Unfettered By The Dams

Sunset over Tennessee River near the  Guntersville Dam.In the summer of 1973, I ran trot lines on the Tennessee River with my uncle Hal.

In the dawn, we motored out of Roseberry Creek in a flat-bottomed aluminum boat to check hooks we had set with blood balls the night before. When we reached the first of the Clorox bottles that suspended the baited lines, I throttled down the outboard and steered the narrow channel using the nearly silent electric trolling motor.

In the mist, we passed below the rock bluff that had been carved by Roseberry Creek during the previous millennia when its waters flowed freely into the main channel. The bluff was the last visible vestige of a landscape that disappeared decades before when the Tennessee Valley Authority shut the gates of the Guntersville Dam.

As I piloted, my uncle pulled the line, using its heft to judge whether the next hook held a promising catch. He strung the medium-sized catfish, released catfish that were too large (muddy flavor), and threw the alligator gars onto the rocks for the raccoons to eat.

When the line was clear, he sat in the bow of the boat and smoked. From the time he lit the unfiltered cigarette until it burned to a short stub, he never took it from his lips. He squinted against the acrid smoke and cocked his head so that it burned upwind of his nose.

His talk was of the landscape below. Here, he said, was the ferry landing where his parents had crossed the river so they could “court” away from the family’s scrutiny. Here were graves that were overlooked during the “removal” in advance of the flood waters. The forgotten coffins bobbed through the mud to float on the surface of the rising waters. Here were the fields he’d plowed with a team of mules. Downstream was an island where a herd of goats had been stranded as the lake filled. Upstream, a bank visible in low water was what remained of an island where my grandfather who—when he flunked out of Auburn–was exiled by his stern father until he proved himself by raising a cotton crop.

My uncle was not a man given to reflection. On land, he was manic. Once retired from his television repair business, he turned his energies to home improvement. Having fixed or destroyed everything that could be construed as failed or failing, he used his energies and a hot glue gun to cover the entire front of his house with seashells.

Here, on the still waters of the river, he was transformed. There was a remembered land beneath him, and in his later years he was compelled to re-envision it.

The flood is a powerful metaphor, and for those who have experienced it, it is a powerful reality. The flood denotes a radical change—a “sea change.” It is the bridge from a landscape that cannot be revisited. The finality of the flood–the total transformation of the known and familiar landscape–haunts the human imagination and memory.

In Deliverance. James Dickey sets his story at the cusp of Georgia’s Cahulawassee River being transformed from a stretch of free-running river into a dammed reservoir. His characters, wanting to experience the river before it is subdued by the dam, are plunged into a depraved wilderness infested with sodomy and violence. Years later, as he recovers from his trauma, the narrator says,

[An] odd thing happened. The river and everything I remembered about it became a passion to me, a personal, private possession, as nothing else in my life ever had. . . . it ran though immortality. I could feel it—I can feel it . . . . It pleases me in some curious way that the river does not exist, and that I have it. In me it still is, and will be until I die, green, rocky, deep, fast, slow, and beautiful beyond reality.

The notion of two rivers—one subsumed by the other—is also chronicled by Donald Davidson:

Down the valley of the Tennessee two rivers flow—two rivers blended indistinguishably where for centuries there was only one. One of those, uppermost and immensely obvious, is the new Tennessee, a man-made river . . . . Beneath the giant stairs of great lakes, merged with them and all but lost in them, flows another river—the old Tennessee, the river of the Cherokee Indians . . . . Now at long last, the old wild river is submerged.

The notion that two rivers coexist in one body of water is a pervasive theme with Southern novelists and a common assumption among the generation–now nearly passed–that watched as the waters covered their homes 75 years ago.

For my uncle, sitting in the bow of a flat-bottomed aluminum fishing boat, the old river was palpable. He strode two worlds like Noah, the link between the world before the flood and after.

Since my uncle died, I’ve learned other stories of the old river, conveyed by books rather than by survivors. I know now that DeSoto passed through Buck’s Pocket on the east Bank of the Tennessee. I know that Cherokees were mustered downstream at Gunter’s Landing for their movement to the West. I know that a few miles upstream, an unreconstructed Cherokee warrior named Dragging Canoe launched attacks against pioneers who were migrating downstream by flatboat.

