Big Muddy

written by

Drausin Wulsin

posted on

December 20, 2023


Over Thanksgiving, Susan and I shoehorned ourselves onto a cruise ship to learn about the lower Mississippi and its bayou. We started in Memphis and ended up in New Orleans, with stops along the way to explore river towns. This river is the third longest on the planet, providing drainage to 40% of North America. It has historically deposited silt yearly in its floodplains, producing topsoil 120 feet deep, making these soils some of the richest in the world. Vast wetland forests grew beside its banks, of cypress, oaks, and sycamores, populated by a rich array of black bears, deer, bobcats, alligators, and aquatic life. This was the legendary bayou. 

The bayou was clear-cut during the course of the 19th century, making way for what are now vast farms growing monocultures of cotton, rice, soybeans, and corn. This region has been transformed from high biodiversity to low.

Prior to the Civil War, the region of the southern states was the only locale in the world producing cotton, granting them a seller's monopoly. England was the ready buyer, as European fashion began favoring clothing made from cotton over wool. This demand enabled southern growers in the U.S. to reap substantial fortunes in their trade. Many of the southern river towns along the river, such as Greenville, Natchez, and Vicksburg, all in Mississippi, became populated with some of the wealthiest families in the country. This burgeoning wealth attracted Jewish immigrants from Europe to merchandize goods plus ambitious northerners seeking to participate. Underlying all of this prosperity was the brutality of slavery to provide labor, with its now familiar consequences.

From the chain gangs of slavery arose call-and-response vocalizations. This laid the groundwork for Blues music, from which Jazz evolved. Blues and Jazz are currently a thriving commercial industry, with their roots in the sordid history of cotton and the bayou. 

So, this is an interesting area, culturally, commercially, and ecologically. Most impressive of all was the river itself, laden with silt from upstream and propelling forth with deep unrelenting force. The amount of commerce that plies this river is remarkable to behold. We listened to Samuel Clemon's, Life on the Mississippi  to learn about the era of steamships which began in 1807, now supplanted by tugboats and barges. Over the decades, the Army Corps of Engineers has built levees along the riverbanks to control flooding. Yearly deposits of beneficial silt now end up in the Gulf of Mexico, smothering aquatic life.

My father's family emigrated up the river from New Orleans to Cincinnati in the 1850's, and inevitable forces of erosion carry soil from our farm in Pike County, Ohio back downstream to New Orleans. Witnessing the power of this river felt somehow familiar, beguiling, and of the great circle of life. 

As Cincinnati is a river town, it stands in the shadow of the Mississippi. Famed wrought-ironwork from New Orleans made its way up river to Cincinnati in the 19th century, and still resides on porches throughout the Queen City.

During the trip, I finished Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert, in continued exploration of the nature of water and how we respond to it, as a culture. It was published in 1987, but covers timeless lessons. In sum, he reveals how the many diversions and impoundments of water throughout history and particularly in the American west have proven to be a scam. The allure of water to the politicians of the arid west could not be resisted. It was like a narcotic, to which nobody could say no, despite obvious adverse ramifications. Financial costs to the American taxpayer from these projects have never been recovered, while environmental and cultural damages have risen beyond calculation.

Dams were built for flood-control, to provide electricity, and to provide irrigation, all at once. Reservoirs full of water can not provide flood control, as they fill with silt and become increasingly unresponsive. They also accumulate salts which are toxic to soils downstream under high levels of irrigation. The true cost of providing electricity was never charged to local consumers because it was always higher than the next competitive source. Dams degraded and eliminated wildlife in riparian zones, arresting ancient salmon runs and displacing native peoples, who have been their stewards forever. 

A small number of large western dams actually collapsed, flooding towns downstream, while all dams have deteriorated over time. Many are now finally being torn down, in recognition of the folly in the scheme to divert water from its natural course and flow.

This was not before plans were drawn by government agencies to divert water from the Columbia River to southern California and even to divert from Alaska to northern California. A scheme was further developed to pump the mighty Mississippi uphill from New Orleans to west Texas, to preserve the ability to grow alfalfa for export to Saudi Arabia for dairy cows! Such arrogance and folly.

The bustling metropolises of the southwest are largely fed by diverted water, while local agricultural monocrops devour water tables below. Climate change suggests that painful days of reckoning are ahead for these areas.

It takes 90 days for rainwater in Ohio to reach the lower Mississippi. Fortunately, it only takes a few rainstorms to refill our wetlands. It is the ebbing flow from dry to wet and back again that makes wetlands so biodiverse. 

Our irrigation pond is slowly filling up. It will be interesting to see how long this takes. One acre-foot of water = 325,851 gallons. Assuming average depth is 10 feet and breadth is 3 acres, then all we need to fill it is 9.8 million gallons of water! We will keep you apprised as to how long that takes.

We have recently received our Bio Blitz report from John Howard, of Southern Ohio Environmental Services. This report was compiled through 800 hours of volunteer observations from 40 different individuals. Some of the volunteers are retired scientists, others are still working and do this on weekends for pleasure, and others are aspiring naturalists, learning the trade. One is the country's foremost expert on "leaf miners", microscopic insects that live within a leaf. (I never knew such existed.)

