The Settling Rate

The Settling Rate

Authored by Thomas Steinwinder

In his book Rivergator, John Ruskey describes the “Wild Miles” on the Mississippi River. “These are the places where the landscape is filled with giant islands bounded by endless muddy banks and sandbars, where the river is overseen by big skies and where the sun sets uninterrupted by buildings or wires and where the big river predominates with wild creative beauty.” As a Mississippian and fellow water lover, this account resonates deeply, like the drone notes in the delta blues. However, it is the very next sentence that strikes the chord, a full thumbed strum in open tuning. “Each high water results in shifting sand dunes and remade sandbars.” This sentence moves beyond describing the Mississippi; it begins to hint at the process, the foundational forces that drive every interaction we have with rivers.

The rate at which a particle settles is dependent upon a grand battle between gravity, drag, and suspension. Gravity accelerates the particle toward the center of the Earth at 32 feet per second squared – about the same acceleration as a Formula One racecar from 0 to 60 miles per hour. However, the moment the particle begins to move downward, a drag force is applied in the opposite direction. The density of the particle, size, shape, and viscosity of the surrounding water all affect magnitude of drag, slowing the particle like a base jumper tossing a parachute. Now enters a third combatant, suspension velocity: the speed of flow that overcomes gravity and keeps the sediment suspended. One pulling down, one pushing up, and one moving laterally.

These three engage in a contest that shapes the most beautiful of the Earth’s fluvial features: boulder strewn mountain streams, cobbled braids of the highlands, the white sandy deposits on the inside arc of a meander, the two-toned progression of sandbars, the beached banks, the coffee-colored fertile flood plains, and ultimately the marsh where river, bayou, and sea are indistinguishable.

Roughly 500 million tons of sediment are carried down the Lower Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico each year. This is enough to add 300 feet of coastline to Louisiana. The mountains of Montana and the farms of Mississippi alike all migrate down river in an epic journey to a final state of rest. The entire continent is flattening as the high points erode and low points fill in. Rivers are the mechanism for this grand balancing.

Standing beside the great rivers, we cannot avoid or deny the connection. We know the epic journey well: the deep pull toward quiescence, the internal revolt against calm, and how the velocity of our surroundings keeps us in suspension. We look out to the mid channel and see the drift wood racing downstream, undirected and uncontrolled. We have an uncomfortable empathy for the debris. It reminds us of our own chaos. We move our gaze to the shallows and appreciate the relative calm, the increased clarity. Our shoulders begin to drop, clenched jaw relaxes, breathing slows, and that one string is finally brought into tune with the rest – resonance. We begin to fall out of suspension and gravity overcomes our aimless attempts at drag. We look down at our own feet, at the billion grains of sand that surround us on the bank and realize that finally, we too have now settled.

Photo Credit: David Hanson, www.davidhanson3.com

The Border Between “Us” and “It”

The Border Between “Us” and “It”

Authored by Austin Kiessig

“There is no distinction between ourselves and the so-called environment. What we live in and from and with doesn’t surround us—it’s part of us. We’re of it and it’s of us, and the relationship is unspeakably intimate.” –Wendell Berry

What’s the story we tell ourselves about our relationship to nature? Us versus it? Clean lines, demarcated territories, occasional encroachments punctuating a relatively stable détente? The newspapers would make us think this way. “Flood ravages farming community”; “wildfires consume housing development”; “shark attacks surfer.” Shots fired across the bow, reminding us that The Wild is lurking just beyond the walls we have built against it. Nature: ever-ready to rain strife upon our ordered existence.

Stories, as it turn out, are important. They shape the way we see the world and define ourselves in it. The narrative that pits us against nature’s directives — or positions us beyond nature’s reach— evolved from a collective reality in which nature’s stock of armaments far outstripped our own. Yet over time, with an exponential increase in resource utilization, engineering sophistication, and exploratory ambition, the balance shifted in humankind’s favor. In America, we settled the West on the shoulders of massive dams whose scale staggered even the brashest visionaries of Manifest Destiny. Our crops flourished in the desert. We engineered buildings against earthquakes, floods, wind, and rain. We erected barriers. We conquered the land.

