Can massive computing power and artificial intelligence crack the code of deep history of places? This is a fundamental question of a project discussed in an article on nature.com “The ‘time machine’ reconstructing ancient Venice’s social networks”. Frédéric Kaplan plans to “…scan documents including maps, monographs, manuscripts and sheet music. It promises not only to open up reams of hidden history to scholars, but also to enable the researchers to search and cross-reference the information, thanks to advances in machine-learning technologies.”
The goal is to crunch enough data to outline the connections that emerged in historical societies including “social networks, trade, and knowledge”. While of interest to historians, it could also inform economists and epidemiologists, as well as other disciplines. Much like Rome, Venice, mentioned as “The Serene Republic“, is a good for this endeavor due to the wealth of knowledge and its organization, aided by its protected lagoons and it’s desire for documentation.
“As Venice’s empire grew, it developed administrative systems that recorded vast amounts of information: who lived where, the details of every boat that entered or left the harbour, every alteration made to buildings or canals.”
While there was been study over the years, much of the archive “…predominantly written in Latin or the Venetian dialect, has never been read by modern historians. Now it will all be systematically fed into the Venice Time Machine, along with more unconventional sources of data, such as paintings and travellers’ logs.”
Kaplan’s interest has been to employ AI for lingustics, so the concept of using machine learning to study patterns in language is fundamental to the work, along with digitization of many thousands of pages of documents, building on work already done by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage.
There’s a lot more about the linguistic ‘hacking’ of documents, as illustrated below, but the concept also involved diving into the archival cartography. “In 2006, a huge, purpose-built scanner began to digitize the archive’s precious store of more than 3,000 maps of Italian towns, including many commissioned by Napoleon. These ‘cadastral’ maps delineate property boundaries and record the ownership of small parcels of land; some of the documents are as large as 4 metres by 7 metres.”
The result is the ability to create some amazing detail with overlay of multiple sources:
“One cadastral map of Venice that he commissioned in 1808 has provided a backbone of reliable data, allowing historians to add geographical context to a 1740 census that lists citizens who owned and rented property in the city. By combining this with 3D information about buildings from paintings such as those of Canaletto, the time-machine team has produced an animated tour through Venice, showing which businesses were active in each building at the time.”
A video on YouTube outlines the ambitions of the project. From their summary: “The State archives of Venice contain records stretching back over a thousand years. The vast collection of maps, images and other documents provide an incredibly detailed look into Venetian history. This could be used to create a kind of virtual time machine for historians and the public to explore the city.”
What implications does this have for hidden hydrology? To me, the overwhelming task of both digitizing information and determining patterns is something that is daunting for a team of professionals, much less individuals looking to glean discoveries from their local place. The sheer effort and technology in digitization and analysis could be employed to discover key linkages and patterns that may illuminate historical hydrology, topography, and other clues. An example mentioned in the article highlights the concept, using animations to look at spatio-temporal change , in fact “One is a dynamic video of the development of the Rialto from AD 950 onwards, using diverse sources of information at different time points. The simulation shows how the buildings — and the iconic Rialto Bridge — sprung up among the salt marshes, along with the area’s periodic destruction by fires and subsequent reconstructions.”
The possibilities with large data sets is intriguing, and the article mentions cross-disciplinary opportunities, as well as larger connections to other ‘time machines’ in cities, such as a new effort in Amsterdam and possibilities in Paris. It adds a dimension of big data as a potential avenue for exploration, yet is tempered by age-old techniques and cautions of the next shiny object.
“The unbridled ambitions of the time-machine project are a concern for some researchers, not least because many of its core technologies are still being developed. “The vision of extending digital representation into different time slots is absolutely, self-evidently right — but it might be better to develop things more in a lot of different, small projects,” says Jürgen Renn, a digital-humanities pioneer and a director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. Nevertheless, Daston suspects that the time machine heralds a new era of historical study. “We historians were baptized with the dust of archives,” she says. “The future may be different.”
Last week was Part 2 of the Waterlines class, featuring archaeologist Dennis Lewarch, Suquamish Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, with a concept of ‘Before the Cut’. This was an exploration “using archaeological, ethnographic and historical data [to discuss] the effects of shoreline transformations on indigenous populations.” Similar to the first class, the depth and breadth of the cultural history, and his more expansive title ‘Archaeology and Ethnographic Background of Seattle and Prior Massive Anthropogenic Modifications” hints at the depth of this topic.
Lots of details here, but the idea that in the past 14,000 years of occupation by native peoples, after migration from the north via the Bering Land Bridge and along the outside edge of the ice. There are various theories, but that the retreating glaciers opened up a path between that allowed access, and continuous occupation is found throughout the Northwest in archaeological sites 12-13000 years of age. Once here, the land has changed via sea level rise, mudflows, earthquakes, tsunamis, subsidence, alluvial processes, and more. The story is thus the land shaping people, and the people shaping land. The defining characteristics of the different tribal groups are called adaptions, and place origins of geography, such as the Saltwater adaptation, particularly the Suquamish who lived near the sea, versus the Riverine adaptation, the Duwamish people who lived near the river. Other adaptations are tied to lakes and inland/upland areas, all of which collectively shape the speech, family community, and cultures. For Lewarch’s presentation, the focus discussed a larger history of regional indigenous occupation of the Seattle area, with focus on some of the areas near Seattle that had significance.
