Whenever I'm able, I eat my lunch on the Bluffwalk, high atop the 50-foot bluff that holds the southern portion of downtown safely above the mightiest river in North America. The time I spend on that bluff is the most tranquil of my workday, an hour that allows my mind to ease its priority-juggling, and my eyes to absorb one of the most remarkable vistas in the entire world. The beauty of the Mississippi River goes beyond its size or strength. It's a matter of — how best to say — significance. This body of water has fueled economies, transported armies, nurtured agriculture, and provided life to innumerable creatures large and small.
Then came the spring of 2011, with its biblical storms, tornado destruction, and rising waters unlike any seen in more than 70 years. In an age where we tend to find shock in the sudden and awe in the violent, rising waters almost seem quaint. The Mississippi has risen seven feet in seven days? Ho-hum. Ole Man River is approaching the 34-foot flood stage? Yawn. Call me when you see muddy water on Tom Lee Park.
Time to pick up the phone, Memphis. I took the above photo on Monday, May 9th, a day before the river was supposed to crest at a near-record 47.8 feet. I snapped the shot from my favorite lunch spot, a place where I'm used to actually seeing trees — even a little land — on the opposite side of the river. Today, if you were to slide down that 50-foot bluff, you could approach the Mississippi River as though it were a new ocean, dividing the continents of Tennessee and Arkansas. When barges pass, you even get a few waves.
It's astonishing to me, the number of people who are making trips to Tom Lee — and the swamped foot of Beale Street — to gaze (and yes, take pictures) of the Mighty Miss in all her swollen glory. The interest in a once-in-a-lifetime sight isn't so surprising. No, it's the lack of interest I've grown accustomed to seeing on the part of pedestrians, dog-walkers, and joggers, when the river is merely doing its thing. The acquaintances I regularly greet on the bluff tend to focus north or south as they capture some midday sunshine. There are times when I want to stop them, to ask them to look west for a moment. Pause long enough to see the mightiest natural force they'll ever call a neighbor. Well, they're all pausing now.
My hope, of course, is that the worst of the flooding in our region (or elsewhere, for that matter) is behind us, that this "river in a rage" (as Shelby County Emergency Preparedness director Bob Nations described it in this morning's Commercial Appeal) finds its way back to the soothing, life-giving flow too many of us came to take for granted. The lesson learned, though, is an important one. Build the levees, enforce the flood walls, evacuate if your home is threatened (and don't wait). But know this: The Mississippi River will do as she will. She'll be our companion today and forever, but strictly on her terms.