On a smaller scale, we advanced our defenses against predators, pests, and pestilence. If a living thing harmed our crops, our livestock, or our bodies, we contrived a way to eradicate it. Any creature outside of our perceived corpus fell into one of four categories: threat, food, pet, or afterthought.

We strove to make the fight fair. And then we were winning.

The victory, taken as an amalgamation of successes on multiple fronts, was stunning in its rapidity and scope. We gained unprecedented control over our terrestrial fate. Lifespans were extended, needless deaths averted, painful existences palliated. To all but the cynics, these changes were unequivocally good.

But our newfangled freedom from the Natural Order brought a host of fresh complications. Food webs were pitched into imbalance, and lynchpin species began to die. Resources once thought to be infinite were emptied in the space of a generation. Pollution eddied and pooled. Our entire planet warmed. And we got sick.

At some point, our story started to change along with the shifting relationship between the characters. In our own awareness, we were no longer just another of nature’s playground dupes: we became the schoolyard bully. Tales of our luxuriant slaughter (the passenger pigeon) and images of our prodigal imprudence (the Exxon Valdez spill) proved haunting. Our social ombudsmen hinted that in our quest to evade a life that was nasty, brutish, and short, we had become nasty, brutish, and shortsighted. This was an inconvenient and uncomfortable truth.

We got creative with ways to assuage our guilt. Instead of killing polar bears before they killed us, we featured them in soda commercials and fashioned them as doe-eyed cuties so we could raise money to…save them? We created non-profits, trusts, Whale Wars, and high-minded legislation.

Now, a contemporary class of thinkers whisks up a story that melds the Victim and Bully narratives into something entirely different. Nature and humankind are not distinct, but threads of the same fabric. Our relationship is one of inextricable symbiosis that, if not thoughtfully stewarded, can veer towards parasitism. Our dominance of the Natural Order is, at best, a short-lived tipping of the scales that will, in time, (over)correct. Our myopia cannot serve us well in the historical arc of an ancient world that was born long before us and will long outlive us.

The deeper we dig, the more we find that we are in nature and nature is in us. We see our most noble tenderness in the social loyalty of Humpback whales; our most aspirational ingenuity in the labyrinthine tunnels of ant colonies; and our most unyielding alliances in the microbial confederates that fertilize our soil, produce our food, and protect our bodies.

Indeed, one of modern science’s most exciting exploratory frontiers — the human microbiome — must give us the pause in defining where the border between “us and it” begins and ends. Every human being plays host to ten trillion microbes, which play a more important collective role in our survival than some of our own organs. If 99% of the DNA present in our body belongs to other creatures, did it ever make sense to speak of dividing lines in the first place? Turns out that “us” is “it.”

The new (old) reality is one of ecosystems that blend together and interdependence as a form of freedom. This insight leads us to extend our technological tendrils into the global ecosystem and its microcosms to become better observers, partners, patrons, and saints. We cannot ignore our mandate: cultivate instead of extirpate. We acknowledge that our soil must be fertile for us to be fertile; top predators must remain fed for us to have food; and our newest information systems must be used to preserve the oldest living orders that birthed us.

So, what to think, and how to live? One of the most elemental virtues and curses of human existence is that we are able to entertain contradictions. It is coincidentally true that, at turns, we are part of nature, a sufferer of it, and a persecutor of it. We must, on an individual level, perpetually re-evaluate what we stand for and how our actions support our identity narratives.

Which is where “I Am Coyote” enters the equation. The book is a symphonic stockpile of prose, dedicated to exploring our reverence for, fear of, and integration with nature. In its stories, we delve into hallowed venerations and wretched torments. We revisit these stories so that we are better equipped to live and record our own. They are the music we listen to as we dance. Without them, we are left with scattershot notes and no chords.

“I Am Coyote” is a composition of the highest order. By virtue of its thoughtful curation, it stirs the itinerant soul. Even after the pages have all been turned and dog-eared, they inspire new chapters. When we mark our own experiences in nature by delving into the consciousness of our forebears, we sustain the ecosystem. The integrative bonds deepen. The dance continues.

