Here are some musings about the idea of the Mississippi River, which in Native American means “Big River”, being the great holy river of our continent like the Ganges, the holy river of India.
Mississippi River — The American Ganges
I can feel the rumble of the depth of the Mississippi River right outside my door. I was born here on the edge of the water, one of the world’s greatest rivers.
The heart of the river is within me, the heart of the raccoon and the frog and the eagles and hawks that make their homes here.
I can feel the swaying of the huge fish deep in the darkness of the river and the rumbling of the vessel manmade carving through the water, the muddy water. I’ve never been in the river, I’ve put my feet in the it but never my whole body, never baptized myself in the river like the Ganges. The Mississippi River — our holy Ganges.
Of course, that river does not drown people, does not pull them under, does not snuff out a life like snapping your fingers on a candle wick. Our river does.
Our river knows no kin yet is kin to all, it knows no mercy or compassion, rich or poor, statesman or criminal, all the same subject to its pull without mercy like a hurricane — just a force of nature. Our Ganges, sometimes brutal, sometimes nurturing, always inspiring.
Do people go to it to wash their sins away? To bathe in it, to celebrate the dead in it as they do in India?
No… yet it holds something else, a similar kind of pull on the American conscience, especially the Southern conscience, the mighty, the mysterious, the majesty, the spirit of it sending out its ethers to those who encounter it and live nearby it, who know the dreams of Huck Finn. I am lucky enough to live a few steps away from it and to come into the world by its side.
Sometimes deep in the night I can hear the low moan of a boat whistle coming off the river, the sound like a low drawn out note on a bass violin. A deep moan, a cry in the night echoing off the trees and woods, the wild spaces that line the river.
Sometimes you can stand on the levee and look to the other shore and imagine the river in its wild state without the grain elevators, towers and buildings, imagine the flatboats that came down one right after the other filled with goods from the north, see the paddlewheels kicking up the brown water carrying cotton and passengers upstream.
And when you can, you sink yourself into the feeling and churning, the sound of the water quiet and low rushing by, multiple currents grappling with each other underneath.
You can fathom this as the artery of America that has carried the blood, the lifeline of this vast continent, the spirit of innovation and invention, of freedom, the promise of mankind. The river is its own soul and too vast to really belong to anyone.
Yet, here in New Orleans we are born from it and owe our life as a city and a people to it. The Mississippi River is forever rolling along outside our door.