Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Water--The Other Topic of this Blog

This blog is officially dedicated to the subjects of books and water. The “books” part I have already touched upon in previous posts. I would now like to say a few words about the “water” part. Why water?

For starters, water is pretty important stuff. It has been getting an enormous amount of media and, more recently, actual public attention in the past year or so here in Georgia as a result of the historic drought that the State has been experiencing. I mention that the public attention that water has been receiving of late in Georgia is a fairly new phenomenon because water is something that we in Georgia have generally taken for granted. Not so anymore.

I did not grow up in a place that was located on a significant body of water, but have spent much of my life visiting such places (Florida, the Georgia Coast, elsewhere in the US and abroad), even living for a time on an island (two, actually) off the Georgia Coast. I have also been a fisherman since I was old enough to hold a rod and reel, so I have spent a fair amount of time on or near lakes, rivers and ponds. I say that I did not grow up near a significant body of water (I grew up in Atlanta). That is to say, I didn’t think that I had, until I learned later in life about watersheds. Now I take back some of that statement about not growing up near a significant body of water.

I am not a math person, though I hope to become one some day. In early 1995, having just returned to the US from Peace Corps service in Albania, I met my very first water resources engineer at a returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCV) meeting in Atlanta. I admit that I have always had a weakness for the pretty lady scientists in the James Bond movies. So, a year later we got married, then moved off to the deserts of Southern Arizona (It’s not so bad. It’s a dry heat.) where my education in water resources management really started.

I am a liberal arts graduate. Still, I can tell you the basics about watersheds (a.k.a., drainage basins), impervious surfaces, and runoff. I can hold my own when it comes to discussions about riparian buffer zones and point-source contaminants. I even have a passing familiarity with the water-related topic of giardiasis, a subject that I have investigated from the inside out, so to speak.

It’s interesting being married to a water resources engineer. In my wife’s case, she specializes in watershed management, water treatment plants, and water quality issues, that sort of thing. Now, when I assist our three-year-old son in going to the potty, I no longer tell him to flush. When he has finishes his business, I tell him, “All done? Okay. Let’s send it to mommy.”

Our five and a half-year-old daughter has a genuine appreciation for the fact that mommy works to make certain that everyone has plenty of clean water.

The connections between water and the literary world are too numerous to even begin to describe.

An excellent starting point for this discussion, I believe, is the River of Words Program. River of Words is an international program for school age children and emphasizes poetry, the arts, and an understanding of the natural world, particularly water resources. In Georgia, the program is coordinated by the Georgia Center for the Book and Project Wet (Water Education for Teachers). I plan to devote an entire post—or more—to this program in the future. For now, more information about River of Words may be found at these websites:

River of Words

Project Wet

And try these, too:

USGS Water Site (I love glossaries!)

Chattahoochee Nature Center (Atlanta)

Gwinnett (Georgia) Environmental and Heritage Center
(An island of green in an ocean of red)

I also plan to devote future posts solely to the GEHC (see above), and to other efforts in metro Atlanta, in my community of Gwinnett County, and throughout Georgia, that pertain to water resources and education, especially where there is a literary angle.

Finally, I’ll close this introduction to the water component of my blog with, appropriately, a book review.

I have just finished reading Peachtree Creek—A Natural and Unnatural History of Atlanta’s Watershed by David R. Kaufman. The University of Georgia Press, in cooperation with the Atlanta History Center, published the book in 2007.

Author, engineer, outdoorsman, photographer, resource advocate, historian, and adventurer in our own backyard, David Kaufman spent thirteen years, beginning in 1990, exploring the Atlanta watershed by canoe. He paddled the length of Peachtree Creek, from its headwaters in the Atlanta suburbs to its confluence with the Chattahoochee River, taking photographs and collecting stories and impressions. This feat alone makes his book—essentially the diary of his exploits—worth the reading.

Kaufman isn’t exploring some vast, uninterrupted wilderness. His journey takes place in the mostly densely populated urban setting of metropolitan Atlanta. It seems that he enters the creek mostly from parking lots. His trip takes him through the heart of the City, alternately passing through industrial landscapes and residential areas. He canoes past the backyards of upscale Atlanta neighborhoods, and stops to chat with the homeless who have set up house under the many bridges that cross the creek. He spends less time navigating rapids than he seems to in dodging discarded tires, appliances and automobiles…and minimizing contact with contaminated water. He passes through the few relatively tranquil stretches of creek, and under a number of Atlanta’s mega transportation arteries.

The book is both travel log, and photo essay. Many of the photos highlight the beauty still to be found along the Creek. Other photos trace the history of the Creek, its development, and its relationship to the greater Atlanta area. Other photos simply make one cringe at the mess that’s been made of this vital resource, and the historical and cultural resources that have been lost.

Peachtree Creek is also an excellent example of living history. Kaufman uses the book to explore Atlanta history from Standing Peachtree (the native American village that figures so much into the founding of Atlanta) to the present. Native and long-time Atlantans reading the book may be in for some interesting discoveries. As a native Atlantan, I was surprised at the number of times I thought to myself, “Wow. Who knew?” while reading this book. What makes the book so interesting in this respect is its focus on not simply the historical movers and shakers, but on the ordinary folk who inhabited the river’s banks through the centuries.

The book is an excellent work of environmental advocacy. Nowhere in the book does Kaufman beat the reader over the head with a message. He simply presents a wonderful story, picture, and history of an extraordinary resource and in so doing makes a very compelling case for doing something to preserve it. Peachtree Creek in essence helped give birth to a major American city, and continues to sustain it in the most elemental of ways. Yet, much of this resource, having been paved over, is essentially out of sight (and subsequently out of mind) of the very people whom it allows to thrive.

After reading Peachtree Creek, the thing that stands out in my mind is this. I look at the photographs in the book, particularly the shots taken in the less congested areas of the Creek, and I cannot help but think that we collectively accept some things that seem just a little, well, insane. Some of the most valuable real estate in metro Atlanta abuts Peachtree Creek. Imagine that you own a half-million dollar home, behind which flows a creek that more often than not smells of feces. Here is the water that sustains a city. Yet, until it has undergone an industrial process, not only is it unfit to drink. It is unfit to even touch.


Other books to check out:

Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain
River Rogue by Brainard Cheney (Georgia author)

Real Men Read.

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