Photo Credit: David Hanson, www.davidhanson3.com

 

THE WHITE SILENCE OF THE FAR NORTH

THE WHITE SILENCE OF THE FAR NORTH

When I began work on I AM COYOTE, Justin Randolph, a good friend and former classmate, was deep into the formation of the Wildlands Collective. Wildlands is a travel cooperative that connects individuals with extraordinary wilderness travel experiences. Over the past year, Justin crisscrossed the globe rooting out remarkable wilderness areas, locales where, in the words of Emerson, “we find nature to be the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance.” Of all his excursions, the journey to Arctic Scandinavia proved one of the most magical and awe-inspiring. He describes this solitary, arresting region like this:

The above picture was taken at midnight this past April on the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard arctic archipelago.  At 79 degrees of latitude at this time of the year, the sun, though low in the sky, will refuse to set tonight. I’ve spent the last six weeks traveling throughout some of the most remote and wild parts of Arctic Scandinavia — Iceland’s abandoned Horstrandir peninsula, the desolate and dramatic Lofoten Islands, the jagged Lyngen Alps of Norway — leading a group of adventurous travelers on roads and paths less traveled as part of a San Francisco-based travel cooperative I recently founded (Wildlands Collective), and I’ve come to Svalbard on a scouting mission in hopes of bringing other lovers of wild places to the far north.

Tonight is my last in this spectacular part of the world — on this trip at least — and in proper dramatic fashion, I’ve left behind the Scandinavian comfort of Svalbard’s sole town for the night and set out towards the alpenglow blooming on Longyearbyen’s horizon. Before setting off, I spoke with an old salt at the local tavern about my need for one final arctic adventure. While he had arrived in Longyearbyen years ago in pursuit of the archipelago’s prolific cod resources, the island had cast its spell on him — a spell that still endures decades yet. Though his explorer’s days were now behind him, and he no longer ventured out into the barren beyond, his wistful gaze out the pub’s window still spoke of a youthful and wild heart. His reflective silence said all I needed to hear. Wanderlust runs deep in these parts, for both Svalbard’s visitors as well as its inhabitants.

I carry with me a shotgun around my back, a flare gun on my hip, and a serrated knife bound around my leg. This is the High Arctic, and while its landscapes can be exceptionally tranquil in their vastness, this is polar bear country, and under the land’s piercing serenity, the seeds of Jack London’s harsh White Silence nonetheless can be found. More bears wander the isle than people, and it is they who ardently sit atop Svalbard’s food chain. Never-mind that I see nothing more ominous than the softly drifting snow and hear only the sound of distant arctic wrens in search of food, driven by the waxing daylight and the promise of life. The bears’ presence, among the endless expanse of white, permeates the landscape in words unspoken. Wild animals that are proud owners of their own domain and destiny are powerful beings to be surrounded by, and from which to learn.

The immensity of Svalbard’s landscape is lonely yet grand, simple but wholesome: endless expanses of white, punctuated by deep, coal-enriched pockets of black, set aflame by an ever-changing blend of soft, low-light hues — oranges, pinks, purples, and blues. Mountains beyond mountains lead me onward, in disappearing parallel lines, absent any signs of humanity’s manicured touch or the taint from technocracy.  I’ve found Stegner’s ‘geography of hope,’ and it has cast its transformative and transcendent spell on me. In spite of the land’s unrelenting harshness, I feel a peculiar sense of being at home, a geographic déjà vu.  The tonic of nostalgia and summit fever — brought on by such extreme northern wanderings — compels my journey onward, through the arctic summer night, along another exploration into the beyond, on the northern frontier of our planet. Before departing these lands, I must feel its wild heart a bit deeper.  My Elysium lays out there, in the soft half-light of the low-hung sun.

Even with the endless light, the cold bites heavily, and a stiff northern gust off the Arctic Ocean makes itself known. Removing my gloves and skis, I stop to take a picture and a further gaze, to breath in the silence and the vast expanse a bit deeper. Without the stiff uphill pace, and, now facing the elements, my clothes become insufficient to heed off the cold, and a primordial panic creeps through my body. I become — if only for a brief yet harrowing moment — the doomed protagonist in “To Build a Fire,” laughing, crying, and cursing at my own insignificance and helplessness.

