Book Review: "What the River Carries: Encounters with the Mississippi, Missouri, and Platte" by Lisa Knopp

Review by Lopamudra Banerjee

“What the River Carries: Encounters with the Mississippi, Missouri, and Platte”
Author: Lisa Knopp
Publisher: University of Missouri Press

“What the River Carries: Encounters with the Mississippi, Missouri, and Platte” by Lisa KnoppI love rivers. Wide ones, narrow ones, straight ones, winding ones, single-channeled and braided ones. I love a river’s mysterious depths and bottoms, its reflectiveness, its changeability and rhythms—spring thaw, annual rise, low water, winter freeze. I love that a river’s rushing waters stir my imagination and connect me with other parts of the region, country, continent, earth.

Thus opens the preface of “What the River Carries: Encounters with the Mississippi, Missouri, and Platte,” the latest book by Lincoln, Neb.-based author Lisa Knopp, a collection of poignant essays in which she meditates on the three Midwestern rivers and the different ways in which she has known each of them. “What the River Carries,” one of the distinguished finalists for the 2012–2013 ASLE (Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment) Book Award for Environmental creative nonfiction is a geographical, historical and spiritual exploration of the landscape surrounding the author, where she presents these three rivers as enduring metaphors for seeing or exploring herself.

Knopp, who was formerly a faculty member of the Master of Fine Arts programs at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale and Goucher College, Baltimore, Md., and now teaches courses and workshops in creative nonfiction as an associate professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is also known for her award-winning repertoire of creative nonfiction, including her earlier books “Field of Vision,” “The Nature of Home,” “Interior Places” and “Flight Dreams: A Life in the Midwestern Landscape.” In all these works, she effortlessly weaves the concepts of place, nature, home and its spiritual presence in her narrative, while presenting the reader with enduring metaphors drawn from nature for seeing or exploring the self. In “What the River Carries,” published by the University of Missouri Press in 2012, Knopp presents a whole new journey of discovery and vision while exploring the three rivers and considering how they shaped her perceptions of the natural land- scape of her home ground in the Midwest and the Great Plains. The book is also enriched with her extensive research, memories and anecdotes on the landscape of such Midwestern cities as Minneapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City and Omaha, and the small towns, the agricultural areas and the wild places of the Midwest that have been shaped by the three rivers.

“Until I was in my early thirties, I had never seen the places I called home. Once I started really looking, I saw that my home was beautiful and extraordinary,” Knopp says about Burlington, Iowa, the Mississippi River town where she was born and raised, and Lincoln, Neb., where she has lived most of her adult life. Her earlier collections of essays are replete with her highly observant, meditative writing about these physical spaces and her discovery of her geographical, natural and spiritual landscape.

In her most recent collection, Knopp identifies three primary roles of environmental perception: that of the insider, the outsider and the outsider seeking to become an insider. She views the waterways through these lenses as she searches for knowledge and meaning. Because Knopp was born and raised just a few blocks from the Mississippi and spent her growing-up years near that river, she considers the Mississippi from the perspective of a native resident, a “dweller in the land.” She first encountered the Missouri many years later as a tourist and became acquainted with that river through literary and historical documents, as well as stories told by longtime residents. Her relationship with the Platte is marked by intentionality: she settled nearby and chose to develop deep and lasting connections there, a long but rewarding process that moved her from a position of outsider to insider in relation to the landscape. “Growing to love a landscape is similar to growing to love a person. Both require time and intention, if one is to develop and sustain a love that is deep and committed,” she reflects in the preface of the book. Speaking of the intrinsic role of the rivers in her subtle, complex narrative about “home,” Knopp adds that at some point it occurred to her that she could use these three rivers, rivers with their very different natural and human histories, and her relationship with each to represent the different ways in which people know landscape.

“What the River Carries” is divided into three broad sections, with six essays in each. The first section is devoted to the Mississippi, the second to the Missouri and the third to the Platte. A great deal of cultural commentary in the essays enhances the narrative, especially in the essays in which she reflects on the American Indians who once lived near the three rivers and on the agriculture and local resource-based industries that have periodically caused great damage to the rivers. For example, she writes in vivid detail about the Effigy Mound Builders, prehistoric American Indians who shaped the earth into the forms of birds, bears and lizards near the Upper Mississippi and about the pearl button industry once centered in Muscatine, Iowa. In the same breath, she illustrates how the hemp and the sugar beet industries influenced the human and natural communities near the Missouri and Platte rivers. In some of the essays, she also provides her valuable insights into how art and culture have flourished on the banks of these rivers, through her reflections on the works of Henry Lewis, the mid-19th-century painter of Mississippi River panoramas, various kinds of music including Native American flute songs, jazz and Indie Rock influenced by the presence of the Missouri river, and the works of numerous Nebraska authors and her own development as a writer.

