Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"...a landscape held literally under martial law"

I discovered the BLDG BLOG Book while casually browsing at the MIT Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts recently. Up until that point I had never heard of it, the author Geoff Manaugh or his web site.

I found it to be incredibly creative, and deliciously outrageous. I often find myself thinking about the images that are actually displayed in the book or that they trigger in my mind.

The section from Manaugh's BLDG BLOG Book posted below is especially relevant today. I can't imagine that anyone who reads this will not be compelled to purchase and allow themselves to be pulled in as I was. (GW)

Fossil Rivers
By Geoff Manaugh
From “The BLDG BLOG Book”
Chronicle Books , 2009

The geologic history of the Mississippi River has been extensively documented by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for more than a century. The Corps has produced maps, charts, graphs and illustrated reports. Taken together, these offer a snapshot of the Mississippi, from source to sea, including the river’s “subsurface conditions,” its ancient geologic forms, and its present-day urban surroundings. We see the grids of existing cities – New Orleans, Baton Rouge, St. Louis – built upon the shores of the world’s fourth-largest river; and we see remnant landscapes of eroded bedrock from a time before humans set foot in North America. This is the “ancestral” Mississippi, a lost waterscape of “meander belts” and “alluvial aprons,” now visible only to the eyes of trained geologists.

The Corps’ maps are visually spectacular – beautiful to the point of disbelief. Colors coil around other colors; abstract shapes knot, circle, and extend like Christmas gift ribbons. This is geology as a subset of Abstract Expressionism: rocky loops of the Earth’s surface in the hands of Jackson Pollack.

In the maps, different colors represent routes of the Mississippi as recorded by the Corps at “approximate half-century intervals” – indeed, the river can shift that much, tracing whole new geometries in less than a century. We glimpse the Mississippi in its true historic dimensions, where it becomes a labyrinth of conflicting riverbeds, each one disappearing slowly, inevitably, over thousands of years, only to be replaced, abruptly, by new directions and forms – that will themselves disappear later. These maps document time, in other words, as much as they document geography.

The sheer fact that cities have been built in the midst of this mobile terrain is vaguely hilarious. The “land all these cities are constructed on is actually hundreds of thousands of acres of displaced mud, thick sheets of soil washed down from the north and compacted over time into something approximating solid ground. Yet there is no solid ground here: It is an unstructured mush of erased landscapes, a syrupy blur. The river meanders, creating surface here, surface there—solidity nowhere. The waters curve eastward, then westward, then back again, redesigning the central landscape of the United States even as they drain North America.

Indeed, what the Army Corps of Engineers discovered while producing these maps is that the Mississippi River has changed channel completely—and it has done this hundreds, even thousands of times. In fact, the river’s endless self-alteration still occurs, even as you read this: The Mississippi, like all rivers, is migratory, destined to wander across the landscape for as long as it continues to flow. It drifts back and forth—sometimes a few feet, sometimes a mile—walled in by its own silt and debris, until there is change: A natural levee fails, or a storm surge bursts into another watercourse nearby, and the river finds itself a quick new route to the sea.

These old routes, of course, leave traces: Eroded deep into rock and soil or piled high in distant mounds, running across the backyards of farms, forming ponds, they are the fossils of ancient landscapes—lost rivers locked in the ground around us.

If you are the Army Corps of Engineers, however—a branch of the U.S. military—then your mandate is to secure the nation’s waterways. The Mississippi’s relentless change in shape and direction is thus not a topic for poetry but a matter of national security. Through their infinite encyclopedia of the river—constantly updated, never complete—the Corps hopes to control these riverside transformations. Their goal is made almost comically obvious when you note that these maps are printed by the “War Department.” This is a battle strategy: It is geomorphic warfare.

Simultaneous with the realization that the Mississippi is a landscape on the move, the Army Corps of Engineers launched a much larger project: to fix the path of the Mississippi in place—forever. It sought to do this through architecture, installing monumental locks and dams up and down the river’s route, controlling rates of flow, sediment, ship traffic, flash floods, and so on. For thousands of miles, the Mississippi would be a landscape held literally under martial law.

This can be seen as sheer folly for anyone who looks at the Corps’ own maps. Meadows and hillsides once located hundreds of miles away have been reduced to nothing but mud braided on the bottom of the Mississippi River, clumped high in deltas, spread wide over lobes upon which whole towns have now been built. And someday even the Corps’ pharaonic locks and dams will be mere sand on the shores of a future Mississippi. All these misguided control structures—and the cities they protect—will disappear, glittering in the currents like Rheingold…before they, too, are lost to the river forever.


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