I keep walking, and the moment passes. I think how the cold is supposed to reduce the excitability of molecules and cellular motion. Yet, why does the arctic often have the opposite effect of sedation? Like a husky excited by the pinch of frost on its fur, the arctic awakens life, passion, and a primordial vitality. Its essence provides sustenance to the soul. The source of energy I’ve tapped into is pure, is sacred, and not to be forsaken. A deep, guttural, primordial howl rises from within. Yes, I too am Coyote.

The words of Whitman ring true: “A rugged land. Come, my friends, ’tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off and smite the sounding furrows, for my purpose holds, to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all western stars. I inhale great draughts of space…I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.”

I wonder what wildlands and treasures beg to be unearthed beyond the saw-toothed ridges that disappear softly into arctic fog? What do the poetic musings from Arcadia whisper in my ear? In the relative calm of the midnight sun, the moment is ripe for contemplation as to why these desolate lands possess such power.

Many say that the world is bereft of empty spaces, of the wild that it once was so dominated by. That we as a society have lost our connection to nature and wilderness out of a geographic imperative, that wild places simply don’t exist in the way they once did do to our population’s expanse and hunger for resources. That our modern needs and social constructs derive greater utility from the onward march of the bulldozer than the wild silence. That we have tamed nature, and put it in its rightful place, and that with unsullied wilderness in broad decline, only a myth of wilderness remains. How misguided such thoughts. How callous, foolish, and arrogant.

While we have indeed insulted much of the wild we were once afforded, I beg to object. There are lands that still mystify the imagination within our gaze. If in doubt, simply head north for a start — to the far north, to the arctic north — where raw, untrodden lands words can’t convey still cast their spell, and the wild’s siren call refuses to be tamed. The great irony that you will find, is that with eyes newly-opened, you will recognize that the wild still exists in our own backyards, just beyond our modern paradigms, albeit in a more modest form, in not so faraway places.

I need these lands. We need these lands. We all depend on them. We are a wild species, and as such, we’ve yet to breed out our metaphysical attachment to and spiritual connection with the wild — whether we are conscious of it or not, and independent of the evolution of our industrial march. If and when we do, it will likely be our tower of Babel, our Frankenstein, and our final act of arrogance, for we will be losing a powerful mystic vein in us all that is deeply human and which we’ve yet to replace or find a substitute for within our modern constructs. The seeds of the wild that we gathered over millennia of interdependence with the natural world are still deep within us. There is something primordial still lurking in our cells under a veneer of civilization. We have not lost our lust for wild nature, though our surroundings and circumstances have changed. We ignore such a fact at our own peril, and risk not only the long-term survival of our species, but also our own sanity, happiness, fulfillment, and sense of meaning in the world. As Stegner so properly put it: “Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment. We need wilderness preserved —as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds — because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The remainder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it — important, that is, simply as an idea.” Or as Mallory said in reference to the notion of exploration, which he found through mountaineering: “if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live.”

A trip to the wilds of Svalbard is, at its most basic, a simple reminder of such.

Technology has undoubtedly provided us with incredible gifts — gifts that we should celebrate and pay homage to. I live in San Francisco the vast majority of the year, at the epicenter of our current technological revolution, and I have a front row seat to witness some of the wonders of modern technology and human ingenuity, from biotechnology to innovations in communication and information technology. But let’s not lose sight of what’s real. Let’s not let the shiny objects of modernity distract us from our most basic elemental truths. Surely a world in which the wilderness becomes merely an abstract concept that only to be experienced through static images and the anecdotes of others is a fool’s paradise. The wilderness and the raw feeling of exploration on a grand scale can never be distilled within an app or even the grandest of Artificial Intelligence creations.

While romanticizing the wild has its own dangers and misgivings, the mere notion that we can apply a principal of worth to our lives independent of the currency of commerce and exploitative considerations is profoundly powerful, enriching, and refreshing in our materially driven culture. I know with certainty that the truest forms of meaning and fulfillment can only come from direct experience, and I’m confident that our retreat within ourselves as a species — whereby we are increasingly living our lives vicariously through the prism of our technological devices and neglecting the wild world beyond — is certainly destroying something special, something priceless. As Stegner so appropriately declared, decades ago: “We need to demonstrate our acceptance of the natural world, including ourselves. We need the spiritual refreshment that being natural can produce. Where the fun houses, bulldozers, and the pavement of our civilization and its often vulgar commercialism and technological myopic cloud are shut out.”

