The Lower Brazos, unbanked (Photo: Doug Whipple)
In 1951, flooding rains filled the Missouri and Kansas rivers. One by one, bridges throughout Kansas City were closed, and our vacationing family was trapped. When engineers judged one bridge passable and opened it temporarily, my father, grim and determined, said, “We’re going home.” Only five years old, I was horrified, fascinated, and strangely numb as we crossed over the bridge, watching dead cattle and box cars pass only feet below our own car as we headed for Iowa, and higher ground.
I remember that flood each time a river begins to rise: whether the Mississippi; the Fox; the Red River of the North; the Guadalupe; the Blanco; or the Trinity. Each time, I remember the words and wisdom of T.S. Eliot — that transplanted midwesterner who was formed in part by a great American river:
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 recognised 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. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting: watching and waiting.
By the time we remember the river, it can be too late. Flash flooding sweeps away cars, or houses, or neighbors. Snow melt builds behind nature’s own cold dams until the ice breaks free, and water inundates the land. Upstream rains bring a slow, inexorable rise, accompanied by a surging crest of grief and fear.
Today, it is the Brazos that has risen: sullen, untamed, and intractable.
But rivers, too, are a part of nature. They nourish as well as destroy. They sustain life as well as devastating communities, and even in flood they can be beautiful. Before the roads closed and my favorite spots on the lower Brazos became inaccessible, I traveled the area, purely for the pleasure of seeing.
beneath green willows
mockingbirds cease their singing
hushed by falling rain
stitch their way through verdant banks
pulled taut by the sea
cross the river’s mud-slick flow
hoof-sore and weary
Sometimes the old ways are best (Brazoria County, photographer unknown)
soiled, the river
sighs beneath a cleansing rain
ripples spread and shine
Today, a few roads have re-opened. In time, cattle will graze again in peace, and people return to their homes. Leaning against fences and tailgates, taking a breath and swapping a river story or two, they’ll sing, in their own way, a song to the river the Spanish called Los Brazos de Dios: “the arms of God.” Years ago, Nora Sweetland, raised on the Brazos, composed her own psalm to the river beloved of us all.
I will sing a song to the Brazos de Dios, my green river, my blue river, my crystal clear river with its sand bars gleaming.
I will sing a song to my raging red river when the torrents from the red hills come pouring into it, to my roaring, rampaging river with its uprooted tree monsters rushing along, trailing their treetops like dragons’ tails.
I will sing a song to the white foam lashing angrily at the river’s banks, to the roof tops, to the canoes, to the dead cattle and to all things whirling away with my river.
Oh, my river, my Brazos de Dios, I have bathed in your waters, and oh, my river, my Brazos de Dios, I have been cradled in the arms of God.