categories: Cocktail Hour / Getting Outside / Our Best American Essays
[This essay is from my book Into Woods and originally appeared in The Missouri Review. Later, Harper’s picked up an excerpt for their “Readings” section. It was written in about 1998, and since then I’ve developed a much fonder feeling for Columbus.]
If you move to Columbus, Ohio, from Farmington, Maine, you will not be impressed by the landscape. It’s flat around Columbus and the pre-prairie rivers move sluggish and brown. In Maine you pick out the height of flood on, say, the Sandy River, by the damage to tree trunks and the spookily exact plane made by ice and roaring current tearing off the lowest branches of riverside trees. In Columbus you pick out the height of flood on the Olentangy or Scioto rivers by the consistent plane attained by ten thousand pieces of garbage, mostly plastic bags, caught in tree branches.
Always in the months after I moved I was looking for a place to run the dogs, Wally and Desmond, who are Maine country dogs used to the unlimited woods. We started on a subsidiary athletic field at Ohio State—long, kick-out-the-jams gallops across mowed acres, lots of barking and rumbling—then leashes to cross Olentangy Boulevard and a parking lot, so to the Olentangy River (my students call it the Old and Tangy), where the boys swam hard just across from the Ohio Stadium, known as The Shoe, in which the football Buckeyes famously play.
By the time the University started building the gargantuan new basketball arena in the middle of our running field, the dogs and I had found Whetstone Park, a big urban preserve a couple of miles upstream, just across the river from Route 315, which at that point is six-lane, limited-access highway. Really, Whetstone’s a lovely place, well kept, used in multiple ways, though not much in winter, always the sounds of 315 in the air like a mystical waterfall with diesel power and gear changes. There are athletic fields, a goldfish pond, picnic areas, tennis courts, basketball courts, an enormous and important rose collection in a special area called Park of the Roses, just one section (about three miles) of an all-city bike path, tetherball, speed bumps, a library branch (in satisfying possession of my books), fishing spots on the Olentangy River.
Which runs through Whetstone after a scary trip through a couple of suburban towns (Route 315 its constant companion), through a dozen new developments and several parks, past or near at least six shopping malls, also through the backyards of people who love the river, love it to death. Indeed, the detritus at its banks in Whetstone is emphatically suburban. Plastic grocery and other store bags of course dominate, festooning the trees in various colors, the worst of which is the sort of pinky brown that some stores use in a pathetic and surely cynical attempt to imitate the good old kraft paper of the now fading question, “Paper or plastic?” The best colors are red and blue, because at least there’s that moment of thinking you see a rare bird. Garbage bags are part of the mix, too, but heavier, so lower in the trees.
Certainly plastic soft-drink bottles come next in sheer numbers. These things float best when someone upriver has put the cap back on before flinging, perhaps out of a car window. Or perhaps not flung, but only left beside a car in a parking lot along with a neat pile of cigarette butts from the emptied car ashtray. Come to think of it, these bottles are probably seldom thrown directly into the river. The plastic walls are thin, so plastic bottles aren’t always the long-distance travelers you’d think. Cracks let water in, and silt. The bottles don’t end up often in trees, either, because they are light enough and smooth enough for the wind to knock them free. They are everywhere, though. They rule.
Tires occupy their own category, and come in two sorts: with and without wheels. Those with wheels are heavy but float, so end up high on logjams and in trees; those without wheels get caught up in the silt and mud and form strange ring-shaped silt islands or, buried deeper, show just a little tread as part of a sand bar, or deeper yet, disappear from the world of light and air entirely, perhaps to emerge in a century or two, a millenium, or more. They aren’t going anyplace.
Next there are car parts other than tires. Like bumpers and doors and hoods. These must be dumped at river banks, is my guess, off the edges of parking lots built too close to the water, then carried by floods. Occasionally, too, a whole car gets in the water, and slowly demonstrates the second law of thermodynamics: all things seek randomness. Entropy continues its work of unworking, and the car spreads downstream. The iron involved is at least no problem.
