Thursday, June 19, 2008
water in every form.
I will never forget my seventh grade creative writing teacher and eighth grade English teacher, Mrs. O'Roarke. When she taught us the major themes in literature (let's see if I can remember: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Self, Man vs. Society, Man vs. Animal, and I feel like there is a sixth, but I'm not recalling- could it be Man vs. God/Religion?), I remember feeling awed by how simple it was. That's it? I thought, as if life and writing were suddenly snapping into focus. That's all I have to do to write a story? Just pick a theme, and write about it? And my characters are just tools to help me explore the larger theme? It seemed so easy.
Now I'm sure there are more sophisticated ways to teach children about themes in literature. And I'm sure there are people who contest boiling literary themes down in this manner. I'm not an educator, but I've got a feeling. Regardless, when Mrs. O'Rourke presented these basic themes as the subject matter of all of the literature in the world throughout all of time, I got it.
Lately I am obsessed with the presence in everyday life of one particular theme: Man vs. Nature. Maybe I have always been obsessed with this theme, with how small I am as a human being against the great big landscape. In particular, it is Man vs. Water that is capturing my attention. I'm observing right now. And processing.
Perhaps my first short story collection will have, as it's common thread, water. Maybe each piece will have Man vs. Water as it's underlying theme - or at least some interpretation or abstraction of that theme.
I saw in The New York Times today an article called "A Hand to Hand Struggle with a Raging River." I read it and recalled immediately the themes of literature as taught by Mrs. O'Roarke. Not a second later, I thought to myself, raging river, rising river. What trouble are we in for, Louisiana? Of course, it's the whole nation's trouble, isn't it, and we're already feeling it. I wonder how often it occurs to us that the spine of the United States is not hard bone set in place, but instead a thread of muscular liquid expanding, contracting and shifting at will?
Below is the article's text, but if you link to it, you'll see images in a slideshow.
A Hand to Hand Struggle with a Raging River by Dan Barry
The New York Times, June 19, 2008
They sandbag by moonlight. The school superintendent and the judge, the police sergeant and the mechanic, the Amish man in a straw hat and the young man in a Budweiser T-shirt, they lay down sandbags as if making peace offerings to a vexed god called the Mississippi.
The only sounds on Tuesday night: the whine of all-terrain vehicles climbing up the levee to deliver more sandbags; the rustle of bags being lifted; the calling mmmf! of those tossing bags into the air and the answering ooof! of those catching them in the chest; the thump of bags dropped into strategic place; and, ever so faintly, a distant aaahhh of rushing, roiling water.
“You sit here and listen,” Jim Crenshaw, a local emergency management official says with an awe just inches short of horror. “Normally you never hear it like that.”
Behind him, the swollen moon sends a charged lightness skimming across the river’s black surface and onto the white sandbags. Each bag tossed and each bag laid seems now to glow, as if containing something more than mere river sand. Mmmf! Ooof! Aaahhh...
And here, along the lip of the town’s levee, remain the torn, whitish remnants of sandbags lifted, tossed and stacked before the disastrous flood of 1993, when the people of Canton somehow managed, almost against the odds, to hold back the river.
The men and boys catching the sandbags of 2008, then, are standing on the successful offerings of the past.
There is something almost too simple, even primitive, about sandbagging. In an age when anyone can receive a satellite photograph of where they’re standing with the click of an iPhone, and when the river’s southward swell can be tracked like a tagged animal lumbering along a worn path, we still heavily depend on a basic, communal practice: shovel sand in bag, place bag on ground, pray it works, as it often does.
The Army Corps of Engineers offers an appreciation for sandbags on its Web site; sandbags, it says, are “a steadfast tool for flood fighting.” And by now, people along the Mississippi know the very specific instructions — fill bags to little more than half-way; start downstream and work up; layer bags just so — as well as the irony that their bags are often filled with sand dredged from the very river they are fending off.
