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In the Land of Flying Fish

It seems appropriate that, as we draw nearer to the land of Twain, our imaginations would become a bit more active, and that nature and man would cooperate to supply us with some extraordinary tales.  Places affect us, and it is hard not to think about Clemens and his cast of characters, his reflections and tales from the river.  A long time has passed since he was here, but still somehow one feels that we look on the same land and river that he did, despite all the changes that have occurred in the interim.

Even Tom Sawyer never told stories about flying fish on the Mississippi, but we had been warned about the Silver Carp below the Keokuk Dam, and sure enough not ten minutes after we had passed out of the massive lock, we were startled by several of these good-sized fish leaping out of the water as we passed.  They have a startle reflex that can send them easily as high as our heads, and to top it off they are covered in a pungent slime.  Leaving the Kibbe research station, one leaped up and smacked Hannah in the back of her head as it passed, to the delight of all and sundry (including Hannah, who finds just about everything amusing).  The next day we encountered more, and I had the pleasure of having one adventurous fellow leap into our canoe at my feet, where he proceeded to flop around in a muscular fashion until I succeeded in grabbing him by the tail and holding my prize up to display for the group before ignominiously heaving him back into the river.  Easiest (and so far only) catch I’ve made on the river.  But my boots still smell like fish.

The river is rich in life below its murky surface, despite the volume of waste we continue to dump into it, with the students having hauled up paddlefish, gar, blue gills, crappies, catfish (as well as plenty of carp) in their gill-netting and electro-fishing outings with our generous host Jim Lamer from Western Illinois University.  It is a rich, subaqueous ecosystem, although we remain largely oblivious to the menagerie swimming about below us as we paddle along.  More reminders of the resilience of nature in the face of our relentless consumption of its resources and use of it as a receptacle for our waste.

North of Hannibal the river opened out, and we paddled through largely unsettled country, quiet, a little melancholy, and conducive to contemplation.  The land feels poised between seasons, the turning of the leaves has caught up with us, but the air is still warm.  Our last day heading into Hannibal we at last got a break from the incessant winds and enjoyed a more pensive paddle across glassy water, as we are solidly into the “Middle Mississippi” and no longer in the Upper.

Approaching Hannibal it is hard not to think about this place and what it was like for Samuel Clemens to grow up there.  The acerbic critic Clemens would have much to say about his home town today (dubbed by the local Chamber of Commerce as “America’s Hometown”), and he almost certainly would be saddened by what he saw.  No town of course could live up to that standard of one’s romanticized youth, no matter how well preserved, but Hannibal is now just another fairly rundown midwest town.  He left it as an adult, settling in the more urbane and cosmopolitan New York and Connecticut, and looking around Hannibal today, I’d have to say he wouldn’t want to live there now.

Some of the less touristy parts of Hannibal. A town cursed with one claim to fame and little active commerce.

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The gross commercialization, the commodification of those figures he created, has  left little of the vitality and excitement of that mythologized town of his youth.  The tour of the “Mark Twain Caves” was geologically interesting, but had all the mystery and excitement of a rerun of the Disney movie of Tom Sawyer.  In the gift shop (where the tour inevitably ended) there were plenty of knick-knacks made in China, but no copies of any of Twain’s more interesting political works (my favorite being his deeply satirical “War Prayer“), nor his new and controversial Autobiography (which is so long and strange and convoluted that no one seems quite to know what to do with it).  No room for critique or satire or complexity (not that I had any expectation of finding them there), just Americana and little statuettes of Becky Thatcher in America’s Hometown.

I wish Twain were around to respond to the businesses that have sprung up along the river though. Just upstream we passed the sprawling industrial complex owned by BASF, the largest chemical manufacturing company in the world (revenues in 2014 of over $74 billion). It produces the following list of delightfully named products:  PROWL, PURSUIT, ARSENAL, RAPTOR, CADRE, PHANTOM, and EXTREME herbicides and pesticides, spread no doubt on the vast expanses of cropland that surround us.  BASF was the first producer of nitrogen fertilizer and is the latest incarnation of the I.G. Farben company that manufactured chemical weapons and the poison gas used in the Nazi gas chambers.  With a little rebranding and repurposing they are still at work mass producing poisons (and plenty else besides).  In 2009 the plant in Hannibal “accidentally discharged” carcinogenic hexavalent chromium into the Mississippi, although the extent of the damage caused remains unknown.  Rivers fortunately are constantly flushing themselves out (which is why so many factories are located along their banks).  Next to them is the General Mills plant where they make processed pork (fed the corn and soybeans grown in the fields that have been purged of anything else by those BASF pesticides). It was formerly the Underwood Deviled Ham factory, located there because of Mr. Underwood’s fondness for Twain’s legacy. I’m not so sure that the feeling would have been mutual.  Given Twain’s interest in Lucifer (see his Letters from the Earth), he would probably consider it aptly named.

The town itself has its core of well-labelled landmarks with any link to the young Sam Clemens, surrounded by dilapidated buildings, empty storefronts, and the remains of the blue collar town of the mid-twentieth century.  The grocery store we stopped in was notable for the stacked cases of cheap whiskey (shades of Huck’s alcoholic father), and many of the patrons appeared to be in very poor health (this has been true of other small river towns in which we’ve stopped).  The taxi driver shared how he got very busy at the beginning of the month when everyone got their government checks and would spend them all on taxi rides to restaurants for a few weeks until they ran out of money.  There were certainly signs of vitality in town (I passed one small business with a group of men gathered inside, engaged in lively conversation), and I’m sure if I stayed longer we would get to know more of the good people of the town.  But it seems unlikely to inspire any tales of the spirited hi-jinx and river adventures for which it takes such credit now.

But for us the river remains, and I’m confident that Twain would still want to travel the river, as he did later in life and wrote about in his Life on the Mississippi.  Even then, in the 1880s, he noted the ways the river had been tamed and caged in by the Corps of Engineers.  But it had then, and certainly still has now, the splendor and power and timelessness that we are experiencing now, camping as we are on sand bar on Shuck Island.  From across the water, with the lights shining on the water, and the tour boat the Mark Twain cruising slowly upriver, Hannibal does still have some magic to it, and we look forward tomorrow to loading our boats, and like Huck and Jim, heading downstream toward St. Louis, not knowing who or what we will encounter along the way.