Aerosol containers make a strong showing in the river, those former dispensers of paint and freon and deodorant and foot spray and whipped cream and so forth. Indestructibly happy bobbers, these canisters are capable of long trips, clear to the Gulf of Mexico, I’m sure, and before long into the oxygen-free, Lake-Erie-sized dead zone the Gulf now boasts. But some do get up high in tree crotches and last there for years—decades if they’re of stainless steel. WD-40 as a product gets a special mention here, for the paint on the outside and the oil film on the inside keep these cans alive and recognizable for years wherever they roam.
Newspaper and other print matter turns up but disappears just as fast, leaching what it leaches into the water. A special category of printed matter I ought to mention is pornography, which I often find high and dry, the park being its entry point into the river. Juggs was one magazine I happened across. It had many photos in it of women who’d had obviously harrowing operations. Also, some kind of trading cards that featured various young women naked. These I discovered clipped neatly by the bark flaps of a shaggy hickory at the eye level of a large adolescent or small man, footprints and dribbles beneath, the whole gallery abandoned after our riparian onanist had done his work.
Other items: prescription medicine bottles, but not in abundance; mattresses common, usually appearing as skeleton only, that is, the springs; pens of endless varieties, mostly ballpoint, ubiquitous, some working; twisted shopping carts; tampon tubes of pink plastic made by, I believe, Playtex (plenty of these, from flushes, giving lie to the idea that sewage is well managed upstream); guard rails; lengths of rope of various types; lengths of cable, mostly Romex; joint-compound buckets (but these are fast fillers and sinkers and join the silt banks permanently with their tire friends and with broken glass bottles).
Glass. Any glass that turns up (except tempered, as in windshields) at least turns back to sand, squandering its legacy of power and fire. The rare complete glass bottle with lid does float by, but these are goners, baby; first rock they encounter and it’s smash, step one toward beach glass for kids to find. Eyeglasses you’d think would be rare, but just in the last year I’ve found three pair, lenses intact.
Planks. Now, planks hardly count, being trees, but often planks have nails, which hardly count, either, come to think of it, being iron. Then again, planks are often painted, so they do add to the color stream—what’s that purple? What’s that turquoise? A bright yellow board I saw once caught up in a willow was particularly startling.
Now, pieces of Styrofoam are important in this trash system. There are blue pieces often enough, occasionally green, but white is most common. Everywhere are the tiny cells that make up the product—billions of bright spheres, with samples worked into every handful of mud. Packing popcorn, too, everywhere. Cups, sure, but these don’t last long. Coolers predominate. Then chunks, which must come from packing materials. Then even bigger chunks, unexplained on the Olentangy, and nowhere as big as the huge chunks found on beaches on the seacoast in Maine, parts of boats or floats or who knows what. And oh, yes, speaking of beach flotsam, boat parts are common too, even on rivers, and even in the Olentangy. Fiberglass boards, not too big, or rowboat seats, or canoe prows, rarely. This is not a sport river.
Though there are fisherman, and there are fish. Catfish and smallmouth bass, most notably. And the fisherman leave their own class of trash: broken fishing rods; lots of line tangled in branches above; bobbers hanging from power lines; lead weights. Lead is poisonous, of course, so a special mention. Also lures sometimes, hanging as well. Or just plain hooks in a branch, dried up worms. Little boys, mostly, though lots of retired men like to fish the river. Also men who don’t look old enough to retire, maybe some of those guys who have I’D RATHER BE FISHING bumper stickers on their bumpers (and their bumpers still attached to their cars).
The fisherfolk also leave packaging for hooks and snells and bait and so forth. American Eagle is one of the brand names you see frequently in the mud. And plastic bait cups are just everywhere, their lids not far behind, these packed by local concerns, sometimes with an address printed along with the logo so that I can mail the shit back to them (yes, I’m a crank). They may not be responsible for their customers, but they should care where their names turn up.
Some of the other garbage comes with brand names, too: Budweiser, Wendy’s, Kmart, Big Bear, Dow Chemical, General Electric, Goodyear, to name just a few. All these big names sticking up out of the mud! It’s like some apocalyptic ad campaign!
Now for the less tangible. Apart from the major chunks in the Old and Tangy River, there is the smell, and the smell must come from somewhere. It’s not horrible or anything, not even pervasive, but when the dogs get out of the river there’s not only the usual river smell—mud and oxygen and hydrogen and fish and pungent organic rot—there’s something else, one notch below healthy on the dial. My amateur analysis is as follows: equal parts motor oils, fertilizers, and straight human shit. Also shampoo and detergent, the faintest sickening edge of perfume.