Black River Origins
One of the main points of origin for Duwamish people, based on the above adaption, is the Black River, where four original villages were located. An excerpt from the 1909 USGS Topographic map of the area shows the former drainage, where the Cedar River flowed in from the east, and the Black River drained the south part of Lake Washington, near Renton. This confluence also was fed from the south by the former route of the White River, as all of it flowed into the Duwamish and out to the Sound. The names of the settlements of the ‘People of the Lake Fork’ and the inhabitants near the Little Cedar River, and their evolution in living off the land and the river ecosystems for many years.
The demise of this home place began with channelization of the Cedar River into Lake Washington, and ended he lowering of the lake when the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks were built in 1916. The elevation of Lake Washington was lowered nine feet, to the same as Lake Union, which severed its outflow to the Black River, captured in the photo below shows the river after the lowering of the lake, where it slowly died and has (mostly) been subsequently buried. For more on the Black River history, a short blurb on this from David Williams here.
The map from the Wikipedia page on the Black River also shows the before and after and the erasure of the original location of Duwamish settlements through reconfiguration of the hydrology of the region, another in a long line of massive manipulations in the region. The Duwamish People were living in the area, and continued to do so, even as the Black River was dying. They were relocated to reservations, and as Lewarch mentioned, they were sent to coastal areas near the ocean, and being a river tribe, kept returning to the river to fish for many years after, where they lived on a property owned by Erasmus Smithers, until it was burned in 1896. There’s inevitably a long history of settlement and resettlement and disenfranchisement throughout recent history I’m glossing over, but the idea of a river tribe not having a river seems par for the course of how tribes were treated. Secondary to this, the subtle differences between different tribes were not recognized, with many Suquamish or other tribes in the region being lumped into the Duwamish by colonists.
The Duwamish River obviously had a significant place in the history of this river tribe, and the estuary connected the river people with those of the sea and the density of place names in that zone . A number of archaeological sites amidst the oxbows of this area. The 1899 US Coast Survey shows the bay and larger estuary, with the area of downtown Seattle starting to build out, but prior to the majority of the land filling to come.
A map of these old configuration juxtaposed with the channel that exists today shows the level of land filling and manipulation done to this area to carve out industrial lands. From the fantastic Duwamish Revealed site: “About 100 years ago, the Duwamish was straightened and dredged, reducing 14 miles of winding river to 5 miles of industrial “waterway.” Nearly all of the native habitat – mudflats, marshes, and swamps surrounded by old growth Cedar, Douglas Fir, and Hemlock trees – was replaced by agriculture, then industry. The Duwamish is home to three Native tribes: The Duwamish, the Muckleshoot, and the Suquamish, and has immense cultural importance to them. The word “Duwamish” is an Anglicized version of Dkhw’Duw’Absh, meaning “people of the inside” in Lushootseed, the language of the Coast Salish people.”
While native peoples were instrumental in building the city and working in it’s saw mills, fisheries and other industry, rapidly changing Seattle began to try to eliminate the native residents of the city, passing laws in 1863 to make it illegal for Indians to live in Seattle unless they worked for whites, villages and settlements were burned. Native peoples moved north as development occurred, and tended to stay near the water, occupying places within the network of piers and wharves. One such place was Ballast Island, formed from ships dumping rocks after their voyages, which slowly accumulated into made land. A photo from the area shows the colonization of this space by Native peoples, who camped out around the wharfs fringes, being ogled by early Seattlites. In 1891 they were forcibly removed, one in a string of forced removals that shaped the early history of the area.
West Point & Shilshole
Moving away from downtown, the occupation and history of West Point, the point that was formerly military outpost and now Discovery Park, along with being the massive sewage-treatment plant. This area was a tidal marsh that was occupied and used, with the formation of sediment along with earthquakes shaping. When the treatment plant was being expanded, a significant archaeological effort was undertaken, beautifully documented in this online resource from the Burke Museum. Shilshole also has a significance to Native Seattle, with the native word meaning ‘threading the needle’ to get into the small mouth that led into Salmon Bay, which was littered with shell middens and other features showing occupation, similar to other areas on the coast. Prior to the creation of the locks, this area . One long-time resident was Salmon Bay Charlie. A great resource for this and other Seattle history is the blog by Paul Dorpat featuring ‘Seattle: Now & Then‘, where you can investigate the area in some more detail. From the post: “Salmon Bay Charlie and his wife lived in their cedar plank home on the south shore of Magnolia’s Salmon Bay. For half a century Charlie, also known as Siwash Charlie, sold salmon, clams and berries to the first settlers and later to the soldiers at Fort Lawton. Today’s historical view shows Charlie’s house at the turn of the century, taken by the photography firm, Webster and Stevens.”
A bit to the east, the connection between the eastern edge of Lake Union and Lake Washington is a good discussion of place names, including the connections between Lushootseed, or Coast Salish names and colonist names. This brought up a discussion of the area below,
I rotated the Waterlines map to match the same orientation, and the references to the area marked B, which was a village site named sɬuwiɬ, “Little Canoe Channel” that marked the mouth of Ravenna Creek, where Lewarch mentions there were stories of salmon runs up Ravenna. There’s also Lake Union, marked as #21, which is called x̌ax̌əču meaning, “Small Lake” and Foster Island, in an area named staɬaɬ or “Baby Fathom” showing that even with a translation there is still a story missing. Perhaps a shallow zones at the mouth of the creek. The cut, marked as #18 which is named sxʷac̓adwiɬ translated as “Carry a Canoe” meaning it probably wasn’t passable as a waterway until later when the Denny’s opened it up as a log-sluice to move timber between the two points.
