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In time, people would come to suggest that there was about these enterprises an element of hauteur. A professor of law at Tulane University, for example, would assign it third place in the annals of arrogance. His name was Oliver Houck. “The greatest arrogance was the stealing of the sun,” he said. “The second-greatest arrogance is running rivers backward. The third-greatest arrogance is trying to hold the Mississippi in place. The ancient channels of the river go almost to Texas. Human beings have tried to restrict the river to one course—that’s where the arrogance began.” The Corps listens closely to things like that and files them in its archives. Houck had a point. Bold it was indeed to dig a fresh conduit in the very ground where one river had prepared to trap another, bolder yet to build a structure there meant to be in charge of what might happen.

Outside, on the roadway that crosses the five-hundred-and-sixty-six-foot structure, one could readily understand where the marbles might have gone. Even at this time of modest normal flow, we looked down into a rage of water. It was running at about twelve miles an hour—significantly faster than the Yukon after breakup—and it was pounding into the so-called stilling basin on the downstream side, the least still place you would ever see. The No. 10 rapids of the Grand Canyon, which cannot be run without risk of life, resemble the Old River stilling basin, but the rapids of the canyon are a fifth as wide. The Susitna River is sometimes more like it—melted glacier ice from the Alaska Range. Huge trucks full of hardwood logs kept coming from the north to cross the structure, on their way to a chipping mill at Simmesport. One could scarcely hear them as they went by.

Just why the Army should be involved at all with levee systems, navigation locks, rock jetties, concrete revetments, and the austere realities of deltaic geomorphology is a question that attracts no obvious answer. The Corps is here because it is here. Its presence is an expression not of contemporary military strategy but of pure evolutionary tradition, its depth of origin about a century and three-quarters. The Corps is here specifically to safeguard the nation against any repetition of the War of 1812. When that unusual year was in its thirty-sixth month, the British Army landed on the Gulf Coast and marched against New Orleans. The war had been promoted, not to say provoked, by territorially aggressive American Midwesterners who were known around the country as hawks. It had so far produced some invigorating American moments (“We have met the enemy and they are ours”), including significant naval victories by ships like the Hornet and the Wasp. By and large, though, the triumphs had been British. The British had repelled numerous assaults on Canada. They had established a base in Maine. In Washington, they had burned the Capitol and the White House, and with their rutilant rockets and airburst ballistics they tried to destroy Baltimore. New Orleans was not unaware of these events, and very much dreaded invasion. When it came, militarily untrained American backwoods sharpshooters, standing behind things like cotton bales, picked off two thousand soldiers of the King while losing seventy-one of their own. Nonetheless, the city’s fear of invasion long outlasted the war.

Essay About Owls by Mary Oliver - 373 Words

Bayou Lafourche, a major distributary, was dammed in 1904. In something like twenty years, the increased confinement of the river had elevated floodwaters in Memphis by an average of about eight feet. The Corps remained loyal to the teachings of Guglielmini, and pronouncements were still forthcoming that the river was at last under control and destructive floods would not occur again. Declarations of that sort had been made in the quiet times before the great floods of 1884, 1890, 1891, 1897, 1898, and 1903, and they would be made again before 1912, 1913, 1922, and 1927.

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In city and country, riverfront owners became sensitive about the fact that the levees they were obliged to build were protecting not only their properties but also the properties behind them. Levee districts were established—administered by levee boards—to spread the cost. The more the levees confined the river, the more destructive it became when they failed. A place where water broke through was known as a crevasse—a source of terror no less effective than a bursting dam—and the big ones were memorialized, like other great disasters, in a series of proper names: the Macarty Crevasse (1816), the Sauvé Crevasse (1849). Levee inspectors were given power to call out male slaves—aged fifteen to sixty—whose owners lived within seven miles of trouble. With the approach of mid-century, the levees were averaging six feet—twice their original height—and calculations indicated that the flow line would rise. Most levee districts were not populous enough to cover the multiplying costs, so the United States Congress, in 1850, wrote the swamp and Overflow Land Act. It is possible that no friend of Peter had ever been so generous in handing over his money to Paul. The federal government deeded millions of acres of swampland to states along the river, and the states sold the acreage to pay for the levees. The Swamp Act gave eight and a half million acres of river swamps and marshes to Louisiana alone. Other states, in aggregate, got twenty million more. Since time immemorial, these river swamps had been the natural reservoirs where floodwaters were taken in and held, and gradually released as the flood went down. Where there was timber (including virgin cypress), the swampland was sold for seventy-five cents an acre, twelve and a half cents where there were no trees. The new owners were for the most part absentee. An absentee was a Yankee. The new owners drained much of the swampland, turned it into farmland, and demanded the protection of new and larger levees. At this point, Congress might have asked itself which was the act and which was the swamp.

