Sunday, August 31, 2008

On the Mississippi, the American West, and some other scattered thoughts

The headwaters of the Mississippi lie in central-north Minnesota, in Itasca State Park, not far from the mysterious-sounding town of Bemidji. From this remote corner of the United States, the Mississippi, only a thin, fordable stream at its origin, winds its way around the state, gathers strength, and by the time it reaches Minneapolis and St.Paul, it looks the grand river that it is. Its meander defines the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota; further south, near St.Louis, it joins with the equally large Missouri. In fact, I’ve often wondered why the subsequent flow was attributed to the Mississippi when the Missouri’s journey, beginning in far-away Montana, is just as significant and noteworthy; if anything the Missouri travels a longer distance. The confluence of the two rivers then flows hundreds of miles south before emptying in the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana.

In Minnesota, I lived about 40 miles away from the Mississippi. The river, I was told, was a geographical marker: the deciduous forests and woodlands of Eastern United States ended with it, and the great prairie began west of it. But the Mississippi is also a cultural marker: the American West begins with the river. I feel a thrill whenever I think of this – it is a thrill that echoes the anticipation and uncertainty with which Americans would have viewed the still unexplored West in the 19th century. For it was in the first decade of that century that the Lewis and Clarke Expedition began their westward exploration from St.Louis. St.Louis, in fact, has a massive arch, a commemoration of that journey which laid the basis for the territorial expansion of America from “sea to shining sea”.


I began my time in the United States in hot and arid Arizona in the fall of 2000. The “Wild West” stereotype – as I knew it back in India – seemed perfectly justified there: rugged landscapes; old, abandoned mining towns that have been revived for tourists today and enact famous fights (such as the OK Corral fight in Tombstone); souvenir shops that sell saddles, Stetsons and cowboy paraphernalia; and invariably some mention of Indians – Indians of a different kind of course: Navajos, Apaches, Hopis, Zunis, Pimas, and dozens of others, largely forgotten people, but who still live in remote reservations. (In fact, it was always a pleasure introducing myself in these reservations: eyebrows would arch in surprise and acknowledgment: “Oh, so you are the real Indian!”)

Things were different in Minnesota, but not that different. Minnesota is strongly rooted in its immigrant Scandinavian past and its Lutheran traditions, yet it still felt like the West; it had all the feel of a land that had once been the frontier, and settled only recently (roughly a century and a half). There was, besides, still talk – in radio shows like the Prairie Home Companion, even if it was mostly jest – of cowboys on horses riding the dusty plains; and still that reminder in the names of towns (Wanamingo, Wabasha) and the small reservations that dot the state, that Indians once lived here and had been dispossessed – the Dakota, the Ojibwa, the Winnebago.

And just recently, I’ve moved east, to Massachusetts – well east of the Mississippi. I am always told the East has a lot more history. And though I’ve been here only for a week, I can see some things are different. Houses here crowd upon each other and do not have the same sprawl that I am used to. The network of roads and back roads possess a haphazardness that comes with a longer history. The towns here were formed before the United States came into existence. We’re talking 18th century here, or sometimes 17th century – still recent, I know, for those from other parts of the world, used to millennia of continuous history, but old in the American sense of the term. There are fewer reservations here and that suggests land usurpation has been more comprehensive.

To dramatize, you could say I’ve traveled the American 19th century westward migration in reverse: from Arizona, one of the last few states to form, to Minnesota where the Mississippi originates and where the American West begins, and now to Massachusetts.

And it is symbolic that on the coast of Massachusetts, less than a three hour drive from where I am, is Plymouth, where, as many of you may know, a tenuous British colony established itself in 1620. It was the second such colony, the first being the Jamestown one in Virginia. Both were critical in that they laid the foundation for more immigration, and eventually, in a century and a half, led to the formation of the United States.


Krishnan said...

Great writeup Hari. I will call it a bird's eye view of American history. Expecting more in that vein from you.
BTW, so this is your eighth year in US ? and just curious,do you hail from Chennai ?

Hari said...

Thanks, Krishnan. Yes, this is my eighth year in the United States. Time has flown by. Chennai is where I was born, but I've only visited it and never lived there long enough to know it well. Many of my relatives are in Chennai. I grew up mostly in Gujarat and Maharashtra and studied college in Trichy; my parents are now in Bangalore. Since the climate in Bangalore is generally very pleasant, Chennai, more and more now, seems intolerable in the summer.