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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Chicago's Rivers

I saw this painting, "The Rock," by Peter Blume at the Art Institute in Chicago, 
and while it has nothing specifically to do with today's blog, 
it catches the spirit of the thing I'm writing about.  
Just look at the out-sized fist of the hammer-swinger in the foreground.
I've been home from Chicago for two days now, but my head is still full, so here are some additional musings.

What makes Chicago the city it is, is that it - like New Orleans and DC - was built on a swamp.  What a grand and hubristic thing to build on a swamp.  Remember the Monty Python King who built his castle on a swamp?  "Everyone said it was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I did it anyway.  It sank into the swamp.  So I built another.  It sank into the swamp.  So I built another.  It burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp.  But the fourth castle stayed up!"  Good for you, Monty Python king!  And good for you, Chicago.

I don't know how the king did it, but Chicago started by laying down a firm substratum of garbage as a foundation.  Their rivers, of which more on later, were not only their source of commerce and drinking water, but a handy sewage system for any garbage they weren't using for landfill.  The Cuyahoga in particular became so polluted, it caught fire thirteen times!  To be fair, not all of these were Chicago's fault; nevertheless, there is something almost sublime in the human ability to spawn such an unnatural natural disaster as a river catching fire.  As the Randy Newman song has it, "The lord can make you tumble, the lord can make you turn.  The lord can make you overflow, but the lord can't make you burn.  Burn on, big river, burn on."

Apart from catching a river on fire, Chicago also succeeded in making a river change direction.  Not change course, that's been done lots of times, but direction.  The Chicago River which originally flowed into Lake Michigan, now flows out into the Mississippi River Basin.  There is a Paul Bunyan story accounting for this, and while Paul Bunyan is not a true tall-tale figure - in what sense is a tall-tale ever true? - the story is so clever, I'll summarize it here.

Paul Bunyan was asked by the city fathers to do something about Chicago's river.  It was ideal for transporting lumber and whatnot from Lake Michigan down to the Mississippi, except it inconveniently pointed the wrong way.  Now whenever Paul had serious thinking to do, he liked to eat popcorn, so the cook popped him up a couple of freight-train loads, and Paul sat munching and cogitating.  As he ate, the falling popcorn crumbs convinced the birds it was snowing, and they all flew south for the winter.  This gave Paul his idea.  He fetched an ice storm down from the North Pole and dumped it onto the river, freezing it solid from the top down to the riverbed.  Then, working quickly before it thawed, the lumberjacks cut the river into sections, rotating each one 180 degrees before setting it back in place.  They finished just in time, and when the river thawed out, it was flowing in the opposite direction.

The ancient Greeks would have predicted dire consequences for such human arrogance.  You might solve the Sphinx's riddle one day and save the city, but the gods were watching, their fingers itching on their lightning bolts, just waiting to put you back in your place, ie under their heel.  Hubris was always followed by Nemesis.  But Chicagoans aren't ancient Greeks, and I say hurray for them.  Jurasic Park teaches the same warning against pride, but what American walks away from that movie who doesn't think, "Dinosaurs, cool!  Wouldn't it be neat, if we could really make dinosaurs!"  That's how it is with Chicagoans; they'll fight today's fight today and worry about tomorrow's tomorrow.  The Greeks say, "Call no man happy 'til he dies," but Chicago hollers - other countries yell and shout, but Americans holler - "I ain't licked yet, dammit!" and swings her dirty, bloody fist in the air.  Reverse a river, what a magnificent great foolhardy thing, full of wrest and raze, wreck and reckless.

Of course, the reality of reversing the Chicago River was not a thing of giants and cunning and popcorn.  It was all about science and engineering.  But I prefer the Paul Bunyan version.

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