“Only as Far as They Are Unsettled”   2 comments

The Emerson phrase that most frequently comes to my mind (& you would worry about me if you knew just how frequently Emerson phrases come to my mind) is found near the end of the essay “Circles.”  As usual, Emerson is encouraging his readers to try for newer & better thinking, & the essay whirls with ideas, interrogations, proclamations toward that goal. “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”  (You can read & readily search RWE’s complete works here, an excellent site developed by my alma mater: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/emerson/.)  I understand Emerson to highlight our tendency toward adopting or accepting ideas & ways of thinking, which can lead to personal stagnation & political states of complacency, injustice, the powerlessness of many at the hands of a few.  Hope then lies in being willing to ask questions & to be questioned, in intellectual & spiritual “onwardness,” in allowing yourself & your worldview to be challenged & to respond—honestly, thoughtfully, energetically—to the challenge.

In the present instance, the phrase visited me as I think & write about the Los Angeles River.  An unsettling & usually waterless body of water, the L.A. River captivates me.  I have stood on a concrete section of its bed, gazing on desolation in perfect quiet, seemingly nowhere while somewhere—everywhere—beyond its cement embankments Los Angeles flies by on teeming freeways.  On the bone-dry bed on a hot May afternoon, it is difficult to imagine that during a January rain storm, “the amount of water flowing through Los Angeles’ channels can increase to 10 billion gallons, reaching speeds of 35mph and depths of 25 feet” (Los Angeles Daily News, 1/20/10).  When only the precisely engineered center of the concrete channel carries “water,” water that is mostly “treated sewage, authorized industrial discharges, & street runoff” (Blake Gumprecht,The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, & Possible Rebirth), one wonders if the L.A. River is a river.  Officially, the body of water has been considered by some more properly a “flood control channel.”  Recently, much work has gone into having it declared “navigable waters,” a river worthy of protection.  What makes a river a river?  Who decides what is a river & what is not?  When is a river not a river?  At the very least, the Los Angeles River provides an opportunity for being unsettled, for rethinking the meaning of “river.”


Posted January 16, 2012 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized

2 responses to ““Only as Far as They Are Unsettled”

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  1. I really enjoyed the post, professor. Don’t forget: The Los Angeles River also runs during made for T.V. car chase scenes (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fnl4Y-nYdJE).

    • Right on, Charlie. There’s a cool film that puts together different scenes of such chases on the river by Dana Plays, titled “River Madness.” Very cool. Good luck with skinny history — excellent idea for a blog, like a never-ending research project. I look forward to seeing what you have to say about Vanderbilt & steamboats. All the best, TSM

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