According to Lewarch, the notes from Waterman were sort of a mess, so the editors compiled it into something readable, including an amazing figure in Seattle history, Vi Hilbert, a Puget Salish and “a conservationist of the Lushootseed language and Culture”. While Waterman interviewed a small group of around 25 native people for his work, it generated over one thousand place names. And as Lewarch mentioned, all of those interviewed said if they had talked to the Elders, they would have ended up with 1000s more, a sad testament to a cultural history lost forever. Another resource for this is Coll Thrush’s book ‘Native Seattle‘ offers a great section with maps of those place names developed along with Anthropologist Nile Thompson, a snapshot of one below with the accompanying Lushootseed language and origins. Many of these as I mentioned ended up on the Waterlines map, with more abbreviated descriptions. The one below shows the NW corner with Green Lake in the center, and West Point, Lake Union, and Salmon Bay, along with areas along the coast marked.
Lots of threads to follow and stories to connect. In general, the talk focused on the Indigenous cultures and their resilience, both pre-European settlement and after colonization, displacement, and more. He ended up with a quote from Chief Seattle, and discussion both of the potential misinterpretation of his words by the translator, and whether it was an environmental, or social statement, but the multiple meanings that resonated strongly in Seattle history. He quoted a passage:
“And when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The White Man will never be alone.”
It could be both a warning or a statement that shows that resilience of Native people wasn’t just in survival, but left a permanent mark on the landscape and people. The culture and place of what Seattle is and the way we should live is etched in history and resonates in the places dotting the map of Seattle, including waters visible and hidden.
A preliminary presentation featured Amir Sheikh, one of the primary collaborators on the Waterlines Project, and he discussed much of the history and process of the overall project and methodology along with framing the concept of place names using Lushootseed language, as featured on the Waterline maps (see my post on language here). One video he showed was “Djidjila’letch to Pioneer Square: From Native village to Seattle metropolis“, a video which takes the viewer “…from Native village to metropolis, the Pioneer Square neighborhood of Seattle has undergone dramatic transformations. This animation provides a bird’s eye glimpse at some of the social, economic, and landscape histories of the neighborhood through time.”
Excited to see this announcement of a series classes focused around the Waterlines Project (see my post about it here as well). The four week ‘Waterlines Class Series‘ meets Wednesdays at the Burke Museum and costs $120 ($100 for Burke members), and aims to cover lots of territory on Seattle’s interesting landscape history. From the site:
Wednesday, April 19, 2017 The Origins of Seattle’s Landscape Dr. Stan Chernicoff Discover the dynamic geological forces that shaped and continue to shape the lands of the Salish Sea. During his 30-year tenure at the University of Washington, geologist Dr. Stan Chernicoff established a unique rapport with his students and a mastery of subject matter. In 2000, he received the University of Washington Distinguished Teacher Award for lively curiosity, commitment to research and passion for teaching.
Wednesday, April 26, 2017
Before the Cut
Dennis Lewarch, Suquamish Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Using archaeological, ethnographic and historical data, Dennis Lewarch disccuses the effects of shoreline transformations on indigenous populations. A professional archaeologist, Lewarch has worked in western Washington for over 30 years and brings useful insights that intertwine environmental change, archaeological data and tribal land use in the region.
Wednesday, May 3, 2017 Waterway: The Story of Seattle’s Locks and Ship Canal David B. Williams Find out what drove Seattle’s civic leaders to pursue the dream of a Lake Washington Ship Canal for more than 60 years and what role that canal has played in the region’s development over the past century. The author of Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography, The Seattle Street-Smart Naturalist and Seattle Walks: Discovering History and Nature in the City, David B. Williams also organizes the Burke’s annual Environmental Writer’s Workshop. His upcoming book, Waterway, will be out June 2017.
Wednesday, May 10, 2017 Reclaiming the Duwamish Eric Wagner and Tom Reese Eric Wagner and Tom Reese, author and photographer of Once and Future River: Reclaiming the Duwamish, discuss the history of Seattle’s relationship with its one and only river. Wagner’s writing has appeared in Scientific American, Smithsonian, Audubon and other publications. Reese is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated photojournalist recognized for his feature work and explanatory reporting during his career at The Seattle Times.
A diversion from the explorations of precedents of cities, we turn to Swimming To Heaven: London’s Lost Rivers by Iain Sinclair the “british writer, documentarist, film maker, poet, flaneur, metropolitan prophet and urban shaman, keeper of lost cultures and futurologist” I wasn’t sure what to expect, and was pleasantly surprised, as was one of those singular experiences that transcends disciplinary boundaries of urbanist, historical, literary, and hydrological worlds. While the topics is Lost Rivers and exploration of the urban, the meditations on water and experience inform a larger connection with place, history, and language akin to what I reference in the title as ‘Poetics’.
