Back Forty: You don’t know the Mississippi River. But you should.

Back Forty will bring you periodic reviews, interviews, and reporter insights about the stories they wrote. We hope you enjoy it as a companion to our content on and our Ag Insider policy news site. You can subscribe to the newsletter below.

Ships travel along the Mississippi River in LaPlace, Louisiana, as the sun sets on Oct. 20, 2023. AP Photo/Gerald Herbert.

By Julia Holmes

What do we think of when we think of the Mississippi River? Its biographers tend to lean on superlatives first, as if to remind us of what we have: One of the world’s great rivers, the biggest, by far, in North America, with a drainage basin exceeded only by the Amazon and Congo. Unlike those rivers, the Mississippi winds its way across low and slow terrain, through a vast agricultural empire — 57 percent of U.S. farmland lies within the Mississippi River Basin. It’s the nation’s busiest inland waterway, with tows and oceangoing vessels pushing hundreds of millions of tons of cargo — soybeans, petroleum, coal, corn, rice, grain, wheat, salt, scrap metal, chemicals, coffee, crushed rock — up and down the river around the clock. 

It’s also one of the most engineered environments on the planet, a river we’ve been busily “improving” for more than 200 years: removing obstacles and hazards, opening more of the river to commercial traffic, and constructing levees and other flood-control structures to protect the communities and farmland established in its floodplain. Because it’s the river’s nature to “meander” — to erode its outer bends, where the water is fastest, and to snake across the landscape by jumping channels — we’ve reinforced its riverbanks with a great carpet of riprap, a mesh of concrete and wire. To ensure that the depth of the shipping channel is maintained, we’ve installed thousands of wing dams that push the powerful current back inward and down to scour the riverbed. To keep the river from diverting into the Atchafalaya River, which offers a shorter path to the sea, we hold the Mississippi to its course past Baton Rouge and New Orleans using the monumental floodgates of the Old River Control Structure. 

And since the earliest days of river-engineering, we’ve built levees — the great earthen walls, over 40 feet high in many places, that keep the river from spilling over into farms and communities. The Lower Mississippi, which runs for roughly a thousand miles, is now almost entirely walled-in by them. On the “dry” side are the interminable grids of agriculture carved out of the floodplain and upon which we depend; on the “wet” side is the river’s radically narrowed domain, an “abandoned” strip of untended wild-ness called the batture — all that remains of the river’s active floodplain. 

It’s here, at the divide between the river and its land, that Boyce Upholt launches The Great River: The Making and Unmaking of the Mississippi, his expansive exploration of the river’s past and future. “It’s possible now to walk just a stone’s throw from the continent’s largest river and have no idea you’re near water at all,” he writes. “You stand instead in a neat and tranquil neighborhood, or amid a dusty field of soybeans, protected by the quiet green slope of the wall.” 

The Mississippi is a continent-building, all-sustaining life force that winds through the heartland like a ghost — so few of us ever experience it for ourselves. It’s a place we think we know but hardly know at all, and its waters are invisible even to those who live closest to it, hidden beyond the great green humps of earth, the levees, that are there to protect them. How did we get so disconnected from our greatest river? Upholt seeks to reconnect the pieces. 

The Mississippi has always provided — Upholt reminds us that people were fishing its fresh swamps even as they formed, some 12,000 years ago. And the Mississippi has always flooded, often to devastating effect, submerging thousands of square miles and turning its broad, shallow valley temporarily into an inland sea that, historically, stretched 80 miles or more across. These great floods have caused untold suffering and enormous economic loss, and the American policy has always been to regard the river as a foe, even in the language we use to describe it: a “terrible enemy” against whom is arrayed an “army” of engineers.

In 1824, Congress gave the new military corps of engineers $75,000 to begin improving navigation along the Ohio and Mississippi. If, in those early days, we were battling the “old” river — cutting through the necks of its horseshoe bends to straighten and speed the flow, removing historic logjams, and yanking free the river’s legion snags (dead trees caught in the current or embedded in the riverbed that presented a mortal threat to boats) — we’re now battling both that same old river, which will always seek a shortcut to the sea and try to expand out into its floodplain, as well as all the new rivers that we’ve built on top of it. The Mississippi is such a dynamic and complex system that it’s proved impossible to predict the consequences of our interventions. So much so, that each time we alter it, even in small ways, we essentially create a new river, Upholt explains, one that presents us with entirely new problems. 

