Riverbank Rambles

May 6, 2010

When I first traveled along the Columbia River, it was by train rather than bicycle. Bonneville Dam was only half built, Grand Coulee Dam was still in the planning stage, and the river ran the way that Nature intended.

The mighty Columbia (on whose banks I now bicycle all of the time) had not yet become the fully developed “organic machine” that historian Richard White describes in his book by that name. All that I remember from that ride when I was six years old are night-lights glimmering on black water.

A little later, our family lived close to the Willamette River, one of the Columbia’s tributaries, and Mom and Dad, even though neither could swim, taught us to dog paddle in a quiet pool on the river’s edge that had been dredged to supply a rock crusher with material.

During seminary years, my wife and I lived in the ancient village of Somerset, on Indiana’s Mississinewa River—on the high side. “Why, even in the flood of 1913,” old timers told us, “the town was dry.” Imagine our distress when the Army Corps of Engineers decided to construct a flood control dam down river even though it would put an historic Indian burial ground and old Somerset under water. “Why should we have to move,” my Somerset neighbors asked, “because those people down at Peru (accent on the first syllable) had no better sense than to build their town on the flood plain?”

We lost, of course, as the people always do when contending with the Corps of Engineers, and more than half a century later I still grieve.

During a pastorate in California’s South San Joaquin Valley, we lived near the Kings River, which carried snowmelt from the high Sierra Nevada to the valley floor. When John Muir first beheld the scene, the desert was covered with a brilliant floral carpet. When I saw it, the valley was intensely planted to corn and cotton, grapes and nectarines and oranges, and Fresno (our county seat) proclaimed itself the agri-business capitol of the world.

Our long-time home in Indianapolis was near the White River and a short canal that provided a haven for ducks, a gravel towpath for cyclists, and respite from the city’s unrelenting geometrical grid. This dual waterway, which had failed to live up to the industrial hopes of earlier settlers, provided a neighborhood in which Nature and human community, including children, lived together in gentle harmony.

In later years, the Colorado River system has been the focus of my attention. Despite the fact that these streams flow through serious desert, they used to flow year round, maintaining a riverine way of life for fish, plants, animals, and people.

Even in ancient times, people have harnessed their rivers, seeking to improve upon Nature’s way. In many parts of the world, irrigation was the principal modification. Despite their small scale, irrigation systems were hard to sustain. Because of the build up of salt and silt and the rise of cities with concentrated political power, they could not be sustained forever.

An early irrigation civilization in Arizona’s Valley of the Sun perished, but many generations later, founders of a new village built on top of the old named it Phoenix, invoking the legendary creature that once had risen out of fiery ashes. Its irrigated way of life is far more complex and powerful than the ancient ones could have imagined, but its demise seems equally certain. The time comes when Nature’s way resumes control.

For forty years I have enjoyed hard-core cycling along America’s rivers—along the Ohio and the Wabash systems in the Midwest, the Colorado and its tributaries in the Southwest, and the Columbia River system in my native Pacific Northwest. The folly of large-scale diversion and irrigation has been at the center of my reflections.

During the summer of 2010, however, I am changing focus, with the Potomac River becoming the center of attention. In order to improve upon Nature’s watercourse, George Washington and entrepreneurs with plenty of public money and poor peoples’ blood and guts, constructed the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, twisting it along side of the river, all of the way from the nation’s capitol to Cumberland, Maryland. Now a National Park, the towpath provides a way for people to bicycle through time.

Which is what I plan to do, beginning in June. On my Waterford touring bike, I will travel this classic trail and reflect upon one interaction between Nature and engineers in which Nature has won and a world of tranquil beauty has managed to survive.

In your imagination, come ride with me. There is much to see and think about. I’ll keep you posted.

Power, Virtue, and Common Sense

May 3, 2010

“The most important book ever written on American public policy,” if we can believe Andrew J. Bacevich, began as lectures delivered on college campuses shortly after the close of World War II. The lecturer was Reinhold Niebuhr, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and his speeches were published in 1949 as The Irony of American History.

President Obama is well versed in Niebuhr’s ideas, which may be one reason why the University of Chicago Press has reissued the book, sixty years after its first appearance. It has a new introduction by Bacevich whose 2008 book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, draws extensively upon Niebuhr’s work.

Niebuhr’s organizing motif is irony, which he describes as a situation with incongruities that on the surface seem unrelated, but upon closer examination are closely tied together. “Virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue,” and “strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt” the person or nation that is strong.

Applied to American life, irony comes in two patterns. First, the good in American life—our scientific developments, our emphasis upon the dignity of every person, our freedoms, our preeminence in world affairs—carries with it unrecognized tendencies which, if allowed to develop unchecked, undercut or destroy the good. Second, certain elements of American society that are undervalued or scorned—the young, the deviant, the culturally dispossessed, the uneducated—possess within themselves the possibilities of contributing new strength that can make the nation better.

Irony helps us understand that America’s necessity to exercise power carries with it the inescapable development of guilt.

Niebuhr’s illustration is the threat to use atomic weapons after World War II. As Americans, we had always thought of ourselves as a most innocent and virtuous nation, but after the war we also found ourselves the world’s most powerful. We were custodians of the most destructive weapon ever developed, and we could not disavow its use in order to maintain our virtue. Yet if we had used it, we would have covered ourselves with a terrible guilt.

For Americans, the irony is that “the greatness of our power is derived on the one hand from the technical efficiency of our industrial establishment and on the other from the success of our natural scientists. Yet it was assumed that science and business enterprise would insure the triumph of reason over power and passion in human history.” We know that this assumption was (and is) ill founded.

The ironic dimension of American foreign policy helps us understand current efforts to protect the world from forces that threaten freedom, dignity, and life itself. The exercise of power has been defended as the action of a nation that believes in freedom and wants to extend it to people around the world. Yet, the defense of freedom, supported by a significant body of intellectual analysis, has led the nation into preemptive wars in the Middle East.

Not only has this warfare brought violence and suffering; it has also caused our military forces to engage in actions that emulate many of the most coercive tactics of those whom we battle in the name of our superior freedoms and way of life.

Toward the end of his book, Niebuhr writes that in America common sense trumps theory. Truth “becomes falsehood, precisely when it is carried through too consistently.” Common sense prevents both of the primary theories (Niebuhr calls them wisdoms) now operating in America from being carried through to their logical conclusions.

Niebuhr writes as a theologian, often drawing upon the Bible in order to show the ironic point of view in full operation. His book is a splendid example of how theological ideas can be brought into public discourse in ways that transcend sectarianism. Social policy and political action would be improved if more of our public discourse were of this kind.

In the nation’s capitol and in legislative assemblies around the country, let this be remembered: Carried too far, held until the bitter end, our virtues become vices. When we are most certain of ourselves, those things we demean or despise may lead to positive change.

Niebuhr is right. A renewed awareness of the ironic character of American culture and politics could allow common sense to trump our ideologies again. The result: foreign policy and political action at home would both be much improved.

Note: Thanks to Pastor Bob Cornwall, friend and mentor, who is posting this review on his blog in order to help spread the word. http://pastorbobcornwall.blogspot.com/