When I hear about the old days of untamed rivers, when a steamboat would sink in the shallows of the channel and its wreck might gather sand and enough land to eventually force the water over to the other bank, sliding little by little, until finally the river swallows a town, I get jealous. It might just be the drama of the word “untamed.” Or maybe it’s the powerful picture of a river with a mind of its own – a river still free to write its own story, no matter how ugly.
As we’ve piled rocks, levees, and concrete next to our rivers, we’ve tucked these stories away in bookshelves and let them become histories. They’re safe there. I can’t blame anyone for that. No one should have to watch a home or a child float away with an angry river. But somewhere within the civilized me is the savage me who just wants to see what it might be like for a river to run wild.
Fortunately, I’ve gotten a glimpse of it, because the Mouth of the Arkansas River, near Rosedale, MS, isn’t controlled. In its last forty-three miles, no towboats use it for navigation, and nothing but a few hunting camps sit on its banks. You can see the bite marks carved out of the high red banks. John has watched forests fall there.
Thanks to an extraordinary new tool called the Google Earth Engine, we can all watch those forests fall (figuratively speaking) from the comfort of our cubicles. The Engine shows you birds-eye, time lapse images of the planet for the last three decades. In a matter of seconds, you can watch the Amazon Rainforest transform into farmland, the city of Las Vegas grow into the desert, or two gaudy palm tree islands spring from the coast of Dubai. Here’s the story it tells of the movement of the Arkansas Mouth.
We often see towboats stacked high with rocks. They chug up and down the river, on their way to dump their haul in various places where the river has just washed them away. Sisyphus had a similar job. The gods had punished him for getting too godlike, and they had him carry a heavy boulder up to the top of a hill. When he reached the top, it would immediately roll down again. Then he would heave it back up. Until forever.
Chris Wolfie Staudinger