Last Monday, while many in St. Louis hung their heads in defeat, a handful of river rats danced on a trash barge near Grafton, Illinois. Ladies spun to bluegrass. Hands clapped. Mark River wiggled.
As the waters of two big rivers swirled together belowdecks, and a musician from The Green Strum Project plucked on a bass guitar that was once a gas tank, we marked milestones.
Chad Pregracke, a pilot of the towboat full of river treasures, has been named a top ten CNN hero of the year. He is the founder of Living Lands & Waters, which has used volunteer labor to clean garbage – seven million pounds of muddy, rusty, heavy, sometimes-hypodermic garbage – from the Mississippi and its tributaries for the last fifteen years. The non-profit will receive an automatic $50,000 from the award for their dirty work, and voting still continues for the top CNN hero, who will win an additional $250,000. (Click this link to vote (please)).
As if that wasn’t reason enough for a party, 1 Mississippi, a campaign to unite ecologically-minded river people, celebrated its 10,000th river citizen. Annette Gomberg, friend and coordinator of the effort, was excited, as she should have been, as she gave a rousing speech for the river. “This is the only organization that unites people on the entire Mississippi River, from Minnesota to the Gulf.” The campaign didn’t expect to reach 10,000 people until next year, and the push to “manage the River as a whole,” as she said, is gathering momentum.
That holistic approach stretches from the Farm Bill in Washington to Barge Parties in Grafton to water trails all through the valley. The event got a little bit of star power from Eddy Harris, who wrote Mississippi Solo about his experiences as a black man paddling the Mississippi River. The book is the non-fiction Mississippi river trip chronicle. At least it is for now, until Mark River Peoples compiles his thoughts and sends them directly to the New York Times for their worship. Until then, River will dance, from the hips; he will recruit 10,000 more river citizens; and he will help create and promote The Rivergator, which was another milestone marked on the barge. The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail, between Caruthersville, Missouri, and Vicksburg, Mississippi, is now complete, live, and interactive, after three years of work. People like Eddy will have a much smoother time navigating the big river. And the treasures of the Mississippi will be shared with more and more people.
To cap it all off, Boston-based writer Paul Schneider spoke beautifully about what he took away from writing his new book, Old Man River: The Mississippi in North American History. He said, “You can’t talk about the Civil War, you can’t talk about slavery, you can’t even talk about the federal government…without understanding the Mississippi River. And yet we tell the story of America as if nothing happened between the Atlantic and the Rockies.”
And as he traveled during his research, he realized unequivocally that “towns are healthier on every front when their backs are not turned to the river.”
“So I’m all for reclaiming the river.”
Pregracke was asked to say a few words. He jogged up to the microphone, in a hoodie and hat, looked around, and said a brief thank you. Then he grabbed one of the dogs that had been roaming the barge, held up the confused animal, and said, “Let’s hear it for Pork Chop.” Mark River cheered, everyone cheered, and the river flowed beneath us.
If you’re in St. Louis, and if you like the three rivers that have formed the place, there’s a lot to be excited about (enough to make other cities very jealous (things like The Great Rivers Greenway, sunsets on Mosenthein Island with Big Muddy Mike Clark, strange Lewis and Clark reenactors, the giant catfish in the City Museum, the site of the most mysterious and extensive Native American settlement north of the Yukatan…)) We should also be excited about the Piasa Palisades Sierra Club. Christine Favilla is a lioness who is not afraid to look the men of the Mississippi River Commission dead in the eyes and ask them the questions that no one else has the gumption to ask. “And she does it with such poise,” says Virginia Woulfe-Beile, who lacks no poise herself, and who organized much of the party. They have been busy on a marvelous project in nearby Pere Marquette State Park. They’re celebrating their 40th anniversary by rehabbing old cabins at Camp Ouatoga. The cabins were a product of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the thirties but fell victim to government budget cuts after the recession. They’ve renovated five cabins so far, on their own dime, with volunteer labor.
Wolf E. Staudinger