Sinclair starts to explain the motivation early:
“Walking over or alongside the buried rivers of London stitches a form of collective memory in our sides.” (3)
Mentioning a continuing fascination and obsession with the water, Sinclair points out early on where the book derived from. “My neurosis persists: the only ways worth negotiating with this world, while still hoping to connect with the rhythms of the cosmos, are by walking and swimming. Which brings me to the haunting complexity of London’s buried rivers. They’re not lost, not at all. Just because you can’t see a thing, as Ed Dorn points out, doesn’t mean that it’s not there. The rivers continue, hidden and culverted as they might be, to flow through our dreams, fixing the compass of our moods and movements. The Walbrook, the Fleet, the Tyburn, the Westbourne, the Effra, the Neckinger: visible or invisible, they haunt us.” (5)
A previous book by Sinclair (which I have not read) is a meditation on his home place, captured in detail in Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, which referenced again in Lost Rivers, when he mentions,“Hackney, before the coming of the canals and railways, was quite a desirable suburb” (14) and “…all these blessings derived from the existence of a founding river, the Hackney Brook. Now bricked over, made into a sewer, lost to us.” (15)
Sinclair connects this to the lost rivers, “It is not possible to understand the growth and development of Hackney, for example, without registering the presence of that subterranean river, the Hackney Brook” (5-6)
Hackney Brook as lost river thus becomes the inspiration, per Sinclair. “I think we should first of all take on the conceit of the ‘lost’ river as being applicable to the whole of London. How do we define a lost river? Are these simply rivers that have become degraded by exploitation, the excesses of mechanical industry? They are present, certainly, their names coded into the streets, but you’d hardly know that they’re there. Or are we talking about rivers that have disappeared — been culverted — and I think that’s more like it. I the mid-nineteenth century, there was a moment when many inconvenient tributaries were culverted, because we needed to introduce, by way of the civil engineer, Sir Joseph Bazalgette, a very effective sewerage system. A circuit of London’s waste to be washed away, purified, dumped into the Thames.” (15-16)
Sinclair laments the path that led to the burial of streams like Hackney Brook, or others throughout London. “The old rivers, with their intensely local benefits and pastoral memory traces, were also deemed anachronistic. Either rivers were of use, for transport or water power, or they were hidden, as carriers of disease and conduits of filth and waste.” Seen as progress, “…a sewage system was a proud Victorian boast of progress, contrived to lift the citizens of this powerful imperial metropolis away from the fetid stinks and oozes of the earlier, louder and stickier city of collisions.” (16) His rivers lost to this modernization, are the “…rivers of memory, of inspiration” (7) and thus derive from the idea that “certain areas of the city have their individual sense of time”. (13) While Hackney Brook is the local place for Sinclair, he posits that “…the most mythologized of London’s lost rivers is the Fleet.” (16)
This is seen throughout history, beginning with Wren’s concept for London post-fire in 1666 could have transformed the city differently, utilizing the River Fleet (now buried) as a Venetian canal.
From another post from Chris Haile expands with an explanation of the plan in more detail: “From the remaining part of Fleet Street which escaped the fire about St. Dunstan’s Church a straight and wide street crosses the valley passing by the south side of Ludgate, and thence in a direct line through the whole City terminating at Tower Hill, but before it descends into the Valley where the Great Sewer [the Fleet, a tributary of the Thames] runs… Passing forward we cross the valley, once sullied with an offensive sewer now beautified with a useful canal, with wharves on each side, passable by as many bridges as streets that cross it.” (from Haile 2/1/14)
Sinclair meditates on this plan – and the brief moment before the opportunity was lost. “There was that moment when Christopher Wren felt that he could initiate, with a revamp of the Fleet, a new Venice, right at the river’s mouth, close to St Paul’s Cathedral: a shining rational city of domes and bridges and splendid public works…. Wren didn’t have CGI futurism as a tool, ersatz utopianism, but he did have drawings that suggested Fleet-as-Venice would be a wonder of the age. Except that every soon, and inevitably, the river was a ditch, a sewage creek crusted with dead dogs.” (22-23) The dichotomy of river as urban canal versus the reality of river as sewer is perhaps the dominant theme of lost rivers, culminating in the Great Stink and the Victorian modernization of municipal sewers, which has Sinclair adds, had the result that finally, “the river was enclosed, sealed over, lost.” (23)
Sinclair also evokes a number of literary figures in the book, asking “What is this affinity of London visionaries, writers and mystics, with living water?”. (7) This includes William Blake, who “…lived close to the Thames, tracking the River Fleet to Hampstead, to visit the Linnells, Blake is making a return to the source. He is swimming uphill, absorbing the potency of a partly submerged stream; one of the arteries of his city. There is a very particular sense of London and its geography. And underlying all of this are torrential lines of verse in the great epic poems and wild waters of inspiration surging, stalling, tumbling over weirs and falls.” (6-7)
Another poet inspired by the Fleet is Aiden Andrew Dun author of the long poem Vale Royal“…registers the accretions of fable associated with what he calls the ‘River of Wells’. Dun tracks the fleet from the seven springs of Kenwood, through Camden Town to Kings Cross. He speaks of a river famous ‘for healing and medicinal waters’.” tapping the deep vein of “…meaning and mythology of the Fleet. In practical terms, he leads walks that he calls ‘river pilgrimages’ through the historic traces of the submerged stream.” (17)
Dun “remind us that the Fleet ‘still runs under Kings Cross today’… ‘As late as the mid-nineteenth century’, he says, ‘it ran on the surface through a green and pleasant land. But south of the Euston Road at this period it was already bricked-over and buried’.” (33)
From Vale Royal:
Kings Cross, dense with angels and
histories / there are cities beneath your
pavements / cities behind your skies. Let
me see! (34)
Building on the work of Dun and Blake, Sinclair continues to delve into literary ruminations on the lost rivers. He mentions that “Text, under the influence of buried rivers, becomes porous.”(30) which is true of London poets Bill Griffiths and Allen Fisher both of whom “…treat our lost rivers. Both of them track South London streams, in the thick of local particulars, towards and erased history, to emerge in the contemporary world of political opportunism, civic discord.” (37)
Anecdotes abound as well, with diversions on the subterranean sewers in The Third Man, which was set in Vienna where we picture Orson Welles – “flapping overcoat running through picturesque sewers. Welles was not ever keen on going down into the tunnels, so they ended up recording sound effects under London: in the Fleet.” (23)
And a special one I’d love to look at closer, the Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead (Beneath the Surface of Victorian Sensationalism) by Thomas Boyle, which “The stream rushes on, now under the pavements, slaughterhouses, prisons, book stalls, down the valley of the Fleet, towards myths of albino hogs in the sludge of dripping subterranean spaces… Legends of animals, escaped from Smithfield, feeding on refuse, living in darkness… It has been said that… Hampstead sewers shelter a monstrous breed of black swine.” (35-36)
The literary and the sensational intersect in the sewers and buried rivers of cities, something that is unlike other books on Lost Rivers that take the approach of tour guide, ecological investigator, or historian. Sinclair: “However contradictory your approach to writing about the city, whether you’re a modernist using conceptual methods of research, combined with walking, bus trips, photography, painting, or whether you’re a traditional poet obedient to strict form, rivers infiltrate your projections as memory strips or teasing songlines.” (39-40)
The dialogue is critical without being overly environmental or sentimental. In his discussions, there are moments when the impact of buried rivers sometimes comes to the surface of the writing.