This group identified over 1800 species total: 539 plants, 38 mosses, 24 lichens, 46 fungi, 18 amphibians,14 reptiles, 59 arachnids, 139 birds, 37 mammals,14 fish, 481 butterflies and moths, 86 beetles, 82 bugs, 65 bees and wasps, 22 dragonflies, 35 aquatic insects, 38 grasshoppers and crickets, and 38 uncategorized organisms (snails, millipedes, and earthworms). John says this represents a high degree of biodiversity for sites such as ours. This is invaluable information providing a benchmark for future comparisons. We are indebted to the generosity of these fine guardians of nature, under the capable leadership of John Howard.

Below is a picture taken by one of the 15 motion-activated cameras posted about the property during this process. The picture is almost surreal, like a Monet painting. The blue heron was standing on the log in the bog in front of the camera, and as the two deer passed by, they triggered its taking.

Another of the fine people I have the privilege of working with is Jennie Helfren, of JSHDesign. She serves as the editor and designer of the four volumes of the Farmer's Almanac, which will be forthcoming as a set over the next six months. We have the first volume, previously published, now reprinted and reformatted to serve as Volume I. And it is now available for purchase and distribution through Amazon! We have most of the other three volumes completed, so this process should move along fairly quickly. Once we have the set of four in place, then the hard part begins; figuring out how to sell the darn thing! Oh well, one step at a time.

We are assigning a color to each volume to represent different stages of our journey. Volume I, which is subtitled, Fascination of Discovery, has a brown binder. Brown is one of the rich and dominant colors of nature. I love its depth and how it shows up in various shades throughout the seasons. The lower Mississippi River is usually brown with silt, and thus its name, Big Muddy.

David Brooks new book, How to Know a Person, speaks to the importance of empathy in navigating life. Empathy requires patient observation and humility. It is not really taught in our western culture, and may be its achilles heel. Our culture is more about dominance, extraction, conventional economics, and power. It makes reference to love and generosity, but delivers scant portions of it.

In contrast, Matika Wilbur, an indigenous photographer and journalist, has produced a remarkable book, Project 562. Her project was to interview and record images of native leaders all over the continent. Each of these 400 leader's concerns, as expressed in her pages, have to do with maintaining rituals, developing relationships, acting as stewards of nature, and preserving their languages. One can't help noting how kind and generous these people are in their aspirations, especially given how traumatized they have been by oppressors. They embody empathy, toward each other and toward the land they steward. They want to preserve and dance, not dominate and extract. 

Before cold weather hit, I mowed a few trails around the perimeter of new wetlands. Ragweed was 12 feet tall, and it was quite a job navigating through it. During the excursion, however, it became clear that many seedlings planted in March stand vigorous though obscured. They are receiving sun through ragweed stems and will gain height in the year ahead. They will not be denied!

A recent project was resurfacing one of the five bridges on our farm. This is on our main road so it has to bear considerable weight. It probably hadn't been resurfaced since first built maybe 90 years ago. The project turned out well, thanks to Mike Garen, another of the high-quality people here who keep us from falling off the wagon.

Bucks are "in rut" now, scraping trees and ground to leave calling cards for does. Does come by and respond with directed urine, accepting the dance card. Lots of movement is currently transpiring among the cervine population across this landscape.

We still have animals on the farm and we still have good food! Mahlon's sheep rotate through the pastures and he has bought 50 calves to feed through the winter. So, our carefully developed livestock facilities are being employed, which is heartening.

The above simple meal of ribeye steak and salad was sublime, accompanied by mashed rutabaga & potatoes.

We have one more food order to fill for Grassroots, and then we are closing the website. But you will be hearing from us through our new website for Red Stone Farm, which will be activated in the next 30 days or so. 

We will continue telling stories about life on this land, as long as there is story enough to tell.

May muddy waters, good music, good food, and loving acts be with us all through these holidays and beyond.

More from the blog

Streams & Souls

Streams and souls seem to share character. They are life-giving, they are coveted, they can be impeded, they can be channelized, they can be overwhelmed, they flood, they dry up, they flow downhill, they are a force of both change and constancy, they lie at the center of a community, they will not be denied, and because of this great complexity, they attract periodic resistance. So, it seems that streams may serve as a metaphor for the journey of the soul.


Biodiversity depends on the neighbors. We feel like we live on islands, at times, but even islands are connected by surrounding rings of activity. Every organism that travels through our wetlands is in transit. Some stay longer than others, but all are in motion. They came from somewhere and are going somewhere. In the meantime, they stop for respite and nurture, adding to the richness of the ecosystem.

A Deer & A Bell

This buck graces our land. He was recorded on camera earlier this month. Doesn't he look magnificent - so full, regal, and humble, within his place? He presents true beauty and inspiration. He feels like a force of magic, that walked on from stage left.