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Ahlin: About that 'strong brown god'

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river

Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable

So begins the poem "The Dry Salvages," No. 3 of "Four Quartets" written by T.S. Eliot in 1941. "Dry Salvages" referred to a small group of rocks off the coast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts, but the first part of the poem is about a river. It struck me years ago those words well-describe our own Red River of the North.

In the late 1990s I wrote an essay for a photojournalism book done by Moorhead State University students of Wayne Gudmundson as part of the Prairie Documents Photographic Book Series. In the wake of a third drowning in the river this summer, those first lines of Eliot's poem that began the essay came back to me. It occurs to me the Red River's power and unpredictability do not change, neither does our sense of appreciation and unease in living along its banks.

When my husband and I moved to Fargo, I was surprised—slightly horrified, actually—that our drinking water came from the river. It looked like liquid mud, although I was told it was not dirty or polluted. The word for it was "turbid": suspended sediment from layers of clay soil carved out as riverbed made it look sluggish and murky brown.

Forget that the Chippewa name for the river translated romantically to "flaming sunset on flat waters," a term French explorers dubbed, "Riviere Rouge" (Red River); the river first and foremost is—and has been—utilitarian, the lifeblood for the fertile agricultural plain and the people on either side. The poem continues:

Patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier;

Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;

Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.

The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten

By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.

Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder

Of what men choose to forget. We know all about our implacable (ruthless) river, mostly through its floods. Still, we forget about it when it isn't bothering us and we can drive back and forth across its bridges. (Sometimes we notice the view.) People who don't forget about the Red River are those who fish, because it's a wonderful fish-from-the-bank kind of waterway. In fact, fishing has been and probably always will be the favorite recreational use of the river.

Getting on the water for recreation is entirely different. By taking a few precautions, however, kayakers and canoeists find the river fascinating, even magical. The gallery forest along the banks is a sanctuary full of interesting plants and wildlife. It's swimming that is a bad idea.

The cities of Fargo and Moorhead see the Red River as ripe for development with restaurants and entertainment venues. Although necessary (and wise), unease with our "strong brown god" should not keep us from finding new ways to enjoy it.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum. Email