This weekend I read an article about Grover Norquist, the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, an ultra-right wing advocacy group, and an old 1987 article by John McPhee about the junction of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers. The articles seemed to be connected in a way I will explain over this and my next post. Let's start with McPhee's article.
John McPhee is one of the great U.S. writers of our generation. He is a master of creative non-fiction. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for Annals of the Former World, his book on the geological history of North America. My favorites of his thirty books are Looking for a Ship (about the U.S. Merchant Marine) and Uncommon Carriers (about many modes of commercial transportation). He writes from a turret sticking up from the geology building at Princeton University where he teaches writing. Among his former students are a Pulitzer Prize winner, Editors-in-Chief and Managing Editors of The New Yorker, Time, the New Republic and Slate, and Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation.
In 1987, McPhee wrote an article for The New Yorker entitled The Control of Nature - Atchafalaya. ( It is one of several dozen articles he's had published by The New Yorker since 1965.) The article describes the efforts of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to keep the Mississippi River flowing in its current channel through Baton Rouge, Louisiana, past New Orleans, and out through the Mississippi Delta into the Gulf. Here is part of his article, later included in his 1989 book, Control of Nature:
Always it is the river’s purpose to get to the Gulf by the shortest and steepest gradient. As the mouth advances southward and the river lengthens, the gradient declines, the current slows, and sediment builds up the bed. Eventually, it builds up so much that the river spills to one side. Major shifts of that nature have tended to occur roughly once a millennium.
. . . .
Eight hundred years before the birth of Christ, the channel was captured from the east. It shifted abruptly and flowed in that direction for about a thousand years. In the second century a.d., it was captured again, and taken south, by the now unprepossessing Bayou Lafourche, which, by the year 1000, was losing its hegemony to the river’s present course, through the region that would be known as Plaquemines. By the nineteen-fifties, the Mississippi River had advanced so far past New Orleans and out into the Gulf that it was about to shift again, and its offspring Atchafalaya was ready to receive it. By the route of the Atchafalaya, the distance across the delta plain was a hundred and forty-five miles—well under half the length of the route of the master stream.
. . . .
For the Mississippi to make such a change was completely natural, but in the interval since the last shift Europeans had settled beside the river, a nation had developed, and the nation could not afford nature. The consequences of the Atchafalaya’s conquest of the Mississippi would include but not be limited to the demise of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans. With its fresh water gone, its harbor a silt bar, its economy disconnected from inland commerce, New Orleans would turn into New Gomorrah. Moreover, there were so many big industries between the two cities that at night they made the river glow like a worm. As a result of settlement patterns, this reach of the Mississippi had long been known as “the German coast,” and now, with B. F. Goodrich, E. I. du Pont, Union Carbide, Reynolds Metals, Shell, Mobil, Texaco, Exxon, Monsanto, Uniroyal, Georgia-Pacific, Hydrocarbon Industries, Vulcan Materials, Nalco Chemical, Freeport Chemical, Dow Chemical, Allied Chemical, Stauffer Chemical, Hooker Chemicals, Rubicon Chemicals, American Petrofina—with an infrastructural concentration equalled in few other places—it was often called “the American Ruhr.” The industries were there because of the river. They had come for its navigational convenience and its fresh water. They would not, and could not, linger beside a tidal creek. For nature to take its course was simply unthinkable. The Sixth World War would do less damage to southern Louisiana. Nature, in this place, had become an enemy of the state.