But there is an ingredient just as necessary as sand: people. In the small towns along Highway 79, which meanders for dozens of miles alongside the river, people gather at firehouses, garages and street corners to participate in a ritual that combines hope and earth.
In Clarksville, for example, some inmates from the women’s prison in Vandalia spend these days shoveling and packing while under the gaze of corrections officers in sunglasses. In white shirts stamped with “WR” — for work release — they form an assembly line that snakes away from a diminishing mound of sand toward the growing river, whose threat unites them with all those who will not be traveling 40 miles by van back to a prison.
Here are Sandra Miller, 48, and Thalisia Ervin, 40, basking in sweat and in the appreciation of Clarksville. Ms. Miller, who has already served 13 years for “being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” as she puts it, says the weight of another bag caught sometimes knocks the wind out of her, but then she thinks to herself:
“This is for the good. This is for our good.”
Still, Ms. Miller looks around, sees the water higher and closer than it was the day before, and she questions that good. “It makes me wonder,” she says. “Does it help?”
“It does, it does,” her sister inmate reassures her. “It’s slowing it down.”
The story is the same in other communities. Inmates and Mennonites, children who should be playing and retirees who should be resting, all answering the mayday calls, all racing against the lowering sun and the rising water. All sandbagging.
Tuesday had begun with the rise of another deceptive sun over Canton, a farming and college town of 2,500. The halcyon days of mere weeks ago, when the Mississippi River was content to be a vehicle of commerce and recreation, were gone; now its greedy waters had consumed the riverside park and a good chunk of the active rail line, and were still agitating for more, rapping against the town’s three-mile-long levee.
The town’s emergency management director, Jeff McReynolds, had issued a statement “highly, highly” recommending that residents east of Seventh Street sleep somewhere other than their homes until further notice. He had also called for all able-bodied men to report for sandbagging and levee duties.
This would explain, then, why a visitor driving through the high ground of Canton at evening time finds tidy homes, the tidy campus of Culver-Stockton College — and almost no people. That is because many of them are downtown, near the river, sandbagging: able-bodied and otherwise; men, women and children, including Dalton, an 11-year-old boy with a dirt-smeared face who keeps pestering local officials with, “What can I do now, huh? What can I do?”
They smile and point him back to the sandbags.
With the moon rising, getting brighter, Mr. Crenshaw, one of the local officials, patrols the levee, swatting away bugs, overseeing the sandbagging operation he helped put together. One night last week he and another man drove about six hours round-trip to Davenport, Iowa, to collect 250,000 empty bags from the Corps of Engineers. They arrived at 5:15 in the morning; by 7, sand-filled bags were being stacked.
First, he says, workers dug a shallow trench along the levee, hammered in stakes, put up a short wooden wall called a “batter board,” laid some plastic sheeting — at this point Mr. Crenshaw is interrupted by the boy named Dalton, looking again for something to do.
“Hang tight, little buddy,” the man says to the boy. Pointing to a cluster of young Mennonite women filling bags at a large sand pile, he says, “Can you help them load over there?”
The boy runs to the pile, and Mr. Crenshaw picks up where he left off, saying that Canton has gone through about 850,000 bags. And they need more in this battle of inches, of guessing how far above 27 feet or so the river will rise.
The absence of the sun lends menace to the river. The sandbagging normally stops at 9 at night, for safety reasons. But few sandbaggers stop; few think they have the time. They’re still there — the civic leaders and local nobodies, those young Amish and Mennonite men tossing 50-pound bags around like pillows, that boy named Dalton.
In the hours to come, well into early morning, workers will race from wet spot to wet spot along the northern stretch of the levee, laying down sandbags to shore up what little separates a river from a people. The shoosh of shovel blade into sand, the rustle of bags, the exhalations of breath, under bright moonlight.
Another day will dawn with disaster averted, and by Wednesday afternoon there will be 50,000 sandbags. “Idle and waiting to be used,” Mr. Crenshaw says, as if confirming that each bag contained more than river sand.