The River Runs in Our Blood   1 comment

Those who cast pollution on to the spirit of the River are casting it on to the spirit of my people. — Hikaia Amohia, Whanganui Iwi leader

There are limits to those DNA ancestry searches that help us “find our roots,” as we like to say. Such investigations can tell us something about the people from whom we have descended, which can help us think of our past, which in turn can foster a sense of belonging in the present. But the human genome is only one way of understanding our roots and constructing our identities, and that particular way neglects other potential connections to the present world in which we find ourselves.



The Original Whanganui River Claimants*

As an example of other ancestral connections we might pursue, take the Whanganui iwi of New Zealand. A recent article in The Guardian noted the successful conclusion of “the longest-running litigation in New Zealand’s history”: The Whanganui iwi claimed that the river they call Te Awa Tupu is a living being and in fact “their kin,” and thus should be granted “the same legal right as a human being.” After over a century-long legal process, the court has agreed. Cabinet minister and New Zealand Attorney General Chris Finlayson summarized the outcome thus: “‘Te Awa Tupua will have its own legal identity with all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person.’”

New Zealand now officially recognizes that to harm the river is to harm the tribe, “because,” as Whanganui lead negotiator Gerrard Albert put it, “they are one and the same.” In the Guardian article, Albert explained that “all Maori tribes regarded themselves as part of the universe, at one with and equal to the mountains, the rivers and the seas.” At one with and equal to other lifeforms of the earth: such a regard indicates a profound sense of belonging, not only to the past but also to the present. “‘We can trace our genealogy to the origins of the universe,’ said Albert. ‘And therefore rather than us being masters of the natural world, we are part of it. We want to live like that as our starting point.”


This past year, the United Nations sponsored dialogues on “Earth Jurisprudence,” or the Rights of Nature, with participants from eight disciplines: Earth-Centered Law; Ecological Economics; Education; Holistic Science; the Humanities; Philosophy and Ethics; the Arts, Media, Design and Architecture; and, Theology and Spirituality. For my part, I thought about how we might de-center the “masters of the world” view of nature as a step toward a new starting point similar to the one described by Gerrard Albert: living as if we were part of the world, as if we belonged to it. For many of us, it would be quite a stretch to think of the creeks and rivers near home as living entities, as something other than “natural resources,” either at our disposal and subject to our control. Even the staunchest advocate of “restoring” the Los Angeles River, for example, might balk at embracing the stream as a long-lost relative. To do so requires challenging our way of thinking about the world while being open to other ways.

I suspect that those challenges are what prompted Henry David Thoreau to begin one of his last published essays by expressing his desire to “speak a word for Nature,” which could be understood as standing up for nature’s rights. Instead of repeating the well established “civil” discourse of the “champions of civilization,” Thoreau tried to make an “extreme statement” that would rekindle in readers a familial spark, a true “sympathy” with nature, a reminder of the shared nature within us. You might say that Thoreau’s “speaking a word for Nature” is just for Nature; but if we can acknowledge our kinship with nature—rediscover our roots, as it were—we can understand that the word is spoken for us as well. “Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present,” wrote Thoreau. Living in the present means living a full life, being fully alive in and among and as a part of nature.

The Guardian reported that hundreds of Whanganui iwi  “wept with joy when their bid to have their kin awarded legal status as a living entity was passed into law.” Rivers are part of our past, part of our living present. They are part of us, and we are part of them. Their future and our future are related.

*Back row from left, Kaiwhare Kiriona, Tanginoa Tapa, Tekiira Peina, Tonga Tume, Hohepa Hekenui, Henare Keremeneta, Middle Row: Te Rama Whanarere, Hekenui Whakarake, DGB Morrison, Titi Tihu, Ponga Awhikau. Front row: Taka i te Iwa Anderson, Kahukiwi Whakarake





Posted March 31, 2017 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized

The End of the River (continued)   Leave a comment

{1.4} Running 51 miles from concrete headwaters through the heart of the most populous county in the United States and emptying into the Pacific at its engineered mouth, the L.A. River is a study in paradox. Perhaps better than any other stream in the United States, it makes plain that an obtuse question worthy of Heraclitus—When is a river not a river?—is more than a philosophical conundrum. For the ancient Greek thinker, flowing water was an opportunity to consider a fundamental paradox of reality: things constantly change, including human beings, even though forms seem to stay the same: “We step and do not step into the same rivers; we are and are not.”[1] Paradox—etymologically, thinking in a manner that moves one beyond convention or orthodoxy—entails an unbelievable or even absurd contradiction that nonetheless affords us a glimpse of something true. The Los Angeles River, by both being a river and by not being a river, poses a host of questions about our understanding of natural phenomena: questions about being and meaning; about what we call “the environment”; political and societal questions; and questions about the ecological and economic future of cities.

