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.”
As with most cities, one river or creek seems to dominate the imagination, and Pogue’s Run is that for Indianapolis, with a number of historical ruminations, such as Historic Indianapolis, which showed a etching by Thomas B. Glessing of “Surveyors mapping the new capital in 1820”, and noting that the stream was probably Pogue’s Run.
In the course of finding out about Pogue’s Run, a number of other interesting people and projects emerged from Indianapolis. Below are some summaries
A video connects the music to place, which “follows a humble waterway through urban neighborhoods in Indianapolis. From its source, through the city, into a mysterious three-mile underground tunnel, and finally to the White River, Pogue’s Run represents the ongoing tension between nature and civilization.”
Charting Pogue’s Run
Artist Sean Derry’s work “Charting Pogue’s Run” investigated the creek via an 1831 map, with a thin line of blue paint and cast iron marks woven through.
A bit of description (longer version on his site):
“Charting Pogue’s Run investigates the past and present characteristics of Pogue’s Run as it flows from the Neareastside neighborhood to its confluence with the White River south of downtown. Beginning on E. New York St., along the boundary of the Cottage Home neighborhood, a blue line and small iron markers map the stream’s 1831 path through the city. This addition to the city-scape traces the streams meandering path across 4.5 miles of Indianapolis.
The work, along with Hyatt’s, was covered as part of the free workshops, “Rethink, Reconnect, Reclaim”, which “explores creative approaches for improving Indianapolis”. See a video of the project here:
A surprise was finding the comprehensive Streamlines project, led by environmental artist Mary Miss, a continuation of her legacy of environmental art, in this case “StreamLines is situated on five sites, in diverse communities along tributaries of the White River. Miss’ sculptural elements reveal the natural systems and infrastructure that impact the Indianapolis waterways and encourage exploration of the area.”
Apart from site specific art: “StreamLines is an interactive, place-based project that merges the sciences and the arts to advance the community’s understanding and appreciation of Indianapolis’ waterways. This work is made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation and is modeled on the City as Living Laboratory/FRAMEWORK. StreamLines features art created for specific sites along six Indianapolis waterways of focus to Reconnecting to Our Waterways (ROW): Five environmental installations by Mary Miss/City as Living Laboratory® (MM/CaLL); A series of dance performances by Butler University Department of Dance; Six musical compositions curated by Michael Kaufmann/The Kinetic Project; A collection of poems penned by Indiana poets selected by Poets House”.
A diagram of the concept of her site specific installations, which include similar themes, as noted, around the concept that ‘Rivers are the Lifelines of our Cities.”
Along with some of the installations themselves, which are place based but tied together thematically. An excerpt from her site: “At each site, the three states of water – ICE, VAPOR, WATER are written on the surface of the mirrors. Words on the ground express the themes of each different location. They are formed of reverse letters, which are legible in the reflection in the mirror above. Site themes address water and its many states in the environment, the importance of water to Indianapolis’ development and history, water infrastructure and the connection to the watershed. At the outer edges of the installations, smaller mirrors (18” in diameter) and small pedestals in groups of two or three present texts, much of it legible only in reflection, such as poetry, scientific and historical facts, riddles, jokes, prompts, and questions. These texts also direct visitors to the app and website for additional information.”
The markers and poetry are located in and around installations, circling back to the formative river, the poem “Pogue’s Lost Horse” by Catherine Bowman connect to the place in other ways, through words, visions, and rhythm.
The dance and musical numbers are available on the site and best captured in video, as well as the Streamlines Vimeo page, which also has interviews and other info. One of my favorite is the ‘Choreographing the Movement of the Waterways’, described here: “This video explores the story behind the dance component of StreamLines. On September 24, 2015, more than 100 members of the Butler Ballet performed Riverrun, a site-specific dance choreographed by Butler University Dance Professor Cynthia Pratt for the StreamLines project. This dance was part of the programming for the project’s launch and performed in Holcomb Gardens on the campus of Butler University. The site-specific art invites the community to learn, explore and experience the science of Indianapolis’ water systems”
There’s also a video delving into the work on the musical composition and soundscape, and “explores the story behind the six musical compositions of StreamLines. Curator Michael Kaufmann worked with six musical artists – Olga Bell, Hanna Benn, Stuart Hyatt, Roberto Lange, Matthew Skjonsberg and Moses Sumney – to create the sound art for StreamLines. The site-specific art invites the community to learn, explore and experience the science of Indianapolis’ water systems”
Beyond Pogue’s Run, the work draws from a variety of local waterways, as mentioned in this post from Next City: “The White River flows through downtown, joined by Fall Creek, Pogue’s Run, Central Canal, Pleasant Run and Eagle Creek, many of which also flow through Indy’s most underserved neighborhoods.” Part static placemaking and part events, there is a simple google map to locate the places included.
