The Theory and Practice of Rivers

[Delivered at the Cleveland Metroparks Celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the ’69 Cuyahoga River Fire, Cleveland, June 2019]

Recently, I have been telling everybody I know about the Maumee River. Among the first things I usually mention are that it sits at the center of the largest watershed in the Great Lakes region, that it drains more than sixty-six hundred square miles of land in Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan, and that it has a lot to do with the rafts of cyanobacteria that have been producing ”dead zones” in the western basin of Lake Erie. If they are still listening, I add from there.

My interest in the Maumee River is largely genealogical. I was born in Fort Wayne, the city of three rivers, established at the place where the St. Joseph and St. Marys come together to form the Maumee. In the fall of 2013, my wife and I moved into the upstairs of a house on Columbia Avenue, along the Maumee near the junction of the three rivers. The proximity got to me. I started reading a lot about the river—local histories, news coverage, EPA reports—and didn’t stop. I became obsessed. Later I said so to my friend Luis, who shrugged and said, “rivers make people crazy.”

Perhaps it was as a result of this condition that I decided, in 2016, to walk from one end of the Maumee River to the other. The trip took eight days. I walked most of the way. At night I camped in backyards or on banks, or slept in the spare bedroom of relatives. In Defiance, Ohio, I stayed at a bed and breakfast. For two days I paddled with a friend of mine in his canoe. I kept a notebook of the journey, collecting observations and ideas that, together with a pile of research, became a book called In the Watershed: A Journey Down the Maumee River.


What is it about rivers? You know what I mean—they’re everywhere, culturally speaking. Take the Bible, one of the most popular cultural texts of all time: right from the beginning, there’s a river in the Garden of Eden. Later, you have the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Jordan. That’s not even counting the metaphors—“river of life,” “peace like a river.”

And it’s not just Christianity. Everywhere you go in the humanities—history, literature, art, music, religion—you’re bound to cross a river, or at least a stream. The writer Anne Lamott has called the river “one of the two foundational metaphors of humanity” (the other is the garden).

A few years back, I ran across Jim Harrison’s poem, “The Theory and Practice of Rivers,” in a collection from a used bookstore. The poem tumbles sinuously across the page, taking streams as both subject and form. Its second stanza begins:

It is not so much that I got
there from here, which is everyone’s
story: but the shape
of the voyage, how it pushed
outward in every direction
until it stopped:
roots of plants and trees,
certain coral heads,
photos of splintered lightning,
blood vessels,
the shapes of creeks and rivers.

 When I read that, I suddenly understood it on a deep level. Rivers have a natural disposition to movement; it’s one of their more conspicuous features. Lives and memories, too, flow and branch, double back, wither and die. Is it any wonder that rivers and stories make such a natural pairing?


But rivers are not only metaphorical. They are profoundly, intrinsically physical.

Officially, rivers fall under the category of streams—“linear flowing bodies of water.” Unofficially, a river is a whole lot more. They run through the center of human and nonhuman life. People have historically tended to organize themselves around water, for reasons, among others, of transportation and hydration.

On top of that, the whole appearance of any given landscape is mainly due to the influence of water in one form or another. Glaciers, rivers, rain—these have spent the better part of history clearing prairies, cutting valleys, sculpting the country into what it looks like today.

It works the other way, too—a river shapes but it is also shaped. Rainfall, temperature, erosion, water diversion, new tributaries, and construction like dams or canals: all can change the course and dimensions of a stream. Change can happen over a long time—decades of climate change, say—or all of a sudden; anyone who’s lived through a flash flood can tell you how. Everything that happens in a watershed happens to its river.

Here’s how it worked on the Maumee:

A long time ago, the land that is now northeast Indiana was slicked over by the Erie lobe of the Laurentide ice sheet. Over time, the glacier melted, receding east, toward what is now Lake Erie. It left behind a round of moraines, which ran northeast and southeast from Fort Wayne, and giant glacial Lake Maumee.

Soon enough, glacial Lake Maumee got to be too much for the moraines. It “overtopped a sag,” as the geologists say, and barreled southwest, in a wash known as the Maumee torrent. The lake left behind an enormous swamp, known as the black swamp, or the Great Black Swamp. Fifteen-hundred square miles large, it was known as one of the most fearsome stretches of land in the Northwest Territory.

I love the Great Black Swamp. When people say the Midwestern landscape is boring, I say, “tell that to nineteenth-century travelers.” People heading for Michigan in, say, 1820, would get to the swamp and decide that was far enough. There was a single road through the swamp: the Maumee and Western Reserve Road. It was completed in the 1820s, and soon gained a reputation as the worst road on the continent. People would get stuck in the muck and have to pay their life savings to be pulled out. Then they’d set up shop and charge the next crew their life savings. A cottage industry developed.

The swamp was an impediment, but it was also an opportunity. People looked at the swamp and saw timber and soil. And, in the nineteenth century, they drained the whole thing, carting the timber away and planting corn and other things in the most fertile soil you’ve ever seen. Cities, too, developed at either end—in Fort Wayne and Toledo—and all across the length of the river.

As it happens, swamps act sort of like kidneys for a river. They filter out impurities and absorb flooding. Stripped of its swamp, the Maumee became a channel. Everything poured out in the watershed—fertilizers, pesticides, industrial waste, sewage—poured right into the river. Over the years, the tonnage has added up.

