Almost all of us have enjoyed a chuckle or two while reading Mark Twain books like “Tom Sawyer” or “Huckleberry Finn” or while watching one of the films made from his books. However, to see Mark Twain at his very best you have to read something he said in his autobiographical book, “Life on the Mississippi.”
I had to shorten what he said; if I hadn’t, it would have been too long to squeeze into one column, and cutting it into two pieces would have spoiled it. I also had to rearrange the order of what he said because the fact that it had to be shortened would otherwise have made it a bit confusing. However, I want to assure you that out of great respect for someone who really knew how to write, I have been very careful wherever possible to use his original wording so as to retain his great style.
In “Life on the Mississippi” he begins by talking about how rivers often have to flow around highlands, creating long bends, or even forming almost, but not quite circular, meanders. He then mentions some of the things he came across when he worked aboard Mississippi steamboats.
In one of them he tells of a farmer whose land wasn’t worth much because the river took a long, almost circular detour away from it. So what did the canny farmer do? He took his shovel and dug a shallow groove across the neck of the meander, making it deep enough so that river water began to flow through it.
The river did the rest. At first, it just slowly began to deepen the plowed groove. However, the longer the water ran, and the deeper and wider the groove became, and the more the process began to accelerate. In just days, the river cut its way across the neck, widening it until the entire river ran through it, leaving the many miles-long original channel behind as an almost circular lake, and giving the canny farmer a wide stretch of well watered land located right on the river and therefore much more valuable.
Later however, when government engineers began devising projects to shorten the Mississippi the same way, and began bragging about it, Twain didn’t care for their pompous comments. Nor did he care for the way they used numbers to “prove” that they were right, and that anyone who dared to differ with them was wrong.
Here’s what he had to say about all that.
PS: Get ready to laugh.
“There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of a trifling investment of fact.
“Now, if I wanted to be one of those ponderous scientific people, and I set out to prove what the future held by showing what had occurred in a given time in the recent past, what an opportunity I would have! Geology never had such a chance, nor such exact data to argue from!
“Seventy-six years ago, the Mississippi between Cairo, Illinois and New Orleans was twelve hundred and fifteen miles long. Its length today is only nine hundred and seventy-three miles.
“In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Mississippi has shortened itself by two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over a mile and a third per year.
“Anyone can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the whole Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long.”