

10 thoughts on “The Flooded Heart: Singing Again at the River

  1. Wow. Thanks for the write-up. Originally New Yorkers, we moved here to St. Louis in 1993, in the midst of the huge flood. It was sobering and we got right to work. And now, here it comes again although the Meramec has yet to swell and yell at us.Precious Clarksville and Louisiana are off the charts, though -the road’s closed and we can’t drive there to help; same with Alton and the Great River Road on the east side of the Mississippi. We’re sandbagging here in the Gateway and once again the steps to the Arch have gone under.
    Water seeks it own level – you don’t always know where that level is.
    Thanks for your shoutout, Midwest native!

    Good morning to you, and best wishes. I heard on the news this morning that projections have changed yet again, and in places the Mississippi is UP by a foot. We fuss about lack of precision in hurricane prediction down here on the Gulf coast, but weather predictions of all sorts can be difficult.

    1993 was quite a year, and you surely got a quick taste of what the River can do. I’ve seen river flooding, but never was personally affected until Tropical Storm Allison rolled through Houston. I never had understood fully that flooding is more than “the water goes up, the water goes down”. It’s what’s in those flood waters, and what they leave behind, that is the worst.

    In any event, many thanks for the visit, and again, best wishes. We’ll hope this resolves itself sooner rather than later!


  2. Hey Linda … ‘Speaking My Heart’ is just about right for this ‘smoker’ of an essay. Thanks for puttin a human face on this awful event … Mike

    Hi, Mike,

    It is the human face that matters, whether it’s midwestern farmers, Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, sailor Roger Stone, the family of Howard Anderson or me, trying to learn to keep my crazy shoelaces tied! Big issues or little tiny issues are interesting only to the degree that they touch on our common humanity – at least, that’s what I think. Even those two tiny purple shells my friend and I found on the beach led in the end to Charles Torrey Simpson, who was far more interesting than his collection of tens of thousands of shells.

    Appreciate your visit and comments – the door’s always open!


  3. The Mid West, nothing fancy, just is what it is, the heart of America. T.S. Eliot writes a pretty poem about rivers, but, the water rose and will recede. Basically sums the whole thing up. God Bless the heartland and the people who call it home.

    Every time you stop by, I want to say, “Yes, yes, Nanette”. You’ve got the ability to find the point of the entry and raise it up again, just in case I didn’t do so well!

    Someone was writing the other day about Vacation Bible School, the cookies and Koolaid and projects. It all was fun, but we did learn, and I’m always surprised at what “took” those decades ago. This time, it was “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

    The dynamic shows up in life over and over again. This time it just happened to be the rivers and the Heartland. Bless those people, indeed.


  4. The Broadway musical featuring the song Gary, Indiana would be the “Music Man,” starring Shirely Jones and Robert Preston.

    I have to agree with the comment to learn about a locale, instead of acting on assumption, or what you have been told.

    Being from Gary, Indiana I constantly read about what a pit the place is. These comments, more often than not, are from folk who have never been there, or may have passed near by at one time.

    Well, I lived there; born, bred and educated there I am proud to say! Anyone with an interest in learning what makes Gary, IN Gary, IN should spend a little time on the Dave’s Den web site. A visit there may prove interesting/enlightening.

    Hi, Dave,

    You’re exactly right – it was “The Music Man.” And I can sing that song, too – not to mention being able to pull out the phrase “ONE Grecian Urn” for all kinds of occasions.

    Thanks for stopping by, and for the link. I took a quick, lunch-time peek and I’ll go back this evening. I was tickled by the Oldsmobile info, as I’m still toodling around in a 1989 Cutlass Ciera. It may last longer than I do.

    In the kind of world we live in, there’s a real temptation for people to turn up their noses at “plain folk” or areas of the country that don’t seem “sexy”. But you obviously know, as I do, that some of the best people in the world live there, and there’s no way a 60-second sound bite can capture the realities of middle America. My approach is to just live my life the way I was taught there to live it, and point out to people whenever the opportunity arises that it’s a wonderful and important part of our country. Sometimes the opportunities are sad, like this flooding, but I take them anyway.

