When I was a boy in Columbia, Tenn., we lived in a white frame house about 200 yards from the banks of the Duck River. Once every couple of years, the Duck would jump its banks and flood our neighborhood, Riverside.
The Nashville television crews would rush down and shoot video. This news coverage was nearly always followed by waves of sightseers. I would sit on our front porch -- like some pitiful little Flood Boy -- and wave back at the gawkers.
Our house was on a little rise, so it never completely flooded, but the waters often crept into our backyard, lapped at our back porch and flooded our cellar. Some of our neighbors, though, had to abandon their homes regularly.
I remember sleeping with my hand off the bed one time when I was 13 year old, hoping to feel the river before it engulfed my bedroom.
TVA wanted to build a dam on the Duck River to control the flooding but eventually abandoned the project to protect an endangered mussel species. By then, some people had already built lakefront homes. They were not amused.
The Duck River is featured in this month's National Geographic magazine as one of the four most biodiverse places in the world. For me, this was like discovering that a homely girl I sat beside in sixth grade grew up to become Miss Universe.
The article says that the 290-mile, free-flowing river in Middle Tennessee is home to 151 species of fish, 54 species of mussels and 22 species of aquatic snails. Because Ice Age glaciers never made it this far South, the creatures that live in and along the Duck River have been there for millions of years, the experts explain.
The article's author dug up a cubic foot of Duck River mud and found evidence of 32 kinds of fish and assorted insects, snails, crayfish and turtles.
When I was growing up in the 1960s, we weren't enlightened about environmentalism. (I was vaguely aware that littering was bad.) Some thought the fact that TVA dismantled an $80 million dam to save a tiny mussel was silly. We used to skip mussels across the river like stones. To associate these creatures with a balanced ecosystem was beyond our understanding.
I spent most of my youth exploring the banks of the Duck River, sometimes fishing for carp in its murky waters and other times chasing foul balls into the high cane and mimosa trees along the riverbank.
The Duck River meanders through my hometown, coming within about four blocks of the town square, yet the river of my youth had a culture all its own.
In a small, mostly segregated Southern town, the river was the place where I first learned to talk to black people. We plotted bait strategies together in our epic battles against the wily carp population.
The riverbank was also my introduction to the netherworld of small-town sin. As I dug for night crawlers in the mornings, everywhere along the riverbank were artifacts of after-dark beer parties and casual sex.
Still, standing in the shallows of the river and casting my Zebco fishing reel could always fill my heart with expectation and calm my nerves.
I guess we humans are also just a small part of the Duck's ancient soup, as fragile and dependent on divine intervention, in our own way, as the little mussels that dodged the dam.