CROSSING FLATWATER

Nonfiction by Matt Miller

In July of 2019, my family and I traveled home to Nebraska for the first time since the state’s catastrophic floods four months earlier. Flood damage had left our usual route through Nebraska City impassable, and so we drove north along the Missouri River through southern Iowa, finally turning west into Douglas County.

I expected to see signs of flooding, but had not prepared myself for what I found: a drowned landscape. The edges of the highway ought to have been lapped by waves of growing corn, “knee high by the Fourth of July,” in farm lore. Soybean and hay fields ought to have appeared almost unbearably green, combines traversing them at regular intervals. No such signs of the growing season appeared. By the edge of the road, last year’s yellowed corn stalks protruded like a valley of bones from stagnant lakes of flood water. Ripples of brown water lapped at the base of rusted implements and slouching Quonset huts, abandoned to the remnants of the flood. In places, the highway betrayed the erosive effects of water, its edges jagged above the eroded dirt at its side. None of these grim sights, though, struck me quite like the fences: draped with matted weeds, they looked like something found on a beach at low tide.

I wish this had not been my first glimpse of the flooding. I wish I had a more immediate account, wish I could count myself among those who survived the flooding or helped relieve the suffering it caused. To my lasting regret, as the disaster unfolded my family found ourselves in southern Missouri grappling with the challenges of a cross-state move, a new job, and a new baby. I could see no means to provide meaningful help to my home state. And so I followed the Nebraskan newspapers and texted my family about the floods, all the while with a rising sense of irony and unreality: that a state best known to its detractors as flat, unremarkable, dry, and boring should make national news as a site of catastrophic flooding seemed like some trickster god’s idea of a joke.

Notwithstanding the state’s name, which translates to “flat water” in archaic Otoe, or the facts that Nebraska has more miles of rivers and a larger quantity of groundwater than any other state, that the apocalypse should arrive in our arid Great Plains state via water, not fire, struck me as deeply implausible. Nonetheless, water has made Nebraska what it is. The frozen, prehistoric water of glaciers transformed the region’s geology in the Ice Age; the waters of the state’s rivers, the Missouri, the Platte, the Niobrara, shaped the state’s settlement patterns; the subterranean water of the giant, endangered Ogallala Aquifer drives the state’s land use policies and thus its politics; and now, river water has reshaped Nebraska once again.

Nebraska’s waters have had their shaping influence on me too. I grew up, if not quite on the banks of the Big Blue River, at least in close psychic proximity to it. In the summer its waters trickled through my thoughts.

The Big Blue winds indolently around my hometown, Milford, about a mile from the house where I grew up. It has little to commend it for human use, even by Nebraskan standards for rivers. It is neither big nor blue. It winds through cropland, nowhere scenic, and flows at a rate that on might in a charitable mood term “leisurely” or in a franker spirit “stagnant.”

But the Big Blue was close by, and since I didn’t have a car, that made it appealing enough. Furthermore, by floating it, I could see parts of my home county inaccessible from the roads. There were antique glass bottles to find in the river, dilapidated houses to ogle, and wooded areas to trespass upon. And so maybe twice a summer my brother and I would drag a canoe down to the river, dragging at the same time any friends we could convince to come along. We would enter the river in town, just near the community college, and float three or four miles through croplands and folks’ back lots. Since we had limited appetite for portage, our float always ended at Hammond Dam, south of town.

We would have been on the slow-moving river, at this point, for several hours. We would have climbed a 50-foot eroded dirt cliff to stand looking down on the river from amidst a cornfield, and poked around several nameless sandbars. We would have hunted unsuccessfully for crawfish, and found at least one landowner’s strange experiment in we-knew-not-what: a PVC pipe jutting out of a bank or a collection of milk jugs hanging in some trees. We would have finished our sandwiches, our Doritos, and most of our water. We would have come up on the cluster of mobile homes by the river, navigating the fishing lines many of the residents left continually stretching from the bank. We would have noted the heavier tree cover along the banks of the river, cottonwoods and swamp willows crowding against the sides of the Blue with a thirst as fierce as farmhands at the bar after mowing hay. We would have been sunburnt, restless, smelly, and tired of having dirty water on our faces. And then a bend in the river, and the trees receding to create a clear, open expanse. The river, wider here than before. The dam 50 yards ahead, dark concrete with 80 years of wear showing in the pebbles emerging erratically from its mass, the river pooling against its back. A wholly modern and functional cement bridge capping it, its freedom from graffiti showing it to be a place neglected even by teenagers. Logs, brush, and maybe an old tire resting against the dam in greater or lesser profusion depending on the time of year and the flood state. Maybe a crow or a few bullfrogs.