Before it was called “river,” even before it was called “río,” the stream and its watershed attracted the attention of various lifeforms, including humans. Hokan-speaking peoples lived near the waters as long as 10,000 years ago, until they were absorbed into or displaced by the Tongva or Kizh (the name is disputed by current descendants) around 1300-1400 years ago. These peoples were renamed the Gabrielenos (or Gabrielinos), which meant “people belonging to the Mission at San Gabriel,” by the Spanish in honor of the religious outpost they had established on Tongva land in 1771. The Tongva are considered to have been relatively well off among native peoples of the greater southwestern region, thanks in no small part to the life and livelihood provided by the river (though they were better known for their skill at navigating the ocean in long canoe-like boats).[2] They settled close to the banks, but not too close, preferring high ground, which early Europeans didn’t quite understand—at first. As do other Southern California streams, the principal waterway of the Los Angeles basin has always had two primary manifestations: “a small, gentle stream flowing through a broad, sandy bed most of the year and a large, turbulent, unpredictable river for a few days every winter,” as Blake Gumprecht described it in his detailed history. The Tongva knew the river when its delta occupied what is now called the Ballona Wetlands (west of downtown L.A. near Santa Monica); before the river was altered by human engineering, its mouth “was in a nearly constant state of flux,” depending on flow and deposits.[3]


{1.5} SWIRL is most commonly activated when a seemingly innocuous riparian oddity suddenly teeters into peril, and while the particular perils of the current situation were unclear, the situation was certainly odd. An elderly couple, the Ølenraps, and Big Boy, their Chihuahua, had vanished from Gilded Shore RV Resort, apparently into the river, with no other trace than the gouge-marks. The ground didn’t slope significantly toward the river, there had been no recorded seismic activity, and there had been little or no rain for months. And then there was the sign, bearing a quotation (from a novel from about ten years ago) with an indefinite allusion to something serpentine and somewhat sinister. That’s where I came in. Taciturn charged me with running down the reference and making as much sense of it as I could.

We met to compare notes at the edge of the Gilded Shore, sharing coffee from Taciturn’s sturdy thermos and looking out on the lapsing river heading out to sea. The resort was packed with fifth-wheels and motorhomes, Winnebagos and Dutchmens, Jaycos and Jamborees. Many of the residents had laid a square yard or two of Astroturf under their retractable awnings and had planted satellite dishes in their gardens. The Gilded, as they called it, was well maintained and quiet most times, with no record of previous disturbances. It seemed obvious that the arrival of the sign and departure of the Ølenraps were linked; how, exactly—or why—was less obvious. Taciturn finished his coffee and pulled out a map from a cylinder attached to his belt. The mobile home in question had been situated in the southwestern corner of the lot, separated by chainlink from a bikepath that runs along a marine biological reserve adjacent to the river. Holding the map, the captain followed the drag-marks due west, over the collapsed fence and across the path, past a lone tree and through the riprap into the river. He stood at the water’s edge and cleared his throat. “Gilded Shore, as you can see, lies pretty much at the end of the river, which is one of the areas I get called to a lot, usually on the opposite bank.” He paused. “What do you know about SWIRL?”

“Only the little you’ve told me—‘strange waters,’ uncanny incidents, appearances and disappearances not easily explained.”

He nodded slowly, several times, then continued. “There are details that I’m not authorized to reveal, even to you as an official consultant, but some of it is pretty well known. The events that get the attention of SWIRL tend to occur in four different parts of the river: the headwaters up in Canoga Park; the confluences, where washes and creeks join the main stream, mostly through San Fernando Valley and a few on down through the city; transition zones, where two types of riverbed meet; and the end here in Long Beach.” He beckoned to me to take one end of a tape-measure he’d produced from his tool belt and gestured toward one end of the drag-marks. After jotting down something in a small notebook, he flicked his wrist and retracted the tape, snapped it into its proper pouch on the belt, and cleared his throat again. I’d forgotten how often his throat needed clearing.

“And of those, the most active are the confluence with the Arroyo Seco, just above Chinatown, and here, the end of the line.” He paused, probably weighing how little he could say while still saying enough. “According to some parties, each of these sites have a special kind of energy. They refer to a confluence, for example, as a ‘navel’ or ‘chakra’ or ‘vortex.’”