I don’t want to live in a world bereft of a deep connection to nature and one that’s spiritually impotent. I don’t want my kids to be raised into such a world. Rather, I desire to follow Thoreau, to live intentionally, and to front only the fundamental facts of life. “To live deeply and suck out all the marrow of life, to put to rout all that is not life, to cut a board swath and shave close, to drive it into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms. If it proves to be mean, why then get the whole and genuine meanness of it, or if sublime, know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it. Be it life or death, we crave only reality…let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities.”

Reality? While desolate wild places like Svalbard seem altogether foreign and irrelevant to our daily lives, perhaps the greatest paradox which I’ve yet to come across involves the fact that these places are perhaps as ‘real’ as we are likely to get. I’ll continue to seek them out, long may they live — vast areas of terrain where we have no idea what lies beyond the horizon, where we are compelled to understand the landscape on nature’s delicate yet beautiful terms. I’ll breathe in their rawness, their ruggedness, their boundlessness. Come, friend, exploration into the untrodden wilds awaits.

 Learn more about the Wildlands Collective at http://www.wildlandscollective.com/

 

America’s Great Undiscovered Wilderness

America’s Great Undiscovered Wilderness

Co-authored with John Ruskey, founder of the Quapaw Canoe Company

Most know the Mississippi River as the powerful, coffee-colored waterway that cuts through the center of America, or as the stomping grounds for Mark Twain’s indelible characters. Many locals know it as a body of water to stay clear of; every year several people who underestimate the strength of the River drown in its undertow. Few know it as wilderness. Wilderness for many means jagged mountains, evergreen forests, and rock-bottomed streams with clear, cold water. Not a muddy, stump filled channel conveying barges through the belly of the country. Described by many as the John Muir of the Lower Mississippi, John Ruskey has arguably done more than any other person to demonstrate that a wilderness worthy of America’s highest conservation ideals exists right under our noses in the flowing form of the mighty Mississippi. John graciously allowed me to include his writings in my recently-published wilderness anthology, I AM COYOTE: Readings for the Wild. Here’s how he describes the wilderness of the Big River.

The Wild Miles of the Mississippi River

Looking at a map of North America you will inevitably be drawn to the bottom center of the continent where a meandering blue line broader than any other of the blue lines gracefully loops southward and empties into the Gulf of Mexico. It reaches out with long fingers and tentacles of other skinny blue lines which branch out eastwards and westwards from the Rockies to the Alleghenies, encompassing the second largest catchment basin in the world. Along the way this line carves elegant river bends and giant oxbow lakes. One of the loops goes twenty miles to make one mile. This enchanting blue line marks the Lower Mississippi River, the largest river on the continent. Expansive swaths of green are seen parallel to the loopy blue line and indicate the extensive and healthy bottomland hardwood forests still surviving between the levees. Its big muddy waters and wide floodplain create a paradise for paddlers, birders, and anyone else seeking the solace of the wilderness. (This assessment discounts the last 235 miles of the river below Baton Rouge where it leaves the wilderness and enters the greater port of New Orleans, also known as Chemical Corridor).

The origins of these waters are found upstream in America’s Heartland, St. Louis, where the Upper Mississippi confluences with the Missouri to form the Middle Mississippi. The Middle Miss separates the Pawnee Hills from the Ozarks and then meets the green waters of the Ohio at the southern tip of Illinois to form the Lower Miss. You can trace the curvy blue line of the Lower Miss southward, deep into the gut of America, the Deep South, down to the Gulf Coast. The valley of the Lower Miss was once an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico, then a glacial floodplain, and later a thriving jungle of 22 million acres. Even though it’s been settled for more than 100 years, its forests cut, its back channels plugged and main channel vigorously maintained, the river still rules the landscape with unimaginable power, annually rising and falling fifty vertical feet with fluctuations of millions of cubic feet per second, preparing the stage for an unlikely setting in wilderness travel.