And while the American story of the Mississippi has always been a story of unintended consequences, the human-built river, warns Upholt, is now “coming apart.” From the aging control structures to the impact of climate change, the modern river is under mounting pressure. Historic rainfall in recent years has forced more frequent use of once-in-a-big-flood emergency outlets, like the Bonnet Carré Spillway, which protects New Orleans by sending floodwaters into Lake Pontchartrain — at great cost. The flush of fresh water dilutes the brackish environment upon which the oyster beds depend and costs the Mississippi economy tens of millions of dollars. The so-called dead zone in the Gulf, fed by agricultural runoff, threatens the ecosystems upon which shrimp and coastal fish rely. And many of the structures engineered to protect the land from flooding have actually worsened the impacts of flooding. Rising sea levels will continue to push saltwater inland and will eventually submerge the delta, already one of the fastest disappearing places on Earth.  

Reading The Great River, you begin to suspect that the more we try to control the Mississippi, the less we understand it — and that, perhaps, is the biggest unintended consequence of all. The more we intervene, by building levees and other control structures, the more our sense of disconnection grows. The greater the disconnection, the less we see and the less we understand. Our “mastery” of the river has done nothing to bring us closer to it, as a people — the modern river is still regarded, for the most part, with a mix of opportunism and dread. 

I rowed the Lower Mississippi a few years ago, following the route my great-grandmother’s great-grandfather had taken, in 1814, part of the wave of settlers and supplies that descended the river in the early 1800s. The deadly snags and slow-meandering bends, so daunting to early 19th-century travelers, have been replaced by the churning tows, fanged revetments, hidden intake sluices, flame-shooting refineries, and chemical plants that make the river a seemingly hostile place for personal exploration. “Why would you want to go down the Mississippi?” a farmer along the Ohio River asked me as I rowed past his land on my way to the southern river. “You’ll just be staring at a concrete wall the whole way down.” 

While I was on the river, I camped every night in the batture. Surprising beauty was everywhere: paradisiacal islands piled high with white sand; stands of willows glowing in the evening sun; beaches stamped with the tracks of deer, coyote, fox, beetle; phalanxes of white pelicans flying so low over my tent that I could hear the air pulsing across their massive wings.

And the first time I climbed out of the batture, crossing the levee in a desolate stretch of river to look for fresh water, I experienced the spooky disconnection Upholt describes. I scrambled up the crumbling concrete blocks of the old levee and found myself at the top, peering through a neat strip of garden, beyond which stretched the great green grid, dystopian in its tidiness. I was relieved to drop back into the unruly world of the river. At the edge of the big empty swath of cultivated land, I’d been pierced by a strange loneliness that I never felt on the river itself, even spending all my days alone. 

Upholt has spent years covering the Mississippi River and its watershed, exploring its waters on his own and sometimes in the company of people who know the world of the river best: scientists, activists, shrimpers, historians, towboat captains, farmers, engineers, politicians, and the many others who must brace themselves for the direct impact of policy along the river, and whose immediate interests are very often in direct opposition. Upholt conveys the complexity of all these conversations and the sense of betrayal that pervades many of them. 

It’s easy to fantasize about going back in time to undo the worst of our interventions, but on this continent, the Mississippi River is time. It’s a kind of grandfather paradox: Our history is so entangled with our efforts to control the Mississippi that to go back and change any of it would essentially erase the nation as we know it. We can only move forward. 

So should we keep building — raise the levees, shore up the control structures, move more water around with a bigger network of pumps? Should we blow the whole thing up — cut through the levees and dismantle the structures of control so the river can be reunited with its floodplain?

Upholt doesn’t pretend to have the answers, but he offers a deep and thoughtful context for the stakes around these questions — what’s left to be lost and by whom, or what we might stand to gain, collectively. And he offers a way forward: More of us should get to know the river — connect with its beauty and history, become a part of the great clockwork that’s ticking away there, in both human and geological time. Getting out on the water and camping in the batture won’t solve the massive infrastructural and ecological problems facing the river, but, he suggests, it might just save us all the same. 

At the end of The Great River, Upholt recalls catching a ride across “the ghost of the marshland in Barataria Bay” to visit the Lemon Tree Mounds. Massive ancient earthworks like these can be found throughout the Mississippi River Basin — the mounds define the landscape even thousands of years after they were built by the river’s first inhabitants. Though no one knows exactly why they were originally constructed, Upholt reminds us that they’re sacred places, still very much alive and cared for by the descendants of the great builders.

If the levees are our best defense against the river, the mounds, it seems to Upholt, are more like anchors, points of potential community and connection. “Perhaps what people learn after thousands of years of living along one of the world’s great rivers is that change is inevitable, that chaos will come. That the only way to survive is to take care — of yourself and of everyone else, human and beyond.”