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Whittling

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

One of the activities the Mississippi River is frequently accused of is "carving." Geology texts describe how the river carved the palisades at Savanna, how it carves new channels or sculpts islands.

So much for geologists who are all theory. We Rock Islanders who live along the Mississippi know that the river is not carving; it's whittling.

Carving in an art; it implies intention and design. A carver begins working on a piece of wood or stone with a vision—a vision slowly revealed as the chips fly. Carving is hard work as the artist struggles to shape the material. And at the end of the process, there is art: a statue, an image, a shape.

Not so with whittling. Whittlers, like those old men sitting on porch benches in the afternoon with a twig and a pocketknife, do not claim to be artists—or carvers. They whittle for the sheer joy of feeling the knife slide along the bark, bite into the wood, and release a shaving, a curled sliver. There is no end product, no work of art. If, in the process of whittling, a crude bird or a ball in a cage appear in the whittler's hands, it's only leftover ego. The perfect whittler ends up with only a pile of shavings at his feet.

Like the whittler, the Mississippi has no grand plan as it shapes and reshapes its channel, shaving a slice of bank here, a curve of island there. It’s not working from a blueprint.

Imagine you are the Mississippi. Can't you feel the sheer exuberance, the joy of playing with your islands and sandbars and banks, the fun of undercutting a tree until it falls into the water? The kind of fun a child feels playing in a sandbox, building roads to nowhere.

For this whittler Mississippi, his front porch is a whole valley long, and his whittling goes on at all hours. And the shavings leftover from centuries of such whittling? We call them New Orleans.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Community
Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.