Reflections on my first stormy night back in Pittsburgh.
May 5, 2011
Ankle-deep alfalfa crushed beneath my boots and parted as I pulled my boat out of the muddy water. The scent of manure, trampled vegetation, and water hung in the humid air. The occasional vehicle passed over the rusted steel of the Ledbetter bridge, thumping on its uneven surface. Under it the Tennessee River barely moved—its momentum slowed by the backwaters of the sprawling Ohio downstream.
I sat for several minutes—hidden below the roadway. The sun made its slow fall towards the horizon—igniting the muddy surface of the river. Insects buzzed in the still air. Gar rose continuously in the flooded field. Their long bodies rolling above the surface—stirring the waterlogged crop below. Sitting there on the Kentucky shore the lingering anxiety about my lack of movement downstream during the stormy days of late April evaporated—the inevitable end to my spring on the Ohio had come.
On the road above local sheriffs and the National Guard stopped cars, assuring only local residents ventured into their flooded county. The state had ordered all boats off the water. Every town from here on would have their floodwalls up—closed off from the river. Many of their residents already evacuated. Islands and shorelines no longer offered any safe place to over night. Their outlines delineated only by the flooded canopy. In some places the river spread miles out into the countryside—a maze of flooded hedgerows, rooftops, treetops, and powerlines.
Though I had been paddling with the river’s crest it would be weeks before the floodwaters completely receded. Early that day on the deserted river I decided to hold the last 50 miles of the Ohio and the lower Mississippi river for the calmer days of late summer. The 2nd highest flood in the last century washed me once more onto the Kentucky shore.
For several weeks storms and high water had kept me away from the river for extended periods. Thankfully new friends and family opened their lives and state to me. I watched parts of the Tennessee River rise as flash floods and tornadoes remade the landscape. I crawled through the dark walls of underground rivers and looked out across beautiful pastures from atop haybales. I worked the rich Kentucky soil in the Trigg County countryside and the backyards of Bowling Green. Along side coal miners and mayors I watched a small town struggle against the river, eating together, sleeping side by side in folding chairs. Our labor supported by sandbags and prayer.
I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed, and intractable, Patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier; Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce; Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges. The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable. Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder Of what men choose to forget.
T.S. Eliot—The Dry Salvages