Let’s be honest: this is not a remarkable scene. It has little to commend it to our attention, little to distinguish it from countless other minor waterways in the lower Midwest. And yet it lies upon my memory with a glory and a wonder. I cannot explain this.

We would pull our canoe up before we got in among the logs at the base of the dam, and clamber to land through deep, silty, sticky black mud. Across the bridge, and the gravel road it supported, behind a screen of tall grass and weedy mulberries, lay a gravel lot and a sign listing WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA REGULATIONS from the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, the DNR. Downstream, the dam created a large pool with high banks around it. By passing through the parking area and climbing downhill to the edge of this pool, a person could access some good fishing, if a person liked catching catfish and carp. We never once fished the area—being boaters and gawkers, not fishermen—but usually somebody was there with a line in the water when we straggled up out of the upstream side.

However—and this was what really drew my attention—just past the sign, level with the road, we could walk out onto a kind of observation platform, an elevated concrete box jutting out from the side of the bank over the river, showing the same wear as the dam and coated with a slick of decaying leaves. Adorned with no more than a minimal railing made of lead pipe, the box featured no map, historical note, or signage, but it did allow one a certain kind of scenic view: a viewpoint overlooking the fishing area, overgrown with mulberries and oaks; the downstream side of the dam, clogged with branches and debris; the churning brown water of the Big Blue; and the soybean field planted up to the very edge of the bluff on the other side.

The only other notable feature of the box was a ragged hole halfway down its side, too high for anyone to reach the interior from the sloping ground beneath. No other entry points could be seen, and the platform held no explanatory marks of any kind. We couldn’t reach the hole or even look in it unless we stood on the bridge, some 60 feet away, from which perch we could see nothing but more pebbled concrete in the interior of the platform.

I could not see why anyone would have built an observation platform over this particularly unremarkable piece of river, nor could I conceive of what other function the concrete box might have held, or why it might have been embedded halfway up the bluff above the river. That it had something to do with the presence of the dam was apparent from the commonality of material, but beyond that I could discern no purpose to it. (For that matter, it wasn’t clear why the dam was there. Surely not to provide mediocre fishing on a minor county road.)

Of course, neither could one readily explain a teenager’s fascination with canoing a mediocre river and studying an abandoned dam. I think my fascination with the Big Blue arose, primarily, from a particular relationship to the land. In his essay “Buckeye,” on the Ohio of his youth, Scott Russell Sanders writes:

Our attachments to the land were all private. We had no shared lore, no literature, no art to root us there, to give us courage, to help us stand our ground. The only maps we had were those issued by the state, showing a maze of numbered lines stretched over emptiness. The Ohio landscape never showed up on postcards or posters, never unfurled like tapestry in films, rarely filled even a paragraph in books. There were no mountains in that place, no waterfalls, no rocky gorges, no vistas. It was a country of low hills, cut over woods, scoured fields, villages that had lost their purpose, roads that had lost their way.

I was born of a family that had dwelt in southeastern Nebraska for all our living memory, spent most of my childhood there, and cherish still a violent loyalty to my home. If anyone should have grown up with a sense of the shared lore of the place, its deep maps and hidden vistas, it ought to have been me.

Yet like Sanders, I experienced Nebraska as a place without history, without a common inheritance or a public story. I knew dimly that the land had a history, and that the history could be known—I visited museums holding Native artifacts (though I can’t say I questioned their provenance) and read the local historian’s minutiae-packed columns in The Milford Times. Yet this history appeared for me nowhere in the living landscape. The price of corn and the value of agricultural land drove out even those outposts of natural history, old trees, resulting in land dominated by crops put in the ground that very year. Perhaps history obtained in buildings and wild edges, somewhere—yet unless you owned or had special knowledge of such a thing, these traces of the past were inaccessible.

