Delta blues

Taming nature - one of humankind's more grandiose missions over the centuries - has a habit of being rather more temporary than planned.

Nature tends to win over the long haul.

Yet, whether it's shoring up cliff houses from an encroaching sea, sandbagging overtaxed river banks, or simply building on a flood plain, there seems to be an irresistible urge to restrain, retrain, and plain defy the elements.

One of the earliest proponents of this last approach, of course, was King Canute who tried to hold back the tide. And we know where that went.

Colin Woodard's cover story at right on the vanishing bayou in southern Louisiana looks at some of the long-term consequences of human intervention in nature's course - in this case, the dynamic Mississippi.

And, like that fundamental of physics, the river seems to be proving that there is no action without reaction. The 2,000 miles of levees constructed along its banks and those of its tributaries have exacted a price. The bayou is fast disappearing as the hemmed in river has been forced to drop its meandering ways and flow straight to the Gulf. Forty acres a day are sinking back into the sea.

There is a solution, as Woodard explains. But just as the problem has built up over decades, that solution is long term, too. And perhaps that's the compromise - the Canut lesson - in it all. Coexistence, even if it's ultimately on nature's terms.

So the Mississippi gets the final word. As the bayou disappears, the river has added 50 square miles of land to Louisiana in the past 200 years. It's just not where most might have hoped - a muddy crowfoot poking out into the Gulf.

*Susan Llewelyn Leach is the assistant Ideas editor.

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