Sunday, November 22, 2015

A River Runs through It: my Life as a Stream

I am writing this amidst the turmoil that surrounds an ISIS bombing in Paris, which has seemed to generate as much interest in the social media sphere as anything since 9/11. How long it will be important in the public mind remains to be seen. But today, it's the thing to think about. For a few days I had been thinking about how to write about the White River, and going through old photographs to choose one for this post was rather amazing. Living life one day at a time, it never seems much happens. Looking back at a big chunk of life, it seems a blur of activity and change. I'd like to look that that blur through the sometimes clear, sometimes murky waters of the White River.

When I was a young child, the White River was a gateway to a world of wonders. At Newport the wonder was the engineering of the bridge across the river. Newport was just south of the White's juncture with the Black River, at Jackson Port. It would be geologically more accurate to call this part of the river the Black. Whatever one calls it, the river here is big, a thing that often floods many square miles of its low lands. The bridge starts abruptly at the edge of downtown Newport, at a right angle to the main street, and soars above the warehouses and train tracks below. There is of course a modest warehouse for the Bunge Corporation, whose faithful servant the river has become.

At Calico Rock, the wonder was of a very different sort. When I was young, there was still a current-powered ferry across the river, and on the town side was sold the best ice cream in the world: Yarnell's. The water then was so clear that it seemed only inches deep. Every rock and sand grain was clearly visible from the ferry. This was a mountain river. There were still few areas of the Ozarks with electricity or paved roads. My family kept a 1947 Ford to make trips to the Ozarks, because it had more ground clearance than the cars of the 1950's. All of this would change after the construction of the Corps of Engineers Dams for flood control and power generation, like this one at Bull Shoals.

At Batesville, the mountain river became a lowland river. leaving the Ozarks for the Delta lands through which its water will flow all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. But it is not a gentle change. At Batesville there is a dam and lock, and the water, especially if the  big dams upstream have their gates open, roars over the concrete wall, past the lock that was built for steamboats and finished just as the railroad also was finished. The dam and the two more above it were never used, but never removed. Built as aids to navigation, they remain as hindrances to navigation. Batesville also held the wonder of a white sand beach. My friends and I were often very sunburned by the weekends at this shore. It was really a sort of  miserable place: the sand was burning hot and the water, coming from the 300-ft depths of the high dams upstream, was freezing cold. But we all felt like Tuesday Weld and James Darrin when we were there.

As a middle-aged adult, the river opened more wonders to me. I explored its entire length by kayak, or on foot, starting in the Boston mountains where it's just a road ditch beside Arkansas Highway 16, and ending on the white sands again  where the White and the Arkansas Rivers join the Mississippi at Big Island.

Now where the rivers meet is one of the most amazing dams of those on the White River. The picture at the top of the page is of one of the abandoned dams along the river, this one an old power generation dam at Fayetteville. Like so any of the dams on the White, it has been left in place long after its original 'purpose' has become obsolete. The Montgomery Point Lock and Dam, in the next picture, has had a rather different history.

Again and again the floods of the Arkansas or the White or the Mississippi have torn away the efforts to control this important river junction. The White River actually carries more water more reliably here than the Arkansas, so there is a canal for traffic to move from the Arkansas to the Mississippi. Low water on the Mississippi means sometimes there needs to be a lock so boats can make a transition in controlled circumstances. Sometimes the water is so high in all the rivers that the weir needs to allow boats to pass over with with a 12 foot clearance. Montgomery Point is a wonder of a different sort, an engineering wonder which is not yet fully tested.

It seems to me that much of my life has been a series of interactions like those of men with the White River. I work on projects and build theories that are obsolete by the time I've finished them, but which I hang to even though they are now just in my way. The biggest problems tend to overwhelm my solutions, and those ideas I value now may not be adequate to allow me to manoeuvre through the turmoils of today, let alone those ahead. There was a time in  my life when I scorned all the 'improvements' men had made to the White River, and I tended to scorn much of modernity, thinking that, like the clear water at Calico Rock my five-year-old self saw, the past had been easier to understand. When one's own life is in turmoil, it may be hard to recognize the structures that, like the levees and locks on the White River, prevent even more destruction. On may wish to deny that one's mistakes ever happened,to deny that one spent years building a structure that never served its intended purpose.

I suspect it's easier for the river. It seems to have no purpose except to move to the sea, at as close a speed of 10 meters per second per second as the terrain will allow. But even the river is slowed by the stuff it picks up along the way.

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