Which leads me to the foam, good bubbly stuff that can stack up to two or three feet high and is sometimes wishfully called fish foam. But fish foam hasn’t the density of suds, not at all, and smells like fish rather than perfume.
I mean, the river is a junkfest.
That’s the Olentangy before it gets to campus, and before it passes the mysterious outflow pipes of a certain national research firm, and arrives in the large skyscraper downtown of Columbus. And Columbus is big—bigger than you think, an Emerald City that pops up on the Central Ohio flats. It’s said to be the biggest city in Ohio, population about 1.25 million inside the Greater Columbus loop of I-270. The city’s official slogan should be it’s not that bad, since that’s what people tell you, over and over. I think the actual civic slogan is more than you dreamed. True. And that huge, worthy school where I was comfortably tenured: 60,000 students, 15,000 staff, 5000 faculty. Something like that. A city within the city. The Olentangy flows right through campus, unassaulted except by lawn chemicals and parking lot runoff and frequent beer vomit on its way to the Scioto.
Columbus’ two main rivers meet at Confluence Park. This is not really a park at all, but some kind of convention or catering facility on city land, probably the result of all kinds of inside deals. I took the dogs there once in my early search for dog-walking paradises. Confluence Park was hard to find. There are so many roads crisscrossing each other and exit ramps and overpasses that you pass the place ten times before you get to it, a scavenger hunt of signage, and then when you finally get there it’s just another parking lot next to the river. Oh, and the catering facility and their big dumpsters overflowing with whatever party has just come through, making someone a nice private profit on public land, is my guess. And meanwhile, plentiful homeless have pulled all the liquor bottles out of the dumpsters for years, getting those last drops then creating a midden of broken glass down along the water. No park at all, just a steep, rocky, trash-strewn embankment forming a point of land where our two protagonist rivers mightily meet, the greater silt carry of the Olentangy coloring the greater water volume of the Scioto somewhat. Here the Olentangy gives up its name, and the two are one: Scioto.
Which marriage flows through the big city under several bridges, looking like the Seine in Paris (the Seine a dead river, by the way, fishless, oxygenless, killed, unlike the Scioto). But the Scioto is not a navigable river like the Seine; the Scioto’s only four feet deep and heavily ensilted. I won’t say much about the appealing replica of the Santa Maria that floats here trapped in a specially dredged corner under the Broad Street bridge in a 500th-year anniversary testament to a man who never reached the Midwest but gave his name to our fair city nevertheless.
Anyway, just below town, the river pillows over a containment dam a couple of hundred yards wide, a very pretty fall, really, the funny river smell coming up, men fishing, bums and bummettes and bumminas lounging, bike path twisting alongside, highway bridges, rail bridges, two turtles on a warm rock in spring, egrets, herons, seagulls, swans, busterns, kingfishers, beavers, muskrats, rats.
And no dearth of trees to catch the trash after flood! Maple, ash, cherry, gum, walnut, oak, locust, sycamore—on and on, dominated thoroughly by cottonwoods, which in the spring leave a blanket of cottony seed parachutes in a layer like snow.
The parks once you pass below the city are more than a little tawdry—poorly cared for, placed near the police impoundment lot and the railroad yards and light industry and a complicated series of unused cement ponds that once surely were meant as a sewage treatment facility. Oh, also in sight is the practice tower for the fire department, which trainers douse with kerosene and burn for the recruits to put out. Miles and miles of chain-link fence, altogether.
On the northeast bank of the river is Blowjob Park, one of my students called it in an aside in a paper, which I found because it is at the very end of the bike path. The path ends at a parking lot, where lonely and harmless-looking men sit in cars gazing at each other and waiting for liaisons. The city sometimes arrests these men in courage-less raids, not a homophobic act, says a spokesperson, for the men are said not to be gay exactly, but married guys looking for action of any kind, loitering and littering and certainly dangerous so close to the impound lot and the defunct sewage-treatment plant.
