The Mississippi River banked with colorful autumn foliage. (Debra Anderson / Adobe Stock)
Local writer of the column 'Notes From Home'

A sentence caught me off guard the other day, and I have been singing river songs ever since. “Across the wide Missouri,” was the phrase that hooked me, the ending line of the American folk song “Shenandoah.” It made me homesick even though I’ve never seen that river or lived in its valley.

Oh, Shenandoah, I long to hear you,” the song starts, the melody rising like hope, like sadness looking for a way out. I’ve known the song since I was a teenager, when my dad brought home a record of sea shanties by the Coast Guard Men’s Chorus. “Shenandoah” was the first song on the album, and we listened to it over and over. 

The song-triggering sentence was in Donald Worster’s book, “Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West” (1985). He used fragments of the song, which he said was “the most beautiful ever written in America,” to open his history of irrigation development in the West, starting with the trek of emigrants from the East as they crossed the Missouri and many more rivers, then settled nearby and began diverting them.

I turned to that book last week, which I have avoided for decades, after being immersed in the Miller & Lux book, “Industrial Cowboys,” the week before. I was looking for a better explanation of the irrigation movement that rose up to contest the big boys’ monopolization of water in our valley. Worster’s book provides even wider context, detailing the contests over monopolization of water in the entire West.

“Away, we’re bound away, across the wide Missouri.” This is the voice of emigrants on the move west, across the wide Missouri River, part of the Mississippi River system, the real continental divide, a meandering slice along the 100th meridian where rainfall changes at first slowly, then drastically, becoming arid enough to qualify as desert in many places.

“Beyond the Hundredth Meridian” is Wallace Stegner’s beautiful book about John Wesley Powell, his exploration of the Colorado River and then his deeper exploration into American government to see if it might be organized to respect and use wisely the West’s limited water resources. Powell’s efforts are described in Worster’s book, pleading reason against the myth-making voices promoting America’s open spaces as opportunities for poor people to build our country into an empire. Powell lost.

In the opening section, “Poor Man’s Paradise,” Worster details the people and problems that irrigation was supposed to serve. Powell also supported these people, and heeding his concerns about the real limits of how much water was available to irrigate a limited amount of land would have protected both them and the land.

But the proponents of irrigation rejected the notion of limits, proclaiming that there was “room for all,” and that irrigation would restore for democracy what the industrial east had already undermined. They perceived the emigrants as “surplus people,” those who the industrializing urban areas had no use for. Surplus people, they said, would be able to claim this empty land (which it was not), and even if that resulted in the kind of subservience to centralized control that irrigation supposedly required, that would make America an empire powerful enough to spread its influence around the globe. They proclaimed that irrigation would make America more democratic as well as a more powerful empire. We have been living with that forked-tongue mentality ever since.

It’s not hard to imagine how people raised in more humid climes, crossing the wide Missouri into the western half of the country, where it would become drier with every mile they went west, would long to hear their river. I feel it myself here in Lindsay, where even the irrigation distribution system is buried, not above ground in canals. To see a river, I have to cross the Friant-Kern Canal, where the San Joaquin is running high right now, but on the concrete banks is painted “Stay Alive by Staying Out.”

Perhaps one way we begin to right our listing ship, the one caught in the current of the big boys’ battles to keep the water all to themselves, is to start singing some river songs. I’ve got one I wrote for the Kaweah, to the tune of “Shall We Gather at the River”…

Trudy Wischemann is a failed hydrology student who writes. You can send her your river songs c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247.

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.

Start typing and press Enter to search