The Big Muddy: An Environmental History of the Mississippi and Its Peoples from Hernando de Soto to Hurricane Katrina (Oxford University Press) by Christopher Morris is a sweeping history of man and nature in the lower Mississippi Valley. Morris examines how people from hunter-gatherers to contemporary Americans viewed this landscape and acted on their respective visions. It is an ambitious book based on sources in several languages and multiple disciplines including history, science, archaeology and economics. This wide-ranging material is incorporated into a plain-English study grounded in centuries of personal experiences. I love this book.
I'll sum up the theme in one word: mud. The author, a history professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, argues that mud, water and dirt combined, is the essential substance of the Mississippi Valley. Keeping these two wet and dry elements physically separate created problems from the arrival of the Conquistadors onward. Those working with the natural, muddy state of the environment, such as modern crawfish farmers or Native Americans farming natural levees, suffer less from floods, storms and other dangers endemic to the region. Mud is Morris’ key to understanding our geography.
Why “our” geography? The focus of this book is the lower Mississippi Valley, from Memphis to the Gulf. The Red River receives sustained attention only when it intersects with the Mississippi and the Atchafalaya, there is little discussion of our specific locale. However, in broad terms the book is a primer on the environment and development of the Red River Valley. Morris’ theme encompasses our area and much of the South. You cannot drive far in Shreveport without crossing the levees that are at the heart of his work. Big Muddy is very much a local story.
I left this book with a deeper, and sometimes different, understanding of people and events I thought I knew well. This book is for anyone who wants to understand better the history of our community and region. It is a compelling story of Mississippian chiefdoms, Spanish explorers, French colonists, British and American pioneers, the rise and fall of plantation agriculture and our changing modern landscape. Highly recommended!