Access, then, drew us to the river, since floating it granted us views of the hind parts of our county, places closed to our view by any other means. Drifting along the back forty of some farmer’s property, I could peruse the scrubby edges and the neglected corners of the fields and derive some ghostly sense of what had happened in this place: how the land had been used before my own birth and what its genius was. I could grow more intimate with the place by seeing into corners secret to me, and in so doing, achieve a belief that it had been there before my time.

Accordingly, contemplation of the box became for me a window into mystery: I gazed upon its unyielding and hideous exterior in ignorance and in captivation. It stood as a fitting end to a float down the Blue, which itself revealed corners of my county that I would never otherwise see, the back ways of the land and the artifacts of lives not mine. The box culminated this experience of prosaic mystery, and I loved it for it.

I made my floating pilgrimages in ignorance, perhaps deliberate, about the history of the river, the dam, and the box. I cannot say that I thought to investigate them, drunk on oddity as I was, and perhaps this is just as well, for that history ranges from sordid to dispiriting.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries the Big Blue was a notable enough waterway to draw recreational activity to the area and to support the mill that give Milford its name. Since then, however, Nebraskan agriculture has drained and contaminated its flow. A historical marker near Milford testifies to its “important role in the history of the area,” but offers little to substantiate that claim and quickly turns its attention to the river’s proximity to the state capital in Lincoln. The EPA surveyed the water quality of the Big Blue in 2012 and found it contaminated with e. coli and pesticides, unsurprising given the proximity to the river of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs, otherwise known as giant muddy fields packed tight with cattle and shit), slaughterhouses, and conventionally grown row crops along nearly its whole length. The EPA identified no treatment plan to bring the river back to health.

According to the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Hammond was a hydroelectric dam from the early 20th century. An entrepreneur from Seward, the county seat a few miles north, built seven of them along the Big Blue, hoping to provide locally controlled power to residents of Seward and Saline counties. After a couple decades, the company sold out to the Iowa Light and Power Company, which after another 30 years of operation determined that the dams were no longer cost competitive, and so abandoned or demolished them. Without floating the length of the Blue and counting, I could not determine how many remain, though I know that one, downstream at Blue Springs, Nebraska, flooded and failed in 2004.

In fact, Hammond Dam is not Hammond Dam at all, but the leavings of Big Blue Power Company Station #1, which the DNR now calls the Blue Bluff Dam. Where the name “Hammond” came from, the only name I ever heard locally, I cannot say. The concrete box, my idol, was likely the remnants of its powerhouse. At one time, it would have held a generator powered by a turbine extending into the water below. The strange hole in the side provided an access point for powerlines connecting the generator to the grid.

Though some unremarkable unanswered questions remain in this account—the fate of the other dams, the origin of the name Hammond—essentially the box I found so mysterious offers nothing especially strange or wondrous. Nothing but the remnants of an attempt at locally controlled, sustainable energy, the sort of project that has been consistently failing in places like my home county over the last century, and that failed here too. So: the gradually collapsing leavings of a failed business reveal not the history of the place or its essence, but shadows, figures in the glass, rumors of glory.

After high school, I moved out of state for college, first to Oklahoma, and then to St. Louis for graduate school. One day, I was walking back to my car through the alleys around Saint Louis University, passing the grand Art Deco buildings of Midtown St. Louis, still thrilling to me as a new St. Louisan with scant experience of the urban landscape. As I neared my parking spot, my mother called—not just to catch up as usual, but with some news:

“I thought you’d want to hear, honey: we had some flooding on the Blue and the water has been up over Hammond Dam.”

“Oh, wow.”

“The dam hasn’t washed out, but that observation platform is gone.”

So: if there was no mystery in that box why did my mother feel the need to call me about its loss, as if for a death in the family? Why was I struck, then, standing in that beautiful city, with a pang of something like grief?

* * *

I never thought of myself as coming from a place dominated by water. Nebraska is the only triply landlocked state; I was a flatlander, a drylander, a plainsman. Before the flood, Nebraska for me was safe, dry, prosaic. Expatriate, I loved my home state with a constancy predicated upon its constant nature: the box might wash away, but the surrounding landscape remained little changed, little touched by the wider world. Antediluvian Nebraska seldom made national news beyond the sports pages, a comforting obscurity. In thinking and writing about it, I was free to ruminate wistfully about the strange beauty of its odd corners, to dream it as a place safe and stable and free of sharp edges. Though I fought the outsiders’ myth of the Midwest as the comforting, gentle, stupid “Heartland” of America, I had bought that myth just a little myself.

