I’ve spent almost my entire life in river cities. Follow the Missouri River and you’ll find a trail of my old homes – Kansas City, Columbia, and my hometown, St. Louis, where the Missouri enters the Mississippi. These cities, which form the Orion’s Belt of the state of Missouri, exist because of the river: American settlers following the course of the waterways, setting up trading posts and salt licks along its course, and before them, indigenous peoples from cultures as varied in time as the Kickapoo and the Mississippians. Without the rivers, the cities and the people in them don’t exist; their courses provide shape to the geography of human life.
But most of the time, I don’t realize the river is even there.
I realized the depths of this estrangement just before the New Year. My wife and I had been in St. Louis to visit our families for the Yuletide season. and were driving back to our home in Columbia. We passed by the Chesterfield Valley Athletic Complex and found it underwater. The soccer fields and baseball diamonds lay underneath three feet of water; medians between the fields stood as new-birthed islands. The Missouri River’s overflow came nearly to the highway, and it felt as though the world had dropped away entirely except for a few streaks of grass and pavement. I hadn’t realized how close the river was, that it normally ran just a few hundred yards to the north of this spot on the highway I drive four times a month. In my head, the river was a thing bridges ran over.
Thirty miles to the south, a member of my coven, another child of witches like I had been, was crossing over his farm on a canoe. The swollen Mississippi had spread itself down the tributaries, and tiny creeks that normally barely flowed at all had risen so much that seven feet of water stood on the ground. He posted a FEMA aerial photograph of the land, with markings for the 100- and 500-year flood marks; he made some corrections with a pen, showing the 500-year mark creeping even farther out in a jagged line towards his grandmother’s house. He spent fourteen hours working to salvage as much as he could from her basement, running pumps to keep the water at bay. In the end the water only got into his grandmother’s floor joists, which were made from planks of roughcut oak – old solid wood, the kind you can’t build with anymore – and they would be alright, as long as no mold started to grow. He said they were relatively lucky – had the water crested an inch and a half higher, things could have been much worse. At least nobody died. (Nobody there, at least – more than twenty other people in the region did, though.)
The last time we had flooding like this in St. Louis was 1993, when I was seven years old. That flood came in over months of rain, such that it stretched out over the entire summer of that year – quite different from the recent floods, which came in only two days. The flood more or less destroyed the communities in southern Missouri and Illinois where my father’s parents had grown up. His mother’s hometown, Kaskaskia, had been so ruined by the flood that the 2010 census found only 14 residents. My grandfather has told me stories of the abandonment of Kaskaskia hundreds of times since then, enough that it almost feels as though I remember it firsthand. My only real memory of the Flood of ‘93 comes from a videotape my grandmother had, put out by one of the local news stations in the aftermath. I remember seeing trees sticking out of the brown river, the ripples of its current appearing at once meandering and rapid. But that picture is framed by my grandmother’s television set.
It always feels like a surprise to me, when the rivers overtake their banks, when they begin to pour into our streets and our basements, when they wash over fields and wash away houses. Because my life revolves around human structures – appointments, academic semesters, final exam weeks, deadlines, even the calendar of Sabbats – I trick myself into forgetting that the world itself does not set itself up according to those strictures. While the cities I call home would not exist without the rivers, they stay out of sight most of the time, and are forgotten. But then sometimes the El Nino currents arrive, sometimes the rains fall for two days, sometimes they fall for months. Sometimes the river just rises, closing down all those human highways and human strip malls and human lives.
It’s tempting to personify the river in these moments, and the first time I wrote this sentence, that’s exactly what I did: Sometimes the river reasserts itself, presents a testament to its presence and immensity. But even that is misguided. The river does not need to remind any human of what it is. The river exists independent of us. It does not flood to prove a point. It floods because that’s what rivers do. We’re the ones who forget.
The crest of the water has moved on from us now. Across the St. Louis area, people have begun to dig out and clean up from the damage wrought by the flood. In the news, this damage is always expressed in dollar amounts: $235 million in St. Louis County alone, for example. Not to downplay that reality, since of course money and capital are daily concerns for anyone in this society, but the fact that we cannot express this in any other way seems like another indication of our alienation from the world on which we live. I worry that, once we pay the tab on this flood’s wake, we will then simply wait to be surprised by the next one.
As for my brother with the flooded farm, he, to his credit, never said anything bitter about the river itself – at least not that I know of. (I wouldn’t be surprised if a few choice words were exchanged when an upright freezer fell on him while clearing out his grandmother’s basement.) Although I know this has been an exhausting and expensive season for him, he’s maintained his Pagan soul. When he and his wife were asked what they would do, they said they would salvage, rebuild, and plant rice in the spring.