Greenery, Industry

Yesterday we left from the south side of Lake Pepin and ended the day at Trempealeau. We spent 52.6 miles, all day, on the water and then pulled in at a marina just above lock 5A. It seemed to be in disrepair, clean but possibly in the midst of renovation. The cleat we tried to tie up to when we first docked was broken, rusted, and other cleats on the nearby slip were missing; the walkways were deteriorating and warped; algae clung thick to the boats around us.

It’s been almost a week on the river. My memory of the Mississippi from the summer I camped on its shores is of a brownish-blacking soup, but maybe that was tinted by the phrases in my head: Old Muddy, Mississippi Mud. I was expecting a river of brown, or due to my own experience of the waterways of Maine, blue and silver, but the dominant color of the river, by far, is green. Serious green. The beginning of the Mississippi, especially around Lake Pepin is dripping with it.

There is green in every visible area of land, from the tops of the rounded hills to the beginning of the water where the trees dip so close that they almost are pulled into their own reflections, in awe at their resplendent greenness.

As I stand driving for hours, looking at the world beneath a dark green brimmed hat, I check my sunglasses to make sure they’re not tinted green. They’re not. They’re black. Very black. The green I see is actually in the land, present in every imaginable shade in 360 around me. Every shade in an artist’s palette—from Phthalo to Viridian—every less elegantly named shade in the paint section of Home Depot, from Wasabi to Rainwater, Secret Meadow to Fresh Artichoke, all represented and remixed by nature: Wasabi Rainwater, Secret Artichoke Meadow.

The colors aren’t pure like paint sample cards; instead they wash from one hue to the next so that it’s hard to tell where one tree ends and the next begins. They are impossible to reproduce, since they change depending on their neighboring colors and then reflected and amplified by the water surface. The river recreates the colors and puts them into rings and ripples. Sky-green and earth-green and water-green, peppered with the green cans that mark the starboard descending side of the river. I am awash in green, mesmerized by green, pulled through the world on undulating green waves. Sometimes I try to focus on one tree, but I’m lost in the leaves. I lose the trees for the forest.

I’m used to the raw beauty of Maine, the dark pines, the distance between the lowest branches and the ground substantial enough to see through to slabs of rock and moss, the deep and rich scented earth that smells like the shades it gives off, but here, where I can see through the trees to some underbrush, it’s covered in green: green grass, green shrubs, green houses sometimes too. Several small towns we pass are couched, if not smothered by this green canopy. My irises open with green. I’m transfixed though still moving. Occasionally Morgan yells something at me from the front of the boat and I adjust from my green pathway to a slightly different green pathway.

I often want to stop to bathe in the green or at least put our little tender, who is also by chance green—a chalky and artificial green—into the green pools around us and explore other green-lined greens winding through greenery, but we have to push on because we have to keep some structure to our time.

As I struggle to focus on the direction I’m going with the motor in my ears, washing out the world, floating on a verdant highway, suddenly and sometimes shockingly, great structures rise. They are from agriculture and industry. Some look so old they could be mirages from history books. They seem both foreign and familiar, like all monuments, but when they move they seem more like dinosaurs, ancient and animated.

As we approach a city, and the zipping pleasure craft crack open green reflections, above us rises a monstrous suspended structure, something we are in and beneath at once. It’s a highway bridge (the rest of the world exists!) and right in the middle it’s covered with a neat white plastic rectangle that encases construction workers. We hear them loudly, sounds from jack-hammers ricochet outward as they are suspended in the clouds, in a plastic cloud of their own making, whiter than the sky behind. They thunder above. I almost duck as we go under them, wondering if something will fall from the sky onto Zeebee. Some industrial hail.

Then back into the green, and green, and green.

Then up ahead, a barge, something dipping and rising dipping and rising, yellow and bright, catching moments of sun, dipping and rising. As we approach we see plumes of white steam from its jaws, and as we approach more, slowly on our puttering craft, we see the smoke is actually water, and that is an excavator for dredging, thrusting its mouth into the Mississippi, pulling mud from the bottom along with massive amounts of water, all of it pouring out as it cranes its neck up, the water running down its sides. It rises up like a beast that can’t drink enough, losing earth and water on the way, and then dumps the bottom of the river onto a barge. We pass the spray, the barge operator grinning.

Then back into the green.

And then out of the green rise two massive, perfectly formed, perfectly white domes. They blind me with their scale and hold my gaze. They’re attached to grain escalators. They hold things that are practical, but they are just monuments of industry to me here now.

And back and forth, and back and forth, lulled by the green and in awe of the sudden epic structures of man.

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