There is no beginning to this story. We begin midstream. We begin in a gush of water from our mother’s bodies. In our first moist breath. The makers of landmarks and destinations, the holders of deeds, argue about where the River is born. In what exact spot does it really begin, which trickle into which stream, into which tributary, how many gallons, how fast, how wide, how deep? They say it begins in a clear, cold northern lake, Omashkoozo-zaaga'igan, a shallow glacial hollow in the bedrock, and travels this course or that along the ancient claw marks of ice. But it is rain that gathers there and begins to flow. It is the snow that fell in drifts from heavy clouds and melted in the sun. The headwaters of the Mississippi River are in the sky.
The sea has no headwater. It is all belly. The sun beats down until the surface of the salt water turns into dimpled gold. It steams up into the sky, becoming low, white clouds of the Caribbean, held close because the layers of air keep them so, or is swept into the great spiral storms that come spinning in herds across the ocean from Africa, or is blown northward in streamers and rags of vapor, on the arc of the winds. Steam meets the chill upper air, meets the cool shadowy breath of trees, tumbles and darkens and condenses, and the water in the sky returns in spatters, sheets, pillars of rain, pouring sweet into salt, pockmarking endless miles of rolling waves, and blows ashore, drenching the islands, drenching the continent, returning, always returning.
Water flows in and out of red veins and green, making a tracery of drops spangling the globe, this wet planet, this single organism we are. We are made of water’s dance. Everything else is residue, molecules of matter and spirit moving from place to place. Everything else is silt.
Windblown water beats on the metal roof of the house where I am still a child, drumming so loud we have to shout. It comes on the vientos alisios, the sea winds, the trade winds, always blowing from the northeast. The sea winds shepherd the great storms with their trailing whips of dark cloud, their spinning hearts, their debris of broken branches, torn paper, pieces of houses. They bring red dust of Mali, blow tiny particulate matter into our lungs, sticky traces of pesticides and truck exhaust into the crevices of living reefs. They bring invaders blown off course from Iberia, lost in a dream of India and Cathay, hacking our worlds apart like the husk around a kernel of gold. Not corn, but money.
The winds that run low, closest to the moist earth and the crested sea, blow toward the equator. The winds that run high in the upper air race away toward the poles. The winds of the islands come slant across the map and bring water. Billions of tiny tree frogs call out as the humidity rises. The old ones say they are calling for their lost mothers, toa toa, and their cries reach up into the dark clouds and pull down the rain.
In the glacial north, made by ice moving across rock and grinding it into soil, rain comes from the northwest, in the summer, and falls from towering thunderheads, dark grey mountains of steam, crackling with electric tension, loosing their bright, hot current in forked rivulets down upon the wide brown earth. Winter winds turn vapor to clouds of crystals that bury furrow and field and sheath the rivers in thin blue ice for dark months on end. But water is water and spring comes and everything melts and rises and flows and changes, crystal clear ice-melt into blue flood into Mississippi River dark with mud.
Rain blows sideways over slow blue marshes of manoomin and water lilies where little fish dart through forests of reeds. Rain falls slant across wide brown muscular reaches, hiding the far shore, the barges and docks, water like biceps, currents strong enough to take us by the unwary foot and drag our bodies from Hannibal to Ferguson, Cape Girardeau to Osceola, born on undercurrents that make the surface boil. Rain drenches the fishers on the banks, women singing praise songs and scattering tobacco, scientists dipping samples, catching crawfish to study, drenches the paddlers in canoes downstream from Clarksdale, falls wide over the wide delta, over looping oxbows, over the fork of the Atchafalaya, over the border where cotton gives way to cane, drums on the roofs of sharecrop shacks and the cabins of lift boats chugging along channels choked with water hyacinth, falls through the leafless branches of grey ghost oaks murdered by creeping salt water at their roots.
There is no end to the story, but the river opens itself into this vast estuary fan, and everything lands here, a silted geography made by whatever is light enough to carry: soil, stories, industrial effluent, feathers, petals, blood, the most delicate windblown seeds of hope.
PREFACE: SILT OF EACH OTHER
It doesn't matter what his name was. He could have been any one of the white, propertied men who were the muscle of that fast-beating heart of US expansionism in the late19th century, full of the exhilarating conviction that they were manifestly destined to rule, were the pinnacle of creation, and that anything that did not belong to them was wasted. To dominate nature was to do God's unfinished work, to straighten out His crooked rivers and put them to lighting bulbs and watering crops, to plow up His useless prairies and irrigate His unproductive deserts so they could be planted with mathematically designed, maximum yield rows of highly marketable crops, to the enrichment of His chosen creatures, the banker, the agribusinessman and the railroad baron. God and natural law stood united behind him and his kind, in support of American Empire.