“When rivers lose their status, spiritually and materially, the land is drained of value.” (52-53)
The loss of value becomes transactional, “Hidden rivers are part of an attempt to found a celestial city above the degraded particulars of the nexus of business and banking.” (25) The cost below for another type of city seen above, the “subterranean streams brooding beneath speculative developments in the new suburbs of the west.” (62-63)
This is where we enter the poetics of Lost Rivers, the book a lovely and dichotomous metaphor of the above and below ground city – the old and the new, that looks at loss yielding “…this vision of hybrid London, rus in urbe, snaking away to source, beyond the reservoirs, parks, spring pools…” (49) while also connecting to “London’s plural nature: city within city, upside-down topography, rivers flowing under the ground, heaven inside the ball of earth.” (37)
Unless noted, all quotes from: Sinclair, Iain. Swimming to Heaven: The Lost Rivers of London. London: The Swedenborg Society, 2013.
Many precedents and projects from the around the globe, being slowly populated in the Resources section. These will all get some more in-depth attention, and starting it off locally, I wanted to highlight The Waterlines Project. The ability to ‘Discover and Explore Seattle’s Past Landscapes’ is hosted by the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, and offers a densely researched and vibrant picture of the historic cultural and ecology of Seattle prior to the significant engineering that has subsequently taken place.
“Founded on Indian ground by American settlers in 1851, Seattle is one of the most dramatically engineered cities in the United States. Its shorelines have been extended, lagoons filled, hills flattened and rivers re-routed. Built on an active geological fault near a large volcano, Seattle has also been jolted by huge earthquakes, washed by tsunamis, covered by volcanic mud and ash, fluted by glaciers and edged by rising seas.”
The project is historical in nature, using the shorelines as a datum for use and reconfiguration over time, which the creators offer as”an appropriate and compelling framework for viewing the city’s history–one that will engage public audiences and raise themes that are important in American history.” Synthesis of documentary info (maps, photos) alongside oral histories and other archaeological and geological study weaves a mosaic visual that is more accessible to the public.
The main product of the project is the large Waterlines Project Map, which available in a number of places around Seattle, as well as graphic and PDF download on the site. The front illustrates the mid-19th Century landscape, before settlement by non-native peoples, including keyed places that reference Coast Salish terms, many of which are evocative and descriptive of function, such as The Growing Place and Water Falling Over an Edge. The ecology is also evident, with a range of forest, prairie, wetland, rivers and creeks.
There’s also a very faint outline of the modern shoreline, which doesn’t dominate but gives a feel for the adjustment of these Waterlines the significant filling, straightening, and flattening that occurred. This is highly evident in the mouth of the Duwamish River seen below, with the creation of Harbor Island and industrial lands south of downtown, as well as the channelization of the previously bendy river.
The back side of the map shows more information in the form of tours of significant historical stories, such as the lakes, glaciation, and rivers, as well as the original settlement location in current Pioneer Square, which was also an indigenous village named The Crossing Over Place. There’s also a timeline of the most recent 20,000 years of geology and development for a bit of long context.
The background for the map is immense, drawing from the previous work of the the Puget Sound River History Project, and involves multiple disciplines. yet it’s simple and effective, somewhat similar to the Mannahatta 2D visuals. The site offers additional source materials, such as maps, photographs and links to resources. Some interesting juxtaposition occurs when paired with recent aerial photos at similar scale – both as a way to emphasis erasure and addition, but also to show traces of what still remains.
The iterations of time between the two time intervals above are indicative of the Seattle penchant for ‘making land’ (matched in intensity with ‘taking land’ perhaps). The story of the filling of the Duwamish and colonization of tideflats and water from 1875 through 2008 in the series below and reinforces the significant alteration that both radically shifted the ecology of Seattles only river, but also provided land to grow the city and industrial base.
The core team includes Peter Lape, Amir Sheikh, and Donald Fels, and a host of collaborators listed here. While referential, the focus is not on the buried streams and creeks, so my work is complementary and draws much in terms of inspiration and information from this project as well as possible collaborations and resources in Seattle.
For a bit more context surrounding the Little Crossing Over Place, this video made by the team shows the transformation of the Pioneer Square area of Seattle “a bird’s eye glimpse at some of the social, economic, and landscape histories of the neighborhood through time.”
Another inspiration for Hidden Hydrology is the writing of David James Duncan (author of a couple of my favorite books, The River Why and The Brothers K amongst the best). In his book of essays from 2002 entitled ‘My Story as Told by Water‘ Duncan tells some stories with a Portland area spin about his youthful explorations in the area.
