Old Man River

I don't mean this to sound cruel, but I love it when the river surges towards flood stage. Our return to urbanity moved me to redevelop my love for the Ohio River. I'll sometimes drive to work "the long way" just so I can catch a glimpse of the waters. When I go running, I like to head down the Gilbert Avenue hill towards the river valley (even though I dread the return trip up the incline) so I can be near the waters.

Growing up in Cincinnati means recognizing the importance of the river to this town. It was the river that made Cincinnati one of the fastest growing cities in America in the earlier part of the 19th century (the fifth largest U.S. city by 1850). Of course, it was also the river that led to the city's stagnation; city fathers believed railroads would undermine the river's commerce and transportation and didn't build a major train hub (Union Terminal in the 1930's) until long after Chicago took the lead on it. So while the slowly flowing brown water might be the perfect metaphor of what's gone wrong in Cincinnati, I can't help but view it as a thing of beauty.

Both my parents grew up along the river (albeit in two different towns) so perhaps it's in my blood. The story my mother told me when I was a child about a high school classmate of hers who drowned while swimming across the river (it has a wicked undertow) is still lodged in my mind decades later. And I remember fondly a seventy-year old sign that my father somehow "acquired" that notes the official flood level of the catastrophic 1937 flood (cresting at 80 feet). So while the river has always been a part of me, I continue to harbor a healthy respect for its potential dangers. I was in college in 1997 when the river last teemed over the flood walls, submerging large portions of the shoreline. I've seen firsthand the results of its unleashed power.

And this is why I'm apologetic for my delight in the rising waters. I know that there are people and businesses who are negatively affected by flooding (of course, they choose to be there), but it is mesmerizing. Many locals don't recognize that the river as we view it today is not how it always was. Before the installation of dams, the river would dry up, making it impossible for boats to traverse (click here for a picture from the 1880's illustrating this). So the Ohio River is now more controlled than it ever has been, ensuring a consistent flow of water. Yet despite our technological advances, when we get too much snow or rain we can't prevent the river from flooding. It reminds us that even in our attempts to obtain control, we are still helpless to keep the waters at bay.

I was out for a long run yesterday and couldn't help but stare at the river. After meandering around the riverfront, I ended up a Sawyer Point. Park officials already had barricades up on some of the lower paths because of the rising waters. Naturally, I went around the barriers towards the water's edge. There's a concrete platform the juts out into the waters, usually hovering eight feet over the river; due to the rising waters, the platform was a mere twelve inches above the water level. I stood out on the structure and could see the river flowing rapidly around me. It was awe-inspiring. Here was this massive body of water and little old me watching it flow determinedly downstream.

Maybe that's why I love the river: it forces me to recognize my place in the world. I cannot contain it; I operate at it's mercy. I must respect it or it will be my demise.

The creative mind of the Lord continues to amaze me.