Living on Green River Time   1 comment

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One day / On the river is worth a thousand nights on land.

—Robert Bly, “The Cabbages of Chekhov”

One Green River Day. Awake to the feint tinkle of water, after the sploosh of eroding sand, first light, camp still in shadow, guides already busy in the kitchen, beaver crosses from shore to shore & pads off.

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Pee into river, pad across sand barefoot to dip camp coffee into your cup, morning greetings, remove to the quiet of your tent site to let the day pray through you or maybe head to the groover for a scenic crap, facing away from the increasing hubbub toward the waters of where you have been or the waters of where you are going.

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Return to others, to the us, for sand yoga standing postures, beginning in Mountain — apt in so many ways: mirroring canyon walls & towers, embodying stillness, peace, gathering of forces — then Warriors & angular twists, Chair, shoulder openers, hip releasers, breath followers, folds & reaches. Attend, please, to each of the seven centers of energy. Sit. Breathe. The light rises all around as if from our circle; the light in me sees the light in you.

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Breakfast & breakquiet bonhomie. Heron squawk. Dull clank & splash of dishes washed — scrape, rinse, scrub, rinse, bleach, stack in rack. Pack up in hot sun, hup the gear to the fleet, stow supplies in each & every canoe. When camp is fully broken, after the last last-call for the groover, we go, boat by boat, into the slow glide. All slip away, gladly.

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It is a moment of suspended time when one could so easily cross over into another dimension, a feeling neither of exhilaration nor euphoria, but simply of infinite possibilities.  —Ann Zwinger, Run, River, Run

The Guide honors the day by calling for a Silent Float. With our chatter stifled, the vastness & solitude take in the attention, take in the mind itself & through it my whole being. To belong to the river & to the canyon & to the sky — that is why I’ve come here. Out of the quiet comes small voices of life: water dripping from the bow, the blade; crickets in the brush; canyon wren among the cliffs; heron wing beats.

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Sun’s intensity, river’s ease, Children’s Moon high above the varying sandstones — Entrada, Wingate, Navajo. Silence cracks off eventually & falls into the water, whether by song or splash, howl or yawp. Floating on, following the subtle thalweg or following the subtle Guide following it, along long arcs of meander, crossing curves from one side to the next, in fruitfully fruitless pursuit of the chain of languid bubbles.

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The behavior of rock, of herons & ravens & small birds in the shore scrub, of paddlers. When we are not quiet we are usually laughing, unbidden badinage uninterrupted by occasional stops: to pee, to swim, to pass around snacks, to hike to petroglyphs or overlooks of the river. Mostly though we ply the paddle. “The path of the paddle leads to the original perspective.” Patterns, reflections emerge. Paddle & float. Think & drift. Alcove & cliff face. Breathe in, breathe out.

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Lunch: haul the canoes through “goodge” onto a sandbar; a game of Find the Appropriate Containers & tote them to the two folding tables set up in the sand, usually under blazing sun; coldcuts cheeses lettuce tomato salty-snacks fruit, cookies brought out at the end, all tasting better than such fare would elsewhere, elsewhen; standing around in little groups, milling about the bar, jokes & observations & continuation of conversations, words the follow us all along the way. Load up, push off, float on.

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Thy sickness, they say, & thy puny habit require that thou do this or avoid that, but know that thy life is a flitting state, a tent for a night, & do thou, sick or well, finish that stint.  —Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience”

Our boat hangs back & we smoke cigarillos in a lazy drift, enjoying the lull & quiet, the flavors of a floating moment, the pffft of the butt hitting the water. Another couple hours or so will bring us to where we will be, where we empty & secure the boats, re-create the kitchen, pitch tents, swim or reconnoiter or recollect.

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Happy Hour: a couple beers dragged cool behind the canoe, bags of wine, lemonade, camp chat echoing in the rocks. Experiences are compared, places discussed, the river revered. Pale scorpion scurrying, desert toad scampering, scientists, seekers, instructors, examiners, writers & makers & engineers. Becoming unstuck. Following tortuous paths, winding ways, lives we cannot predict. Poem & song, stars & tears. The heron takes us down the river.

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Just as sunrise climbs down the rock wall, sunset ascends. Dinner & clean up are among the last rituals, then either music or an astronomy lesson or the sharing of souls, one more pee into the water, brush teeth, late looks at the clear sky — not much else needed to put final touches on the day, on the shedding of time.