When I moved downtown, downriver, to German Village (a turn-of-the-20th-century neighborhood—now trendy—of brick buildings and restaurants and shops, surrounded by what some Columbusites have called slums in warning me, but which are just further neighborhoods, with less and less money apparent, true, but plenty of lively children and sweet gardens and flashes of beauty in along with the ugliness which isn’t much worse than the general ugliness that pervades this end-of-the-eastern-woodlands city and its suburbs) . . . when I moved downtown, I brought the dogs over there for a walk and a swim, two of their favorite activities. Down below the dam, I nodded to men fishing, and the dogs raced happily, and it wasn’t bad. You go down below the dam and the riverbank is broad and walkable in dry times—this first walk was in autumn—and you see good trees, remnants of the hardwood forest, and chunks of concrete under the Greenlawn Avenue bridge and re-bar wire and yes, examples of all the junk listed above, particularly those plastic grocery bags in the trees, but fifty-five-gallon drums as well, and broke-down lawn chairs used for comfort by fishermen and abandoned when beyond hope. Also some real dumping—an exploded couch, perhaps thrown off the high bridge, and some kind of switchboard with wires dangling, and a filing cabinet with drawers labeled Contracts, Abstracts, Accounts Payable, and Personnel. It would not take much, I thought at the time, to figure out what local business all this came from. Might be fun to return it, but a lot of work. And probably they paid some asshole to cart the stuff to the dump, some asshole who kept the dump fee and emptied his truck off the Greenlawn Avenue bridge.
And down there, too, was a large concrete bastion of a culvert, labeled with a sign: Caution, Combined Sewer Overflow. In other words, when it rains, get out the way. And if you think “Combined Sewer Overflow” just means rainwater washed off parking lots, listen: in the rich, dried mud right exactly there, the dogs and I hiked through a thousand, no, ten thousand, plants I recognized (and you would recognize, too, at once) as tomato vines. How did so many tomato plants get sown? Well, tomato seeds don’t readily digest, generally pass through the human digestive tract unscathed. You get the picture.
And the doggies and I walked that sweet fall day. After the bridge it’s hard going, a rocky bank strewn with valueless trash, but also bedding and clothes, particularly male underwear for some reason. It’s not too pleasant, and getting steep, so I turn back, but not before noting that across the river there is much park-like land, sandy soils under great canopy trees. Dog paradise. How to get there?
Wally and Desmond and I hike back to the car, drive clear around to the Greenlawn Avenue bridge (it looks very different from above), and find the entrance to what is called Berliner Park. I’m excited. There are baseball fields and a basketball dome and a paved bike path along the river (a discontinuous section, as it turns out, of the Olentangy bicycle trail that also passes through the Whetstone Park mentioned above), and many footpaths to the water.
In the woods along the river there is the familiar trash, of course, multiplied enormously by the location just below the city and just below the dam. Here’s how it gets there: rain falls, perhaps during one of the many thunderstorms Columbus enjoys. The parking lots puddle, then begin to flow, carrying gasoline and oil and antifreeze of course, but also cigarette butts and cigarette packs and chaw containers and pop bottles and aerosol cans and many tires, just simply whatever is there. The light stuff gets to the river fast. Tires move a few feet per rainstorm, but they make their ways, oh, make their ways to the river or get stuck trying. Shopping carts probably have to be actually thrown in, but shopping bags get there two ways—flow and blow. Kids’ toys are carried downstream just like anything else. And what can’t float waits for a flood. Anything can ride a flood! Anything at all!
It’s a mess. In fact, the part of Berliner Park that lies along the river is so bad that most people just won’t hang out there. That leaves it open to what I call lurkers, men who lurk in the trees and know that my two dogs mean I’m a dog walker and not a lurker, and so not to approach. My dogs have even learned to ignore them, and I have, too. Each to his own.
Except for the one lunkhead who threw a rock in the path in front of my wife, but he seemed just developmentally delayed, no malice, and with the dogs along gentle Juliet felt safe enough, but hurried up out of his purview.
And except for the dead body I saw police divers pull out of a snag one day. Female, probably the suicide that had been reported two months earlier, although that jumper from the Greenlawn bridge had been identified as male by witnesses who tried to stop him jumping. The dogs rushed to have a look, came back quick. I talked to the cops a little. ’Nother day, ’nother dollar kind of talk.
