Reclaiming the Rivers,
Bearers of more than Sediment
Lisa Knopp, “What the River Carries”
University of Missouri Press
2012, 248 pages, paperback, $19.95
The Midwest, an old west, is a layered land created by wind and water. Its plains, shallow valleys, and buttes originated from volcanic ash, Rocky Mountain rubble, and glacial till eroded by the region’s signature rivers: the Mississippi, Missouri, and Platte. Today, these once perilous barriers and transportation corridors—arteries to the interior, yes, like those that circulate blood through living tissue—are crossed, but rarely forded. Too often, they’re passed over and ignored until something unexpected and harmful occurs: torrential rains and bank-jumping or levee-breeching floods.
Lisa Knopp’s “What the River Carries: Encounters with the Mississippi, Missouri, and Platte” resists these contemporary currents. In her fifth collection of essays, which range from the intensely personal, and at times confessional, to the reportorial, Knopp explores these rivers’ individual and combined significance. For her, the rivers carry more than silt. In a figurative sense, they convey stories, memories, and histories as abundant as sediment. They shape the land, lives, music, and fashion; they create boundaries and possibilities as well as barriers. Sometimes they unify people and place. “Growing to love a landscape,” reflects Knopp, a divorced mother of two adult children, “is similar to growing to love a person. Both require time and intention…to develop and sustain a love that is deep and committed.” She knows this not only because she’s a daughter and a parent. She grew up on the banks of the Mississippi in Burlington, Iowa, a hometown shared in common with one of the twentieth century’s most influential environmental thinkers, Aldo Leopold. He died while fighting fire to save what he, like Knopp, valued as much as family: the land.
To understand her own commitment to the land of her youth and later life, Knopp revisits and explores the Midwest’s formative rivers and varied places along their watersheds. Just as ecologists endeavor to identify and restore plants and animals native to one-time grasslands, Knopp aspires to restore through language people’s sensitivity and attentiveness to prairies and rivers. In her essay “The Middle Ground,” for instance, the “ground” in question is the Platte River, the body of water Knopp has lived and raised children near for the last twenty years. As an Iowa native, she considers herself an outsider in Nebraska. Still, she reveals how she learned to love this Nebraska river—learned, that is, to see and know it as both an outsider and a resident. The informed and sometimes lyrical acceptance, investigation, and marriage of her conflicting impressions and perceptions typify not just “What the River Carries” but her body of work.
Although Knopp’s encounters with the Mississippi, Missouri, and Platte Rivers unify the essays in “What the River Carries,” the collection’s true focus is broader. From her experiences with these too-often overlooked rivers and the nearby parks and relic prairies she visits alone or with family, Knopp creates a mosaic of connections. Like the intertwining root systems at Nine-Mile Prairie, geography and sky combine with water, human aspiration, and achievement to create places her language makes accessible and intimate as well as historic and dynamic. Though these landscapes can be seen, heard, touched, smelled, and felt through her words, they are more than physical. By her final essay, Knopp has helped readers discover what is increasingly absent from contemporary life: a sense of the interior west that is deeper, wider, wilder, and truer to its essence—its converging rivers—than to its gated communities, manicured lawns, strip malls, and interstate highways.
From her first book, “Field of Vision,” Knopp’s portrayals of place have been grounded in history—personal, regional, national, and natural. In “What the River Carries,” she continues this tradition. “Because the earth is thickly layered with the sacred and temporal stories of different groups of people,” Knopp writes in “Nauvoo, the Beautiful Place,” an essay about the Mormon settlement in Illinois, “the meaning and interpretation of a single place has become increasingly complicated.” Knopp’s boots-on-the-ground approach and her extensive library research allow her to uncover and explore these complexities and their causes and consequences. Her attentiveness to the sensual particulars of place—for instance, the names of things—is particularly compelling. Despite a confession to the contrary, the names and descriptions of the seen and unseen—root systems, history, and feeling—ground and fill Knopp’s collection with heart. “I’m less interested in names and divisions,” she writes in “Nine-Mile Prairie,” “than in learning how the prairie works, both as individual plants and as a whole, and how a prairie landscape works on my body, mind, and soul.”
Whether about river, prairie, or people, Knopp’s essays, the personal and reportorial alike, are composed and shared out of a love for the land and self. “[W]ildness heals my own wounds both great and small,” she writes in “Restorations,”
and calls me back to myself. When I watch the land heal after human or natural disasters, when I consider that tidy, poisoned lawns and fields of genetically modified corn can be restored to prairie, I am solaced. People I love have died or moved away; places that were the setting of significant events in my life have been flooded, blown down, torn down, bulldozed, remade. But the plants and insects that I knew as a child—climbing jenny, cabbage moths, sweet peas, fireflies, white clover, chicory, bees, violets, corn, daddy longlegs, and apple trees—look and act as they always did. So, too, the moon continues to wax and wane over a twenty-eight day period, chittering flocks of swirling blackbirds still roil the late summer sky, cicadas still buzz on summer nights, their songs trailing off like the last notes of a bagpipe, and Orion forever shooting his bow in the night sky. What I see in nature—a deep story that remains the same though the surface details are ever changing—consoles and restores me.
Of the collection’s eighteen essays, the ones that appeal most are those in which Knopp herself—and especially her mind at work—is central to events in which she actively participates. Read, for example, “Mound Builders,” an essay about traveling with her aging mother to visit Effigy Mounds National Monument. Her writing is equally strong in “The Taking,” a journalistic piece that explores the indignities and mistreatment the Yankton Sioux endured when the Corps of Engineers dammed the Missouri River. Knopp’s moral outrage—her force of mind—grabs and holds as strongly as the deep roots of native prairie grasses that thrive on moisture drawn and circulated like blood from the water tables that, though diminished and threatened, still shape and replenish the rivers and prairies Knopp calls home.
The only disappointment with “What the River Carries” is the absence of an essay that effectively synthesizes the rivers and theme into an organic whole, a narrative ecosystem. While such an essay might have been beyond the scope of Knopp’s intentions—might indeed be anything but natural, the desire, in fact, of a reader biased by a craving for grand narrative—such an essay could have strengthened the collection’s thematic unity and muscle: restoring the bond between land and people (between nature and culture) that for too long has been disappearing from Americans’ relationship with place. Even without this unifying essay, “What the River Carries” is a pleasant and refreshing collection well worth reading while relaxing at home or in the company of a nearby river.
Fred MacVaugh, Staff Blogger