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The Last Straw

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Those of you who doubt that a straw can actually break a camel's back, or that a kingdom can be lost for want of a nail as those sayings go, might do well to look more closely at the complex web of life, which sustains a river like the Illinois or the Mississippi.

A river can sustain more environmental abuse than a lake; it’s self-renewing. The Illinois River, for example, put up with Chicagoans reversing the Chicago River and sending their sewage to the Illinois rather than to Lake Michigan. It survived locks and dams which built up silt and slowed the flow of fresh water. It survived the drainage of its wetlands for farming, and the fertilizer which leached into the river from those farms. The Illinois continued to supply a tenth of the nation's freshwater fish. It continued to attract ducks and geese, which attracted hunters and anglers.

Then, in the early fifties, the Illinois rivers web of life collapsed almost overnight. Some last straw precipitated the dying of the sub aquatic plants. Beds of wild salary, arrowroot and others vanished. The plants had provided places for game fish to spawn and to shelter. Beds of plants also calmed the wave effect of water, keeping the bottom from stirring up and muddying the water—a problem for fish such as bass which feed by sight. Water plants also absorbed nitrogen from ammonia fertilizer and gave off oxygen.

With the plants gone, toxins in the water killed off the fingernail clams and insect larvae which fed ducks and fish. The fish left, as did the geese and muskrats who fed on the plants. The Illinois which had provided 40 pounds of commercial fish per acre in 1950 fell to four pounds per acre by 1970.

The battle that seems lost on the Illinois River is now beginning to affect the Mississippi. No one knows as yet whether a dead river can ever recover. The ecology is so complex. That's why we had better pay attention to small things like straws, nails and celery weeds, lest we lose a whole river.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Humanities Council and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, with additional funding from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

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.