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Spring Rising

By Ken Lubinski, February 16, 2024

Each spring, the Mississippi River’s backwater streams gradually return to life across the Reno Bottoms south of Brownsville. (Photo by Ken Lubinski)

Spring Rising

 

UPPER MISSISSIPPI RIVERWinter will end soon here. It’s over down south, but some river ice remains upstream. 

If the Mississippi was truly an old man, what thoughts would be the first to enter his mind upon awakening this year? He might be surprised by how good he feels after such a mild winter. He might wince at human plans for hydropower development or research showing increased nutrient pollution and chloride levels. 

And those Asian carp, like unwanted in-laws, are still multiplying, spreading out, and raiding the refrigerator. 

Once again, he’d largely ignore the humans picking at his skin like birds on a musk ox. His attention would be on his sons and daughters, the tributary streams that supply his life’s blood and bring excitement to the spring. 

He has been through a lot during his years: pollution, corn and beans, dams, levees. He’s been able to weather these because the water has never stopped coming. 

To be sure, it’s different now. It comes in unexpected spikes and at strange times of the year. But most of his creatures, plants and animals alike, know how to adjust to these changes. After all, they’ve been around longer than he has. 

Not many people realize that most river species came into being over twenty million years ago, compared to his short life of a half-million years. Humans, however, younger and still self-centered toddlers in many ways, haven’t learned to live within their, or his, means. 

He’s been lucky. His job for over a century, moving boat traffic, hasn’t changed much. 

His dams are not meant for water storage or flood protection like his brothers and sisters to the east and west. The Midwest still enjoys rain and snow aplenty, and his flows have not been permanently warped, although there is a lot more water in parts of his floodplain. But no one has been so nearsighted, yet, as to seriously think about diverting water from his valley. 

He is getting old. He feels it more each spring. 

Those damn levees keep him from exercising. It’s been a long time since he created an oxbow. 

He’s putting on weight, sediment clogging his deep places. He misses the creatures he’s lost as a result. 

But rise he must. Already some of his creatures, the eagles, cranes, and walleyes, have started to stir. 

He doesn’t value convenience like those lazy, two-legged pests. Though old, he still favors action. Usually slow, but faster in the spring, he’ll soon be out exploring the nooks and crannies of his backwaters. 

Humans sit around at meetings and think too much. 

 

“Spring Rising” is from the book Things that Flow: Humor, Poetry, and Essays about Rivers and Life, self-published through iUniverse, available through Amazon.  © Ken Lubinski

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Contributor

Poet and essayist Ken Lubinski is retired from the US Geological Survey. Former Brownsville-area residents, he and his wife Sara now live in Arizona. They make regular sojourns north, exploring old haunts along the Upper Mississippi River, including visits to the Root River valley.

From the author: I’ve published my share of scientific papers, but I’ve also realized the limitations of science when it comes to reminding others how much we humans depend on—need—nature. It’s a message that is told best through stories and poems. 

I haven’t succeeded, to my satisfaction, at making a difference. The rivers of my life seem unchanged in response to my scientific efforts. Fortunately, all by themselves, rivers give birth to stories at every bend and sandbar, and it is by conveying such stories that I hope to encourage greater river awareness and appreciation. 

Many of the pieces in my book, Things That Flow, are more about the relationships between work, life, and the river, as opposed to focusing on only one of these subjects. Relationships are complex, and I know that complexity is attractive to some but frustrating to others. And as much as we prefer control, uncertainty is as common on the river as it is in life. My stories are like that—they act independently, an organizational characteristic of rivers.

Several of these stories, including “Spring Rising”, are presented as the thoughts of a character, “Miss Sophia”. I started writing the first of the “Miss Sophia Journal” items as an experiment and immediately enjoyed the freedom of letting someone else tell the story. Miss Sophia has river smarts and a different way of expressing what she sees and feels. I learn from her. Let me introduce her:

Miss Sophia lives along the Mississippi River near Dubuque, Iowa. She has watched the river and its people daily for sixty-four years. She is a recently retired high school history teacher. She fishes from her jon boat (a flat-bottom style boat) about twice each week, from April through October. She rarely ice fishes anymore. She spends some time each day in quiet contemplation. She keeps a journal.

An important but now forgotten nineteenth-century scientist once said, “Science is always necessary, but never sufficient.” Bingo. 

Things That Flow is my attempt at becoming a whisperer about rivers.

 

High waters creep closer to the railroad tracks just south of the Root River’s confluence with the Mississippi River; this spring scene plays out every few years. (Photo by Ken Lubinski)

 

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KenLubinski@rootrivercurrent.org