After the flood, Nebraska has shifted psychically for me from a warm center place to a ragged edge, to borrow a phrase from the Midwestern historian Jon Lauck. The state looks less like the comforting Heartland, the fertile breadbasket, or the unchanging flatland it has been conceived of in the public eye, and more like what Robert MacFarlane in Landmarks terms a “drosscape” (quoting Alan Berger), or, more vividly in the words of Victor Hugo, “bastard countryside.” Drosscapes or bastard countryside are the edgelands between sites of intensive human use and realms where nature flourishes in our neglect. In bastard countryside, nature reasserts itself in smaller and larger ways amid the total systems of intensive human land use. The landscape I witnessed on my return to the state testified to this struggle. A Nebraskan corn or soybean field is a site as totally human as any parking lot: it has been leveled, tilled, cultivated, stripped of its native life, and planted with crops literally engineered for human purposes. Against this system of human control (and, we must be fair, of human care and a kind of attention), the river rose up and nature took back some of its own. Now, on the drowned land, weeds—the pioneer species of nature’s reclamation of damaged land—flourish where Roundup once cleared the way for cultivated crops.

Reporting on Nebraska in the wake of the flooding has tended to stress this transformation of the landscape. An early reflection on the floods by Jake Meador at Christianity Today described the floods as exposing a farming crisis, “the rotten fruit yielded by post-war agriculture in America.” Similarly, an August report by Nancy Gaarder in the Omaha World-Herald stressed the need for changes in management of the Missouri River. Nebraska is here figured as a raw edge between human action and the natural world: eroded fields where monocultures once flourished, elderly dams and bridges over a surging river. A country that once seemed tame and domestic re-emerges as a site of struggle between the forces of industry and a newly active natural order: a flatwater drosscape.

Moreover, Nebraska’s human transformation may have exacerbated and certainly did not alleviate the flooding disaster. A report on the Midwestern floods of 2019 by Willy Blackmore in Audobon Magazine reports that conventional strategies for managing rivers across the Midwest—floodwalls, levees, and dams—have failed, tending either to fail or merely to push problems downriver. Rising water must go somewhere, and if it is held back at one point it naturally emerges at another. Forward-thinking communities, Blackmore reports, are trying another strategy: perennial, native prairie parkland that absorbs floodwaters rather than merely funnelling them downstream. According to Blackmore,

Historically, the Great Plains acted like a gigantic sponge when it rained. The upper Midwest was blanketed in tallgrass prairie, dotted with small lakes and wetlands. . . . Any excess fed into the oxbows and vast wetlands alongside rivers, or in the small marsh or boggy spot in every swale between hills.

Then farmers plowed under the prairie and drained the wetlands, forever altering the way the Midwest floods. Today, less than .1 percent of Iowa’s tallgrass prairie remains, and more than 90 percent of its historic wetlands have been lost—a stark transformation replicated across the Midwest. “This changed land cover from prairie to row crop has increased the probability of the same amount of rainfall causing a higher degree of flooding,” says Keith Schilling, Iowa’s state geologist. Three inches of rain historically might have resulted in one inch of runoff, compared with two today.

Though Blackmore reports that some communities like Davenport, Iowa or Arnold, Missouri have pursued such perennial, rewilding solutions to their floodplains, such a response has not come to Nebraska yet, hard-hit as the state was by 2019 flooding. Researchers at the University of Nebraska have issued preliminary reports on which farming practices best help absorb heavy rains, finding that “planting perennials such as grasses or trees near cropland increases the rate of water absorption by an average of 59%.” Despite such research, the public conversation in Nebraska continues to focus around controlling rivers, as in Gaarder’s report for the World-Herald. Though Gaarder’s article makes it clear that management of the Missouri River in Nebraska has not been effective, making changes would require revisions to the Master Manual, the guidebook to the river, a process that would be “politically divisive and takes years because of competing interests on the river.” With forecasts showing flooding to be likely again in 2020, Nebraska seems poised to remain a flatwater drosscape for the forseeable future.