The idea of oral histories providing an additional layer to mapping and other on-the-ground study is intriguing, as the narrative is both informative and evocative of what these lost urban waterways meant, and what was lost along with them. Early in his childhood, he mentions growing up on Mount Tabor (the volcanic outgrowth in East Portland – not the biblical version, seen below between downtown and Mt. Hood in the image), and his quote worth discussing hints at the disconnect between the modern city and the natural processes which shape and feed these places:
“My birth-cone’s slopes were drained by tiny seasonal streams, which, like most of the creeks in that industrialized quadrant of Portland, were buried in underground pipes long before I arrived on the scene. … I was born, then, without a watershed. On a planet held together by gravity and fed by rain, a planet whose every creature depends on water and whose every slope works full-time, for eternity, to create creeks and rivers. I was born with neither. The creeks of my birth-cone were invisible, the river from somewhere else entirely.” (p.4)
The water system from early in Portland’s history, was stored at high points like Mount Tabor and piped to surrounding neighborhoods. This shot from 1912 shows one of the reservoirs that are still in operation today (for how long, is a good question).
The artificiality of the watershed is evident in Duncan’s discussions, as he makes do with building creeks using the hose and the power of gravity (much to his mothers chagrin) – using with water delivered to reservoirs and coming to his tap, as is common in many cities, from distant locales while burying the remnant hydrology that exists. A map of the water system shows the existing Bull Run watershed in relation to Portland.
Continuing this discussion on Johnson Creek on a youthful visit, showing the degradation of some of the existing waterways that has been occurring for many years. “It was just one of Portland’s dying creeks. Really, one with a much-needed but long-lost Indian name. Johnson Creek was now its anemic title. But it was twenty-six miles long, hence a little too big to bury.” (p.10)
It’s heartening to see the restoration of the creek, which is one of the few to remain on the east side in some natural form, through the work of a number of local groups such as the Johnson Creek Watershed Council, and recently there were reports of dead coho salmon found 15 miles upstream – which is significant as it is the furthest upstream anyone has noticed these species in many years, and a testament to the work on restoration and improvement. Something Duncan would appreciate, no doubt.
While water and rivers was of importance to Duncan, the main driving force for him was fishing – which drove the explorations to the wilds of the city. After leaving Mount Tabor, the family moved further east towards Gresham, and lived for a time on Osborne Road, the future route of I-205. Duncan mentions the lure of possible fishing holes, but the inaccessibility: “A spring a quarter-mile from our new house flowed into a series of backyard trout ponds for neighbors, but these ponds were picture-windowed, guard-dogged, private. The closest fish-inhabited waters to my house, so far as I knew, were the Columbia, three miles due north.” (p.17)
The story continues around the small town of Fairview, under Halsey Street, where Duncan spotted a kid and discovered a hidden world amidst the underbrush: “…the shocking thing, the magical thing, was that he was standing knee-deep in clear, lively creek water. A creek surrounded on all sides by briars so dense I’d never noticed it before.” (p.17) Later in the same spot, he saw a guy catching a trout there “a secret trout stream” and found his new exploration spot, as mentioned “Fairview Creek, it turned out, was five miles long, two-thirds wild, and amazingly full of life.” (p.18) See the location on the far right edge as it interfaces with the Columbia Slough watershed.
Following the course, he found gravel pits headwater at Mud Lake that were stocked rainbow trout, near the Kennel Club, a pond with bullheads, and always adventure in the streams. “In the plunge-pool below the Banfield Freeway culvert, I caught a thirteen-inch Giant Pacific Salamader that stared straight into my eyes, flaring and hissing like something out of Dante Volume one, till I apologized, cut my line and released it.”
The approximate area is interesting to see and compare – although the historical imagery from Google Earth (which is awesome btw) only goes back to 1990, there’s a telling transformation in a twenty year time-span (although still a fair amount of stream left intact with development. I remember this area, as my mother used to live just North of the Salish Ponds Park (south of Halsey) and we took the trails through behind the Target and over into Fairview, which is a real gem and one of those places that, like Duncan, you may walk by many times without realizing it’s there. I’ve highlighted Fairview Creek in Blue.
The same area in 1990 where you can see the residential development along Fairview Creek
The denouement to this story of youthful exploration comes after a few years of fishing these urban creeks and streams:
“At six-thirty or so on a rainy April morning, I crept up to a favorite hole, threaded a worm on a hook, prepared to cast – then noticed something impossible: there was no water in the creek. …I began hiking, stunned, downstream. The aquatic insects were gone, barbershop crawdads gone, catfish, carp, perch, crappie, bass, countless sacrificial cutthroats, not just dying, but completely vanished. Feeling sick, I headed the opposte way, hiked the emptied creekbed all the way to the source, and there found the eminently rational cause of the countless killings. Development needs roads and drainfields. Roads and drainfields need gravel. Up in the gravel pits at the Glisan Street headwaters, the creek’s entire flow had been diverted for months in order to fill two gigantic new settling ponds. My favorite teacher was dead.” (p.22)
A case of disappeared streams, captured in a moment of time from someone that was there. The sadness in this loss is palpable, as it isn’t just a line on a map, but a leaving & breathing part of someone – both their history and their essence. This sort of study of writings offers many opportunities for exploration through history, and can reveal much about a place in the past. Combined with oral histories from residents and other qualitative study, it offers a dimension that maps just can’t on their own. Thus looking beyond the map to the history is vital and inspirational going forward.