It’s really interesting to see how Indianapolis expresses the connection to lost waterways and hidden hydrology primarily through art, spanning literature, dance, poetry, music, and environmental installations. It showcases the diversity of means to tell these water stories – technical, mapping, ecological, historical, artistic, designer, and provides a unique snapshot of a community, it’s rivers, and how each are shaped, and shape one another.
A short rumination from Akiko Busch in the NY Times asks us to Learn a River’s Name Before It’s Gone resonated with me around the idea of language as the cultural thread that weaves. Describing a road trip, where she wrote down the list of over 100 rivers crossed, concluding that “If we couldn’t hear the sound of the water itself, the syllables of the names became a new way for me to chart this country.” The simple idea of knowing the name of something (or someone, for that matter) and although we go a bit crazy with naming storms, Busch posits that:
“it would likely be of greater benefit if we could find a similar pleasure in learning a few of the names that identify those features of the natural world we live with all the time. Which is to say, instead of making up new names, we might consider learning the names that already exist.”
Data and science are critical elements in understanding on many levels, but words and names provide a level of connection. Busch continues: “Giving something a name is the first step in taking care of it. Place names help us to attach landscape to history and region. And when it comes to the question of attachment, we are not just speaking of how names are attached to places, but how humans become attached to places.” Stories of places abound, and continued attacks on environmental regulations aims to further degrade our protections, so “perhaps we could make the effort to learn as many of the names of those places — and the trees, the rivers, the ranges, all the species that live there — as possible, before it’s too late.”
The naming, of course, needs to respond to pre-European settlement, as much of the work of ‘finding’ hidden hydrology uses maps that are made by Europeans and often (purposely or ignorantly) erase place names that have be tied to places for years. As we look back into history, we are challenged to find not just the names of places on a map, but to search a richer heritage of Native place names. The work on the Welikia Project explains: “The Lenape people inhabited Mannahatta for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. They named their island home “Mannahatta,” meaning “Island of Many Hills.” We use the term “Mannahatta” to refer to the island as it was in 1609, and “Manhattan” to refer to the metropolis of today.” When they expanded the concept to the larger NY City metro area, they also adopted the Lenape expression “Welikia,”meaning “my good home,” and infuse place making with Native settlement patterns often in their work.
The Waterlines Project here in Seattle is a great example of connecting Hidden Hydrology to Native language, providing on the map a key with Coast Salish Place Names.
The place names on this map, written in the Lushootseed language of the Coast Salish people, are drawn from elders who worked with ethnographers in the early twentieth century, from the work of linguists and scholars such as the late Vi Hilbert, and from an atlas created by Coll Thrush and Nile Thompson for the book Native Seattle. Place names are stories: proof of presence, archives of meaning, evidence of ancestry, and a reference for treaties and other legal connections to territory. They provide context to the ongoing presence and strong connections to the city for Native people as co-managers of our shared resources. Refer to “An Atlas of Indigenous Seattle” for further information on the Native place names found on this map.”
I’m inspired to learn the names (those of the present, past and distant past) of the local places across history and dig into some of these local resources as I continue to compile my working base of Seattle and Portland Hidden Hydrology. I found a post by local writer David B. Williams on his GeologyWriter blog – which was helpful in summarizing Seattle’s Stream Names, for the more recently naming, and soon to come is some documentation of my recent muddy exploration of Licton Springs, which is named for Liq’tid (LEEK-teed) or Licton (Item #9 above), the Lushootseed word ‘Red Paint’ for the reddish mud of the springs.
The concept of history is relative. Living in the Pacific Northwest in the United States, a span of a few hundred years constitutes the sum of contemporary settlement and European colonization (with some exceptions). Many contemporary cities such as Seattle and Portland, for instance, were only formally settled in the 1850s, are were not urbanized for decades after, resulting in relatively short histories. Obviously these lands were populated for years previously by indigenous peoples, some with formal and informal settlements, however, either way, the modern urban form is young.
The eastern US has a slightly longer history, but even New York’s history of European settlement dates around 1600, so around four-hundred plus years. Many places in the world have a much different story and measure history is very different terms. Rome, for instance, offers a different scale of time, much deeper picture of history spanning millennia. Depending on who you consult, Rome was a village since the 9th Century BC and became a city around 753 BC, so has been evolving for almost 3,000 years. In much of this span “The Roman empire stretched over three continents, had 70 million people, and had a logistics and infrastructure system that kept them going for centuries.” (via Science 2.0)
A summary: “Aquae Urbis Romae is an interactive cartographic history of the relationships between hydrological and hydraulic systems and their impact on the urban development of Rome, Italy. Our study begins in 753 BC and will ultimately extend to the present day. We examine the intersections between natural systems–springs, rain, streams, marshes, and the Tiber River–and constructed systems including aqueducts, fountains, sewers, bridges, conduits, etc., that together create the water infrastructure of Rome.”
