Sunday, May 24, 2009

More Than A Solution To Me

Had a great day.  Spent this morning with a group like Habitat for Humanity, put on by my church and a bunch of other churches to assist in the rebuilding of the most affected areas in southern Indiana, after last years flood of the century.  It was instructive to receive last week, a hard rain for over twenty four hours (thunderstorms the entire time, but an hour here and there) and have that mean nothing to the regions safety, due to the fact that the thunderstorms were mostly confined to southern Indiana, not the entire Midwest.  What seems like big weather, can sometimes just be severe weather.  Not something I had ever thought about.

A few years back, the electrical system in my car was out for a few months.  I worked at a hotel down the street from my house.  My method of getting to work was to shower in the morning, put on my laundered slacks, button down shirt, and a tie and shoes, then fall onto a bicycle, go downhill for three quarters a mile, then go north two blocks to arrive in about six or seven minutes at work.  It is an indisputable fact that I frequently drive more slowly than that.  The risk to other peoples lives is obviously much more, when I am driving a truck, or car, than a bike.  The opposite holds true for riding the bike.  It is dangerous.  I however, am a somewhat safer bicyclist then many, angry weirdos who seem to regard it as a cross to bear, that they share a road with cars.  I sometimes want to remind them (but rarely bother) that no society in history has found pavement a useful response to the needs of a cyclist.  Roads are built for cars.  And most of the time, the victims of the road are cars drivers, not cyclists.  

A cyclist that pulls to the front of traffic at an intersection, merely because they can fit between a car and the curb, is defining the space they think a motorist should proffer to them.  To do that over and over, as I have seen basically everyone riding a bike do, is to work precisely with the proven difficulty motorists have seeing (anything! but also) cyclists.  It is a moral responsibility of bicyclists to maintain their place in slow moving traffic, and grind their axes at the gym, where physics has more friendly loads to toss.  Stop with traffic, it helps the cars that have nothing to look at anyway but your handsome rear end, realize that you believe yourself to be merely another vehicle.

Most people I know regard this philosophy as hopelessly naive and wimpy.  Funny, the number of people I know who have had terrifying encounters with vehicles. "I've been hit by a car twice," as if a car were a shark.  It goes without saying that it is very unlikely that you will ever hear someone say, "I have no idea if I hit the car, or the car hit me."  

 You ought to be fined as a cyclist, for verifiable evidence that you are not acting like a vehicle on the road, since it is absolutely true, that all the rules of Indiana motor vehicle law apply to a cyclist.

Liberty, it would seem, does not conform to these commonsensical notions.  More people die for freedom, then I sometimes realize.

I mention all this, because, despite my high minded attitude to the relationship I have on a bike with cars, I still tear around, on occasion, with my bike.  You can't help yourself sometimes.  Just avoid heavy traffic, and blind intersections.

In any case, I was on my way to work during the storm, a few years ago, that happened just before Katrina.  The downpour was immense, and unexpected.  I'm sure it was reported, but I had ignored it.  So, I was riding my bike down this pretty steep grade, and because of some blind intersections and the fact I was running close to being late (and the rain) I turned onto second street, went two blocks and cut west again, this time straight down, practically on top of the hotel.  Smith, there, is enormously steep.  The thing that bewildered me, at the time, was the fact that the water on Smith, was nearly to the top of my twenty something inch tires.  More than a foot and a half of water was running down this practically twenty degree grade.  It didn't seem possible for water to be that deep. I had no brakes to speak of (of course, they were beyond wet.) but none the less wasn't going so fast due to the rather enduring puddle that softened my descent.  No big deal, I just glided slowly to the hotel.  I was on that street, remember, because it was usually more safe, due to the fact that motorists hate how bumpy and unnavigable it can be for anything wider than a baby stroller.  It was one of the strangest, and sort of magical feelings I ever had on a bike.  When I got to the hotel, I spelled the same old Andy to my coworkers.  When I left them to do my job, I'm sure their response was, "Did he think we couldn't hear the thunder?  Yeah, it rained!  Ever heard of a forecast."  Not everybody is ready for everyday magic.  At least from a third party.

The other magical bike rides I have had were mostly (in my adult life that is.  My parents and my brother and I had plenty of good rides together, and jesus, I biked Cape Cod in middle school with my summer camp.  That probably qualifies as nice...) with my old friend Mitch.  Mitch was the guy that planted the seed of seeing a watershed in the map of ones home that is in your mind, instead of the more real seeming somatic map of sensory impressions that we regard as the world we move through.  We cross a river and regard it's green sign/label as somehow of relative significance to the ribbon of water (or dry bed, as it were) itself.  This had more often than not been for me the case because I have, native to my nature, a relatively poor sense of direction and spatial reckoning.  I am better than I once was, but still can be caught by friends whom I really love and trust as taking more pleasure in them than getting us where we are supposed to be going.  I get lost at times.  So suffice it to say that in the past, when I passed a river, it's name is all the ribbon of water meant to me.  I usually would sort of glance at the water, perhaps admiring the potency that such landscapes deserve in the imagination, but where it came from, and where it was going, and from where it collected the rain, I didn't even dare to consider.  

