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:
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.
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