In this writing, taken from ‘The Ohio River Speaks,‘ Will Falk shares the history and songs of the River. Through documenting the journey with the Ohio River, Will seeks to strengthens others fighting to protect what is left of the natural world. Read the first, second and third part of Will’s journey.
Everyday Ecocide and Garden-Variety Genocide
Just a few miles from where the Ohio River sang me her song of peace, she showed me war. She did so through a succession of experiences that forced me to confront the pervasive violence that maintains our way of life.
I originally planned to begin my journey with the Ohio River in March. But, I left my parents’ home in Castle Rock, CO just as the first states started issuing shelter-in-place orders to slow the spread of COVID-19. To wait out the virus, Melissa Troutman, her parents, and grandparents were gracious enough to let me stay in a little house on their property, not far from Coudersport and near the Ohio River’s headwaters. During this time, I was lucky enough to spend time with Melissa’s 89-year old, Italian-American grandfather who was born and raised in a house built a few yards from the Allegheny River in Coudersport. The family calls him Pop-Pop.
Put your shoes on when it rains.
Pop-Pop was a boy when, in just a few hours spanning July 17-18, 1942, nearly 30 inches of rain fell on Coudersport and the surrounding region. In fact, I found accounts of the “flood of ‘42” reporting that 30.7 inches of rain fell on nearby Smethport, PA in a 4 and a half-hour period.
Pop-Pop described how fast the river rose. He watched from an upstairs window as the neighbors’ chicken coop was torn clean-off its foundations only to collide with his family’s house. The impact shook Pop-Pop’s house “like an earthquake.” The cellar in Pop-Pop’s house had a drain that ran down to the river. After the chicken coop slammed into his house, he heard something in the cellar. He didn’t have time to put on shoes before he ran down to the cellar and found “the whole Allegheny River shooting up through the drain.”
The water was already up to Pop-Pop’s knees. But, he wanted to gather the jars of canned vegetables that were swirling around and crashing into each other. Some of the jars had shattered. And, as Pop-Pop grabbed as many jars as he could, he sliced his foot on underwater glass. Luckily, Pop-Pop’s sister was training as a nurse for deployment during World War II and she was able to stop the bleeding and mend the wound. With classic Italian mischievousness, Pop-Pop asked me what I thought the moral of the story was. When I hesitated, he said, “Don’t walk around in a cellar barefoot in a flood!” When I told him I would try not to, he responded, “Well, when it starts raining really hard, make sure you put your shoes on.”
Trout Splash Lullaby
The flood of ’42 was part of a series of floods in the 1930s and 40s that motivated towns throughout the Ohio River basin to implement so-called “flood control.” After Pop-Pop told me the story about cutting his foot during the flood, I asked him for his favorite memories of the Allegheny River. Pop-pop leaned back in his chair and the humorous light in his eyes was replaced by a wistful one.
Pop-Pop explained that his boyhood bed was placed beneath a window facing the Allegheny River. Not far from this window, hungry trout chased minnows from the river’s depths into rocky shallows. Nearly every night, the feeding trout splashed so loudly they woke him up. He loved to lie awake listening to the splashing trout and, eventually, the sounds put him back to sleep. “Those trout were the best lullaby,” he said.
When Pop-Pop told me the flood story, he looked me directly in the eye. He may have done so to judge the best times to strike with a well-placed joke. But, when he told me the story of the trout splashing outside his window, he did not look at me. He looked beyond me. He looked out the window we sat by to a place I could not see. I got the distinct impression he could still hear those trout splashing. After a few moments, he met my gaze once more and said, “Ever since they put in the flood control, they don’t splash like that anymore.”
A few hours after Pop-Pop shared his memories with me, I sat in my favorite recliner in front of an east-facing window in the little house Melissa’s family let me stay in. A light rain grew heavier. I smiled, put on a pair of thick-soled, rubber boots, and contemplated the other morals of Pop-Pop’s stories.
A Tune of Trucks and Songbirds.
Thirty yards from where I sat, I watched the rain falling on a ridge forming part of the edge of the Ohio River basin. Little rivulets of rainwater flowed towards me. They were just beginning the long journey to nearby Mill Stream, on to the Allegheny, the Ohio, the Mississippi, and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. Across the road, I studied the hemlocks and a pipeline right-of-way forming the edge of weary woods. A few mature hemlocks sighed with a wind whispering of former glory, of the majestic white pine and hemlock forests that grew here before a post-Civil war logging frenzy left the hills naked and exhausted. A woodpecker disregarded the rain and beat a rhythm while eating from a hollow tree trunk.
The tree’s hollowness reflected mine. I wondered if the scene might have been peaceful if it wasn’t for the sadness Pop-Pop’s story left me with. As that thought formed, four trucks carrying radioactive fracking wastewater to a nearby storage facility banged and clattered by on the gravel road running across the ridge. Diesel engines snarled to pull the toxic loads. My angst infested the sound. For two weeks, the trucks had been running day and night. During the day, songbirds did their best to fill the gaps between trucks, but the little hearts of birds are only so big. Night was worse. With few other sounds to compete with the trucks, they only grew louder. I was grateful for my prescribed sleep medication, but my hosts were not so lucky. Each morning, bags under their eyes were a little puffier, their eyes a little more bloodshot, and lines on their faces were harder-etched.