The narrative works in two-fold ways. On one hand, there is an overarching environmental theme with research-driven passages, while on the other, Knopp incorporates autobiographical elements with which she traces her own personal journey into the physical landscape. There are essays in which she presents vivid, detailed accounts of her visits to such childhood havens as Nauvoo, Ill., the site of two 19th-century utopias, one Mormon, one Icarian; Muscatine, Iowa, once the world’s largest manufacturer of pearl buttons and the riverfront in her hometown during the Mississippi River flood of 2008. There are also parts of her narrative where she presents family stories, with the rivers as the backdrop. Again, there are the rich, historical accounts and reflections on the explorations of Lewis and Clarke up and down the Missouri River, the research of John Weaver, UNL professor of plant ecology, at Nine-mile Prairie near Lincoln and the building of the big dams on the Upper Missouri and the related flooding of adjacent Indian reservations. In each of the essays Knopp blends the personal or autobiographical with her reflections on history, ecology, politics and culture, as shown in the following excerpt from “Restorations,” an essay that weaves together stories about fishing with her son at Boyer Chute, the restoration of that side channel of the Missouri by several local and federal agencies and her son’s recovery from addiction through time spent in wild places.

 “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…. What I see in nature—a deep story that remains the same though the surface details are ever changing—consoles and restores me.”

“One knows his landscape as a native born there, or as a visitor or traveler, as one who is not from that place, but sets out to make it home,” she adds. In “What the River Carries,” she dabbles with these different perspectives of knowing her home, but in an entirely different way, as the narrative looks at the idea of “home” based on its people and community. Her home ground in Burlington, Iowa, as well as the other Midwestern towns and cities that house the three rivers, convey her personal stories and stories of those she knew, memories and histories, unifying the people and places.

Throughout the narrative, Knopp investigates her own perceptions of the grasslands, the plants and animals of the prairies and the body of water that embraces them. In unraveling these details, Knopp employs an intense philosophical understanding of the natural landscape that takes into account not only sensual particulars but also the history and feeling of the places she unfolds both as a native dweller and a traveler. At the end, what lingers with the readers is not only a scholarly account about how polluted or engineered rivers have become but a more subtle narrative on human associations and stories that connect the three rivers with her own exploration of nature, home and self.

Knopp acknowledges that the greatest challenge while writing about the Midwest region comes from the common assumption that it is an empty place, with “neither an enduring myth, a defining historical event, nor a regional metaphor for the writer to tap into.” For Knopp, it is not just the absence of a grand, central narrative or phenomenal historical events that mark other regions of the country, like the revolutionary world wars of New England, the civil rights movements, the history of slavery of the South, the cowboys and Indians, the rugged individualism and the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny of the West. Like other Midwestern writers such as Willa Cather, Ted Kooser, William Least-Heat Moon, Garrison Keillor and Scott Russell Sanders, Knopp says that she addresses the “emptiness” or “nothingness” that many perceive. Acknowledging this “emptiness,” Knopp, in her work, adopts the approach of these illustrious Midwestern writers. Like them, she picks a small place on the map of the Midwest and fills it in with rich details about the past and present of the place, in the process revealing the diversity and complexity of both.

“In each of my books, I’ve been a bit of evangelist, trying to convince readers of the astonishing beauty and diversity in the center of the continent and the remarkable people who live here. Again and again, I tell regional or national history understood through the local, as I did in many of the essays in ‘What the River Carries,’” Knopp says. She points to “Little Dixie,” an essay that explores the pro-Confederate, hemp-growing, slave-holding counties along the Missouri River in Missouri through the life of Zerelda Cole James Samuel and her son, Jesse James, and “The Taking,” an essay that considers the ways in which the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program affected Native American lands and peoples through the story of White Swan, a settlement on the Yankton Sioux Reservation that was inundated after the Fort Randall Dam floodgates were closed.

While reflecting on the literary essence of “What the River Carries,” Knopp refers to the words of British travel writer Norman Douglas who once said: “The reader of a good travel book is entitled not only to an exterior voyage, to description of scenery and so forth, but to an interior, a sentimental or temperamental voyage, which takes place side by side with that outer one... the ideal book of this kind offers us, indeed, a triple opportunity of exploration—abroad, into the author’s brain, and into our own.” Knopp’s book, which offers a unique look at the beauty and diversity of the Midwestern rivers and the culture, politics and philosophy of the people living close to these rivers, is one remarkable example of this triple opportunity of exploration. Throughout the narrative, Knopp presents a multitude of voyages—the exterior voyage over the geographical terrain and the interior voyage into the self. In the end, it becomes a journey over the physical landscape into the self that ultimately prompts the reader to speculate, imagine and respond to the landscape.

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