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Outside the banks—the Mississippi and you and me

By D. G. Martin
Posted Wednesday, May 18, 2011

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Chapel Hill, NC - The Mississippi River has gone “wild” again.

When it happened back in 1993, it led me to compare the challenges of managing a river and managing our lives, both sometimes moving outside their defined channels.

Here is what I wrote back then:

“It will probably fall back into the same channels in most places. But in some cases, the forces bill be so powerful that there will be a permanent change in where it runs,” said an environmental expert responding to a radio reporter’s question during the great Mississippi River Flood of 1993.

But he could have been talking about my life. Or your life. Or our society.

“Will the river, having broken, return to its old channels when the flood recedes?” the reporter had asked.

The answer may have been different before man came. Then the great river moved naturally in and out of its banks as the floods came and receded.

The periodic flooding of the lowlands alongside the river was a part of the order of things. The vast plains absorbed huge amounts of the floodwater like a sponge. Water then flowed out slowly—moderating the intensity of the flood downstream and cleansing the river and the plains.

In his efforts to regulate and tame the river, man built the system of levees and other barriers to contain the river. He poured tons of concrete and rock to mark the river bottom and hold it in place.

If man had not intervened, the great Mississippi River Flood of 1993 might have been just a good bath for the ecosystem. Even now, some conservationists argue, the damaged levees on the Mississippi should not be rebuilt. Man’s work should be undone so that the river, when it floods, can reach out to its natural flood plains.

What is best for the river? Should it be channeled and regulated so that it almost always does what is expected? Even if it means that the ecology is heavily damaged? Even if it means that there will occasionally be a great flood that destroys the levees and much of what the levees are designed to protect?

Or should it be left to run free? Should we get man’s big projects out of the way so that the river can interact with the rest of nature? Even if it means that we give up the river as a reliable transportation artery? Even if it means that we subject millions of acres of farmland to flooding every year?

Like the river, the courses of our lives are defined by man-made barriers.

As we float down our life’s stream, we are guided along by levee-like rules that other people have made.

In normal times, these laws, rules, customs, and habits keep us where we know we are supposed to be—between the banks—until…until…

Until floods of change come and carry us over the banks…and beat down the levees of old rules…and wash us out into the flood plains, off course, outside the channels and very uneasy.

The levees that once held our lives on course are blown away. The old rules of family, religious, and social order that told us who we were—they’re mostly gone.

We are in the flood plains, lost and wondering, “When the flood is over, will we return to the same river channel?”

Maybe these times of being “outside the banks” are good for us and good for the river.


But I am pretty sure I’d be more comfortable if the floods were over and we were back on the main channel, moving downstream, and knowing where we are going.

D.G. Martin is hosting his final season of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at 5 p.m. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at

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Outside the banks—the Mississippi and you and me

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