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And Peck Oubre, the lock mechanic, asking Rabalais, “Before they put in Old River Lock and the control structure, what was the people talking about when the water used to rise and come through here? Were they complaining about it?”

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The boat climbed another log. The engine cavitated. We broke through brush like an elephant. Bourque had been following what he called the driftwood line, where a small change in depth had caused driftwood to linger. To him the swamp topography was as distinctive and varied as the neighborhoods of a city would be to someone else—these subworlds of the Atchafalaya, out past Bayou Gravenburg, on toward the Red Eye Swamp. “This line used to go in back there, but I moved them out in front,” he said in a place that seemed much too redundant to have a back or a front. Colored ribbons, which he called flags, helped to distinguish the fishermen’s trees, but he could run his lines without them, covering his four hundred cages. He did about sixty an hour. Soileau, using a grain scoop, shoveled dead alewives and compressed pellets of Acadiana Choice Crawfish Bait into each emptied cage, and Bourque returned it to the water. Bourque told Soileau, who is a biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, to quit the government and come work for him. Soileau said, “For ten dollars a day?”


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In the Atchafalaya more recently, we came upon a sport fisherman in a skiff called Mon Ark. “There’s all kind of land out there now,” he said. He meant not only that the wet parts were low but also that the dry parts were growing. In the Atchafalaya, the land comes and goes, but it comes more than it goes. As the overflow swamp of the only remaining distributary in the delta—the only place other than the mouth of the Mississippi where silt can go—the Atchafalaya is silting in. From a light plane at five hundred feet, this is particularly evident as the reflection of the sun races through trees and shoots forth light from the water. The reflection disappears when it crosses the accumulating land. If land accretes from the shore of a lake or a bayou, the new ground belongs to the shore’s owner. If it accretes as an island, it belongs to the state—a situation of which Gilbert would be sure to inform Sullivan. Some fifty thousand acres are caught in this tug-of-war. Wet and dry, three-quarters of the Atchafalaya swampland is privately owned. Nearly all the owners are interested less in the swamp than in what may lie beneath it. The conservationists, the Corps, landowners, and recreational interests have worked out a compromise by which all parties putatively get what they want: floodway, fishway, oil field, Eden. From five hundred feet up, the world below is green swamp everywhere, far as the eye can see. The fact is, though, that the eye can’t see very far. The biggest river swamp in North America, between its demarcating levees, is seventeen miles wide and sixty miles long. It is about half of what it was when it began at the Mississippi River and went all the way to Bayou Teche.

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As sediments slide down the continental slope and the river is prevented from building a proper lobe—as the delta plain subsides and is not replenished—erosion eats into the coastal marshes, and quantities of Louisiana steadily disappear. The net loss is over fifty square miles a year. In the middle of the nineteenth century, a fort was built about a thousand feet from a saltwater bay east of New Orleans. The fort is now collapsing into the bay. In a hundred years, Louisiana as a whole has decreased by a million acres. Plaquemines Parish is coming to pieces like old rotted cloth. A hundred years hence, there will in all likelihood be no Plaquemines Parish, no Terrebonne Parish. Such losses are being accelerated by access canals to the sites of oil and gas wells. After the canals are dredged, their width increases on its own, and they erode the region from the inside. A typical three-hundred-foot oil-and-gas canal will be six hundred feet wide in five years. There are in Louisiana ten thousand miles of canals. In the nineteen-fifties, after Louisiana had been made nervous by the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Corps of Engineers built the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a shipping canal that saves forty miles by traversing marsh country straight from New Orleans to the Gulf. The canal is known as Mr. Go, and shipping has largely ignored it. Mr. Go, having eroded laterally for twenty-five years, is as much as three times its original width. It has devastated twenty-four thousand acres of wetlands, replacing them with open water. A mile of marsh will reduce a coastal-storm-surge wave by about one inch. Where fifty miles of marsh are gone, fifty inches of additional water will inevitably surge. The Corps has been obliged to deal with this fact by completing the ring of levees around New Orleans, thus creating New Avignon, a walled medieval city accessed by an interstate that jumps over the walls.