(all page references are to: Duncan, David James. My Story as Told by Water. Sierra Club Books, 2002.)
Readers of my blog Landscape+Urbanism will be aware that the concept of hidden hydrology has long been a fascination, with the concept of disappeared streams and buried creeks a constant thread that permeates my work in urban ecosystems and green infrastructure. A more thorough history of precedents, spanning theory, literature, ecology, history, and mapping theory is in order, and so I thought it prudent to consolidate some of the key items into this new site under the banner of ‘Origin Stories’.
First is the Yellowwood and the Forgotten Creek, by Anne Whiston Spirn, the fully story of which is part of the great book ‘The Language of Landscape‘. This particular text was adapted into a short poem piece in Arcade Journal – although I can’t seem to find the exact issue (so anyone who knows give me a heads up). The imagery has stayed with me, and the resonance is echoed by Spirn in a different quote in the book about the revelatory power in searching for and expressing hidden hydrology:
“Revealing the presence of the buried creek is an important part of the proposal because many who live here do not even know the creek exists despite its persistent influence on their lives.” (Spirn, 2000: p.213)
The Yellowwood and the Forgotten Creek
…One day the street caved in.
Sidewalks collapsed into a block-long chasm.
People looked down, shocked to see a strong, brown, rushing river.
A truck fell into a hole like that years back,
Someone said. A whole block of homes fell in
One night a long time ago, said someone else.
They weren’t sure where.
Six months later, the hole was filled, street patched,
Sidewalks rebuilt. Years went by, people left, new folks moved in,
Water seeped, streets dipped, walls cracked.
Once a creek flowed—long before there was anyone to give it a name–coursing
Down, carving, plunging, pooling, thousands of years
Before dams harnessed its power,
Before people buried it in a sewer and built houses on top.
Now, swollen with rain and sewage, the buried creek bursts pipes, soaks soil, floods basements,
Undermines buildings. During storms brown water gushes from inlets and manholes into streets and,
Downstream, overwhelms the sewage treatment plant, overflowing into the river from which the city
Draws its water…
…Signs of hope, signs of warning are all around, unseen,
Unheard, undetected. Most people can no longer read the signs whether they live in a floodplain,
Whether they are rebuilding a neighborhood or planting the seeds of its destruction,
Whether they are protecting or polluting the water they drink,
Caring for or killing a tree.
Architects’ drawings show no roots,
No growing, just green lollipops and buildings floating on a page, as if ground were flat and blank,
The tree an object, not a life.
Planners’ maps show no buried rivers, no flowing, just streets, lines of ownership, and
Proposals for future use, as if past were not present, as if the city were merely a human construct,
Not a living, changing landscape…
…Humans are story-telling animals, thinking in metaphors steeped in landscape:
Putting down roots means commitment,
Uprooting, a traumatic event.
Like a living tree rooted in place,
Language is rooted in landscape. Imagining
New ways of living means relearning the language
Which roots life in place.
The meanings landscapes hold are
Not just metaphorical and metaphysical,
But real, their messages practical;
understanding may spell survival or extinction.
Losing or failing to hear and read
the language of landscape threatens body and spirit, for the pragmatic
and imaginative aspects of landscape language
have always coexisted.
Relearning the language that holds
Life in place is an urgent task.
My work is dedicated to its recovery
There’s been a buzz about Ben H. Winters new novel Underground Airlines, a daring mix of ‘slavery and sci-fi‘, which envisions a present where the Civil War never happened and follows a bounty hunter protagonist through Indianapolis and a handful of other places. I read it over the past few days, and find it an intriguing novel worth a read — both for the world that Winters has created as much for the tone and pacing of the text.
The relevance here, is that featured prominently in the story is Pogue’s Run, a hidden urban stream located in Indianapolis, mentioned in the context of the book with some great context in a recent Atlas Obscura article ‘You Can Follow a Hidden Stream Beneath Indianapolis—If You Know Where to Look’. As mentioned by Atlas Obscura, the disappearing stream is also coupled in a mysterious disappearance of the man himself, “All underground streams have a mystery about them, but Pogue’s Run has a more ghostly history than most. Its story begins with one of Indianapolis’ first white settlers, whose disappearance has never been solved, and a Scottish-born city planner with a tidy vision.”
Pogue’s body was never found, and the eventual development of the City plan by Alexander Ralston, who worked in L’Enfant and modeled the Indianapolis plan on the formality similar to DC, “…a square grid, a mile on each side, with a circular plaza in the center and four wide, stately boulevards radiating out towards each of the square’s corners. Except—in the southeast corner of the city, the gridded blocks tilted, askew. There was a black line snaking through the plan, throwing the grid off kilter. That was Pogue’s Run, ruining the city’s planned symmetry.”
In the novel itself, the current culverted underground configuration is mentioned and becomes the location for a few pivotal scenes about place. The first interaction as Victor is with Martha a woman he met along the way, looking for the father of her child. They visit an older woman, Mama Walker, whom Martha comes to borrow money. Mama Walker uses the story of the old creek to illustrate the point of what happened to the child’s father.