    Thanks again for your comments.


  5. Yes I like good ol’ plain American people too. There some good thoughts here and I loved the YT tube clip what a lovely voice that girl has, [had] for it’s an old clip. thanks.

    Good morning, gentledove,

    I had to laugh at your comment about the “old clip”. It is indeed, and that’s because I’m old! The group (in case you didn’t know) is The Seekers, and they were favorites of mine in my younger days.
    When I see the camera panning across the audience in that video, across all those people who are “just folks”, I’m taken back to the days when weekly concerts in the park were all the rage, instead of “raves”, rock concerts and after-hours clubs. Don’t have a thing against raves and such (well, maybe just one or two), but there was something nice about those concerts like the one shown.

    Thanks so much for visiting – I enjoyed your cathedral bells, and will visit again!


  6. Linda,

    You will find quite a bit of Oldsmobile info on Dave’s Den. Do come on back to check it out.

    If you do, you will learn that I am somewhat of an Oldsmobile fanatic, to put it mildly. Your ’89 Cierra is a mere youngster, when compared to my ’62 Dynamic 88 convertible!

    In the Olds info you will see a link to SAVED 62, another web site I maintain that is dedicated solely to Oldsmobile, my ’62, Ransom Eli Olds and all things Oldsmobile. Have fun!


    The Olds actually was my Mom’s car. When I decided to sell my ’89 Toyota Corolla last year (I was starting to get nervous about those 384,576 miles!) Mom’s ’89 Olds only had 77,000. There was only one thing to do. Mom thinks we need a new car. I just look at her and say, “Over my dead body.”
    No car payments for this gal when we’ve got something perfectly good!

    Thanks for the links!


  7. Linda, I have read this three times and just couldn’t let it pass without saying how much I enjoyed this posting. It has heart.

    JD ~ Many, many thanks. I confess to a tear or two while working on it – not just because of the flood, or sentimentality about the “good old days”, but because I’m really afraid so much of what makes this country great is being lost, even in the Heartland. Whoever thought Midwesterners would need advocates?


  8. Hi

    LOVED the entry about the floods. Such a great reminder to folks to think. Keep up the good work!

    Good morning, Eric,

    Thanks so much for stopping by, and for the kind words. I’ve decided one reason to write about events like this is that it helps keep them in mind. When the water’s receded and the news crews have gone home, there still are griefs and anxieties to be dealt with and a whole lot of hard work to be done. People who live through disasters need all the support they can get!

    Stop by any time!


  9. I am, in fact, actually from Mechanicsville, Iowa…and my wife is from Kenya. The world is a big and diverse place and we all may be destined for varying degrees of greatness…but none of us should ever lose perspective on who we are, where we come from, or what the world (in return) is capable of.

    Very fine piece of reading. Thank you.


    The richness of the world and the wonderful relationship webs that we weave throughout it are absolute treasures. If I learned anything at all through my travels, it’s that family is family and friends are friends no matter the cultural context – and no matter how significant our differences, we can find the commonalities if we’re willing to look.

    Thank you so much for leaving a comment to let me know a fellow Iowan was here – you’re always welcome.


  10. As predicted, the video played well late tonight! What a contrast to the tempo that Jenny sang! I can understand why both versions were popular, depending on the culture of the area.

    “And if you can, in the midst of today’s flooding, find someone who remembers the great floods of the past, someone who has learned their lessons.” How true! I still remember my father’s tales of riding via boat from his father’s house in Benoit (ms) during that great flood of 1927. i remember a more sobering tale from a black man who was one of my mentors. Then there was an old lady in Louisiana who shared many amazing stories of flooding in Concordia and Catahoula parishes between Alexandria, Louisiana and Natchez, Mississippi.

    the images in your post brought back memories as well. The first is sobering and reminds us how the spring thaw and spring rains can turn the farming belt upside down. The second is pure art – wow, what a lovely image!


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