The first two terms he said with what on some faces would have resembled a smile; “vortex,” though, clearly made him uncomfortable.

“A kind of portal to the Unknown.”

“The Unknown?” I asked.

“Well, some might say the less known or the differently known; a world that doesn’t correspond with our world, the one we inhabit. A world that science doesn’t easily explain, in which an alternative set of rules seems to operate.”

“A vortex,” I said, curious as to why it troubled him.

“Well, so some say. I prefer ‘rabbit hole.’ I’m dubious of the New Age explanations, and while Command will occasionally bandy about elements of quantum mechanics, the bottom line is that out-of-the-ordinary things happen in otherwise pretty ordinary places and we don’t know why. But Paranormal Firefighters in general and SWIRL in specific aren’t paid to ask why; my superiors tend to go back and forth between pretending there’s nothing there and pretending they’re not investigating possible causes. In the meantime, my job is to limit the damage.”

He gave me several examples of recent instances in which the damage was controlled. Some made a little sense, like using special anchor points in the concrete banks located near “rabbit holes” along the river to rescue pets, property, and citizens from being swept away by whatever forces were in play. Others made no sense at all, like the nature of the mysterious forces and apparent breaks in the space-time continuum, places where light seemed to be swallowed into a void, that sort of thing. I waited for more but the captain shrugged his shoulders and poured more coffee to hold off the morning chill there on the rocks by the river’s edge. After watching a Great Blue Heron stalking along the rim of the marine reserve, Taciturn looked back at Gilded Shore and the sentences that had replaced the missing recreational vehicle. “It could be,” he said, “that the sign has nothing to do with the Jayco or that the Jayco has nothing to do with rabbit holes. That’s more or less where the police left it. The insurance company, as usual, left it as an ‘Act of God.’ God or rabbit hole, that leaves SWIRL to figure out what happened. The universe is transformation, Marcus Aurelius.”

Aha. Taciturn, I began to realize, apparently had developed the peculiar habit of quoting or paraphrasing the old Roman as if in conversation with him. Before I could tease him about it, he pointed to the sign: “What can you tell me about the literary graffiti?”

[1] Heraclitus 35.

[2] See, for example, McCawley (1996), who wrote that the Gabrielino were “revealed by the ethnographic and ethnohistorical records as a people of material wealth and cultural sophistication” (3).

[3] Gumprecht, The Los Angeles River 12 and 19.

Posted February 25, 2016 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized

The End of the River: An Experiment   1 comment

Here’s the experiment: I’m working on a section of a book that combines fiction and non-fiction. In the hopes of getting some feedback on the experiment, I’m posting the first couple parts of the first chapter here. Let me know what you think. If it goes well, I may post more, in serial format.

Fiction & Paradox: The End of the River

You can drive out nature with a pitch fork

But it always comes roaring back again.

— Tom Waits, “Misery Is the River of the World”


Of all the ways of paradoxes, perhaps the quaintest

is their capacity on occasion to turn out to be so

very much less frivolous than they look.

— W.V. Quine, “The Ways of Paradox”


Here I sit, near the end, & begin river meditations, surface sliding by, motes of detritus afloat slipping & oozing by, micro-flotsam, some things glide just below the surface, some stumble along the bed, each layer at different rate manifesting lamination, lamentation for decomposition & decay. Chicken bones, cell phones, balls & skitter. Carts & tumleweed, flags of shredded plastic, high-heel shoe, cd player, flattened traffic cones. Delights, cracks, transition & transience, accumulation, care, getting by, getting on, going down. A conduit & not a destination for most. Home & homeless. It all goes down the river. The collected tears for all the suffering. And the birds feed in the tears. The helmeted cyclists fly past going & coming. Images of objects in water: ghostly, between substance & shadow, lost souls of things & the lost things of souls.

— O. Titus Bromide, Fieldnotes for “The End of the River”



When is a river not a river? When it is less than a river, its bed dustier than it is wet? When it is more than a river, in flood, vast and catastrophic? When it has “been paved into irrelevancy”?[1] When officials deem it a Flood Control Channel? When it is removed to the darker recesses of human consciousness? Many of these various “ends” of the Los Angeles River—ways in which a river ceases to be a river—have been explored or exploited in fiction about the L.A. basin, from literary treatments of the absence and/or overabundance of water in and around the official course of the river to film-shoots on its concrete bed near Sixth Street. While it is a commonplace that fiction can enrich history through its manipulation of narrative, image, setting, character, etc., there by “bringing history to life,” as we say, one of literature’s chief assets is its facility for revealing and confronting paradoxes in our ways of thinking—about history, nature, truth…. In this section, I consider fictional treatments of the conceptual end of the river (that is, when it ceases to be considered “a real river”) in relation to the physical end of the river (its demise as a body of water).

