[The Ohio River Speaks] When History Becomes Hallucination

The Ohio River is the most polluted river in the United States. In this series of essays entitled ‘The Ohio River Speaks,‘ Will Falk travels the length of the river and tells her story. Read the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth part of Will’s journey.


On the Tidioute Bridge, where forests accompany the Ohio River through the round Pennsylvania hills, I fretted over my responsibilities as a writer to tell the truth as I experience it. So far, on my journey with the Ohio River, I had experienced beauty, but this beauty was always tempered by the horrific reality of the Ohio River’s abuse. I had experienced moments of peace, but this peace was eventually always drowned out by my anxiety over the river’s future.

Whenever I felt myself on the verge of accepting these contradictions in my experience, the words of a mildly famous environmental writer I had asked to review my book How Dams Fall about the Colorado River flashed in front of my eyes. This writer told me: “I feel your pain acutely and vividly – but it’s so overwhelming that I can’t find the countervailing balm and hope I need to write a decent endorsement.”

I didn’t want my writing about the Ohio River to overwhelm my readers to the point that they couldn’t muster the courage to act in her defense. At the same time, however, the reality of the Ohio River’s pain is overwhelming. Unable to resolve these contradictions, I asked the Ohio River for help.

Rain fell on white pine, hemlock, silver maple, and black willow trees. It dripped from leaf to leaf and branch to branch. It brushed over evergreen needles, washed over bark, seeped into soil, splashed into puddles, and blended with mud. Streams, strengthened by the rain, trickled melodically over stones, down the hills, and poured into the river. Below me, rising river currents turned over themselves and created a thousand little waves singing a thousand little tunes. The Ohio River hummed cheerfully and quickened her pace downstream.

In these sounds, I heard love songs. The forests and the Ohio River were celebrating their ancient friendship by singing ballads to each other.

As I listened, the Ohio River taught me about the role trees play in this cycle. My attention drifted across the river to where exposed tree roots clung to, and held up, the river’s banks. Like the water those trees drank from the Ohio River, my gaze was pulled up trunks, through branches and leaves, to the tree tops. As the trees sang with the rain, their breaths rose from the hills as fog to join heavy, low-hanging clouds. I followed the falling rain back to the river. And, one rotation in a cycle that’s been turning for time immemorial was complete.

Then, a truck carrying a pile of pine logs rattled over the bridge I stood on. The fragrance of freshly cut white pine competed with diesel fumes in an olfactory juxtaposition of beauty and horror. Fumes filled my lungs and scenes from the history of logging in the upper Ohio River basin filled my mind.

In the 1790s, men with muskets destroyed Seneca, Delaware, and Shawnee villages throughout the upper Ohio River basin. They slaughtered and scalped men, women, and children and burned crops and other food sources. With native warriors murdered and native governments crippled, men with saws flooded the region. Sawmills were established in the upper Ohio River basin as early as 1800. Contemporary accounts describe whole hillsides along the Ohio River stripped clean of trees. They started with the hills along the Ohio River and her tributaries’ banks because the loggers could easily drag timber into the waterways where they could be transported to distant city markets.

Words like ‘logs’ and ‘timber’ are dishonest words that fail to describe the full cruelty the Ohio River was forced to endure. These logs were the dead bodies of trees the Ohio River had helped to grow from saplings. This timber was the corpses of trees whose families the Ohio River had lived with for generations. So, not only did the Ohio River witness the murder of her friends, she was forced to carry her friends’ dead bodies away.

At first, the loggers came for the long, straight, and strong eastern white pines. When the easily accessible white pine stands were exhausted, the loggers came for the hemlocks. Hemlock bark was used in tanning leather, but the logs were often discarded and left to rot in the woods. Around 1860, railroads allowed even the most isolated timberlands to be destroyed. I found a story in the Warren Times Mirror and Observer newspaper, dated May 26, 1973, that reported:

“In 1903, the Central Pennsylvania Lumber Company installed a big steam and electrically powered band saw mill at Sheffield. It had a rated capacity of 130,000 board feet of lumber daily. But its all-time production record was on March 14, 1923, when 337,000 board feet of lumber were sawed in a ten-hour period. Between 1908 and 1941, when the C.P.L. closed down because of lack of timber, some one and a half billion board feet of lumber were sawed there.”

As I pondered this on the Tidioute Bridge, history became hallucination. Images of those I’d lived my whole life with joined me where I stood. I saw my mother’s eyes – a half shade of blue paler than mine – gleaming with the specific light that fills them when she tells me she loves me. I felt my father’s hand ­– a half shade of tan darker than mine – with the specific weight his hand carries when he tells me he’s proud of me. I heard my little sister’s laughter when we share an inside joke we’ve shared for longer than either of us remember.

I saw all the people who have helped me become the person I am today. I saw childhood playmates and grade school teachers. I saw football coaches and college professors. I saw my teammates on the University of Dayton football team. I saw old lovers and failed romances. I saw the friends who visited me in the hospital after I tried to kill myself. I saw my activist comrades struggling so hard for a better world.

Then, I saw them murdered.

Each of them.

All of them.

By men with axes, saws, knives, and machetes. Cut down, cut up, and piled in front of me by men who thought only of the price my dead friends’ bodies would fetch at market. The men who murdered my loved ones then slapped a rough harness on my back and snapped a whip over my head. But the load was too heavy to bear.

The sounds of the local water cycle brought me back to the present, but the music was angry. Lightning cracked across the sky with shrill staccato notes. Rumbling thunder added ominous bass notes in a minor key to the music’s low end. Where once they sang, the rain, the trees, and the Ohio River hissed.

Cold and trembling, I asked the Ohio River: “What do you need me to do?” All I heard was more hissing. So, I decided to trust the truth in my experience.

One thought on “[The Ohio River Speaks] When History Becomes Hallucination”

  1. For a few paragraphs, I thought Falk was laying the anthropomorphizing on a bit too thick. Then I saw his point. How do we know that trees don’t feel pain and empathize with their neighbors?

    I recall a feature article in Harper’s Magazine, almost a half century ago, called “Love Among the Cabbages,” where scientists hooked up electrodes to plants, and registered impulses akin to the human response to pain, when peas were dropped into boiling water. As I recall, some sort of alarm, similar to fright, was registered when plants were merely threatened with imminent violence.

    No, I’m not advising herbivores to stop eating because of it. After all, we do live on a planet where most species must kill something in order to survive. But Nature’s game is to do it in balance with other organisms. When you violate that rule for very long, you die. And industrial man has been breaking the rules for a few thousand years now, and flouting them for the last 200 or so.

    It’s time for industrial man to die. In fact, if Nature had it’s way, I suspect that Earth’s top primate would be lemurs or bonobos. Both are very well behaved, and make much nicer neighbors than any humans, industrial or otherwise.

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