And once I found a note—poignant and plaintive, a personal ad aimed directly at its market, pinned to a log: “Loking for love. Grate Sex. Call me up or meat heer, meet hear.” Also this, written in Magic Marker on a bare-flayed log: suck you good. With a shaky arrow pointing to an uninviting side path.
During one of our weekly phone talks, I told my mother about Berliner and all the trash. She said, Well, why don’t you and a couple of your friends get together and go in there and clean it up?
She’s right, of course. It’s easy to complain and not do anything. But, Jesus, the flow of garbage is so great that my friends and I would need to work full time till retirement to keep up just with the one park. Perhaps the city could hire a River Keeper. I do pick up this bottle and that can, and fill a bag now and again. It’s the least I can do. Yes, the least. Okay, I’m implicated here, too.
Downstream a little further there’s another storm sewer runoff warning, and the vile smell of unadulterated, un-composted shit3. The bike path goes on. It’s not a bad walk once you are past the stench, which takes a minute, because there is also a honey-truck dump station right there, which you can see from the path, a kind of long pit where the septic-tank-pumping trucks unload. This stuff has a more composted reek, a little less septic, so there’s no danger of puking or anything. The dogs run on, free of their leashes, because there just isn’t ever anybody around here, except lurkers. The dogs have no interest whatsoever in lurkers, and they love nothing more than a good stink. The path ends at a six-lane highway spur-and-exit complex, but not before passing a stump dump and a wrecking yard, ten thousand crashed cars or so in piles. Also a funny kind of graveyard for things of the city: highway signs, streetlight poles, unused swimming rafts, traffic cones4. Under the highway bridge isn’t too inviting, frightening in fact, but if you keep going there’s a fire ring and much soggy bedding, a bum stop, and above you, up the bank and past a fence or two, the real city dump.
Here we (dogs, Juliet, myself) most commonly turn around and head back. And I guess I’d be hard-pressed to convince you or anyone that it’s not that bad walking here. Really: it’s not that bad. The dogs love it. But they do get burrs, and Wally, the big dope, insists on diving into the reeking storm sewer runoff, so we have to make him swim extra when we get upstream, where the water’s cleaner. And note: the city’s been working on the pump house. Lots of new valves and stuff, and the smell is really much less, if just as bad. I mean, I’m not saying no one cares.
It’s a nice place under the crap. The trees are still trees. And up in the trees the Carolina wrens are still Carolina wrens. And the wildflowers are still wildflowers even if they grow from an old chest of drawers. And the piles of stumps are pretty cool to look at. And the great mounds of concrete from demolition projects too, reminding me, actually, of Roman ruins, at least a little. And the sky is still the sky, and the river flows by below with the perfection of eddies and boils and riffles and pools. And the herons are still herons, and squawk. And the sound of the highway is not so different from the sound of the wind (except for the screeching and honking and sputtering). And the lights of the concrete plant are like sunset. And the train whistle is truly plaintive and romantic, and the buildings of the city a mile upstream are like cliffs, and I’ve heard that peregrine falcons have been convinced to live there. And the earth is the earth, it is always the earth. And the Sun is the Sun, and shines. And the stars are the stars, and the sliver of the waxing moon appears in the evening, stench or no, and moves me. So don’t think I’m saying it’s all bad. It’s not. I’m only saying that the bad part is really bad.
One fine blue day after much spring rain, Juliet and I in joy take the dogs down to Berliner Park, oh, early spring when the trees are still bare (but budded) and all the world is at its barest and ugliest, every flake of the forest floor unhidden, every fleck of litter and offal visible, and the turtles are not yet up from the mud.
We get out of the car next to a pile of litter someone has jettisoned (Burger King gets a nod here, and Marlboro), and walk down the dyke through old magazines and condoms and smashed bottles to the dam to watch the high water of spring roaring over. In fact, the normal fifteen-foot plunge is now only two feet, and the water comes up clear to the platform where we normally stand high over the river to look, laps at our toes. There are percolating eddies and brown storms of water and the unbelievable force of all that liquid smoothly raging over the dam at several feet deep and twenty miles an hour. You would die fast in that river not because it is so very cold but because of the super-complex and violent pattern of flow.