[1] Morrison and Lamonica 34.

Chapter 1. The Mouth

{1.1} Captain S.J. Taciturn was working the daywatch out of Long Beach Fire Department Station No. 1. With his shoulders slightly hunched and his brow stiff, he was following what looked to me like giant skid marks, great scouring scuffs in the ground slanting down toward the bank of the Los Angeles River. He paused about fifty feet from the river and looked back to where the marks began, at the base of an immense sign. Enormous letters in white paint, printed in typescript across the black billboard, stood forth boldly enough that I could read them over Taciturn’s shoulder:

It was a mere trickle most of the year. A municipal joke even.

But a rainstorm would awaken the snake and give it power.

                                    —Connelly, The Narrows

The sign, I had been told, marked the spot where not long before a Jayco fifth-wheel had been parked, the vacation home of an older couple from Winona, Minnesota. The gouge from the sign to the river corresponded in width to approximately the length of the Jayco, suggesting that the trailer had been dragged sideways over the embankment, to be replaced by a billboard bearing a literary fragment. I mumbled something about none of this making any sense, and the captain responded with a sort of “it’s-par-for-the-course” shrug before walking on down to the river.

{1.2} The Los Angeles River ends, at least for now, in the city of Long Beach. You can follow Interstate 710, the Long Beach Freeway, south from L.A. as it winds along a good portion of the lower river course, heavy traffic flowing in ten or more lanes, concrete barriers separating one run from the other. Power-cables form yet another kind of course and current for a long stretch, a suspended set of lines streaming above the river and road. At its mouth, not far from where the Queen Mary (the location for some of the filming of The Poseidon Adventure[1]) is moored, the Los Angeles River disappears into San Pedro Bay beneath a low bluff of trade and recreation: a pier, a park, an aquarium, and “Shoreline Village,” an artificial amusement municipality laid out like a broken leg near the Long Beach Marina. Fake Victorian signs top the fronts of an array of shops and eateries lining the olde tyme Boardwalk, an ensemble of the quaint and quirky designed to amuse tourists and relieve them of their lucre: a carousel, “The All American Melodrama Theater and Music Hall,” Village Hat Shop, Pirates Cove (“Booty Is arrr business”), a cigar store. Huge cranes in the distance mark the port and naval complex. Near the rock-pile banks of the river’s last lengths, an RV resort abuts a marine reserve. Just upriver a mile or so, under the Ocean Boulevard Bridge, another sign prohibits boating on (and most other kinds of direct contact with) what it names “The Los Angeles County Flood Control Channel.”

The water through much of this lower section of the river is weedy and green, windblown and slightly tidal, ebbing and flowing slowly in a strangely straight bed about 150 meters wide. Petroleum pipelines cross, as do the bridges of thoroughfares: Shoreline Drive, Anaheim Street, Pacific Coast Highway, Willow Street. Encampments under the bridges and in sections of the river where trees grow on the edge of the bed can have twenty to thirty sites, with sleeping bags, blankets, tarp-tents, laundry, some toys. Great Blue Heron, ducks, Killdeer, and Black-necked Stilts poke around the soft, murky bottom and riprap or concrete banks in the estuarial stretch below Willow Street, and in parts of this section thick bushes and trees have taken root in the river’s sandy margins, creating an almost pastoral setting for what looks almost like a river. Above Willow Street, though, the bed is concrete from bank to bank. Barbed- and razor-wire barriers separate the river from neighborhoods that sit well below the paved path atop the levee, and the river seems nothing if not sequestered, aislado. Painted-over graffiti look like scabs; more recent tags represent some of the river’s occasional visitors: “Bubbles,” “Rascal.” Foam drifts slowly on the viscous surface of the 6-meter wide, precisely engineered low-flow channel that runs in the middle of the concrete bed. Joe Linton writes that it isn’t easy to see this portion of the river “as a ‘real’ river”; local residents are more likely to refer to it as “the sewer” or “aguas negras.”[2] Just as the surrounding cityscape varies considerably in the lower portion of the Los Angeles River—fenced-off trailer-park, restored wetlands, golf course, ramshackle horse-stables, houses tucked under flowering jacaranda and power-cable towers—so do the contents of the channel: sometimes a few centimeters of warm water in the wider bed and up to one’s shins in the low-flow notch, sometimes that notch hardly discernible amid an expansive dark flow. Below the Imperial Highway Bridge, bright-green water with a flotilla of foam pods idles down the cut, the rest of the bed bone-dry.

