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Old Man River

November 21, 2013 Leave a comment

oldmanriver

In my first post last Sunday, after my extended absence, I listed eight items to write about. The first was Paul Schneider’s new book Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History, which I finished a week ago. Here’s the description from the book’s website:

In Old Man River, Paul Schneider tells the story of the river at the center of America’s rich history—the Mississippi. Some fifteen thousand years ago, the majestic river provided Paleolithic humans with the routes by which early man began to explore the continent’s interior. Since then, the river has been the site of historical significance, from the arrival of Spanish and French explorers in the 16th century to the Civil War. George Washington fought his first battle near the river, and Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman both came to President Lincoln’s attention after their spectacular victories on the lower Mississippi.

In the 19th century, home-grown folk heroes such as Daniel Boone and the half-alligator, half-horse, Mike Fink, were creatures of the river. Mark Twain and Herman Melville led their characters down its stream in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Confidence-Man. A conduit of real-life American prowess, the Mississippi is also a river of stories and myth.

Schneider traces the history of the Mississippi from its origins in the deep geologic past to the present. Though the busiest waterway on the planet today, the Mississippi remains a paradox—a devastated product of American ingenuity, and a magnificent natural wonder.

I first learned about the book in a Wall Street Journal review by Fergus Bordewich a few weeks ago. An excerpt:

In “Old Man River,” Paul Schneider takes us on an epic journey of his own that encompasses the furthest reaches of the Mississippi watershed, from remote geological prehistory down to the re-engineering of the river by modern planners and politicians. Along the way, we encounter Stone Age mammoth hunters, mound-building Indians, explorers such as Hernando de Soto, Robert de LaSalle and Zebulon Pike, and a collection of riverine bandits, hustlers, loggers, antebellum slaves, bone hunters and archaeologists.

Always a lively and companionable guide, Mr. Schneider punctuates his excursions into the past with accounts of his own efforts to canoe the river’s reaches. “As soon as you are in the coffee-colored water, you know immediately that you belong to the Mississippi River,” he writes. “It commands every sense. There’s the sound a truly big river makes—not loud but nonetheless vast and soothing, more like wind over grasses than a waterfall. There is an odor to the river as well, vaguely sweet and earthy, though oddly more like the sea than like a mountain stream or a lake.”

Mr. Schneider is equally observant of the workaday river—the giant barges loaded with grain and gravel, the dams and other man-made obstructions that have altered its character, and the heavy industry that in places crowds its banks.

[snip]

Mr. Schneider eventually delivers us to a river that—while still majestic—has been vastly altered by more than a century of human interference (most of which he detests) intended to make it more easily navigable and safer. A system of damming and hardening of the shoreline throughout the watershed has eliminated natural outlets to wetlands and deepened channels in ways that have led to catastrophic flooding and to the hemorrhaging of soil that was once distributed more or less evenly along the course of the river. “Every forty-five minutes an area of Louisiana marsh roughly the size of a football field disappears under the waves of the Gulf of Mexico,” he writes. This works out, he says, to the disappearance of 2,000 square miles of Louisiana over the past 70 years. “Think one Manhattan a year, one Delaware a century.”

Given that the book is short and the scope vast, the journey is a whirlwind, akin to a visit to eight major European cities in fifteen days. But Schneider chooses his stops well. I wasn’t eager to cover ground water I’d already been over with Mark Twain, or get a recap of the Civil War. Fortunately, I didn’t have to.

Instead, I learned a lot about Native American civilization (the coverage of the Indian mounds is superb), the French explorers, and the siege of Vicksburg. Nor did I want to re-read the story John McPhee already told so well in his classic The Control of Nature. Schneider knows there’s no point trying to outdo McPhee, so he moves on quickly.

Regarding Indian mounds, Schneider’s recounting of his stop at Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa is superb. He becomes entranced as he walks amid the giant bears.

When I moved on to the second beast in the row, though, I unconsciously slowed down and became, as a result, more conscious. The path turned sharply left, then right, then right again, then left as I walked around first one bear leg, then another. Then along the long belly of the beast. When I completed my circuit of the third mound, for some reason I didn’t move on but began again down the same great neck to the grass-furry paw. I walked myself into a trance.

Whether walking the outline of an effigy mound was part of the original rituals practiced by the builders I couldn’t say, but it felt reflexively correct. … Tracing the outline of a knee-high bear in the dimming light above the Mississippi River felt less a pilgrimage than some kind of devotional act. I was going around in circles, after all, not to some holy place. …

I don’t currently practice any circumambulation regularly, other than taking two trips around every new rental car to make sure there are no dings or dents before leaving the parking lot. Truth is I don’t take part in much organized ceremonialism of any sort, thank God. Whether this makes a person more or less vulnerable to surprise attacks from global bear spirits, I have no way of knowing, but I do know that on my fifth trip around the third bear, what hair there is on the back of my neck stood up and would not stand back down.

Effigy Mounds National Monument is now on my list of places to visit. As are so many of Schneider’s stops.

Categories: Books, History

Bea

November 17, 2013 1 comment

bea

My mother-in-law Bea died Friday afternoon. She had not been well for many months. Nonetheless, the decline at the end was rapid and unexpected, with word Tuesday that she was not eating and death 72 hours later. Gail called me at my office in mid-afternoon Friday to say she was going out to be with Bea. We agreed that I could wait until the end of the afternoon. I didn’t get there in time, and neither did Gail.

