A river, by my definition, has to stretch hundreds of miles and drain thousands of square miles of prairie land. Anything less is just a stream. Rivers come from places unknown and stretch far beyond your own horizon leading toward the ocean.
The Des Moines River, the Illinois River, the Ohio River, the Missouri River—all of which flow into the mighty Mississippi River. I have lived among these rivers. They together drain all the land between the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains. Thousands of square miles. When my grandmother was older, she lived in an apartment along the Des Moines River in Minnesota. I lived 300 miles southeast near the Des Moines River in Iowa. Open land stretched from my house to hers. Every Sunday, when I took my walk along the Des Moines River, I would imagine its route upstream to my grandmother’s town.
I once took a group of international visitors to see a lock and dam on the Mississippi River when I was a graduate student in Minnesota. We yelled to the barge operator below us, asking about his load. He had grain from the upper Midwest and was headed to New Orleans where it would be put on an ocean vessel to take it abroad. Rivers fuel imagination because they come from somewhere and are going somewhere. It is no surprise that singer, songwriter, Carly Simon used the image of the river:
Let the River Run
We’re coming to the edge,
Running on the water,
Coming through the fog,
Your sons and daughters.
Let the river run,
Let all the dreamers
Wake the nation.
Come, the New Jerusalem.
Big rivers are a force of nature. Mature rivers like these I grew up among, wind back and forth across a landscape carving out broad and flat fertile valleys. In the middle of a region with relatively little topography, I would always lose my breath as I came to the valley’s edge at places like Little America, Illinois, where the vista opened up in front of me. During the Floods of 1993, the rivers took back their valleys, reminding everyone that rivers are a force of nature.
My grandmother was born in Iowa—the “land between two rivers.” She talked about the tall grass prairie, with its low wet spots where the cows would get stuck in the mud and have to be pulled out. Tall Grass. These low spots and the prairie vegetation would collect rainwater and hold it, releasing it slowly into the rivers. People eventually tiled the low parts of the prairie and plowed all of it, reducing nature’s natural holding tank and increasing the speed and height of floods.
Attempts are being made to restore the valleys and grasslands of Big Rivers. Farmland is being turned back into sloughs within the valleys to give the rivers back their ability to weave back and forth across the landscape. And in a very few places you can see the restoration of the prairie. I visited such a site this summer just south of Chicago. A block of land that was formerly in a military reserve created an opportunity for prairie restoration. As I walked through the 7-year-old prairie, it smelled of home—a combination of direct sun, high humidity (the type that makes the corn grow) and the smell of growing grass. Tall Grass.
Dan Fogelberg, in his song, “The River” talks about his inability to escape the Big River and Tall Grass of his origin:
I was born by a river
Rolling past a town…
I was raised by a river…
Weaned upon the sky…
I will die by a river
As it rolls away
Big Rivers. Tall Grass. If it isn’t hundreds if not thousands of miles long, it is not a river. If it can’t grow five feet tall, it isn’t grass.