August 2009 Issue
A Findlay native reflects on the power of moving water.
The small Maryland college where I teach is situated on the beautiful St. Mary’s River. Whenever I gaze out at the river from a bluff on the edge of campus, it’s easy to believe that time has stopped. As the seasons pass and the trees turn from leafy to bare and back again, the river seems never to change.
But while the scene resembles a postcard, what I’m actually seeing is a slow-motion movie. Rivers can seem like tranquility itself, but their stable appearance conceals a dynamic reality: Wherever there’s moving water, change is happening. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said that you can’t step into the same river twice. Sailors, fishers, farmers, geologists and marine biologists would all agree.
I first learned this lesson from Lye Creek, a tiny rivulet running through the Hancock County fairgrounds in my old Findlay neighborhood. There’s even a sense in which the moving water of Lye Creek helped turn me into a human being. An old hymn asks, “Shall we gather by the river?” — and humans have always answered yes, because at heart we are all river creatures. Settling down on riverbanks bought us time to develop distinct cultures. In some places, like Mesopotamia, we even began to write: at first, tax rolls and livestock inventories pressed into clay tablets, the clay itself being another gift of the river.
The river’s capacity to give seemed boundless. The Greek tourist Herodotus called Egypt the “gift of the Nile”— a gift enabled by the predictability of the river’s annual flooding. Egyptian farmers knew precisely when they’d be channeling the overflow onto their fields. The ancient Mesopotamians weren’t so lucky. Their fields and towns were constantly being washed out and relocated in response to the erratic rhythms and shifting routes of the Tigris and the Euphrates. It’s no accident that the Mesopotamians were more pessimistic than the Egyptians, or that the biblical story of the Flood originated in the Land of the Two Rivers. This also explains those clay tablets: People keep records of things only when there’s a danger of losing them.
Because of the miracle of moving water, Lye Creek could always be counted on to relieve the boredom of endless summer days. We neighborhood kids would lie on a one-lane concrete bridge and watch as all sorts of interesting things — crayfish, garter snakes, empty beer cans — passed beneath our gaze. Sometimes we launched toy soldiers upstream in a plastic soap dish, then ran to outrace the current so we could catch them before they swooped under the bridge and were lost forever.
But that was the exciting thing about water: It was always going somewhere. I knew, from studying an Ohio map that I got at the Marathon station on East Sandusky Street, that our lost army men sailed down Lye Creek into the Blanchard River, into the Auglaize, and finally into the Maumee, where I imagined them floating past the impossibly tall buildings of Toledo into Lake Erie. Here was the history of humankind in a child’s daydream: plastic soldiers reenacting the ancient human impulse to follow the water — to move with it, settle near it, live off it, explore on it, and, of course, to be profoundly changed by it.
With change comes unpredictability. St. Louis native T. S. Eliot called the Mississippi a “great brown god” — a modern echo of the old river gods of Greek and Roman mythology. Classical art depicts these river gods as curly-bearded giants reclining with grapes and wine, temporarily at ease but capable of rising up and wreaking havoc at any moment. A peaceful river is indeed like a powerful giant in a good mood: “Old Man River,” wise and serene and just rolling along. In Huckleberry Finn, Jim and Huck float down the good-mood Mississippi. They rediscover human decency not on the shore, a site of ignorance and treachery, but on their raft as it follows the river’s natural flow. But Twain knew the bad-mood river, too, confirming in Life on the Mississippi that tranquil surfaces can conceal rocks and wrecks.
Since then, the great brown god has increasingly become a deity of vengeance rather than mercy, a scary force bound by artificial channels, levees, and all too often, sandbags. Floods raise an ancient, life-or-death question: What puts a river god in a bad mood?
The answer, hinted at in Twain’s corrupt townsfolk, is the people who line its banks — especially when there are too many of them. In 1850, when Twain was around Huck’s age, the population of Eliot’s future hometown was only 77,860. The really big river town was New Orleans, at 116,375. Since then, the enormous increase in agricultural runoff and urban sewage along the Mississippi has upset a delicate balance, evolved over millennia, between the volume of water and the capacity of the river’s banks to contain it. This imbalance is especially critical downstream. When the already gorged river collided with seawater blowing in with Katrina, the delta filled up like a bathtub and large portions of New Orleans were inundated. Within a matter of days, the American Nile had become our Tigris-Euphrates.
In the summer of 2007, my part of Ohio learned what happens when an overburdened river god finally strikes back. The pictures of Findlay on the national news were startling: Three feet of standing water made the familiar landmarks — the courthouse, the Marathon Oil building, the Elks club — look as if they had been transported to Venice. As if that weren’t enough, Findlay would see additional flooding the following winter.
The culprit was the Blanchard River, immortalized in that 1910 ode to riverside romance, “Down by the Old Mill Stream.” The mill that inspired the song is long gone, but the spillway remains: My friends and I used to inch across it at each other’s dares. How could the Old Mill Stream turn on us like that? Or more accurately, why did we keep turning onit? Northwest Ohio was swampland prior to being drained for agricultural use in the late 19th century; the checkerboard fields and pastures mask what sort of terrain it really is. Since my childhood, extensive new housing has been built upstream from town, and the flooding has gotten worse.
I went back to Findlay several weeks after the big flood. I learned that the Bridge of the Lost Army men had been covered by four feet of water. Although the river had receded, the bridge was still coated with mud. The area resembled an aerial photo of the Tigris-Euphrates delta.
When I was playing in the fairgrounds as a child, I often pretended that Lye Creek was the Nile. On those occasions, an army man in a soap dish acted the role of a dead pharaoh being conveyed to his pyramid on a funeral boat. Behind every tranquil Egypt, however, lurks a volatile Mesopotamia. During my post-flood visit, Lye Creek and the Blanchard River once again looked like good places for child’s play or bankside romance — until the next time.
There will be a next time, too, because as any river god can tell you, mortals have short memories. Lulled by the tranquility of rivers, we gather beside them, building and pouring and flushing and draining until a bearded giant finally throws down his goblet and reminds us, once again, precisely where we live.
Jeffrey Hammond is Professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and author of Small Comforts: Essays at Middle Age, published by Kent State University Press.