Mitch had a slightly different attitude.  Having been a sort of laid back polymath artisan his whole life.  He played some music, and built stone walls (while still young) and made beer and had a family, and just sort of enjoyed the spectacle of life's passing.  And absorbed a hell of a lot of information from various sources, which, sometimes, while I was shaking my head at some strange thing he had done or said, he would come out with.  We'd be on a street and he was leading that day, on our almost daily bike rides (sometimes at night, as well.)  We'd pass a river and he'd describe the damn things travel through the entirety of our town.  Back then I didn't know our town nearly as well (and our area even less.)  His laconic enlightening of the slow flow of waters we had just crossed changed my dismissal of parsing what goes in my eyes from hopeless, to very very interesting. My God, I thought, mankind isn't making that river, but just respecting it by avoidance, or a high bridge, or sometimes a rueful admission with a backhoe that a house has to go.  The river.  The river took it.  The river gives, and the river takes away.

I paid closer attention, more respectful attention from then on to bodies of water in general, and rivers in particular.  Mitch's example, in part, along with a DVD on the subject, led me to the ultimate historic story of American rivers:  Lewis and Clark's Voyage of Discovery.   They certainly were somewhat interested in where the bodies of water would lead.  Just a bit.

And so, "courage undaunted" as Jefferson wrote in informal elegy of Merriwether Lewis, a few years after Lewis killed himself, would certainly not describe my cottoning to rivers as a subject.  But last year, right around the time I decided to nip the whole question of "what is clay in my garden?", I took a concurrent voyage of discovery in the form of a set of books that would cost me (if I purchased them for myself) a couple thousand dollars.  The set of books are simply called, The Rivers Of The World.  I ignored most of the books and settled on the rivers of the Ohio River Valley, my probable home for life.  The Rivers Of The World is so cool, for it would describe by turns prosaic, then poetic, then prosaic, then idealistic, then prosaic, then poetic.... rivers and their burden of kinesis----- movement, and what that movement drags inexorably toward us, since we are always near a watershed.  

The Rivers Of The World described the whole of a watershed that fed a river.  Wikipedia has adopted, to my delight, this graphic description (and convention my exgirlfriend, Katherine, a Geographer, tells me is "geographic") of shading a map to show a rivers watershed.  It is hardly obvious, without a contour map.  And contour maps are extremely hard for untrained folks to read.  I haven't tried to read one carefully in six or seven years.  And that was six or seven years after my previous bout of training.  I cannot read one very well.  Shading the watershed of a river, provided it is based on a geographic information systems careful data set, is a brilliant way to provide an extremely complex problem, a tangible, digestible, and quickly useful solution.  Thanks to the Geographers whose grandparents might not have been bragging on their choice of a career.  

The Rivers Of The World also described a little of the habitat, fish species, plant life, and other flora and fauna that a given river might be blessed or burdened with.  This was shocking to me (you must think I am easily startled)  since I had no idea how bristling with life, and resilience many of our most polluted rivers are.  The quantity of fish is nothing like it was before settlement a few hundred years ago.  But it is very large, none the less.  And the diversity of rivers is growing, and encouraging more work, like that which led to these inroads in the ecological health of our rivers.  

I learned a new word from the books as well:  riparian.  I had heard this word and never looked it up, but it means of, or having to do with a river system.  As a teacher might say, "this variety of grass will only be found in riparian habitats."  It doesn't grow away from rivers.  

Typical of my brain I went to look this word up in the dictionary on my computer (something either very useful to my writing, or painful to my ego.  I am extremely thrilled that the dictionary isn't keeping a tally of how many words I look up every few days.  It is something like fifty.)  I entered into the dictionary, since I could not remember the word I learned (so did I learn it?), "river."  The Thesaurus "function" on the dictionary, said,


1 the old factories along the river  WATERCOURSE, waterway, tributary, stream, rivulet, brook, inlet, rill, runnel, freshet, bourn, creek.

2 a river of molten lava STREAM, torrent, flood, deluge, cascade.

But, then I saw, above the thesaurus entry the word I learned last summer at the Herman B. Well's Library.  


Middle English:  from Anglo-Norman French, based on Latin riparius, from ripa "bank of a river."  

'Bout rippa'd me a new one.  

Now I don't mean to be hard on dictionaries.  I realize the constantly have to please a set of people that the rest of us live lives steadfastly avoiding.... however:  why, rill, runnel, freshet, bourn, flood, and deluge.  But no riparian.  ???  The word most closely associated with the origin of "river" is somehow not a synonym?  

I told my parents about a story involving an organization I had read today.  This organization was so organized that it had a system for everything.  So once upon a time it found out it didn't have a very expensive solution to a very annoying problem.  The problem had to fixed anyhow, so one of the investigators just off the cuff asked the organizations equivalent to the janitor if he might know, just had to ask, where some other solution might be hidden.  The janitor looked at the inquisitor amazed;  "I was wondering when you were going to ask," he said.  This very old organization had had in place, a hidden solution to the big problem for five hundred years.  Every janitor during that entire time had been told, "don't screw with that thing, it's THE SOLUTION, to such and such problem."  Hundreds of years pass.  Janitors are born and janitors die.  Finally, a janitor is asked, "Say, don't know why I am even asking you, but, ever heard of "THE SOLUTION?" 

There's a Christian song that my seventeen year old girlfriend used to sing, when I went to church with her (in front of the whole church.)  It was by no means a hymn, but rather a sort of radio ready Christian song the likes of Sandy Patty or some other such person would croon.  It''s punchline?  "My precious Jesus is more than an heirloom to me."  Which, was not only a sort of pathologically inaccurate description of exactly what was going on with the families in that church, but also is a fairly good (if precisely backward) description of what Jesus, or rather, THE SOLUTION, should probably be, in a world as impossible to succinctly sum up as ours.  

I was wondering when you were going to ask.

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