Yet if the flooding highlighted this conflicted nature of the Nebraskan landscape, thinking of Hammond Dam reminds me that my home place has always been bastard countryside. The original tall- and shortgrass prairies of Great Plains are gone from southeast Nebraska, and have been for all my life; in its place, the landscape consists of industrial-scale fields, highways and gravel roads, small acreages, feed lots, garbage dumps, and the scrubby edges and paths between all these human works. The flooding revealed but did not create this reality.

MacFarlane also identifes himself as a creature of the drosscape, marking his home landscape as one that he originally barely noticed: “Why would I have? My eyes and dreams were all for the Highlands, Snowdonia, the Lake District, the Peak”—sites of real wilderness, in short. “The edgelands were there to be travelled through and left behind: pure transit zone. The notion of developing a relationship with this mixed-up, messed-up terrain did not occur to me. Disruptive of the picturesque, dismissive of the sublime, this was a landscape that required a literacy I didn’t then possess.” For all its costs, the 2019 flooding has at least opened the possibility of such an increased literacy of Nebraska’s flatland/flatwater landscape.

* * *

I made a second postdiluvian trip to Nebraska for Christmas, with the flooding now eight months behind the state. Highway 2 through Nebraska City had now reopened, and so my family and I crossed the Missouri River on a bridge of clean, white concrete. Around us, however, little had changed. Despite several dry weeks preceding our trip, puddles still stood in the fields around the highway, and skeletal dead weeds told the tale of a growing season lost. The fences had not been cleaned of their marine debris. Around the new bridge, a fleet of dump trucks and backhoes lined the banks of the river, bare, disturbed soil under their tires—the banks of the river showing the ravages both of water and of human attempts to keep the water at bay.

On the second night of our visit, I woke disturbed in the night by a sound that at first I could not identify, possibilities flitting through my mind—a mouse in the bedroom, my children out of bed—before I recognized the cadence of rain tattling against the window. More than three inches fell the following day. By mid-morning, drainage ditches had become rivers and fields and yards once again swelled with puddles. Eight months after the flooding, nothing had truly dried out. Flood warnings came into effect again.

Thankfully, the rain ceased and nothing catastrophic came of it. But Nebraska has not escaped the reach of destructive water yet. With much of the winter wet season remaining, the sodden ground and full rivers remain a present threat. Many towns have left their sandbags up, with no expectation of taking them down any time soon. Bridges and levees have been repaired, floodplains rebuilt, yet the transformation of the landscape that has so increased the dangers of water remains intact, and so the threat of flooding will never truly go away.

On one dry day during my Christmas visit, I returned to Hammond Dam for the first time in years, almost certainly (though I can’t be certain) the first time since the box washed away nearly a decade ago. This time, rather than floating the Blue languidly with my brother, I drove the two miles from my parents’ home accompanied by my mother and my two young sons. My mother shares my fascination with floating the Blue, and so on the drive over we chatted about the shacks you see along its banks—are they just hunting cabins, or was somebody plugging in and dropping out along the banks of this obscure and polluted river?

At the dam’s tiny parking lot, the first thing that met our gaze was a garbage can overflowing with beer cans and grocery bags. Few of the trees that once surrounded the area remained—they had been replaced by fields, casualties of a temporary boom in the price of corn a few years back. Where we once would have walked to the box, a narrow track now wound its way through long grass, down eroded banks to the waterside. As we picked our way down the hillside, my mother pointed out where the latest floods had chewed away at the banks on the other side of the river. Fill dirt, studded with chunks of concrete and sporting a derelict pickup, had been poured into the spot to make up a hasty fix, but with no ground cover or other erosion controls, the bank was likely to collapse again.

The Blue was full, and running fast. Along with the desolated river, the day’s gray sky and cold wind were apt to depress me, all my philosophy of bastard countryside notwithstanding. One measure of cheer came, as ever, from my sons: running ahead of us through the grass, gathering freshwater mussel shells, skipping stones. The younger exclaimed, happy, pointing, “what is that?” A broken bottle, jagged edge upright. I toed it over in the sand.

We walked beside the river a bit, and my boys were no less thrilled by the abandonded truck than by the river itself. I tried to enjoy the place with them, tried to notice what they noticed. Behind them, always, I heard the waters of the Blue trickling across the rocks.


Matt Miller lives and writes near Reeds Spring, Missouri, where he is working with his family to reforest their quasi-suburban lawn with regenerative food crops. Visit his website at hello@matt-miller.org.