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Posted January 10, 2015 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized

Mr. Wilson’s Mustaches   Leave a comment

I admit that this post is at best indirectly connected to the sorts of things that usually appear here.  The poem — a brief ode — is for an esteemed colleague of Environmental Studies on the occasion of his retirement.  His work in political theory has, for four decades, improved the ways in which people think about and act on behalf of rivers, woods, mountains …

Mr. Wilson’s Mustaches

 

Posted May 27, 2014 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized

Water Under the Bridge   3 comments

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While staying near the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which graciously provided hospitality during some of my fieldwork on the L.A. River, I frequently toured the short, shadowy hallways of David Wilson’s “cabinet of wonders.” The museum puts an emphasis on “muse-” in presenting its odd collection of objects and ideas. Calling itself “a specialized repository of relics and artifacts from the Lower Jurassic,” the MJT features “unusual or curious” items from diverse areas of inquiry—music, science, folklore, cat’s cradle artists …

Exhibits, with titles such as “Scrupulous Fidelity” (the astronomical paintings of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot) and “The Lives of Perfect Creatures” (dogs of the Soviet Space program), range from the zoological (stink ants of the Cameroon and Myotis lucifugus, a bat that can fly through walls) to the esoteric (theories and practices of the magnetic arts in the work of 17th century scholar Athanasius Kircher) to the archaeological (treasures from Los Angeles Area Mobile Home and Trailer Parks). A visitor can be thrown off-balance by the juxtaposition of the unbelievably micro with the equally amazing macro. One might, for instance, pause before the FRUIT-STONE CARVING exhibit—a tiny seed, into which is carved “a Flemish landscape” that includes “a bearded man wearing a biretta, a long tunic of classical character, and thick-soled shoes” holding a viol held “between his knees while he tunes one of the strings,” with a menagerie “in the distance” (“including a lion, a bear, an elephant ridden by a monkey, a boar, a dog, a donkey, a stag, a camel, a horse, a bull, a bird, a goat a lynx, and a group of rabbits: the latter under a branch on which sit an owl, another bird and a squirrel”), all of which is on the front of the fruit stone, a seed that’s a half-inch high and less than that wide, while on the back is shown “an unusually grim Crucifixion, with a soldier on horseback, Longinus piercing Christ’s side with a lance, the cross is surmounted by a titulus inscribed INRI.” One might then step around the corner from the tiny encased carving and enter a suite of rooms that contain dazzling exempla from Kirchner’s studies involving lights, mirrors, sound, and sculpture. (All quotations from http://www.mjt.org)

But the exhibit that most haunts my memory has to do with forgetting. “The Delani/Sonnabend Halls” occupy a wing of the museum and are centered on the work of Geoffrey Sonnabend, “an associate professor of neurophysiology at Northwestern University,” and particularly his three-volume Obliscence: Theories of Forgetting and the Problem of Matter. Inspired by the multi-chambered exhibit to further research on the professor, I found Bill Domonkos’s short (6 minutes) film, A Song for Sonnabend—itself a haunting little text making ample use of flowing water.

 

http://billdomonkos.tumblr.com/sonnabend

Posted April 29, 2014 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized

“Uneasy Suspension”   Leave a comment

Booster

Gerald Leake’s frontispiece for The Boosters

I finished reading Mark Lee Luther’s The Boosters (1923) the same night I watched John Cassavetes’s film The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976). Novel & movie were separated by more than the half-century between their respective release dates, representing contrasting visions of L.A. as destination, as destiny—but they tell similar stories about the Los Angeles River.

The novel offers a cheery narrative of Bostonian George Hammond, who heads to Los Angeles as a once-capable architect turned dyspeptic business failure. Goaded by his wife Harriet, who has California roots, the family take the train west. Through genial adaptability, considerable luck, the pluck of his children, & the reemergence of his latent talents, George’s fortunes reverse, his digestion is righted, the family flourishes. The L.A. they experience is a land of sunshine, opportunity, romance, & the occasional earthquake; it has hills, beaches, off-shore islands, & oil-fields, but no river worthy of mention.

The film also tells the tale of a man from the East Coast transplanted to the West. Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara), originally from NYC, owns a LA strip club, believes in style, & manages his affairs congenially if not quite successfully. In an early scene, after paying off a gambling debt & knocking back a couple scotch-&-waters, he talks with Eddie, a helpful cab-driver also from NYC, about the old days. Eddie (played by Eddie Shaw), from lower Manhattan, says of former uptowner Cosmo, “At least you had the river, the beautiful river,” & Cosmo smiles as he remembers swimming in the East River. Eddie says he used to go to the Hudson, then after a little more nostalgia, says, “But now were going home.” “Where?” “Your house.” “There’s no river there, Eddie.”

In both tales the river is missing—a superfluity for Hammond’s rise, an absence of fluidity in Vittelli’s fall. Joan Didion wrote that “California is a place in which a boom mentality & a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent” (Slouching Towards Bethlehem 174). Here too is where we run out of water.

tension

Posted February 2, 2014 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized

Below Normal Is the New Normal   Leave a comment

A Southern California newspaper reports that the snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas is 20% of the normal amount for this time of year. Although the southern Sierra are faring slightly better than the northern parts of the range, “The lack of snow in the West continues what was the driest calendar year on record for Los Angeles in 2013, when only 3.60 inches of rain was recorded in the downtown/USC area, breaking the old record of 4.08 inches set in 1953.”

