For Oxford American, freelance journalist and wanderer Boyce Upholt explores a large wooded island along the Mississippi River, appropriately named Big Island. It’s home to many legends about an old moonshiner and murderer named Perry Martin, but what draws the author back over and over, are its aura and the thick woods that somehow still preserve its wildness and beauty. This is the land called the Delta. I’ve visited it myself, and it quickly seduced me. Still reeling from the plantation slave economy, it’s one of the poorest parts of the US, and one of the most beautiful. Upholt’s brief travel dispatch shines a necessary light on this overlooked region, and challenges our modern notion of wildness.
On his frequent camping trips to Big Island, Upholt uses Mississippi River water to brew his morning coffee, which works against the long-standing notion of the trashed, tamed, polluted old river. As he says, “the thick woods and wide, sweeping sandbars are, in my opinion, among the most beautiful American landscapes.” Perry Martin is the embodiment of this landscape, as Upholt writes, “a tall tale, an emblem of the days when this place sat at the fringe of civilization, unbound by domesticity. “

The idea of a dismal Mississippi is one more story. While in its narrow beginnings in Minnesota there is often too much bacteria for safe swimming, the mighty river that runs through the Deep South is relatively clean. Indeed, the thick woods and wide, sweeping sandbars are, in my opinion, among the most beautiful American landscapes.

This river is not trashed. But it has been tamed: its path has been shortened and straightened; its southernmost thousand miles are sheathed in an intricate system of locks and levees, and now ninety percent of its old floodplain stands dry. This engineering, accomplished in pieces over three centuries, often came at the behest of the swell-heads who bought up the valley and demanded protections against the river’s floods. The U.S. government, to the tune of billions upon billions of dollars, acquiesced.

The greatest flurry of engineering came in the twentieth century, in the wake of the Great Flood of 1927. It’s probably no coincidence that Perry Martin abandoned Big Island soon after that flood. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to install the floodways and spillways and dams and reservoirs that precisely managed the river’s flow; eventually, they paved the banks of the bends in concrete. From his perch in the batture, Perry Martin watched his former timber frontier be paved into a flowing machine.

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