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My home in Bellevue, Iowa, nestles in a lovely spot, half a block off the Mississippi River, in northeast Iowa. Others find the location appealing too, judging by how many stop along the Riverwalk to snap cellphone pictures of Lock and Dam No. 12, or pelicans flocking, or the sun rising over the timbered limestone bluffs of the wildlife refuge across the water. 

Even though I see the river every day, after 10 years here I admit I don’t always look at it. That’s why I’m grateful for photographer David Freese, and writer Simon Winchester, for the third book in their Trilogy of North American Waters. published by George F. Thompson publishing. 

The title of this new volume says it all. Mississippi River: Headwaters and Heartland to Delta and Gulf. It explores the river from its origins in Minnesota, along its downhill route 2,552 miles south, to its Head of Passes in Louisiana. Freese shows the river in all seasons, from its icy winters in Minnesota to its midwestern farm fields and towns, to its lush but industrialized Delta and Gulf of Mexico. The photographs show the beauty of the Mississippi, but also its highly constructed state as a river impounded, straightened, dredged, corridored, and nearly poisoned to death. 

Most viewers expect beauty in landscape photography and are acquainted with the work of Ansel Adams, for example, and his evocative images of the Sierra Nevada mountains. National Gallery of Art associate photography curator Sarah Kennel tells us of a pitfall in this expectation and how Freese deftly redefines the scope of beauty.

Al Cooper holds Angel at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota. The Wabasha-Nelson bridge leads to the Nelson-Trevino Bottoms State Natural Area in Nelson, Wisconsin. (Photo by David Freese)

“Though the beautiful photographs of untrammeled places by Ansel Adams will forever remind us of the promise and rejuvenating power of nature,” she notes in her introductory essay, “in aestheticizing the landscape—often with an idealized and romantic twist—they have run the risk of oversimplifying our relationship to the land by dividing it into the categories of lands untouched and everything else.”

Freese writes that by showing a landscape more than a little “touched” he hopes this book “provides an incentive for the reader and viewer to pause and intensify a personal investigation into the adverse effects of our species’ actions on our homes, our homelands, and our home planet. Humankind wishes and often expects to be in total control. Silly us.”

Through this journey from Upper to Middle to Lower River, we see not only the water but life of many types. This includes the people who live along the Mississippi because privilege allows them the choice, and people who live along the river because they can’t afford to escape it. Some groups of people were here in greater numbers not that long ago, and the remnants and current conditions of those Native American cultures are visible in this book. Also present are the flora and fauna that manage to carry on, and we wonder about the individual eagles, herons and egrets pictured, and how they’re faring after recent hurricanes and chemical fires have yet again threatened their future. 

The Perspective 

Freese captured some of the images by photographing at eye level. That’s how we see the first photo in the book, showing the “official” headwaters, with a heartwarming family group silhouetted in the sun, balancing on rocks as they cross the stream. People and nature are literally in balance, like a carefully constructed morality tale. Other images were made from a bird’s eye view, in some instances by drone and other times from higher above in a small aircraft. From that vantage point we can see the river twist and snake, in some cases almost doubling back upon itself, nearly indistinguishable from the land that surrounds it. 

Natural geological features, and the lock and dam system, mostly keep the Upper and Middle sections of the river in its banks. Simon Winchester makes sure readers understand just how central their tax dollars are to the ways and means of the Mississippi River, in the hands of the Army Corps of Engineers. He acknowledges a whispering undercurrent of thought that the monstrous lock and dams might be dispensed with some day, allowing the Mississippi to run wild. 

Senior river chaplain Kempton Baldridge (left) with Capt. Jonathan Butler in the pilothouse of the MV Loree Eckstine (Photo by David Freese)

“Officially, no such thought is permissible,” he writes. “The Mississippi is a vital component of middle American commerce: It is a gigantic interstate highway, made of water, with the passage of cargo made possible today and for the foreseeable future by this system of dams and locks.”