Another California paper adds, “Even more concerning to state water providers is the forecast. On New Year’s Eve, the National Weather Service predicted that California is likely to see below-average rainfall for the entire month of January.” “Streams and rivers across the state are depleted,” says the Sacramento Bee. “According to gauges maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey, only 25 percent of the 215 monitored streams had ‘normal’ water flow as of Friday, and 71 percent were below normal. About 21 percent are at unprecedented lows, a number that has doubled in the past two weeks.”

And I read in this morning’s New York Times of the Colorado River, diminished by 14 years of drought that “will reduce even more the level of Lake Mead, a crucial source of water for cities from Las Vegas to Los Angeles and for millions of acres of farmland.” As one official put it, agencies have continued to plan as if the old normal were still in effect. “There’s always been within the current planning an embedded hope that somehow, things would return to something more like normal.”

Old Normal, whither hast thou gone & why doth thou wither so?

 

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Sources: Grist (1/6/14); San Gabriel Valley Tribune (1/3/14); Sacramento Bee (1/6/14); New York Times 1/6/14)

Posted January 6, 2014 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized

Putting the Flu in “Confluence”   1 comment

I was awoken in the middle of the night by someone shaking me.

Or so I thought. It turned out to be violent shivering brought on by a fever. As I tried various modes of dress & undress while the fever broke & fixed itself, thoughts turned to the season — Holiday season, not flu, but actually both, I guess — & especially those movies seen a thousand times in childhood. Visions of Bing Crosby & Rosemary Clooney danced in my head, a gauzy recollection of them singing about counting one’s blessings, so I did: my family, our friends, my work, our home…. These, however, became mixed up with less happy aspects: seeing too little of our speedily growing sons, friends facing great challenges, local national global woes. And this febrile mix of the merry & not-so-merry sent me off thinking about “Happy” again (see the 7 December post) with its uplifting beat & cheery dancers shimmying across sunny L.A.

The feverish mind started in on feverish questions: Would the video be more effective if it weren’t 24 hours of happy? Say, 6 hours of not-so-happy, a few in the haze of afternoon, a bad hour after one of those meetings, a couple more in an insomniac night. What if it were shot on the North Coast instead of the West? (My wife, Good Queen Wenceslhasa, had wondered this as well.) That might temper the glee somewhat: people trying to bust a move in parkas on the thin ice of the Black River, or reservedly tapping the dashboard behind a frosty windshield, or a nondescript character simply hurrying away from the camera over an icy sidewalk, or one long lonesome black-&-white “Stranger Than Paradise” shot of Lake Erie. What if other, less happy parts of Los Angeles had a role?

Which is about when the fever left. What fascinates me about the L.A. River is its made up, messed up, mixed up nature; it is not all sunshine & smiles. SoCal glories converge with ghastliness. At some of the river’s confluences with tributaries, “Happy” merges with “Grim.” Happy is part of What Is, but not all, & at various confluences I discovered this: in exploring the river, I am mostly trying to understand What Is.

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Arroyo Seco + L.A. River

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Rio Hondo + L.A. River

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Compton Creek + L.A. River

Posted December 19, 2013 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized

24 Hours of “Happy” (about 64 Minutes on the River)   Leave a comment

The things I do for research.

Pharrell Williams has released what purports to be the world’s first 24-hour music video, which you can view on line by clicking the link below. The video consists of a continuous loop of his 4-minute song “Happy,” with the camera tracking the movements of a number of characters as they dance their way across Los Angeles. You can forward through the loop — &  you will likely need to do so after a few minutes — to about 7 a.m., at which point dancers spin-flail-bounce-contort-gesticulate-skip-lipsync-smile their way along the bikepath that runs next to sections of the Los Angeles River. The shots of the river are fleeting but the characters are compelling.

At approximately 7:56 a.m. (PST), a woman manifests her glee on the dry plain of the river in the downtown section, followed at 8 a.m. by Pharrell Williams himself, dancing downriver from 4th Street on the concrete bed, the low-flow channel full, running fast, spilling over in places (though tire-tracks are more widespread than water). He turns & gyrates up the tunnel under the 6th Street Viaduct, & soon dancers & camera-crew leave the river behind.

‘Tis the season to be jolly, I suppose, & “Happy” aims to contribute to the Kettle of Good Cheer. The people & the city are all rather winning & the song is catchy, but I think I went through something like the five stages of grief as I listened & watched: Intrigued, Infected, Irked, Insane, & finally (if intermittently), In-the-Groove. As Elvis Costello said, “C’mon, Get Happy.”

Posted December 7, 2013 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized