Interview of John Ruskey ― Resistance Radio

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Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen. This is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is John Ruskey. He is a worker bee in the colony of his queen, the Lower Mississippi River.  He carves canoes, paints, and guides others into the wildest places remaining in the center of North America, the verdant floodplain of the big river, which reaches fullness in her last thousand miles of free-flowing joy to the Gulf of Mexico.  He is author of, one million words, photos, paintings, maps and videos describing the Mississippi River for paddlers.

So first, thank you for your work, and second, thank you for being on the program.

JR: A pleasure to be here. Thank you for your attention to the Big River.

DJ: So can you start by describing the Mississippi River sort of geographically and geologically? I mean, where does it start, what rivers flow into it, what area does it cover, etc.? What’s it like?

JR: When we talk about rivers, the Mississippi is like all other rivers, wherever a raindrop falls is the beginning of the river. And we have some long distance points, like Lake Itaska is usually the place, when someone asks “where does the Mississippi River start?” almost inevitably you’re going to get the answer “Lake Itaska, Minnesota,” where that clear water gurgles out of a north woods pond and becomes the Mississippi. And there you can jump across the Mississippi, and 2300 miles downstream it’s a mile wide, or a half mile wide river, at Algiers Point, New Orleans, and full of freighters and towboats, and is a superhighway for America’s grain and steel and other industries.

But like all rivers in the world, really the river is wherever a raindrop falls, or a spring gurgles out of the ground or a snowflake melts, or the winter’s ice is becoming spring’s runoff. And the Mississippi reaches out across over 40% of America, including everything between the Rockies and Appalachia and all the way up to New York State, Chautauqua Lake divides the Mississippi drainage from the Saint Lawrence drainage. And all the way across the northern tier of states. It skirts around the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes do not drain into the Mississippi even though it looks like it does because Illinois comes so close. And that’s an ancient trade route, what is today Chicago, and continues dipping into Canada a couple of times. And it’s defined by the Continental Divide, down the Rocky Mountains from Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico. It drains all of the Great Plains and everything all the way down into Comanche country, northern Texas, Oklahoma. I think one of the most southern Rockies drainages is Cimarron Canyon of New Mexico. If you go up over Cimarron Pass you’re into Taos.

And all the way across the other side of the country, it drains pieces of Georgia and northern Alabama, just the far north of Alabama, and then everything up the Appalachian divide all the way back up to Pennsylvania and New York State.

So I think it’s more helpful to think of the Mississippi as; you are the start of the river. Wherever you are, in that basin. You might be one of those 66 million people who live within that basin. And it makes you have a more meaningful part in our connection to the biggest river in North America. It doesn’t even matter that it’s the biggest river. But it connects you in an important way, an integral link in the way that we all naturally are but very seldom recognize.

So when you go across the world, usually rivers are defined by their furthest most spring source. And on the Mississippi Basin, that is actually up the Missouri River, all the way up through Montana and into the Bitterroot Mountains, a place called Brower’s Spring, which is over 4000 miles upstream of the Gulf of Mexico.

DJ: So I’m going to ask a question here, but it’s kind of a crazy question because it’s so diverse. The river is going to be different in what’s now New York State than it is in what’s now Montana. But having said that, on other programs people have talked about how the Columbia was full of salmon. And they’ve talked about 60 million bison on the plains, and they’ve talked about six billion passenger pigeons. So can you talk about some of the extraordinary wildlife – I’m presuming that a river so large would be incredibly rich? And maybe that’s wrong? Can you talk about some of the wildlife that, especially pre-contact, how rich was the Mississippi River?

JR: Well, it’s going to be very difficult to answer in a short way, but you’re indeed right. It is an incredibly rich and prolific drainage. It was, it probably always has been, and it still is a very dynamic and rich environment, due to a lot of different factors. But part of it comes from the fact that it is a mixing of a wide variety of soils from across the country, including all those places that we just talked about. And so you have this silty, sandy, clayey gumbo of a flow that’s coming down from all these places.

You know, it’s helpful actually to imagine, to envision the Mississippi as a tree. Or maybe more helpful as a funnel. One arm of the funnel is the Missouri River going into Montana. The other arm is the Ohio, going all the way up into the Alleghenies and Appalachia. And the middle part of it is the middle and upper Mississippi going up into Minnesota.

