American lotuses, Reelfoot Lake, Tennesee
In December of 1811, an earthquake originally thought to have been perhaps the largest in the recorded history of North America, with an estimated Richter value of up to 10.0, occurred on the Mississippi River near the town of New Madrid (accent on the first syllable!) in southeastern Missouri. More recent and sophisticated analysis has put the moment magnitude at a mere 7.5 to 7.9, though the affected area was gigantic and this still makes it the largest quake east of the Rockies in recorded history. Across the river in the northwestern corner of Tennessee, Reelfoot Lake was formed, evidently by the sudden subsidence of swampy land adjacent to an old oxbow lake (an old meander of the river which had been cut off and isolated from the river's flow). Over a period of months, water from the nearby river gradually filled the greatly enlarged lake basin, which is now rapidly filling in with soil, eroded from nearby farms.
This was the most important image I made on the longest trip of my life: one hundred days of travel down the Mississippi River in the summer of 1979, from its headwaters at Lake Itasca, in northern Minnesota, to New Orleans. Initially, we were fourteen in number, traveling by wood and canvas canoe. After seventy days, the canoes went home and three of us continued from the halfway point at Hannibal, Missouri, by motorboat, and finally by towboat. More than two thousand two hundred miles in all. Only two weeks into the trip, the members of the 1979 College of the Atlantic Mississippi River Canoe Expedition began to suffer, one and all, the dreaded "terminal river brain," a syndrome familiar to few. Norah Davis and I were along to write and photograph, respectively, a book about the river for Sierra Club Books. We all tried and tried to think of a title: "River of Death"; "The Longest Junket"; "The River of No Return"; and so on, but it eventually came to be called The Father of Waters: A Mississippi River Chronicle. I will remember the river always as the "farthest of waters." There are no fewer than fifty-seven dams on the main stem of the Mississippi, over half of them built by the Corp of Engineers to deepen the channel to make commercial barge traffic feasible, and above St. Louis therefore, it bears considerable resemblance to one, very long, artificial lake.