The site has a ton of information, especially great for an Italophile such as myself. The content is organized into a few categories, some of which are for archival purposes as their web presence is not longer functional, but there is info organized as a timeline (including a GIS Timeline Map), as well as by typology, and studies of topography. There are maps and a list of resources and some good primary and secondart texts available. The journal “The Waters of Rome” offers ten essays with some additional scholarship on Rome history and culture around water. I’ve yet to dive in depth into these, but look forward to it.
For hidden hydrology perspective, the Timeline features the ability to isolate typologies that allow focused look at systems. A section of maps on Hydrological Setting, shows the hidden streams overlaid on modern (c. 1998) city grid and topography. “This map represents a composite of data drawn from archaeological, geological, historical, and literary evidence concerning the hydrological structure of the intramural city and its immediate surroundings. It does not represent a specific point in time, but rather represents an amalgam of hydrological features, most of which have been known since antiquity. However, water is dynamic and therefore constantly changing. Springs can disappear, dry up entirely, or reemerge at a different, sometimes distant location. Streams and rivers can change course, and the profiles of their beds are constantly changing as well.”
This information is activated by translation into three-dimensional views in the Topography section, providing some more info on the landform that relates to historical streams. They are developed thematically as well, with a number of studies such as hydrology and aqueducts serving the baths and fountains in the city.
Today this is somewhat simplistic in terms of graphics. In 1998, this would have been pretty cutting edge stuff. Similarly, the GIS Timeline map offers both spatial and temporal info in a more interactive format, with the ability to customize. This is the best info I’ve found on historical hydrology of Rome, via the Geographic features typology that include Marshes, Swamps, Rivers, Streams, and Springs, a few of which are plotted below.
The focus is on water, but not just streams, there’s a range of other typologies, including water distribution, infrastructure, flooding, markets, walls, neighborhoods (rione), baths, fountains, and more. The icon based map allows for more info via pop-ups.
A legend shows the span on types of info captured, along translation of English and Italian terms.
The temporal aspect is a interesting idea, as it allows a fourth dimension to the mapping that seems vital to historical study. The slider (seen below) allows for all years to be selected, or to select individual decades, and eras, to capture snapshots of info at certain time frames. As mentioned on the site: “Follow the urban development of Rome through a unique G.I.S. timeline map that chronicles changes to the water infrastructure system from 753 BC through the sixteenth century. See how sewers, aqueducts, fountains and other hydraulic elements changed the face of Rome, as important people like Agrippa, Emperor Nero and popes Sixtus V and Clement VIII, among others, used water as an element of political control.”
This obviously works better for cultural features like buildings and fountains that have specific dates of creation and erasure, so not sure if it captures erasure of surface streams into subsurface routes. However, with enough information, you could show the disappearance over time for any water system and include animations at a time step (similar to this historical study of the Mississippi River gleaned from the Fisk maps). Something worthy of exploring with current GIS and animation technologies.
The site is plagued with some old technology in terms of web design (frames, for instance, which are awful for navigation), as well as the mapping and animations discussed above. This is tough, as its always hard to keep things up to date. Over time, something using the most recent tech quickly becomes outdated, especially on a project that spans decades such as this. That said, the content holds up very well, and some easy fixes would be to remove some of the clunky old maps and convert these to simpler embedded open source interfaces (Google Earth, etc) – as well as to be able to download GIS files of some of the key info. Sounds like from some of the notes, there’s some updates in the works, so look forward to reaching out to Ms. Rinne and see what she has planned.
The site offers each of the tiles of the map, (noted: Courtesy of Kersu Dalal, Johnson Fain Partners, Los Angeles). This shows a lot of amazing detail, and hints at slopes and ridges and depressions that impact water movement.
The most famous map of Rome is one of my favorites, not mentioned much on this site, but well known. Almost 200 years after the Buffalini map, the 1748 Map ‘Grande Pianta‘ by Giambattista Nolli (more commonly known as the Nolli map). This work of art is infamous for it’s detail and unique showcasing of public/private spaces inside and outside of buildings, versus pure figure-ground relationships. I’ll discuss this map and a few others from Rome in a follow-up post.
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.
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.