[1] Pitt and Pitt, Los Angeles A to Z 411.

[2] Linton, Down by the Los Angeles River 127.

{1.3} Taciturn and I have been friends for a long time. We met in college, where I was impressed with his wide-ranging interests, drawn to his easygoing manner, and intrigued by his penchant for the meditations of Marcus Aurelius. He majored in physics and tended to make light of most religions, but Marcus Aurelius he read with a fervor lacking in even the most dedicated of my fellow English majors. Back then, he was clear-sighted but light-hearted, curious, and active, with little time for sitting around watching television or playing Pac-man, preferring instead to shoot pool or go for a hike—a bit of a throwback, really, though open-minded and tolerant of others.

We kept in touch through the years, his occupational path wandering in a direction I could never have predicted. After a distinguished career in a mountain-town Fire-and-Rescue department in Colorado, with all of the duties that entails—swift-water rescue, emergency medical services, conventional firefighting in municipal and backcountry situations—he was invited to undergo the rigorous course of training in Paranormal Fire and Rescue, the “X Files” of emergency services. Rising through the ranks of Paranormal Fire and Rescue, he eventually landed a field-command post in a Special Ops offshoot of swift water rescue. Now the Chief Tactical Technician for the Strange Waters Investigation, Rescue, and Logistics (SWIRL) unit in the Los Angeles Basin, Taciturn probes oddities associated with the rivers and creeks of the basin. Although we have canoed, kayaked, and rafted many a stream together, this is the first time our occupational paths have crossed.

It all began with a phone call.

“Taciturn, why are you calling? Is the telegram office closed?”

“Funny. I have a case that might interest you.” Taciturn paused and cleared his throat. “Thought you might even be able to shed a little light on it for me. Stop and take the best advisers, Marcus Aurelius.”

He said this latter as much to himself as to me, and before I could ask what it meant he continued. “A travel trailer went missing a couple days ago—owners, Chihuahua, and all.”

“I see,” I said, though of course I didn’t see in the least. I asked him first why this wasn’t more of a concern for the police and second what I had to do with stolen recreational vehicles.

“The police don’t want to touch it,” he replied, and cleared his throat again. “They called it ‘weird river stuff’ and wished me good luck.”

“Ah,” I said, “a river angle. The L.A. River, I assume?”

“Yep,” Taciturn confirmed. “And a bookish angle to boot.”

He had said the right thing—the hook was set.

My name is Bromide. I’m a Textual Potamologist.

Posted February 18, 2016 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized

The Second Annual L.A. River Boat Race   Leave a comment

It’s back! People have another opportunity to experience firsthand the mysteries of the L.A. River with other kayakers, canoeists, and paddle-boarders. The most excellent George Wolfe, founder of L.A. River Expeditions & one of the major players in bringing the river to the attention of human beings, will be welcoming boaters of all ages & abilities Saturday, August 8.

la_river_poster(large text outlined)

In honor of the race, and also in celebration of the great L.A. writer Raymond Chandler (b. 7/28/1888), here are some of the mysteries available to the river’s intrepid boaters.

“He lifted his hands off the desk & made a steeple of the fingers,

like an old time family lawyer getting set for a little tangled grammar.

—Chandler, The High Window

The L.A. River needed a drink,


… the L.A. River needed a lot of life insurance,


… the L.A. River needed a vacation,


… the L.A. River needed a home in the country.


What the L.A. River had was a coat, a hat and a gun.


“I’m going the way I always go,” I said. “With an airy smile and a quick flip of the wrist. And with a deep and heartfelt hope that I won’t be seeing you in the fish bowl. Good night.” —Chandler, The High Window

Posted July 23, 2015 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized

Going Away with the L.A. River   1 comment

I am delighted to be a contributor to the recent issue of the online journal Away. Please check out Away, not only for my photo-essay on listening to the Los Angeles River, but for some provocative experiments in contemporary travel writing.