The internal frontier had been abolished and every nook and cranny of arable Indian land had been stolen. (Who was to know those barren reservation wastes would turn out to have coal and oil and uranium under their rough dry exteriors?) The glittering oceans beckoned east and west with their delectable morsels of tropical conquest. Today it was Cuba on the menu, and the men of means were salivating. It was one of the last gems in the Spanish crown, and they wanted it, they needed it, they must have as soon as possible. So, they drafted reasons for seizing it.
The man in the waistcoat said that the reason was mud. He said that the great river carried silt from American fields, American rocks, American leaves and twigs, far out of its muddy mouth, deep into the Caribbean sea, and that it was these chips of Minnesota granite, fallen pine debris of Wisconsin and Illinois, white kaolin and black shale of Montana, crumbled river bluff from Iowa and Missouri, red clay and sand of Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana, sludge of long dead catfish and northern pike, that had piled up over the eons and made Cuba, literally, into US soil.
The islands where I was born rose in fire, out of a place of tilt and slip, strike and jolt, a crack of transformation in the great plates of the earth's skin; a place where one slab of rock shoves its way under another, heaving immense angles of thick wet limestone into undersea mountain ranges whose crowns rise up in foam and salt, to be decked with palms and egrets.
They rose in serpentine and basalt, and the slowly built sedimentary stripes of compressed ocean bed; in the bones of billions of tiny coral creatures, pressed by the weight of water into banks of dolomite that the surf wore smooth, that the sun heated and cracked, that rainwater carved full of caves, seeping through the filtering porous beds to make deep sweet aquifers and habitat for seed and spore. They rose in the slow conversion of plant matter to clay, and clay back into plants, into airy bromeliads, towering trunks with splendid crowns, tiny mosses, extravagant bloom, rattling seed pods, fruits and tubers searingly poisonous, exquisitely flavored, earthily nourishing.
These islands did not rise from the trash heaps of the continental river, were not made out of leftover Midwest. They are their own creation, dripping with saltwater and honeysuckle.
And sediment has no nationality. Sediment drifts from place to place, on currents of water and air, on muskrat fur and the feathers of Indigo Buntings. It travels without passports, visas, or allegiances. If there is Minnesota dust ground into fine powder by its long journey through wild currents and sandbars; fragments of Canadian glacial rock whirled along the bed of the Missouri into the common flood; grains of ancient lake bottom that have been swept out to sea and fallen at last into drifts of silken mud, pressed into shale when our ancestors were still tree rats, and in an age long before borders, lifted and tipped into the side of some Caribbean valley, why, each one of us walks through the day with miniscule bits of old African DNA twirling in the mitochondria that fuel our cells. Caribbean pollen of tropical forests brushed from the feathers of migratory birds has also sifted down through the fragrance of fermenting pine needles, into the lake bed of the River's source, mingling, under the rose green flickering of the northern lights, with the ashes of volcanic eruptions half a world away.
What are we all but the silt of each other? Every molecule of oxygen we breathe has been breathed a billion times before by every other set of human lungs, has crossed the panting tongues of dogs and leopards and small jeweled snakes, fueled the tiny hearts of hummingbirds and the large hearts of gorillas, been transformed in the green veins of plants, passed in and out of clouds and rain and waterfalls, risen up from oceans into the planetary sky. To whom does it belong?
We are the mineral residues of distant stars, carbons formed within their blazing cores, continually rearranging ourselves in an endless genetic shuffle of dazzling forms. Microscopic flakes of our skin lie scattered on Himalayan snow and in the bed of the Amazon.
We cannot be owned. We cannot own each other. And there is no such thing as a particle of US soil.
But there is the root web of eco-history, a dense mat of relations thick as mangrove, between the great inland river and the islands that girdle the small bright sea.
Birds and pebbles, seeds and sorrows, languages and tools, trees and music, bloodshed and rebellion, sugar and iron, people and their stories have traveled the waters upriver and down, windward and leeward, and left their mark.
These are poems drawn from the real story of river and island silt, the residues of landscapes and peoples, species and cultures, that shift and change and charge each other with minerals and meaning, moving along a pathway made out of water and mud and our own feet walking. I dip my fingers in its rich colors and paint my face. I dip my fingers and write my own manifest destiny: we are meant to be fearless, we are meant to recognize each other and rejoice, we are meant to be free.