Photographs by Jeff Rich, Essay by Rod Slemmons
Much of Jeff Rich’s photographic survey of the French Broad River Basin in North Carolina and Tennessee is familiar to me: the bridges, the sewer and water pipes, the factories, the cars in anti-erosion banks, the woods — trees fighting with the river for soil and water — the man-made and natural debris. I spent eleven years of my growing up on the banks of, and sometimes in, the Cuyahoga River in northern Ohio. We had a few small dams and, more importantly, Indian mounds. We had the locks of the Ohio Canal not far from the quarries for building them. We also had the human element of social outsiders squatting in shacks and trailers along the banks. Of course, our river caught fire occasionally as outsiders are fond of pointing out. We had a huge, dramatic waste pipe, big enough to ride a bicycle on, that went from Akron to the sewage plant about a third of the way to Cleveland and that leaked into the river, making it glow blue part of the year.
Those similarities aside, I would like to start on a more philosophical level. At West Junior High School in Akron we had an amazing science teacher. In our eyes she was elderly and a bit frail, with a soft way of speaking. But there was something about her that held our erratic teenage attention tightly. She knew everything there was to know about the animals and plants of the valley and its human history. I have a strong memory of our class walking a long time with her as she pointed out plants the Indians ate, which she had us taste. “They were not just survivors,” she said as we gathered around her. “They had a depth of understanding about the earth and sky to make this star-shaped mound we are standing on.” We gasped, since we hadn’t noticed its shape. Her goal was to teach us depth of perception, not science in the abstract. One day as we were eating our sandwiches, watching the river go by, she announced that there were two kinds of time. The flow of time, like the river that moved by incessantly and never came back. And the cycle of time, like the trees that change through the seasons, starting at and eventually getting back to the same place. She said that trees next to the river reminded her of the inevitability of death and rebirth. It would take us the rest of the first half of our lives to know what she meant, but I think most of us were changed by that simple moment by the river. She died a couple of years later, and that accelerated our understanding of what she had taught us.
Because they help us cross over a river without seeing it, the soaring railroad trestles and highway bridges in Watershed act as symbols of our tendency to blank out natural phenomena. We need to transcend the idea that rivers are barriers, potentially destructive competitors that get in our way. In some of the images, for example, it is easy to see the damage a flooded river would do or has done: sometimes nature wins and knocks down our bridges and tears up our pipes, dams and electric poles. That gets our attention. But most of the time, unless we need the rivers for recreation, factory cooling or an open sewer, or we live on the bank, we ignore them.
Jeff Rich has included a few people in his images. They seem to be sympathetic and knowing about the river and its use, abuse and preservation. Some are playing out the notion of recreation, with its underpinnings in our almost religious need for pristine wilderness, as in Eden. We seek a place where we can be re-created, on a planet that we have now overrun. We grasp at notions of Frontier and Wilderness. We don’t really want to see videos of giant islands of plastic bags in the north Pacific. We want to flush the toilet and not worry about where the water is going. The images in Watershed made me think about this at some length. When I was rafting past that sewage plant outlet pipe as a youth on the Cuyahoga, I knew that when some valve somewhere in the plant failed, sewage would go straight into the river. I have never been able to flush the toilet since without seeing that huge pipe coming out of the river bank.
I now live in Chicago, where our river got into the news a couple of years ago when federal environmentalists complained that too much waste was being dumped into it and, by extension, the Mississippi. The mayor disputed the analysis and said he would have no problem eating a fish from the Chicago River. Local experts immediately advised him not to. The positive outcome of further tests was that our dull, sluggish river’s rating was upgraded from “toxic” to “polluted.”
Strangely, these photographs remind me that on our homemade rafts on the Cuyahoga, we found the most altered and disrupted parts of the river the most exciting. Passing the steel mills and factories just south of Cleveland was breathtaking (literally as well as figuratively!). The black factories belching fire, steam and smoke meant something more akin to cultural superiority than natural destruction. (The pollutants they dumped into the river persisted far longer than sewage, but we didn’t know that then.) As we rode into Lake Erie, our science teacher’s observation seemed more complicated: flow, cycle—or sump? Southern Lake Erie was declared “dead” in the 1960s; it has recovered somewhat now that most of the factories are gone. At the lake, we would abandon our raft, climb up a dock ladder beside ore ships and hitchhike back upriver home, to Akron.
Taking this kind of trip today would help us avoid something Jeff Rich talks about. He says people he met on the river spoke of the folks upstream in the past tense and essentially blamed them for pollution and flooding. They would speak of their part of the river in the present tense. They may have been reflecting their current predicament, or they may have meant to make their frustration clearer. But is interesting to think that as the water flows it retains its own basic identity. It flows past and through many “owners,” who each claim the river’s good parts but hesitate to claim the bad. Persuading people that they own and are responsible for the entire river, spring to delta, small town to metropolis, seems like the only real place to start cleanup. Perhaps inviting civic leaders and engineers on a trip down a damaged river would place the notion of ownership in a different, more constructive light.
I went back to the Cuyahoga recently, half a century later, and noticed considerable change. No blue tinge; the big sewer pipe repaired along with what looks like a new treatment plant; lots of new regulations imposed on local people because of the valley’s designation as a National Park. It looks in Rich’s photographs as if the French Broad River has a ways to go in comparison. But the Cuyahoga’s progress may be an illusion. There has to be a lot of questionable material in it still from all the rubber factories, machine shops, neighborhoods, agriculture and petroleum tank farms (the ones that caused the river to catch fire) upstream.
We can and should lament the nearly permanent damage we have done to rivers and watersheds. We need to face, that in fact, we all own the rivers and are responsible for them. The flow of their time manifests lengthy trajectories that make a human life seem like the simple punctuation that it is. Unfortunately, we simple punctuations find taking responsibility difficult.