The Big Rivers began as a story about the water cycle; how water evaporates from the ocean and lakes, forms clouds, then drops from the clouds as rain, and finally, much of the water eventually finds its way back into the ocean via rivers. I was struck by how this ties us all together. I was working on the text, scientifically interesting, but a little "dry" in terms of human interest and wondering how I could introduce a some drama into the story. Just then the Great Flood of 1993 began. Suddenly, I was up to my ears in drama. This was one of the most devastating floods in the heartland of the United States and it went on for weeks.
I made three trips to the rivers, one at the height of the flood. I worked right along with the volunteers filling sandbags and plugging leaks in the levees. Their stories are woven into the narrative of this book. The message here is still valid, after many years, and foretells something about climate change.
"There have been a number of books about this flood.......but for its beauty, simplicity, and obvious compassion for the victims, this one is a winner." School Library Journal, July 1997
"...the prose is lyrical....visually appealing..." Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 1997
This is a diesel "tug" I sketched in Memphis. The big rivers are important means of transport, especially for bulk goods, like grain or crushed stone. These powerful boats are called tugs, but they are really used to push huge rafts of barges, all chained together called "tows". I assume these names are left over from an earlier time, when the tugs actually towed the barges behind them.
I spent a day at the Waterways Experimental Station in Vicksburg, Mississippi, learning how the Army Corps of Engineers goes about this enormous task of keeping the river in check. One of their tools for evaluating how a dam or a change in the channel will effect a river is to build a model of the whole thing. These are big, carefully made models. The river channel is cast in concrete, and pulverized coal is used to simulate the river sediment. Then a model of the dam or other alteration is constructed to see what changes take place. There are even scale model boats and barges to complete the picture. It is very serious work, but it looked like a lot of fun, too. I wanted to put much more information in the book, but with a 32 page limit, there simply isn't room for everything. I am glad I can tell you about these things here.
It was both thrilling and sad to work with people on trying to save houses, businesses, towns, and farms from the flood. The mood was generally upbeat, working together, often with food and drink donated by fast food restaurants. Young, old, and even prisoners all pitched in with with plenty of muscle.
Nevertheless, nature dominated. The rains kept coming, and every levee and sandbag dam that I worked on eventually failed, and the land and houses were flooded. Some of these were eventually rebuilt, but the cycle of flood will probably claim them again.
The lesson here is we can control nature to a certain degree, and this applies to air, water, and land. But in the end we are never the master. Natural "disasters", when they occur, are far more powerful.   
Rivers provide a great example of how we are all linked together, and I don't mean just in terms of transportation. Practically any thing that goes into a river, and that includes pollutants as well as clean water, will eventually find its way into the water below ground and all the communities downstream. The effect of pesticides, for example, is felt on people, plants, and animals hundreds of miles from where it was introduced. The Mississippi and its big tributaries, the Missouri, and Ohio, also provide an interesting look at man's struggle to contain natural forces. All of these rivers are dammed and controlled for the purpose of barge traffic and to prevent flooding. This works well most of the time, but the power of the river in flood is enormous. The photo shows what was once a huge cornfield, now covered with dirty water, and more rain on the way.
 
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