Down here on the Lower Mississippi River, which is where I’m located – the Lower Mississippi is a designation for the last approximately 1000 miles of river from the mouth of the Ohio down to the Gulf of Mexico. 954 to be exact. It is the land that gave birth to the Cotton Kingdom and was once called the richest soil this side of the Valley Nile. Tennessee Williams poetically said that in his Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

And in the last 200 years, it was a jungle. It was our Amazon. 25 million acres of it from the mouth of the Ohio down to the Gulf of Mexico, which is about the size of the State of Indiana, Kentucky, or Tennessee. And it was the largest bottomland hardwood forest in North America. Of course it still is. But it was one of the largest bottomland hardwood forests anywhere in the world. Mixed with all of the decaying detritus from all those upland woodlands and all the soils and micronutrients and microorganisms and bacteria and the creatures that fed off of those, the zooplankton and phytoplankton all mixing together and tumbling downstream and periodically flooding into a 25 million acre floodplain. The alluvial floodplain of the lower Mississippi River created the ideal landscape for everything across the entire spectrum of possible in the biota.

We know very little about exactly what it was like, because very little of it was explored. The Mississippi Delta, for instance, which is a 200 mile long almond-shaped piece of the floodplain between Memphis and Vicksburg, and that’s where I’m located – it’s also known as the land where the blues began – was considered a frontier all the way into the beginning of the 19th century. It was wilder than the Wild West and was still unsettled long after the west was settled. And still, to this day we know less about the forest and the incredible wilderness it was than we do about the face of the moon, or the geography of the moon. Because it was not very well studied, it was not methodically described. The few glimpses into what it was are descriptions by voyagers. And some of them were notable voyagers. John James Audubon in 1820 descended the Mississippi River, and then later in 1902 Teddy Roosevelt was hunting bear in the lower Mississippi Delta, and he said the biggest trees in North America outside of the West Coast, he saw during that hunt in Issaquena and Sharkey County, on the banks of the Little Sunflower River, which is where that hunt took place in the floodplain that we’re talking about.

Another traveler – I’m actually going to quote this because I don’t want to – I don’t have this memorized. This was a fellow named Christian Schultz. In 1808 he made a journey on the Mississippi and insisted that the forests along the Mississippi River supported songbirds in an abundance surpassing anywhere else in the United States. And what he said was, and this is a quote, “At the moment the gilded foliage of the lofty trees acknowledges [the] appearance [of the rising sun] the whole feathered creation, as if with one accord, pour forth their gratitude in one general hymn. The woods on both sides of the river, ever since we passed the Arkansas, [the Arkansas River comes in about sixty miles south] appear to be literally alive with its numerous feathered inhabitants; and although we generally kept the middle of the river, which is one mile in breadth, yet we could hear the general chorus much better than on shore. I do not recollect ever to have heard anything to equal this charming natural concert.”

The bears – you were talking about grizzly bears along the Klamath River – the black bear were in abundance. It was the richest black bear habitat anywhere in North America, and to this day remains the richest whitetail deer habitat in North America. The reason that we know about the bear and their peers the cougars that inhabited this delta, is through the accounts of the mighty hunters who took them out of the woods, like Robert Bobo and the famous bear hunter Ben Lilly, who … I think he was born in Louisiana, and he hunted out all the panthers in the lower Mississippi – I mean the cougar when I say that. They call them panthers around here, or painters. He hunted them all out and then he went west to New Mexico and hunted them all out of what is today the the Gila Wilderness. And, curiously, he killed the biggest grizzly ever recorded in North America down along the Mexico border.

So … and John James Audubon, in his 1820 descent of the Mississippi, which he later wrote about in the book called “Delineations of American Scenery and Character,” he took one of the two live ivorybill specimens out of six that were taken in the State of Mississippi, Audubon took two of them on that journey. And of course we now know that the ivorybill is gone.

DJ: So, I remember seeing a map a few years ago that was just extraordinary. It was a map of the Mississippi and it showed its current course and all different sorts of colors were previous courses of it.

Okay, so I have three things. That’s the first one. The second one is that I was talking to a friend about rivers a couple of years ago and she told me that we misdefine rivers because we presume that they’re supposed to stay in one place, but the truth is that they writhe like snakes across the landscape. Or they dance across the landscape. And they move back and forth.

And then the third thing I want to bring up is I was talking to a fisheries biologist ten years ago or so about this river that she loves up in the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. And she said every time it floods it breaks her heart, because it is killing lots of frogs and trees and salamanders and fish and insects. But every time it floods it makes her really happy because this is what the river does and this is how it makes new habitat. And she had this great line, which is “Every time there’s a flood it creates short-term habitat loss, in terms of those particular trees falling over, and it creates long-term habitat gain.” And I just love that.

Anyway, so can you talk about the Mississippi’s history of meandering. You talked about the flood plains. Can you talk about meandering and what that does to and for the soil and to and for the river?

Does that make sense?

JR: Yeah, it makes perfect sense. Thanks for sharing that quote.

9000 years ago the Mississippi ceased to be a braided network of channels as the last Ice Age was melting away. At that time it was running 20x its present size, which means it was something like the average flow of the Amazon River. It’s one of those great conundrums of life that you can’t have creation without destruction. It’s something every artist knows, and every parent knows. The pain of losing something, whether it’s yourself or some material object, or other lives. It’s just one of those very basic facts of life that all of us, sooner or later, have to come to grips with.

And it’s not surprising the river is so prevalent in our collective psyche, through songs and music and dance. And creation stories also, that it embodies and exemplifies, in probably the most powerful, expressive way, that yin-yang process of continual destruction and creation.

On the banks of a river, anyone who’s spent time over the banks, and it’s easy to do for anyone who lives anywhere near a river, all you’ve gotta do is leave the parking lot, or your house, step off the roadway and go over to the riverbank, and there it is, a whole new world. And usually it’s spiritual men or paddlers who experience this, but lots of others also of course. And what you experience is motions. Very sensitive motions, because water is like the most sensitive drum ever, in response to the tenderest touch, and recoils to the most furious pounding. And putting your toes in the water and sitting on a muddy riverbank, you will witness that cycle of destruction and creation continually being played out in daily dramas in front of you.

As a paddler on the lower Mississippi River, it’s one of the most exciting and terrifying things to participate in that. We see examples of it every time we go on the water. It might be a baby bird that in its first flight was not able to make it across the Big River, which might be a mile wide. Might be five miles wide, if it’s at flood stage. And go floating helplessly down, carried away from its screaming parents, who are helpless to do anything to help it, and watch their first cracked-shell baby carried away downstream, into the great unknown.

And at the same time, on the opposite shore, the same moment, on the island opposite that drama, fresh silt is falling out of the water at the bottom end of the island and creating a rich sedimentation. When the river drops, that becomes the sustenance for the basic food chain process. And the little pieces make the big pieces, and all the insects that squiggle out of that squishy orange-brown mud become a feast for a whole flock of the next generation of … maybe it was an indigo bunting. Of indigo buntings that are now starting the new generation of life, the next year on the river.

DJ: Thank you for that.

Is the Mississippi River still allowed to meander? Or is it pretty much channelized?

JR: Well, it is contained within its channel momentarily. But that channel is a constantly meandering channel. I heard John Barry, the author of Rising Tide, about the 1927 flood and how it changed America. And he said the Mississippi River was shortened 300 miles by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for navigation purposes in the last 100 years, mostly since the First World War. But since the 1960’s, the river has regained – I think these facts are right. They’d have to be checked, of course. But what he definitely told me was that the river has regained half of that distance that had been shortened. And so what that says is that even with all of the channel stabilization that takes place on the Mississippi, rock and revetment and other engineering, that the river is constantly gnawing at its edges and enlarging its base, and it’s a force that can be slowed down, it can be temporarily halted, by a dam for instance.

But fortunately, on the lower Mississippi River the gradient is too gentle and the flood plain is too wide to build a dam. So the last 1154 miles below St. Louis, below the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi, is all free-flowing water, joyously coursing its way southward to the Gulf of Mexico.

And a river that big and deep and powerful, it has proven itself to be incapable of being channeled simply with the engineering methods used by the most powerful engineers in the world, probably.

So the meander process, it’s the most visible you can see it if you look at Google Earth and take a little quick tour of the Mississippi River, you’ll see it immediately, the meanders, the bends of the river. You’ll also see straight places where the meander’s been straightened out. But alongside those straight places, such as the 12 mile run into Natchez, Mississippi, which is mostly south-running due to a series of cutoffs that were made in that time period since the First World War. It started back in the 20’s, I believe.

But adjacent to the channel are the oxbow lakes that were created by those ancient meanders. And even though they’ve been “cut off” from the river, they’re still connected by narrow passages. We call them “passes.” In the mountains, a pass is a low place between the mountains where animals and travelers can go back and forth between the valleys. But on the Big River, a pass is a place where water can go back and forth between the Big River, the main channel, and some back channel place like an oxbow lake or a wetlands or a big swampy area.

