Monday, October 26, 2015

A month along the Mississippi

Water & Watersheds

By John Shepard

An obscure sanctuary harboring some of the world's oldest and grandest cypress trees. An intimate interview with a 78-year-old Mississippi Delta blues legend. Glimpses into the world occupied by ancient Mississippi valley mound builders. A giant (348'-long) painted panorama of the Mississippi River—the only surviving example of an art form that was popular in the mid-1800s that is now on display at the St. Louis Art Museum.

My just-completed month-long documentary journey from the Headwaters to the Delta and back left some powerful impressions of the great river and its lands and peoples. By way of a preview of the many stories from the trip that will populate much of CGEE's upcoming Mississippi Multimedia Gallery project, here is a highlights reel:

A Mississippi River Journey—Headwaters to Delta—in Five Minutes

Serendipity led me to John Ruskey—a river explorer and artist who builds his own canoes; paints intricate, colorful navigational maps; and, through his Quapaw Canoe Company, leads paddle excursions on the lower Mississippi, with its surprisingly wild reaches and many massive barge tows. Bluesman YZ Easley opened his home for a personal talk about the music that has flowed through the life of his family and community. Albert LeBeau, a Lakota who works as a Cultural Resource Manager at Effigy Mounds National Monument, shared perspectives on how native people continue to thrive and have left intriguing legacies among blufflands—a region that was managed in prehistoric times as oak savanah, not as the densely forested landscape found today.

For land-based travelers, the river is often frustratingly out of view behind levee walls and the wooded floodplain. I was able to achieve an aerial perspective in many places, however, due to an amazing new flying camera (the 3DR Solo), and a helicopter flight used to capture images of New Orleans' post-Katrina flood-control system and the heavy shipping traffic on the Big River.

Between the two, the drone revealed the most unexpected surprises: the Mississippi's vastness where it has received the waters of the Missouri. Seeing the upper river valley as an eagle would, soaring beside 400-foot bluffs.  And at the top of two huge trees discovering naked, weathered branches that were pointing skyward like gnarled fingers above the lush canopy. One tree is Minnesota's biggest white pine at Lake Itasca. The other is a cypress more than 1,000 years old and 2,000 miles downstream in rural Mississippi.

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