The wonderful, surprising thing about the Lower Miss is that it’s still wild. Paddlers see some industry and agriculture between Cairo and Baton Rouge, but for the most part the experience is of big water, big forests, big sandbars, big bluffs and big skies. Does this sound like Alaska? Or Lake Superior? Or Puget Sound? Yes — but it’s not. It’s nothing but the biggest river in North America, and the longest stretch of free-flowing waters in the Lower 48.

There are 105 Wild Miles on the Middle Miss between St. Louis and Cairo, Illinois, and 515 Wild Miles on the Lower Miss between Cairo and Baton Rouge. Wild Miles are the places along the river where nature predominates, and nothing is seen of mankind save passing tows and maybe a tiny hunting camp or a single fisherman buzzing by in a johnboat. These are places where the landscape is filled with giant islands bounded by endless mud banks and sandbars, where the river is overseen by big skies and where the sun sets uninterrupted by buildings or wires. These are places where the big river emanates its creative, wild beauty. Each high water results in shifting sand dunes and re-made sandbars. These are places where only deer and coyote tracks are seen along the sandbars and enormous flocks of shy birds like the white pelican and double breasted cormorant are comfortable enough to make landing for the night. Once-endangered species like the interior least tern and pallid sturgeon have regained a foothold in this fecund landscape. These are places where it’s dark and quiet at night, where the stars fill the skies like brightly shining jewels poured out on a dark purple velvet blanket.

America has an opportunity to find the “wilderness within” by recognizing and preserving its remaining wild places. Few locations are more deserving of recognition and preservation than the gigantic floodplain of the Mississippi. This floodplain has been preserved mostly by neglect, by the power of the river, by its catastrophic rises and falls, and the danger of building anything nearby. Recent flood cycles and declining populations of the lower floodplain make it one of the best places to restore native bottomland hardwood forests, and re-open back channels with notches in the old dikes. Restoring forests in the floodplain creates habitat for wildlife, improves water quality, provides a flooding buffer, and helps reduce the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone.” Join me and thousands of others in the effort to preserve our nation’s Big River. Let’s protect its ecosystems by leaving open areas like the New Madrid Birds Point Floodway. Most importantly, get outside and enjoy one of the great undiscovered wilderness areas running through the gut of America.

For more information including detailed reading and photos concerning paddling the wilderness of the Lower Mississippi River visit www.rivergator.org and www.wildmiles.org.

Selections from the writings of John Ruskey are included in I AM COYOTE: Readings for the Wild, available at www.readingsforthewild.com

 

Who Owns Water?

Who Owns Water?

In 2013 when I began work on I AM COYOTE: Readings for the Wild, I was fortunate enough to meet David Hanson, an acclaimed writer, photographer, and outdoorsman. David and his brother Michael recently completed “Who Owns Water,” a documentary film about the decades-old battle among Georgia, Alabama, and Florida for the rights to water from the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers. To document the clash, David and Michael spent a month paddling (and portaging) canoes from the Rivers’ headwaters to its terminus in the Gulf of Mexico.  Here’s the little-known story about an intense struggle for water rights in the American South, an area once considered invincible to drought.

“Water Wars! Give me another drink of whiskey and I’ll tell you something different.”

Uncle Tony of Columbia, GA told my brother Michael that at Tony’s riverside cattle ranch in south Georgia. Tony works at the Farley Nuclear Plant in nearby Dothan, AL. He’s like a lot of folks who live along the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. Tony’s a southern outdoorsman, meaning he works with cattle, grows hay, hunts some. One time he grabbed a small alligator out of a roadside ditch and carried it into a nearby restaurant. They asked him to leave.

The water war Tony is talking about has been grinding away for two decades. It began when the Corps of Engineers planned to build Buford Dam in the worn-down Appalachian foothills near Gainesville, GA. That was 1950. The project would provide power and flood control, but, the feds imagined, it could also become a water resource for Atlanta’s growing population. The Corps asked Atlanta’s mayor William Hartsfield if the City would contribute. His response: “Certainly a city which is only one hundred miles below one of the greatest rainfall areas in the nation will never find itself in the position of a city like Los Angeles.”