I tried to think of some way to help. If the truck drivers would have taken some time off, I might have succeeded in ignoring the destruction the trucks represented. Regardless, I heard the violence caused, and enabled by, this culture’s addiction to industrial energy in the sounds of grinding metal and the rapid explosion created by the smashing together of air and diesel in the truck engines. I saw the global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations rising with the clouds of truck exhaust. As the heavy loads rumbled by, I felt the land shaking with fear, trembling in her efforts to support all who depend on her despite her worsening condition.
Expressions of Life & Death
I wanted to distract myself from the trucks. My favorite distraction is writing. So, I grabbed my pen and notebook. I opened it up and was greeted with the last line I wrote in my last session: “All natural phenomena are expressions of Life – even ones that cause death. COVID-19 is a natural phenomenon. So, what is Life expressing through the virus?”
I sat with the question, but was afraid to answer it. I was afraid to describe something that has caused so much pain to humans as something positive like a lesson, or a message from the Earth, or even worse, an event necessary to draw human attention to ecological realities. I put my notebook down and sought distraction in my laptop. I ended up at the Johns Hopkins coronavirus map with its confirmed cases and death counters when the screeching brakes of a passing truck taking a curve too fast invaded my awareness.
And, that’s when I realized what Life expresses through COVID-19. Human encroachment into formerly remote and biodiverse lands is a major cause of the spread of pandemic viruses through human populations. Much of this encroachment is caused by humans seeking to exploit so-called “natural resources” like wildlife and land. The fracking trucks, and the industry they are part of, were a textbook example.
COVID-19 is another example. COVID-19 is a message from Life. It says: When humans violate Nature, when humans continuously invade Nature, when, humans wage war on Nature, there will be casualties.
With this in mind, I went looking in Coudersport for the flood control Pop-Pop told me about. As I entered town, a sign announced that I was crossing the “SPC Mike Franklin Memorial” bridge over the Allegheny River. But, when I walked onto the bridge, I did not find a river. I found a concrete tunnel. I found the flood control.
The Silence of Industrial Concrete
Water hurried through the tunnel. It made virtually no sound as it flowed over the barren, flat slabs of industrial concrete. There was no soil or stone for the water to dance over. There were no trees to offer shade for the water to linger under. There were no fallen leaves or branches for the water to twist and twirl with. And, without these, the water could not muster the songs of peace I had heard before. With the beauty of those songs still so fresh in my memory, my ears strained with anticipation and sought the Ohio River’s soothing songs. But, there were no songs. There was only an aggravating silence.
As the silence persisted, images flashed through my mind. I saw government workers scraping away the river bed. I saw them leveling the infinite inconsistencies on the river’s bottom and banks. I saw them pouring concrete slabs in perfectly ugly squares below the window from which Pop-Pop had once listened to the trout splashing as they chased the silver streaks of minnows across multi-colored pebbles lining the shallows. I saw them destroying the physical features that combine with water to create the liquid friction that gives the Ohio River her voice. Then, I saw the most disturbing image: I saw government workers pouring concrete down the Ohio River’s throat.
This hurt, but the Ohio River wasn’t finished with her lesson, yet. I followed the concrete tunnel about a few hundred yards to where Mill Stream converges with the Allegheny River. At this “convergence,” what I truly saw was concrete slabs arranged into two converging tunnels to form a massive letter Y. I stood in the crease of the Y, hoping the lesson would soon be over, when I stumbled over a small concrete marker set in the ground. The marker read: “In Memory of Jim Bushline (1936-1995). Writer, angler, friend. And, the Goodsell Hole. ‘For a century the greatest trout producing pool in Pennsylvania.’” This was a memorial for Jim Bushline. But this was also a memorial for the Goodsell Hole. It was commemorating the death of this natural community.
White Man’s Footsteps
The pain threatened to overwhelm me. Hoping that a direct question might yield a concise answer, I asked the Ohio River what she needed me to learn from these experiences. As I was listening for an answer, Melissa (who was accompanying me to help me learn how to use my new camera) pointed to a patch of what I had ignorantly assumed was weeds and said, “Look at this plantain patch. It’s one of the biggest and most healthy patches I’ve ever seen.” She explained to me that plantain is not a weed. Plantain is a soothing medicine. It has long been used to treat painful skin conditions, chronic digestive issues, and general nervous system ailments. When Melissa held a plantain leaf up to show me the way the leaf’s veins resembled the concrete convergence we stood near, I knew that despite the Ohio River’s voice being stolen by flood control, she still found a way to offer medicine by helping plantain to grow nearby.
As Melissa continued to describe plantain, the Ohio River’s lesson finally became clear. Some Native Americans, according to an herbal website Melissa found, call plantain “white man’s footsteps” because plantain proliferated wherever Europeans settled. I thought of the destruction of the Ohio River that followed the white man’s footsteps through her basin. Plantain is also known as “soldier’s herb” for the way the plant has served as battlefield first aid and infection prevention for centuries.
The Ohio River spoke to me through plantain, a plant that is a common resident of lawns across the United States. It can be found almost anywhere. War, today, can also be found almost anywhere. Plantain is an everyday, garden variety herb. To live today is to witness everyday ecocide and garden-variety genocide. To live today is to live with war.
Will Falk is the author of How Dams Fall: On Representing the Colorado River in the First-Ever American Lawsuit Seeking Rights for a Major Ecosystem . He is a practicing Rights of Nature attorney and a member of DGR. Photos by Melissa Troutman.