Now, there are algae blooms swarming Lake Erie—blooms that begin right here in Indiana, practically in my living room. They come every year, like clockwork, feeding on the nitrogen and phosphorous washed downstream by the Maumee River. A few years back, the national guard had to deliver bottled water to residents of Toledo, after the bloom shut down the filtration plant. National Geographic called this “the new normal” for the western basin of Lake Erie.

I used to think of rivers as a sort of wilderness wallpaper, a backdrop to whatever happened to be going on culture-wise. But getting to know the Maumee, I began to see rivers as participants in the great project of history, as carriers of culture and memory. In the most explicit way, if you want to know what’s going on in a watershed—if you want to understand the health of the environment and culture in a given region—just dip a glass of water out of its river.


Okay, you’re probably saying to yourselves, but what about the ’69 fire, the subject of this event? Earlier this week, Belt Magazine published some oral histories of the 1969 fire, collected by the historian Rebekkah Rubin. The fire has become shorthand for a particular, derogatory image of Cleveland, a low point in the history of regional industry. It is also widely seen as a key event in the development of the environmental movement.

As Rubin and the Clevelanders she interviewed tell us, in many ways the fire itself was a relative non-event. It wasn’t the only fire the river had ever experienced, or even the largest. It barely made the front of the Plain-Dealer. Nobody even took a photo. Not to mention that the Cuyahoga was only one of many polluted rivers in industrial cities across the region.

But Mayor Carl Stokes knew about rivers. He knew that this was an opportunity to tap into that most visceral and metaphorical subject, to leverage the power of the image—fire on a polluted river in the middle of a major American city. According to the journalist Joe Mosbrook, “[Stokes] wanted to throw some blame on the state for not properly putting restrictions on the industries. … and he wanted some investigation to see why the state let Cleveland down by allowing this oil slick to continually flow into the river.”

A TIME magazine story on the ‘69 fire, which ran beside a photo from an earlier blaze, stoked the flames. Edgard Tufts, who grew up on the east side of the city, told Rubin that he and others took the Cuyahoga for granted, accepted its pollution to an extent. And Raymond Adams, who attended Case around the time of the fire, said, “[the fire] galvanized my love for the city and the fight for Cleveland, because…it became Cleveland against the world.”

Rivers, like people, have the capacity to hold thousands of narratives in tension. One of those narratives—visible in the oil slick that caught fire—was the story of industrial development along its banks. Another was the story of inequality and corporate malfeasance. A third was the pride of belonging to, and defending, the life a place.

We care about what happens to rivers because we believe that their condition reflects something meaningful about ourselves and our communities. The story, the mythology, of that fire, on this river, set a blaze that’s still burning. Here we are, fifty years later, talking about it. And, not for nothing, the Cuyahoga is also a whole lot cleaner.

That’s the power of story. That’s the power of rivers.


When I talk with people about my trip down the Maumee, they often ask some variation of “So, what did you learn?” It’s not an easy question to answer. I learned the sound of ripples surfing bottom at the Maumee Overlook, and how cyanobacteria blooms across the surface of a body of water. I learned the terms and conditions of a watershed, and the consequences of eliminating a million-acre swamp. I learned a thousand other things, too, most of which I probably do not yet recognize.

The Maumee has become, for me, a way of understanding the history, culture, and ecology of this region. It has influenced and been influenced by, among other things, glacial formation, Native communities, European invasion and settlement, transformation of wetlands, agricultural development, industrialization and recreation. Studying the Maumee, I have come to better know my place—and my place within it.

My favorite river story is just nine words long. It’s the opening lines of the origin story of the Miami tribe, whose ancestral homelands include northeast Indiana and northwest Ohio:

“At first the Miamis came out of the water.”

Can you imagine a better story than that? Move over Hemingway; the Miami are the new gold standard for micro-stories.

Later, of course, white people rounded up the Miami at gunpoint and shipped them downriver, away from their homelands and the watersheds they loved, to reservations they didn’t out west. It happened like this all over the region. Here, where we’re standing, it happened—to the Wyandot, Huron, Shawnee and Delaware.

Like every story involving people and settlement, the story of the region is hope and love and belonging and violence and racism and industry—the good and bad—all mixed up together, tumbling downstream. The history of this place, like the history of all places, is the story of the flow of people and water. And it’s all right there, written across the surface of the rivers.


What I am trying to say is this: I wish I could interview the Cuyahoga. No disrespect to people. I like most of them, generally, and I am interested in hearing their stories. But rivers are older than everybody, and wiser, too. I want to ask the river: what do you know? I want to read the oral history of the region as told by the Cuyahoga.

But the truth is that rivers are already speaking. They do so not in sounds and syllables, but in movement and composition—theirs is a language more musical than literary, more physical than intellectual. We have to learn to listen.

The novelist Iain Sinclair has called rivers “ribbons of memory” in an age of cultural amnesia. In them we see a history of our tenure in this land, and a reflection of our character. The Cuyahoga, like the Maumee, is a long-standing member of the region, bearing in its course the accumulated wisdom of thousands of years. Maybe the river can teach us how to live in this world. It remembers, even as we forget.


*Portions of this talk first appeared in my book In the Watershed (Belt Publishing, 2017), and in another essay published in ACRES Quarterly