Bea did not have an easy life. In her final years, she was beset by Alzheimer’s and then a fall and broken hip from which she never regained mobility. Which is especially sad given how much she enjoyed getting around. She didn’t drive, but she was determinedly independent in her use of the Seattle bus system. I’ll never forget Thanksgiving dinner of 1986, when she went toe to toe with another experienced rider, a brilliant colleague of mine, and held her own in bus mastery.

At her first Alzheimer’s home, before the fall, she would frequently head out the door and around the fenced-in open air area surrounding the facility. The only problem was that it consisted of four identical spokes off a central reception area and she didn’t always return to the correct spoke. Right bedroom location, wrong wing. Oh well.

Bea was a fearless cook. We can put aside the question of how successful the results were, though I always seemed willing to eat them. She’d cook day and night (her eating schedule being a bit unpredictable), and no one could out-bake her. Some details might get overlooked, like shutting off the cooktop burners, but no matter. And anyway, thankfully, Jessica lived with her in the last years before she moved to the home, so someone was paying attention when those burners were left on.

No one spread the church news better than Bea. She’d call for Gail, I’d answer, and she’d plunge right in with the latest death, along with the scheduled service at the neighborhood funeral home, Wiggins. That I had no idea who she was talking about, that I knew no one at the church besides the family, that I didn’t go to the church (or any other) never mattered. Nor did I know Wiggins, but I eventually caught on to his identity.

It’s only fitting that she, too, is now passing through Wiggins. I would say I’ll miss her, but that Bea disappeared some time back. I’ve been missing her for years.

Categories: Family, Obituary

I’m Back

November 17, 2013 Leave a comment
Golden Gate from Lincoln Park, San Francisco

Golden Gate from Lincoln Park, San Francisco

In the five years of Ron’s View, this is by far my longest hiatus. Sorry about that. The longer I go without writing, the larger my list of overdue items and the harder it is to get back in the rhythm. Being in San Francisco two weekends ago (for a wedding) and New York/Chicago last weekend (for family, then business) made it difficult to find time to write. Yet, the trips gave me more to write about. And this weekend had its own major event, which perhaps I’ll get to at some point.

In any case, here I am. Topics I may get to eventually:

1. Paul Schneider’s new book Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History, which I finished three nights ago.

2. John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid, his classic of four decades ago, which I’ve been reading intermittently.

3. Ian Rankin’s latest John Rebus crime novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible, which was just released in the UK and arrived by post two days ago. (I couldn’t wait for its US publication in mid-January.)

4. Dinner at Cafe Tiramisu in San Francisco.

5. A visit to San Francisco’s de Young Museum the next day, with a focus on its fabulous American art collection.

6. A Sunday morning drive over the bridge to Sausalito, with an unexpected “grass is greener on the other side” tale.

7. The happy coincidence of our New York trip and the arrival at the Frick of the exhibition Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis, which we attended last weekend.

8. The joys of my eleventh annual November overnight trip to the O’Hare Hilton, where I was eating dinner at Andiamo a week ago now.

I will surely write more about some of these items.

Categories: Books, Travel, Writing

The Victorian Internet

November 1, 2013 Leave a comment

victorianinternet

Almost three years ago, Paul Krugman wrote a post mentioning three books:

As it happens, I’m rereading William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West — yes, on my Kindle, which has made a serious improvement in my life. And everyone with any interest in economics should read his account of the rise of the Chicago Board of Trade. Railroads changed everything. It wasn’t just the fact that stuff could be shipped further, faster, cheaper; the railroad also led to the replacement of concrete with abstract forms of ownership (the farmer owned a receipt for a bushel of grain, not a particular sack), standard-setting, futures markets, and on and on. If you’ve read Marc Levinson’s The Box, about containerization (which you should), it’s startling to see how many of the themes were prefigured by the grain trade, as standard-sized rail cars replaced flatboats, as grain elevators essentially began treating grain as a fluid rather than a solid, as conveyor belts replaced stevedores toting sacks.

Add in the telegraph — the Victorian Internet, as another must-read book puts it — and it was an incredible change.

That spring I read Cronon’s book, and it was extraordinary. (See post here.) I got to The Box a couple of months later. But I never did move on to the third book, Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers.

Earlier this week, Krugman recommended Standage’s newest book, Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years.

I just want to give a shoutout to a book I’m reading, and really enjoying: Tom Standage’s Writing on the Wall: Social Media — The First 2,000 Years. I’ve been a big fan of Standage’s ever since his book The Victorian Internet, about the rise of the telegraph, which shed a lot of light on network technologies while also being great fun. Now he’s done it again.

Standage’s argument is that the essential aspects of social media — exchange of information that runs horizontally, among people who are affiliated in some way, rather than top-down from centralized sources — have been pervasive through history, with the industrial age’s news media only a temporary episode of disruption. As he shows, Cicero didn’t get his news from Rome Today or Rupertus Murdochus — he got it through constant exchanges of letters with people he knew, letters that were often both passed on to multiple readers and copied, much like tweets being retweeted.

My response? I went straight to Amazon and downloaded The Victorian Internet. I’m halfway through and it is indeed great fun.

I’ve just started a chapter discussing the use of telegraphy to cheat to obtain insider information on stocks and horse races, and the parallel use of encryption methods. We’re more or less in the 1870s at this point. But already earlier in the century, when techniques were developed in France, and then Britain, to send visual signals from tower to tower, one telegraph hill to the next (discussed in the early part of the book; a system in Britain used six on or off signals at each tower, essentially converting data to binary form as modern computers do), people were cheating to gain financial advantage on the stock exchange.

I haven’t yet reached the part where the precursor to the NSA was vacuuming up all messages and listening in on Chancellor Bismarck. Maybe next chapter.

Categories: Books, History, Technology