Posted June 18, 2015 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized

Mad Max’s Method: Furious Palindrome   Leave a comment

images-3My student was correct; George Miller’s film Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) has, at its heart, a travel palindrome. The heroes go forth & come back by the same route, following the pattern of another literary palindrome. In class we had nearly finished reading Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord & Merrimack Rivers (1849), about a river-trip structured palindromically: the travelers went down the Concord River, up the Merrimack River, climbed up a mountain & pivoted, & then returned by reversing the route: down the mountain, down the Merrimack, & up the Concord. (For more about textual palindromes, check out the last chapter of The Meaning of Rivers.) My student Ben, from the rivers course this semester (thanks, Ben!), wrote excitedly that Mad Max not only featured a palindrome but also involved water. He thought I should probably check it out.

The palindrome in Mad Max differs considerably from Thoreau’s. Max (Tom Hardy) accompanies Furiosa images(Charlize Theron), who is liberating 5 young women — “Breeders” — held captive by a tyrannical warlord. Her plan is to return to “The Green Place,” her motherland, from which she herself was stolen as a child. Chased by the warlord & the leaders of Gas Town & The Bullet Farm, Furiosa leads the escapees across deserts, through a narrow & perilous canyon, over mudflats, & eventually to another desert, where she finds the few surviving women of what is no longer a Green Place. These desolate dunes become the pivot for the escapees, as Max convinces them that their best hope lies in a palindromic return to the only available water source for hundreds of miles: the Citadel from which they’ve fled.

Mad Max’s palindromic return is highlighted by its contrast with the failed return to The Green Place. The latter comes a cropper because it’s a nostalgically guided return to something that no longer exists. We cannot go back to the past. Max’s plan, however, involves going back to the present, informed by knowledge of what lies ahead. Furiosa’s heroic band of Furies go back to where they started, using the return to alter the conditions of the despotic wasteland. In the process of the palindrome, they depose the 3 old men who control gasoline, weapons, and water — the men, we are told, who “killed the world.” Going well beyond “Thunderdome,” the movement of Max & Furiosa describes a furious Palindrome that results in the redistribution of water and power. Thoreau, in A Week, wrote that “good books” are those which make their readers “dangerous to existing institutions.” By that standard, the more recent palindrome might be viewed as a “good film.” Perhaps, though Max’s plan be madness, there is method in it.


Posted June 2, 2015 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized

The Devil You Say   Leave a comment

It was late Friday afternoon, above the clouds on a small jet out of CLE. On my way to a symposium at the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM), I graded papers, did a crossword, watched the flight attendant make her way down the narrow defile with the drinks cart.  The soothing authoritative voice of the pilot assured a smooth ride.


The SLAM symposium celebrated several exhibitions of 19th century American paintings, all loosely related to rivers: a grand show of George Caleb Bingham’s work formed the centerpiece, along with works from the Hudson River school and Thomas Cole’s Voyage of Life. My lecture — on the river, the steamboat, & literature — had gone to the devil.

Research had turned up a striking number of references to satanic aspects of early steamboat travel. The vessel itself was sometimes sketched with horns & a tail, a “huge demon in the wilderness, bearing fire in her bosom, and canopying the eternal forest with the smoke of her nostrils.” Boatmen often gave infernal names to rock formations & other phenomena along the way: the devil’s tea table, the devil’s backbone, the devil’s oven, the devil’s grand tower, Devil’s Island, the “Chenal du Diable.” The humorist Thomas Bangs Thorpe remembered a woodyard situated at “a place so infested with ‘snags’” that it had been “christened … the ‘Devil’s Promenade.’” (The Devil’s Promenade, we are told, in case we want to look for it, “lies at the mouth of ‘Dead Man’s Bend,’ just at the foot of ‘Gouge-your-eye-out Island.’”)


Steamboats, in various fashions, threatened the edenic peace of the river. Sometimes writers cited the unfortunate frequency with which the boats “generally blow up every season,” tossing their “parboiled passengers to an inconvenient altitude in the atmosphere” (Thomas Hamilton). Others noted in the behavior of their fellow passengers the “incontrovertible evidences of a fallen nature”: drinking, gambling, lechery, the “infernal vociferation of curses” (G. W. Feathersonhaugh), swindling, and slave-trading. While the steamboat marked a technological advance for American culture, carrying us forward into a promising future, it also carried us away.


When the drinks cart arrived, I asked for a bourbon. The flight attendant smilingly gave me a small bottle of Devil’s Cut, from the Jim Beam family, & as she did, a sudden & considerable JOLT shook the jet. The flight attendant staggered, the cart cut a caper, passengers worriedly & in vain sought explanation out the windows. As I recovered & poured the Devil’s Cut over rocks, the pilot explained we’d been hit by “wing turbulence” from a passing plane. We flew on, high above the earth, & so far below heaven.


Posted February 28, 2015 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized