Book Review: Written on Water: Writings about the Allegheny River and The Allegheny River: Watershed of the Nation

Written on Water: Writings about the Allegheny River, Edited by Helen Ruggieri & Linda Underhill, Mayapple Press, 2013, $19.95.

The Allegheny River: Watershed of the Nation, Photographs by Jim Schafer, Text by Mike Sajna, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992, $90.00.

Reviewed by Nola Garrett

Every morning from my condo’s dining room window, the Allegheny River looks different. Not that the river has escaped its concrete banks nor has the river ceased to flow under Pittsburgh’s three sister bridges, but the river’s surface changes color—brown, green, ice white, patent leather black at night—shines, glowers—rises, falls, freezes, carries craft of myriad sizes including tree trunks; acquires windswept paths during rain, and even appears to flow upriver as far as the 6th Street Bridge when the west wind blows. Also, every morning here near the Allegheny’s confluence into the Ohio, I think about where it has been and that a great deal of its water has been part of French Creek and the rock-filled crick that winds through Mill Village, PA, the small Erie County town where I lived as a child. And, I feel at home.

While I soon learned the geography of where the creeks of my childhood went down stream, what I found most interesting was where they came from. I still remember the summer day I finished 3rd grade, carrying my shoes, slipping on the mossy rocks, wading upstream, crossing back and forth to better footing to find the source of our town’s crick. I was surprised how quickly my crick narrowed and how ordinary the trickle seemed that emerged from a hillside spring not very far from my elementary school. I felt as if I had discovered a wonderful secret. Years later after I graduated from college and owned a car, I drove to a few untended acres owned by the Western Pennsylvania Nature Conservancy near Chautauqua just across the New York State line to the equally ordinary, but mysterious source of French Creek. I remember how quiet I felt.

Frankly, I loved French Creek—still do—and it never crossed my mind that anyone wouldn’t until I until I met my college roommate, Turzah Atwell, who firmly told me she hated French Creek. Turzah was from Franklin, PA, where French Creek joins the Allegheny River. Every spring when the ice went out, French Creek flooded her out of her home. That year’s flood was the cause of Turzah’s catching pneumonia. She told me about how she felt struggling for breath, how filled with fear she might die she was. While Turzah was a good roommate, I did come to understand that Turzah could hold a powerful grudge. That’s when I rethought what I had always found wonderfully exciting about French Creek—its floods. Mill Village sits about fifty feet above the French Creek flood plain we called “the flats,” which during my childhood regularly flooded hundreds of acres of marvelously fertile potato fields. The floods’ wild drama closed roads while leaving ice chunks as large as pickup trucks and doing the good work of depositing silt upon the fields. Maybe that wasn’t the only way to think of French Creek or for that matter the Allegheny River.

I think that encounter with Turzah was when I first glimpsed the power of rivers beyond personal attachment. I’ve been reckoning differently ever since. Rivers course through public health, religion, geology, anthropology, history, politics, economics, engineering, music, poetry and prose. Our rivers belong to us, and at the same time rivers own us body and mind and soul. Here in Western Pennsylvania we have found the Allegheny to be a worthy opponent. We’ve tamed its floods, its meanders and bars with locks, dams, and concrete walls; so that here in Pittsburgh while I’m walking along the sidewalks around The Point, sometimes I feel as if I’m visiting a river zoo.

So, here in this blog—my anti-book—I commend to you, my readers—screen to screen—two books dealing with the Allegheny River in opposite ways.

Written on Water: Writings about the Allegheny River is a new anthology of poetry including a few pieces of creative non-fiction and a bonus CD of songs and poems featuring Pete Seeger, Peter LaFarge, Jerome Rothenberg and the Allegheny Valley Singers. The order of the book moves from the Allegheny River’s source and its early Indian history to Pittsburgh seen from the perspective of contemporary Pittsburgh poets such as Ed Ochester and Julia Spicher Kasdorf. Of course, this book consisting of poetry and songs means personal attachment of all sorts will be explored, but as you read these poems remember the phrase, “the personal is political” and you’ll find more variety of knowledge than you might expect.

I particularly liked this anthology’s second poem by David Budbill spoken from an Indian’s point of view:

SHOTETSU

Shotetsu saw the wind ripple the surface
of a stream as it flowed through a meadow.

He also saw the wrinkles of his own old face
reflected on the surface of the stream.

This brief poem certainly tells us a lot about how viewing a river’s source affects us in timeless and all-inclusive ways. Several pages later, Philip Terman, who teaches at Clarion University, writes a poem titled “River of Many Names” four pages long in five sections that I found equally moving. Here’s a taste from the first section:

We could fish until we grow old,
or simply stare like we were wise
and gather together the experiences
of our many selves.

We could pray in droughts for its rising,
in floods for its holding back.

Near the end of this collection are two poems by Julia Spicher Kasdorf, “Westmoreland” and “The Girl in the Back Seat Returns to Pittsburgh.” Though each of these poems could stand alone, this pair of poems in terms of this anthology need each other. “Westmoreland” ends

…. Was it much worse than any place

we could have grown up? Or like all the Hawthorne they forced
us to read in 11th grade, was Westmoreland County wasted
on us, so young, all we could learn was to hate it.

“The Girl in the Back Seat Returns to Pittsburgh” begins

Now I see the statue at the traffic circle is not
a talk between Satan and some poor lady who
doesn’t know her dress has fallen past her waist.

and then takes us through the Fort Pitt tunnel and over the rivers to Phipps Conservatory and a tour of Pittsburgh ending with this observation:

Amazing to finally see humanity figured
as a careless woman, singing: great to see Earth
as a goaty man, such a relief to find this bald

fact cast in bronze….

These poems are not Huckleberry Finn floating down the Mississippi; these poems speak to us about how it feels to live our lives in the long valley of our river, The Allegheny. Even if you don’t listen to the CD, I think you’ll find this book to be a lovely bargain for a long, long time.

Ninety dollars is a lot to pay for any book, even if it is a gorgeous, well written, beautifully photographed, entertaining coffee table book about everything you ever wanted to know about the Allegheny River, but The Allegheny River: Watershed of the Nation is worth it! Of course, there are other legal ways to read this 1992 book. You could check it out of a library. You could put it on your Christmas list. You could buy it used on amazon.com like I did.

This collection of photographs by Jim Schafer came first. Then Jim found Mike Sajna writing for Pittsburgh Magazine and convinced him to take dozens of research trips up and down the Allegheny River with him to write a series of essays to give words to his pictures so his photographs could find a publisher. Not the way most books get written or published. This book begins in Pittsburgh and ends on a hill in Potter County on the Barnett Brothers potato farm. Turns out this is no ordinary hill. It’s a hill known as “the triple divide…marks the divide between the waters draining west into the Allegheny, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers to the Gulf of Mexico; north along the Genesee River to Lake Ontario and the Gulf of St. Lawrence; and east down Pine Creek to the Susquehana River and the Chesapeake Bay….a single point where, if one spilled a bucket of water, some of the water would flow toward Newfoundland, some toward Norfolk, and the rest toward New Orleans.” Accompanying this marvelous information are two full page color photos of the hill top water and a quarter page photo of the Barnett Brothers potato farm sign. I feel as if I have already gone there, but I know that sometime this coming summer, I’ll drive there to see for myself. That’s the kind of power this book has.

Even though I’ve given away the ending, the rest of the book is just as good. If you’d ever wondered why the first Allegheny River lock in Pittsburgh begins with Lock #2, this is your book. If you’d like to know the details of the 1939 St. Patrick’s Day flood, you need this book. Same thing for the “Barrel Flood” on the same day in 1865. And if you’d like to read about the most horrible thing that has ever happened on the present site of Heinz Field, July 9, 1755, you’ll wonder if it’s the inspiration for the Steelers’ defensive line. And, there’s a long excerpt from Peter Oresick’s poems, Definitions, “After the Deindustrialization of America, My Father Enters Television Repair” as part of a chapter dealing Ford City during the 1980’s and 90’s. Interested in fishing—read this book. Indian Treaties? George Washington? Gypsy Moths effect of the river? Creation myths? Ida Tarbell? Money and Washington politics and the height of Pittsburgh’s bridges? Besides, there are ancient drawings and/or photographs illustrating just about everything else about ourselves and the Allegheny River.
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