And when the river’s rising, the water flows out of the Big River and into those back channels. When the river’s falling, it reverses and comes back into the main channel. And what I’m trying to get at is that same creative spirit that defines water and takes one of its most amazing expressions in the meander, and on the Big River it’s a big meander.

Mathematically, a river makes a bend every seven widths. On the Mississippi, which you could say averages about a mile wide, it makes a big bend about every seven miles. And that pretty much holds true, although where it’s been straightened out you may not find that. But water does not ever travel in a straight line, even when we try to force it into that straight line, i.e. in your plumbing, it becomes more and more agitated the more rigidly it’s held, and even exponentially more agitated as you increase the speed of the water. In fact, on the Mississippi the sediment load increases to the seventh root of the speed.

And what that says is that there are so many micro-vortices that are spinning off of the big whirlpools and eddies, that you can see with your eyes, underwater all these billions and trillions and gazillions of tiny little motions, and none of them are in straight lines. And the faster a river moves, the more agitated all those little motions become. And the evidence of that is in the sediment load, which increases to the seventh root of the speed of the river, so that a river flowing five miles an hour, which it might be at medium water, is carrying an incredible amount more sand, clay and other sediment as it travels downstream.

So the big meanders you see are just the biggest examples of that rounding motion that the river’s always trying to make. And indeed that power and spirit is transformed into every thing that the river touches. You can feel it in the sand and the mud, and all the creatures that live along the river are energized by that same powerful motion that the water’s always making, and as long as it’s flowing, from St. Louis down to the gulf of Mexico.

DJ: Thank you for all that.

A few times, you’ve mentioned mud. Is the mud of the Mississippi, is it sort of a desert, or is it incredibly biologically rich? Who lives in the mud? And who lives just above the mud? Who likes the mud?

JR: (laughing) Well, all river rats like mud. I kind of feel like the mud got between my toes in the 1980’s when I came down out of Colorado and made my first expedition on the Mississippi, which was a five month raft trip. I feel like I got the mud between my toes and never been able to kick it out. And others say the same thing, once you come to the river, once you come to the delta, you’re never going to get it out of your mind. The landscape is so wide and so much itself. So full of aroma and sounds and sparkling, dancing expressions.

And the mud is a basic building block, a slimy building block, the slimy glue that holds it all together. And it’s one of the mediums that the river carries. Sand is the other medium, and then water itself is the other medium. And then the organic matter also, of course.

Mud plays a special role. One of the answers seems, this is a little sideline but it’s also about mud. After the, 9000 years ago, after the Mississippi stopped being a braided channel much like the rivers you see today in Alaska, and became a meandering river, there was about 25 million acres of wet mud that was now lying across the entire valley. In fact, that mud had displaced what was once the ocean waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Because the Mississippi River, from Cairo on downstream, used to be an inlet of the Gulf. And it wasn’t until the last melting of that Laurentide ice cap that all that sediment coming down the rivers displaced all that ocean water and formed what is the landscape we have today in the Yazoo Mississippi Delta, which is a 200 mile piece I was telling you about from Memphis to Vicksburg. The average depth of the mud is 125 feet and it’s as deep as 240 feet.

DJ: So you’ve got the river, and then below the river you’ve got mud going another 240 feet?

JR: Not below the river, but just measuring from any land place alongside the river. But there is an exception to that. There is a place north of Memphis where they were building a bridge back in the 60’s from Caruthersville, Missouri to Dyersburg, Tennessee. They needed a pier, and they started drilling holes into the riverbank. And they went down 200 feet and they thought they were going to hit the bottom, judging on what the Delta was elsewhere, but no, they has to go another 500 feet, and they went 1000 feet, and they had to bring in special equipment, they had to go in deeper and deeper, and they did not hit bottom until they were over 7000 feet deep.

So there’s something unusual going on there, which is probably related to the New Madrid fault line, which created the worst earthquake in recorded history, at New Madrid, Missouri, in 1811 and 1812.

What happened after all that mud was spread across the Big Valley is that it naturally dried out and cracked up, it must have been fascinating landscape, 100 miles wide. And at that time there were no plants. It was all just this shiny sheet of mud by the route of the river, almost 1000 miles long. In actuality it’s more like 600 miles. I mean in linear distance. And then the cracked mud broke down into smaller and smaller pieces, and the prevailing winds, which were southwesterly, started picking up the dried particulate, and it was like the Great Dust Bowl times 100, because it created this dust storm across the whole valley. It must have lasted a long time, probably until the plants started coming in, and blew across the valley, 100 miles wide, and all that dust settled out and became the hill country, in what’s called the loess formation.

