The Meandering Mississippi River and How It Evolved Over Thousands of Years Visualized in Brilliant Maps from 1944

Giv­en that Turkey’s Büyük Menderes Riv­er was his­tor­i­cal­ly known as the Mean­der, you might well imag­ine how un-straight­for­ward a path it takes through the coun­try. But the Eng­lish adjec­tive descend­ed from its name describes a fair few oth­er twist­ing, turn­ing rivers as well, and also a form of riv­er map­ping that suits them. “I have long admired the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er mean­der maps designed by Army Corps of Engi­neers car­tog­ra­ph­er Harold Fisk,” writes Jason Kot­tke at by way of an intro­duc­tion to his short essay on them at the site of print­mak­er 20x200.

“In their relent­less flow to low­er ground, rivers like to roam over the land­scape, cut­ting through sol­id rock and loamy soil alike, gain­ing advan­tage here and there where they can,” goes Kot­tke’s expla­na­tion of how mean­der­ing rivers come to be.

“The best and eas­i­est course for a riv­er to take down­hill is its cur­rent course… right up until the moment when it’s not.” Each col­or in Fisk’s mean­der maps of the longest riv­er in North Amer­i­ca “rep­re­sents a new course, a mark­er of each time a bend had become too bendy and the riv­er ‘decid­ed’ to take a more direct path.” Kot­tke sum­ma­rizes these maps’ appeal suc­cinct­ly: “They are time machines.”

“Stand­ing before a paint­ing by Hilma af Klint, a sculp­ture by Berni­ni, or a cave paint­ing in Chau­vet, France draws you back in time in a pow­er­ful way: you know you’re stand­ing pre­cise­ly where those artists stood hun­dreds or even thou­sands of years ago, lay­ing paint to sur­face or chis­el to stone.” Here, thanks to a “clever map­mak­er with an artis­tic eye,” we can imag­ine the Mis­sis­sip­pi “as it was dur­ing the Euro­pean explo­ration of the Amer­i­c­as in the 1500s, dur­ing the Cahokia civ­i­liza­tion in the 1200s (when this city’s pop­u­la­tion matched Lon­don’s), when the first humans came upon the riv­er more than 12,000 years ago, and even back to before humans, when mam­moths, camels, dire wolves, and giant beavers roamed the land and gazed upon the riv­er.”

You can buy prints of three dif­fer­ent Mis­sis­sip­pi mean­der maps from 20x200, all of them orig­i­nal­ly part of Fisk’s report “Geo­log­i­cal Inves­ti­ga­tion of the Allu­vial Val­ley of the Low­er Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er com­plet­ed in 1944. The study was made to learn about the for­ma­tion of the val­ley over time, and about the major fac­tors that dic­tate its flow and flood­ing in the mod­ern era.” Fisk drew upon data col­lect­ed through approx­i­mate­ly 16,000 bor­ings, and “also found the river’s heart in this jum­ble of loops and purls,” pro­duc­ing a reflec­tion of the river’s dis­tinc­tive per­son­al­i­ty in “this explo­sive, autumn-col­ored palette.” Regard­ing these maps, we can’t help but won­der in what shape some future team of intre­pid sur­vey­ors will find the Mis­sis­sip­pi a few thou­sand years hence — and what new words, in what lan­guages, that shape might inspire.

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Moth­er of All Maps of the “Father of Waters”: Behold the 11-Foot Traveler’s Map of the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er (1866)

All the Rivers & Streams in the U.S. Shown in Rain­bow Colours: A Data Visu­al­iza­tion to Behold

William Faulkn­er Draws Maps of Yok­na­p­ataw­pha Coun­ty, the Fic­tion­al Home of His Great Nov­els

Learn the Untold His­to­ry of the Chi­nese Com­mu­ni­ty in the Mis­sis­sip­pi Delta

View and Down­load Near­ly 60,000 Maps from the U.S. Geo­log­i­cal Sur­vey (USGS)

Down­load 67,000 His­toric Maps (in High Res­o­lu­tion) from the Won­der­ful David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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