By the time the Mississippi joins forces with the Ohio River, it is wide open all the way. Humans must work hard to impound and control the waters of the Lower Mississippi. We use nature against itself, hoping to convince dirt and rock to join forces in the form of a levy, nudging invading waters away from farms and fields and other forms of human enterprise. 

Navigating the Book

The hardcover book, weighing just over 6 pounds, includes 209 toned photographs. Some stand alone, some form a pairing in a two-page spread, while a few others unfold into a three-page spread. Each image is paired with a descriptive caption and in some cases, more extensive notes appear at the back of the book. Interspersed are illuminating passages by writers such as Langston Hughes, prescient pronouncements from the likes of Thomas Jefferson, and witty yet spot-on quips by Mark Twain. 

These serve as informational “wing dams” which boaters on the Mississippi know are rock piles that form submerged barriers jutting out from the shore, encouraging vessels to stay in the main channel. It would be so easy to get lost in these photos, wondering about the history of a place name or the cargo on those loaded barges being pushed by the MV Loree Eckstine, that it would be easy to drift from the point. But then readers encounter lines of verse like these from writer and artist J.T. Blatty: 

“Down the Road is away from the city, is through a levee gate, is across the last drawbridge into a town with a lone convenience store and a tiny marina selling only bait and fuel, where the air’s scent is that of sweet marsh mud at low tide mixed with diesel fuel and seafood left rotting in the sun.” 

Those “wing dam” lines push me right back into the scene with her, and with David Freese, looking squarely at the end of the River’s road, in Venice, Louisiana. There’s no morality tale I can tell myself about these waters, in their present demoralized state.

Except this one. I love confluences – of rivers and lives. I moved with my husband to Bellevue mostly because we happened upon the town, and I was in love with the river, beyond just the idea of it. The lore of both sides of my family going back several generations in St. Louis includes stories binding me to “these waters” as those who are romantic about nature call the river. 

I love that I’m just a few hundred miles upstream from the city where my parents were born. I’m 80 years in the future from the time my teenage Uncle Jay put his canoe in the Mississippi and didn’t have to navigate locks and dams on his way south. When Mark Twain wrote his memoir Life on the Mississippi, he mentions Bellevue and its tidy houses on the hillside. He published that book in 1883. There’s a good chance our house was one of those he admired, because it was standing there when he steamed past.

The American Queen at Vicksburg, Mississippi. (Photo by David Freese)

I came to the Mississippi River in part to do some writing, and David Freese happened to come across a piece I wrote for the Daily Yonder, about a local river boat captain, piloting just about everything from tow boats to water taxis to tourist paddle wheelers. Freese asked me to connect him with some river folks, and I did my best. 

Then, when he and his wife journeyed here from Philadelphia in 2018, they stopped with us for a few hours. We had some lunch and local brew at the historic Potter’s Mill. He launched his drone from our yard. Later that day he and his pilot made several passes over the river so he could photograph the town, Lock and Dam No. 12, and pools 12 and 13. We waved at him, from below. You can see one of those images in the book. Our house is too far north to appear in the picture but I promise you, just like in Twain’s day, it was standing there.

Now, as  we sit on our balcony at nautical twilight, looking out toward the Mississippi. We hear river boat pilots signaling with their horn to the lock crew that they’re ready to lock through, and the crew signalling back when they open the gates. We listen to geese flying in low tight groups softly vocalizing as they prepare for landing on a sandbar. We watch insects circle the street lights and mourn for the decline of the bats that should be tearing across the water right now in the hundreds but which have drastically succumbed to the white nose syndrome. We can almost smell the top soil and fertilizer in the night air, as the gurgling water makes its way to the Gulf. 

I wish I could carefully slice a few pages out of David Freese’s book and coil them tightly in waterproof bottles. I’d address them to my St. Louis ancestors and float them downhill into the past. Maybe if they knew what was coming, they could try to do something about it.

Julianne Couch watches the world float past her door and tries to do something about it, while she still can.