Juliet and I stare through the high chain-link and barbed-wire fence into the boiling maelstrom, absorb the roar wholly, lose our edges to the cool breezes flung up and the lucky charge all around us of negative ions as molecules are battered apart by this greatest force of nature: water unleashed. And so it’s a moment before we see the flotsam trap, where an eddy returns anything that floats—anything—back to the dam and the blast of the falling river. And the falling river forms a clean foaming cut the length of the dam, a sharp line, a chasm; the river falls so hard and so fast that it drops under itself. And great logs are rolling at the juncture. And whole tree trunks, forty feet long, polished clean of bark and branches. And whole trees, a score or more, dive and roll and leap and disappear, then pop into the daylight like great whales sounding, float peacefully to the wall of water, which spins them lengthwise fast or sinks them instantly; and they disappear only to appear twenty feet downriver, sounding again, all but spouting, roaring up out of the water, ten, fifteen feet into the sky, only to fall back. Humpback whales, they are, sounding, rising, slapping and parting the water, floating purposefully again to the dam. It’s an astonishing sight, objects so big under such thorough control and in such graceful movement, trees that in life only swayed and finally (a century or two of wind and bare winters) fell at river’s edge.
And then I see the balls. At least five basketballs, and many softballs, and two soccer balls, and ten dark pink and stippled playground balls and forty littler balls of all colors and sizes, all of them bobbing up to the wall of water, rolling, then going under, accompanied by pop bottles of many hues and Styrofoam pieces and aerosol cans, polished. And a car tire with wheel, floating flat. This old roller hits the wall of water and bounces away slightly, floats back, bounces away, floats back, bounces away, floats back, is caught, disappears. Even the dogs love watching. They love balls, especially Wally, and are transfixed.
And the tire reappears long seconds after its immersion, appears many yards away, cresting like a dolphin. Logs pop out of the water like Titanic fishes, diving at the dam head-up the way salmon do (in fact, you see in the logs how salmon accomplish their feats: they use the power of the eddy, swim hard with the backcurrent, leap—even a log can do it!), leap among froth and playground balls and tires and bottles with caps on, balls and bottles and tires ajumble, reds and blues and yellows and pinks and purples and greens and blacks, bottles and aerosol cans and balls, balls and tires and logs and tree trunks and chunks of Styrofoam, all leaping and feinting and diving under and popping up and reappearing in colors not of the river: aquas and fuschias and metallics, WD-40 blue and Right Guard gold and polished wood and black of tire and crimson board and child’s green ball and pummeled log and white seagulls hovering, darting for fish brought to the tortured surface in the chaos of trash and logs and toys, all of it bobbing, the logs diving headfirst at the dam, the balls rolling and popping free of the foam for airborne flights, and tires like dolphins, and softballs fired from the foam, and polished logs, and a babydoll body, all of it rumbling, caught in the dam wash for hours and days and nights of flood, rumbling and tumbling and popping free, rolling and diving and popping free, bubbling and plunging and popping free.
. Home of at least some of the “Friends of the Olentangy,” one of whom gave me a call after the first publication of this essay to invite me to plant trees along the river with his group. I said no, thinking it a conflict of at least my interest to get involved with the PR arm of such a large corporation.
. I’m not saying there is any cause and effect claim here, but in the months after the first publication of this essay, the embankment under the catering facility and the grounds immediately around it were cleaned up quite thoroughly, and have been attended to since.
3. There’s some kind of valve system here that’s been replaced since the first publication of this essay. The new stuff looks pretty sophisticated, and the stench now is quite a bit less, yet still formidable, especially after rain. The pool in the river below stays thawed in winter, and ducks seem to like it.
4. And, come to think of it, a number of green-painted 55-gallon drums, first about a dozen, then a few more each month or so, till there were over a hundred. You have to love the green paint, the purposeful co-optation of environmental-movement symbolism. These barrels disappeared just after the first publication of this essay, though again, I don’t claim any connection. And one day I saw the “Neighborhood Outreach” truck from one of the huge local hospitals, an eighteen-wheeler, make its way into the chain-link compound and drop something—what exactly, I couldn’t see from my vantage point, presumably some kind of outreach, though!