The Mississippi River is central to the geography of the United States. It is also central to natural and social history of the United States. The Mississippi River basin has been and remains part of trade and economy of the United States and the world, too.
The river however, is not an abstract concept. As you will know if you have traveled on the Mississippi or walked its banks, from the farthest tributary of the Missouri in Montana to the wetlands of the Louisiana Delta, it is a vibrant, alive, and living part of nature – and a part of day to day life. It is, in fact, part of day to day life for those who live along the Mississippi and its tributaries and for many who live far distant from their banks, as well
In her book Rancher Farmer Fisherman, Miriam Horn tells stories of five families whose lives and livelihoods are intimately involved with the river. There’s the cowboy-rancher Dusty Crary, whose land is near the headwaters of the Missouri in Montana. Justin Knopf is a wheat farmer on the Kansas prairie. Merritt Lane heads up the Canal Barge Company, whose boats deliver cargo up and down the river. and its branches. Sandy Nguyen is a consultant who works to make life better for shrimpers on the Louisiana Gulf coast. Wayne Werner fishes the Gulf of Mexico for red snapper and other catch.
Each of these people, in differing yet related ways, is facing changes in the natural world of the Mississippi river basin. Their political views come from across the spectrum – Rancher Farmer Fisherman isn’t a polemic for or against change, climate or otherwise. It is, rather, a collection of vividly told stories of lives on the land, lives of people who are having to think deeply about what their work and their lives mean, and how to work with people who may see issues of environment, climate, politics, history, science, and just about everything else, differently than they do.
While telling the story of Sandy Nguyen and her fishing communities, Horn writes:
“Restoring America’s working landscape requires seeing the big picture, the long view. But that larger vision is incomplete without the small, immediate, local, human picture: the families who have to get through this week, week, this year.”
It is that very challenge, that tension between day to day life and ongoing decisions for the future, which makes these stories compelling. It is also why the subtitle of Rancher Farmer Fisherman is conservation heroes of the American heartland.
You learn about big decisions, such as Justin Knopf, the Kansas wheat farmer, trying controversial harvesting methods as ways to renew the soil for future crops. You also learn about how, when the woman he loved moved out of town, he took a creative way to win her back. That, too, involved wheat.
You learn about how Sandy Nguyen helps shrimpers – and their spouses who are often their business partners – work their way through complicated paperwork in languages they may not easily understand. You also learn that she and her family fled Viet Nam in the last days of the war and the story of how Sandy, a small child at the time, almost got left behind.
Each of these people has learned to and chosen to forge connections across divides that might seem unlikely – but the reasons they do that resonate with any traveler. Listen to Merrrit Lane, the riverman who runs the barge company:
“…in my lifetime, I’ve seen a river in Cleveland catch fire and the Illinois River near Chicago so polluted it didn’t freeze. And I’ve seen both restored: nature responds quickly when we take better care of it. So rather than getting caught up in the debate, I think we can simply say, ‘There’s some stuff going on and we ought to be better than we used to be, make it better for the next generation.’”
Rancher Farmer Fisherman is a story of people who love the land, who live in working landscapes, and who recognize that there is change. You will find an eloquently told story of these people, which while grounded in the specifics of their day to day choices and of the geography of the Mississippi River basin, raises issues and makes connections which reach far beyond these things. Horn writes:
“All are conservationists because their livelihoods and communities will live or die with these ecosystems, but also because they love these land- and river- and sea- scapes where nature’s elemental forces remain vivid in their beauty and danger; where lives of self-creation, self-reliance and liberty remain possible; where ideas of home and homeland remain strong. All bear a sense of moral responsibility to both he future and the past, a determination to pass on to their children and grandchildren a heritage often generations deep: the family imprinted on this land, the seasonal rhythms and traditions built around the bounty they reap. Many acknowledge something sacred here—larger than human understanding or will, a gift to be tended and revered.”
Haven’t you come across people, landscapes, and traditions such as that in your travels? Read Rancher Farmer Fisherman and you will encounter more. Perhaps, too, you will see your future encounters with rivers in new ways.
Side note: There are films, also, which have been broadcast on the Discovery Channel. You may well want to watch them. Read the book, though –doing so will give you time to reflect on the ideas and stories presented. It is also well written, and there is an extensive section of notes leading to resources should you wish to explore the ideas further.
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