In all the hills that you find along the lower Mississippi River, from Wickliffe, Kentucky, where is where the Ohio comes in, on downstream to Hickman, Kentucky, and Memphis, Tennessee … the Chickasaw Bluffs, there’s four Chickasaw Bluffs, and Memphis sits on the fourth Chickasaw Bluff. Then all the way down to Vicksburg, which sits on another bluff. You know, Vicksburg was the great citadel of the South, and the reason was because of those same bluffs. And Natchez, and Saint Francisville and Fort Adams, all the way down to Baton Rouge, which is where the last of those bluffs are.

And that sediment, today, those bluffs, they’re known as hills in most places. Around Vicksburg they call them Walnut Hills; north of Memphis, the Chickasaw Bluffs – that is what became the definition of the edge of the Great River Valley. So mud became dust became hills. The most vibrant ecological places on earth are in the ecotones, those places between distinct biotas. The Mississippi Delta, when you look at it from the air, looks like it’s one contiguous biota, but actually it’s lacerated by all these channels and oxbow lakes and then tributary rivers made by the hills themselves. The bottomlands hardwood forest is separated from the uplands forest. And all these ecotones, these edge places in between the biotas, create the richest abundance in biology.

DJ: That’s great. So we have about five minutes left, and I’m sorry to do this to you, but I have three questions. If you can try to fit these into five or six minutes, that would be great. Or just ignore whichever ones you don’t want to do. One of them is, I remember reading, when I was a kid, about a huge logjam on the Red River, that was like 100 miles long. So do you want to talk about logjams, or things floating down the river? That’s one question. Another question is, one of the things you do is to introduce people who might not otherwise, especially young people who otherwise might not have an opportunity to experience paddling on the river, you introduce them to that, and the third question can be “What does the Mississippi River want from people?”

So whatever you want to do with either one, two or three of those is great.

JL: Okay, well I’m going to combine them all together. The Mississippi, well you know we talk about magical things like time machines and magic carpets that transform us across time and place. The river, the lower Mississippi, is a superlative of this fact. The river creates this passageway for freedom and places for our imagination to grow, and for us to become part of the greater whole, which is the earth. And especially in these days as we get distanced, we distance ourselves, I’m talking about mankind and womankind, as we distance ourselves from nature we find ourselves getting into more and more trouble in more and more places, and the river naturally connects everything together.

And here in Clarksdale, in Helena, Arkansas and Memphis, Tennessee, we do that literally by mentoring our neighborhood youth in canoe carving, and then learning to paddle canoes, and become canoe leaders on the biggest river in North America, the mighty Mississippi. We build 29 foot long voyageur style canoes, with our youth, our apprentices, and what we call the Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program. They learn leadership and leadership skills through guiding others in those big canoes. The canoe becomes this natural vessel for learning that, and at the same time becomes this natural place for democracy to be exercised, because in a canoe, we all have to put aside our differences, our personal aches and pains, and all work together for the greater good. It’s easy to do and learn when you’re all paddling together in this incredible landscape, which is this magical connection between the north and the south, and humans, and the rest of creation.

The biologist E.O. Wilson says that we need to put aside half the earth to save the other half, and to make those places alive that we save, the creatures need migration routes. And the Mississippi creates one of those great migration routes, that you see driftwood floating all the way down out of the north into the Gulf of Mexico, is an example, but it’s the same highway that the American Eel uses, and the paddlefish, and endangered pallid sturgeon, and freshwater shrimp. Not to mention all the songbirds and waterfowl. Lesser known are the mammals, how the mammals need the Mississippi as a route for migration.

But the Mississippi connects the coastal woods, to the north woods, which connects to arboreal forest, which connects to the Alaska taiga. And those kinds of connections are essential for the survival of the earth. And our greatest hope is that in some way, in our canoe construction and helping our next generation learn what their connection is to Mother Earth, in some ways we are doing the good work of, the work of the worker bees of our queen the river, in opening up more channels, and allowing more of those kind of connections to flow, and keep flowing, and be forever flowing.

DJ: Well thank you so much for that. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio, on the Progressive Radio Network.

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