My great-great-great-great grandfather was part of a flotilla attacked by Dragging Canoe. In the haste to lighten the boat in order to clear shallow shoals, one of my grandfather’s party inadvertently threw overboard a box that cradled a one-day-old baby. During his raid, Dragging Canoe finally commandeered one of the flatboats. That boat’s passengers consisted exclusively of smallpox victims who were in quarantine from their fellow travelers. A few years later when white pioneers sought their revenge on Dragging Canoe’s settlement, smallpox had already claimed a significant portion of the renegade Cherokee band.

This evening, as I sit on the dock of my parents’ house thirty years after my uncle’s death, I share the vision of the modern lake as a shallow grave. It is a technological sleight-of-hand whose surface is disturbed not only by jet skis and bass boats, but also by imagination.

I know that beneath the noisy confusion, the old river broods. On it were borne DeSoto, hopeful settlers, the dispossessed Cherokee, day-old infants, black soil farmed by generations of families, and my grandfather’s failed cotton crop.

Tonight, in my reverie, the river runs, as it did for my uncle, unfettered by the dams.

Photo: taken by Steve Driskell - ALalto's flickr photostream and used under creative commons license.
David Bradford

David Bradford

David Bradford is a native of Scottsboro, Alabama. He recently retired after 30 years with IBM where he worked as a writer, publications manager, and web developer. He's a former journalist, teacher, and photographer. He attended and taught at Auburn University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

  1. Excellent. The story brought me into the moment. A visually beautiful recollection. A grand picture of a wondrous time,

    1. Thanks, Dave. I’m pleased you tracked it down and enjoyed it.

  2. Goddammit, this just makes me want to squall! In fact, I’m going to!

    1. I think I heard it way up here in NC.

  3. So poetic and peaceful. More, please!

    1. I’ve seen some notes you’ve written about the railroad and the depot being the social hub of Larkinsville, AL. Think we can get you to write a tribute to that time/place?

  4. Mike Handley

    Outstanding writing, David. First of yours I’ve seen on here. I’ll now watch for your byline.

    1. Thanks, Mike. I think I have a couple more posts in me somewhere. In the meantime, I’ll take a look at your blog. I appreciate the encouragement.

  5. Robert Lamb

    This is a first-rate piece. Moving. Lyrical. I congratulate the author.

    1. Many thanks, Bob. The river’s become a special place for me as I learn more about it and my family’s place on it.

  6. This is vivid and beautiful. I have spent many nights on Alabama rivers watching for signs of catfish tugging on jug lines, and you took me back to my own flat-bottomed boat. I hope this is part of a larger memoir.

    1. Nights on the river, running trot lines or fishing for crappy under a spotlight, were magic times. I haven’t been in years. I doubt it’s changed much in the time since I went with my uncle.

      1. It’s changed a lot David. many of the old fishing places are clogged with mill foil and pond weed and you can’t find a peaceful fishing place for the hundreds of high powered bass boats that churn up the water daily. We had a bass tourneyment a few weeks back with 600 boats in it….. yes it has changed.

  7. I liked it alot. For me reminiscent of James Lee Burke. Now I have another topic to read about.
    Nice Dave.

    1. Many thanks. The best nonfiction source is Donald Davidson’s two-volume
      set, “The Tennessee” in the “Rivers of America Series.” The best
      fiction of the genre is Madison Jone’s “A Buried Land,” Robert Penn
      Warren’s “The Flood.” Everybody’s already aware of “Deliverance.”

  8. Copied from a comment I left under a Facebook link: What a great essay about the Tennessee River and how your family has been connected to it for many generations. I could almost smell Uncle Hal’s cigarette smoke from your exquisite imagery.

    1. I understand you’re moving back to Scottsboro? You and your son should save your Clorox bottles. It’s a great bonding experience.

  9. David, you mentioned the goats being stranded on the river islands. I can remember goats on the islands up near Subletts Ferry,during the 1950’s, when we fished there. They weren’t stranded though, for I remember seeing them swim from island to island and to shore. The goats are all gone now and many of the islands have been taken over by cormorant birds that roost in the trees by the hundreds. Their droppings and killed many of the trees and the small barren island are slowly eroding into the river.

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