“It was verdant down here back here in the day, that’s what they say. I’m talking about before I was born. Understand? Before my mama was, and hers was. There was a stream here. Little creek. I got a map somewhere, somewhere in here but you can can see it too you go huntin’ through the dog shit and the broken glass out there. You can see, like, traces of it where it ran once, all those years ago. But see, the white men who were planning out the city, they didn’t like where it was, the little river, so they just…” She made a quick gesture with her hand, sweeping the air, “…ran it under the ground, built right over it, you understand? You see?” She waited. She wanted an answer. Martha whispered, “Yes.” I took off my glasses and wiped them on my shirt. Dope smoke wafted over from the love seat. “They sent that little river underground, and they built their fucking ugly city over it. That’s how they do. Anything they don’t care for, anything that does not please, they use it up or they kill it or bury it and they never think of it again, you see? Martha’s eyes were shut now. “I see.” “So that’s what they did. Open your eyes sweetheart. Open.” Martha obeyed. “That’s what they did to your boys father. Them. White people.”
The power of the story of the burying the stream as an illustration of dominance and power is compelling, one of a number of passages that make the book powerful to read. Later in the book, the main character Victor ventures underground to find the man he is chasing, an escaped slave. He ventures through the depths in search of the runaway, from Underground Airlines:
“I cleared the trailer park and passed a jumble of picnic benches and playground equipment and stepped carefully down the slope of the ravine and swung the heavy beam of my flashlight along the creek. Now it was clear, with the water swollen by the rains, the direction the brown water was still flowing. The black mouth in the base of the shallow hill was an entrance, not an exit. This low little trickle of mud water was a kind of rivulet, a poor cousin of a creek, and this spot behind the motor court is where some long-ago engineer had diverted it. The creek was called Pogue’s Run. I’d found it on the map. I’d looked up the story. This small waterway was discovered at the turn of the century – the eighteenth turning into the nineteenth — discovered and named and recorded, penciled in on early maps, when the city was not yet a city — when it was a gathering of huts, a stopping place on the way to other places. The small river was inconvenient for the city fathers and the grid they’d drawn. So they did just as Mama Walker said: they ran it underground.”
After determining that he would have to travel into the tunnel, Victor continues. [This passage is edited a bit for brevity to focus on the stream experience – but seriously, read the book!]
“The water in the creek was shallow, but it was rushing, pulsing a little as it rose with the rain. I walked slowly, picking out individual rocks to stand on, til I got to the mouth of the tunnel. There I got down on all fours, feeling the creek water rush around me, swallowing my hands up to the wrists and surging around my knees and feet, and looked with narrowed eyes up that infinite darkness of pipe. A cold, wet animal smell breathed back at me.
… There was nothing to be done. This was it. I leaned forward and hunched my shoulders together, pushed the upper part of my body carefully forward, as a circus perfomer gingerly places his head into the lion’s mouth. I eased back and forth, back and forth, getting a sense for the width… …I got in there okay myself. Turned off my light, stuck it back in my jacket, and eased my body all the into the hole. I splashed in the dirty rush of water, hunched forward, keeping my upper body small and bent. I walked with my hands stretched out on either side, fingertips scraping along the roughly textured walls. I walked a long time that way, bent almost parallel with the ground, genuflecting as I went, until the ceiling tapered back down and i was forced onto all fours and went awhile that way, soaking my kneecaps and my palms. Time passed, and I didn’t know how much time, either. I just walked, an invisible man moving through the darkness.”
The scene ends with the discovery – the journey of the tunnel echoing the emotion of the main character.
“Eventually the tunnel gained some headroom, and I was able to draw up to full height. My feet echoed with wet clicks on the slimy concrete. I turned my flashlight on and followed the light, the beam wavering into strange patterns on the irregular, parabolic surfaces of the tunnel. Above my head was its thick stone shell and above there was clay and river rock and then a thin layer of topsoil and then the streets and sidewalks of the living city. I’d walked at least two miles. The tunnel was tilting slightly downslope, and it was getting colder, too. The air was heavy and damp, thick with uncirculated oxygen and the dank smell of the water. I was getting closer. I took out the gun I hardly ever carried but was carrying tonight. Soon I’d find it, whatever it was — the dangling padlock, the walled off chamber, the rock rolled in front of the mouth of the cave. But when I got there, when I found the locked door, there was no lock. There was no door, even. I was sliding my palms roughly along either side of the tunnel, feeling for the narrow crack of hung door or the bulge of a handle, when the left-side wall just opened up. I turned and crouched and help up the flashlight and found a narrow gap in the tunnel wall, like a secret left there for a child to find. I got down on my hands and knees and turned off my light, although of course if he was in there — and I knew he was, I knew that he was — he’d already have seen me, seen my light bobbling down the tunnel as I cam, seen in shining into this hidey-hole on which there was no lock and no door. … I passed into this new chamber, into deeper darkness, and empathy rose up in me. I was him. I was that man huddled in there, waiting, holding his breath, terrified by the small approaching light. My heart hammered, as his was likely hammering. I felt the sweat of fear on my brow that was the sweat of his fear.”
Such great drama – I’ll leave the rest for you to read on your own, but the use of the place in that scene is powerful stuff, which plays of the metaphorical story from Mama Walker in the beginning. The use of a real location to heighten ficitional drama I really appreciate, and not having been to Indianapolis or experienced this journey underground, good fiction writers, as always, have the innate ability to connect the reader with the experience.
Underground Airlines author Winters was brought to the underground stream by musician Stuart Hyatt, who has used Pogues Run extensively in his audio work along with providing some great photographs for the post. As mentioned in Atlas Obscura, “When Hyatt brought Winters to Pogue’s Run, the author was in the formative stages of writing his book. ‘I needed a place where my hero could literally descend and find himself underground,’finding layers under layers, of both the case he was unraveling and his own identity, Winters says. Pogue’s Run felt like the right place.”
I’d agree. Perhaps maybe even a new subgenre – hidden hydrology fiction.