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April 03, 2009

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The Red River Flows North

Early Sunday morning I talked on the telephone to a friend whose family owns a house along the Red River. The house is on the Minnesota side but now the river is all around them. Forty-two feet above flood stage is a lot of water. After I talked to him I got the topography maps out and sat by the window that overlooks the Cheyenne River a half mile to the east. I figured that if the Cheyenne ever got forty-two feet above its banks it would be lapping at the horse pasture gate. Our house would still be high and dry but the sight would be frightening – lots of drowned trees and ruined fences. The corral would be gone and some prairie dogs would likely be dead. But there would be no great losses like there is when a river floods a populated area like Fargo-Morehead. Nothing like New Orleans.

I’ve been paying attention to the Red River flood because the Red River is one of my favorite places. As everyone who lives on the northern Great Plains knows, it is one of the rare rivers that flow north. Most of the northern Great Plains is drained by the Missouri and the Mississippi Rivers which run generally south. The Red River Valley is a different deal. It heads for Hudson’s Bay through hundreds of miles of Canada. That’s one of the reasons it is prone to dramatic flooding. The upper reaches of the river melt before the larger lower reaches and the ice on that northern stretch dams things up. Almost everyone in North Dakota and Minnesota knows all about that. They know which way the water flows, and they know that weather is not kind, and they know that if the Red River floods they’re the ones that have to figure out what to do. The northern Great Plains are filled with people who are used to being prepared.

Like my friend. He lives and works out here in the Black Hills, five hundred miles from his aging parents in Morehead. He knows it’s spring, and that the ice melts in the spring, and that the water flows north, and that he’s responsible for that house up there on the Red River. And of course he knows that he’s also responsible for those aging parents. He’s been watching the weather reports for a month and by the time the water started to come up he’d already made arrangements to get up there and fight. By the time the river began creeping out of its banks he was standing in his parent’s yard wearing a pair of hip waders and filling sandbags with the snow swirling around his head. He said the whole neighborhood pitched in. Of course I knew that. I know those people. Most of them are a generation or less removed from the farms and ranches of the Red River Valley. Of course they pitched in.

I saw it on television: salt-of-the-earth Keilloresque Lutherans and Catholics, big guys with funny hats and mittens, and tough little gals standing right in there filling those sandbags with the best of them. All of them were working like human metronomes, smiling and working with the water rising fast. I watched the TV as busloads of high school and college kids disembarked and rolled up their sleeves, and I was reminded of television pictures of another flood.

It is not fair to compare the Fargo flood with the catastrophe in New Orleans. The situations are very different: a hurricane breaching a levy is not the same as a spring flood, governmental preparedness is much improved, Fargo-Morehead is not a sprawling megacity. But as I watched those northern plains people working, figuring, innovating to meet the challenge that nature had thrown at them, I kept remembering an impromptu TV interview of a New Orleans kid about the same age as the kids filing off the buses and straining to get at those canvas bags and that pile of sand. The New Orleans kid was dry and warm but the interviewer told us that the water was coming. The kid wore hugely baggy pants and had his hat on backwards. He stood at an evacuation depot but there was no transportation. He was angry that there was no bus to take him to safety. The kid waved his arms and swore. When the interviewer mentioned that the wind had blown the ocean inland and that water had met the flow of the Mississippi coming south the kid raised his head and looked thoughtfully at the distance. He turned slowly and looked in all four directions. He had no idea which way was south. The idea that the wind could have anything to do with his predicament baffled him.

The fact that the kid was befuddled was not his fault. The fact that he was not of European descent was immaterial. His religion and the way he chose to wear his hat were beside the point. The fact that he was clearly a city kid may have had something to do with it. But the fact that he was, and probably had been for all his life, insulated from the power of nature was making him look silly. He gazed out at the buildings that had always stopped, or at least softened the wind. The camera-shot was over his shoulder as he shook his head. When he turned back, the camera caught him in a weak moment. He was scared and a little pitiful, but he wiped all that off his face and snarled, “Sposed to be buses right here.” He pointed to the ground in front of him. “Goddamned buses spose to be right here!”

The Red River always makes me think of a group of very early French immigrants to North America called the Métis. In the onslaught of Europeans coming to America before there was such a thing as the United States, the Métis stand out as perhaps the only group that chose to integrate with the natives rather than displace them. The originals were all men who married native women. Their offspring were the Métis, literally “mixed people”. The Métis were so intertwined with the culture and environment that they lived off buffalo and built everything they needed without outside help. They knew about wind, and snow, and cold, and floods, and didn’t spend much time waiting for someone to come to their aid. The spirit of the Métis is still alive in the Red River Valley. Oddly, the heritage of the Red River’s Métis is similar to that of New Orleans’s Cajuns. So, why do one group of kids crowd onto the bus that is going toward the flood and why do other kids wait to be rescued?

I believe it is the Northern Great Plains that makes the difference. In every corner of Earth the power of nature is incalculably immense. In some places nature’s danger is too subtle for busy humans to detect, like the hurricane that hides in the muggy stillness of a lazy afternoon. The conditions on the Northern Great Plains are simply too harsh to ignore. In all cases, humans have to have some understanding of the overarching environment and to figure out a way to not only survive, but to thrive. On the Northern Great Plains, the power of nature is forever in your face. Respecting it, paying attention to the idiosyncrasies and its crankiness has become part of the Northern Great Plains culture. A lot of Red River folks take pride in being aware of how the real world works. They even find pleasure in their rocky relationship with nature. They joke that the threat of oblivion brings out the best in people. It is certainly a good idea to not to be surprised by nature, and it’s a good idea to know which way the water flows when it leaves your front yard.


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