Before I moved to Athens last summer, I remember being enchanted by the idea that a river ran through town. The Hocking River, which has, for hundreds of years, had its name and direction switched up on it so many times, small wonder when I pulled into town, it felt about as enchanting as a clogged toilet. The river comes off as sort of a dull hematite no matter the season and just feels inert until it occasionally floods during winter or heavy rains where whole backroads and portions of main streets are impassable. So, naturally, I made up a story in my head about how the river god has been spellbound to sleep somewhere, but every now and then, he wakes up from a nightmare that he’s been kidnapped, and remembers his true name.
What actually happened is that in the late 60’s, the flooding through town and campus got pretty inconvenient because, y’know, people decided to build their houses all close to it and a college, and then it was the river that was in the way (slow blink). I sometimes show my students pictures of this phenomenon and tell them they have no excuse for skipping, because their predecessors wanted to come to class so badly and learn something just for the sake of learning, they built foot bridges and rowed around campus to get there.
Alas, in ‘69, the Army Corps of Engineers showed up and for a cool 10 million proceeded to move the river. Now. When a colleague of mine told me the Hocking River had been moved decades ago, I blurted out, “How do you move a river?!” He smirked, “One shovel at a time.” (Ten points to Hufflepuff) Okay. I know it sounds like a really corny punchline, but as it turns out, that’s literally what they did. For. Years. Took ‘em awhile, but one shovel at a time, the Hocking River was re-routed and no trees were ever planted again on its banks running through town because the root-system creates piping and slows the water flow.
I read somewhere that now local geologists are concerned that wherever the river is letting out is actually creating the sedimentary conditions for this whole genius plan to backfire and create even worse flooding in roughly a 100-200 years. The folks in the 60’s didn’t think about that though. They just thought of their own immediate inconvenience but not how that would impact future generations to saddle us with their short-sightedness. Kinda reminds me of that James Bay song with lyrics like: “Lonely water, won’t you let us wander/let us hold each other” and “Hold back the river let me look in your eyes/Hold back the river so I/can stop for a minute and see where you hide/Hold back the river/Hold back.”
I actually think about the Hocking River quite often. So much so, I included a poem about it in my most recent collection. I haven’t properly introduced myself to the river god, because like I said, it just feels—off. But then again. the Hocking can’t help that it feels like that. Someone else imposed their restrictions onto it, but eventually it’s going to find its way again. Water does, you know. But the Hocking also makes me think about how this happens with people, right? In terms of systemic terraformation, a short-sighted group of people looking to ease their immediate discomfort decide to make some major policy changes that completely disrupts the environment to say nothing of the folks who live there, and then have the nerve to die off, leaving the rest of us to figure out how to become better neighbors while we also try to get out of a mess that we didn’t create.
So, I suppose the real question is how do you move a river back?
The punchline still applies.