And that’s the problem. Western river advocates have long battled thirsty, misplaced municipalities that have all but drained the Owens River in eastern California (piped to LA) and sucked the Colorado so hard it no longer reaches its natural mouth at the Sea of Cortes. East coasters with their week-long spring rains, summer thunderstorms, and fall hurricanes have historically been a saturated geography laced with streams, rivers, lakes, and aquifers, and a sense of never-ending water supply.

When Hartsfield turned down the Corps, Atlanta had a population of half a million. Now the city holds 5.5 million residents and relies on Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River, the smallest watershed for any major metropolitan area in the US. When severe droughts roll on for years, as happened in the late 2000s, Atlanta retains water in Lake Lanier, choking the vital flow for downstream users. At the Chattahoochee’s terminus in Apalachicola Bay, 427 river miles below Atlanta, the river’s freshwater influx creates one of the nation’s most productive (commercially and ecologically) fisheries and marine nurseries.

I grew up in Atlanta drinking (treated) Chattahoochee River water. It tasted fine. We used it to water the lawn, run the dishwasher, wash clothes. Once a year or so we’d spend an afternoon picnicking along the riverbank. Mainly we ignored it. Most of Atlanta does, unless the “Hooch,” as we call it, is flooding, polluted with e.Coli when heavy rains overwhelm the sewage system, or drying up during drought.

But the Hooch and its sister river to the east, the Flint, have been tied up in a legal battle that is slowly gaining the attention it needs. The Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) Rivers flow through the three states, and each state needs the freshwater for reasons all of America needs freshwater: industry, power, development, drinking water for growing populations, agriculture, a healthy ecosystem, and recreation.

Currently, the state of Florida is suing Georgia over the amount of water it releases to Florida where the river crosses the border at Woodruff Dam. It’s certainly true that the minimum amount allowed to flow into Florida during times of drought (5000cfs) is too low for the health of the Apalachicola River and Apalachicola Bay ecosystem, but Florida’s lawsuit seems more politically motivated than in tune with grassroots work taking place in the watershed among the various users. The Apalachicola Chattahoochee Flint Stakeholders group is a watershed-wide coalition of industry, conservation, community, and business interests who have been aggregating resources to devise a scientific plan for sharing the water. Something that all stakeholders can agree with. A Georgia Tech hydrology study has been completed but it’s rendered ineffectual with the court case restricting access to information.

Uncle Tony, like most people we met along our month-long canoe trip down the watershed, doesn’t watch documentary films and he doesn’t read the Huffington Post. My brother and I paddled the rivers from source to sea in 2013 and we’ve made a 48-minute documentary film about the journey and the water wars, not from the perspective of talking heads, but from the voices of people like Tony who know the river.

David Hanson

vimeo.com/ondemand/whoownswater

www.whowownswater.org

Map - ACF Three States - flat with icons

The View from My Desk

This is the view from where I sit at my desk, typing this post:

IMG_4538_LR

From my vantage, I count 721 windows but only 13 trees. Actually, I didn’t count the windows (but I did count the trees). There were just too many, which should serve to reinforce the point: I am surrounded by humanity, by a world of human infrastructure, of human creation.

My view includes a couple schools, a police department, a power plant, several churches, restaurants, and a parking garage. There are advantages to living this way (convenience, stimulation). But there are costs. Among those, I count abstraction from the natural environment very highly. My view of the river is obstructed by many, many apartment buildings.

Jay Schoenberger, compiler of I AM COYOTE, is my best camping buddy. Before he left the east coast, he and I would periodically escape whatever cities we were living in and meet for a long weekend of backpacking at a mountain range half way between (the White Mountains, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Adirondacks to name a few). While these trips were often too short to go as deep into the wilderness experience as the writings describe in I AM COYOTE, as deep as Jay’s formative experiences in NOLS, there was undoubtedly a therapeutic aspect to them for me.

On those trips, Jay would always bring along a fire starter: a worn printed out passage from McKibben or Stegner or Dillard, sealed in a Ziploc bag. After stimulating so many good conversations deep in the woods, Jay has bound these passages and shared them with us all. I AM COYOTE is a book I’ll be throwing in my backpack for future trips, trips that reconnect me with the natural world from which I spring, trips that remind me of the importance of time spent in the wilderness that exists beyond the bounds of my man-made environment.

JB Reed