The wider view is moving
December 24th, 2021
(published in The Daily Memphian, December 17, 2021)
This morning as I stood up from bed, everything hurt but my toes. As I limped off toward the bathroom, I stubbed my toe on the bedpost. Now everything hurts.
Nationally, the news this morning, virtually any morning, seems to be mostly about deadlock. State by state, the news seems to be mostly about dog whistling legislation and voter repression. Locally, the news seems to be mostly about council members and county commissioners mostly named Ford fighting for attention.
And all of it, including what I said when I stubbed my toe, is just nasty.
Out in front of our city is probably the nastiest body of water by volume in America. Around two thirds of everything that falls in this country, or drains, or melts – or slides, slips, or oozes for that matter – is rolling by Memphis at 2 or 3 mph 24/7/365.
If you want to visit 32 states on the cheap, just go down to the bluff. The floating parade they’ve all made never stops and it’s free.
And that view is the best local cure for nasty I know.
One only has only to sit on an ocean beach somewhere, stubbed toe in the sand, and stare at the vastness of it, the power of its ebb and flow, to put things in perspective. All there long before you, all there long after you, all representative of power and purpose not of this time, but of all time. The majesty of all of that in a single wave, the mystery in the dash of a single sand crab. Nasty goes out with the tide and, for a while, is lost at sea.
Your river affords you such moments.If we lie between our oceans, we are and have been connected by our rivers. Navigating them and bridging them to bring us and what we’ve produced together, to give birth to markets, cities, and regions. To challenge our knowledge and abilities, to see soaring feats of imagination and engineering, to understand how this place began, why this place remains. All that in the passing of a giant tree turned log floating south, in the power of a zillion-ton barge plowing its way north, in a single kayak hugging the bank. Nasty goes under and, for a while, goes away with the flow.
Your river is the greatest in the land. Your city is one of its three greatest ports. In fact, “Mississippi” is a French amalgamation of Algonquian words meaning great river.
And the view across it here is, well, great.
The view across from the great port of New Orleans is more port. The view across from the great port of St. Louis is industrial East St. Louis. The view across from here, from atop the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff, is a view into history. With only a bit of imagination, one can see the panorama of water and land Chief Chisca saw from here, what DeSoto saw, what founders Jackson, Winchester and Overton saw.
As they did, one can see the purpose and promise of a city here. Whether we’ve kept it or not is another debate. It’s still here in full view, it still beckons.
Thanks to the flooding of the river every spring, the Arkansas side has remained undeveloped – in crops when dry, a four-mile-wide inland bay when wet. Thanks to the vision of the late Charles McVean and all those he recruited to the cause, and thanks to the dedication of his family to fully realize that vision, everything between the bridges all the way to the levee will soon be parkland. The Big River Park Conservancy, a McVean initiative, is partnering with Memphis-based Ducks Unlimited to return the land to natural habitat. The timber will return. Trails through that timber and natural grasses will traverse the 1,500 acres as they once did for Chisca’s people, as they did as part of the Trail of Tears, as they did through the long-drowned settlement of Hopefield, as they will for future generations.
From the Big River Crossing – the longest pedestrian bridge across the Mississippi, the bridge that Charles McVean’s stubborn optimism built – one can stand above the middle of the churn of this nation’s main artery like nowhere else, for a view of the city like none other.
Just north of the DeSoto Bridge, one can walk the Greenbelt in Harbor Town and look across the river to the wild, untamed Loosahatchie Bar – New Urbanism over here, an island of virgin forest larger than Downtown over there.
Just south of the Mississippi River and Harahan Bridges, one can stand on the ceremonial mound of our indigenous predecessors and see the same sweeping curve of the river they saw. The same view that the French saw when they built a fort there, and later the Americans under the command of future president Zachary Taylor.
Bundle up and head down to the river for the longer view and wider perspective. Bring all the nasty along. You’ll be leaving most of it down there in the river. Way down, at least, for a while.
Take a good look. You’ll see.
I’m a Memphian, and that’s uniquely our view out there.