Jesuit missionaries and solitary cyclists: remembering to ride by the rules

February 27, 2013

Rules and Precepts of the Jesuit Missions of Northwestern New Spain. By Charles W. Polzer (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1976).

PolzerBy disposition and habit, I’m a solitary cyclist, preferring most of the time to travel day after day by myself. This may be one reason why I’m drawn to Spanish missionaries in the desert Southwest, solitary and romantic figures like Junipero Sera in California and Eusebio Francisco Kino in Arizona and Mexico.

Despite the independent solitariness that their work forced upon them, however, these missionary priests participated in a surprisingly regulated communal way of life. For this reason, they are models for me, a solitary cyclist who has learned to travel according to the disciplines maintained by PAC Tour, the company that conducts some of the trips I take these days.

On the evening before a tour begins, Lon Haldeman gathers the riders together, hands out a page or two of procedures for the tour, and spends up to an hour going through them carefully. The guiding principles are consistency of schedule, efficiency of procedures, and mutual responsibility. Now that I have ridden with PAC Tour for half a dozen trips, I understand and affirm the “rules and precepts” that shape the patterns of life we enjoy with one another.

My understanding of the system within which Eusebio Kino, the inspirational model for my cycling, comes from Rules and Precepts of the Jesuit Missions of Northwestern New Spain, a monograph by Charles W. Polzer, who like Kino was a member of the Society of Jesus. Part Two of the book, which I have not read, consists of translations of eighteen documents dated from 1610 to 1763 that state the rules and precepts under which Jesuit missionaries lived and worked.

Part One, which I have read, contains Polzer’s interpretation of the way of life of these men who lived with solitude and community constantly in tension.

Jesuit MissionsThe solitariness is easy to understand. Kino’s territory was the northernmost of four mission districts in the river valleys of Sinaloa that “had sprawled out along the Gulf coast [of Mexico], crept upward into the mountains, spread into the cactus desert of Sonora and the Pimería Alta, and had even crossed the Gulf into California” (p. 24). Small Native American communities were scattered throughout this vast region.

Even though Kino often traveled in company with one or two other priests and a small band of soldiers, their daily life was markedly different from the ordered pattern of prayer, study, and good works that was the model for Jesuit communities.

When they were at their missions, each missionary was usually the only European with learned and religious inclinations in residence. By himself, he was under obligation to live according to his Jesuit obligations and to conduct the mission community in ways that were punctiliously similar.

Polzer describes two regulatory systems that governed Jesuit priests even in their solitariness. The more obvious was the interlocking governmental and ecclesiastical institutions. Bishops and princes and their vassals, in Europe and New Spain, paid scrupulous attention to the missions. They were, of course, interested in the Christianization of the native people. Becoming Christian, however, was understood in cultural terms as much as in religious patterns of life.

In this period following the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the “stress in the Roman Church at the time was on doctrinal purity and conformity to Roman tradition. In the mission apostolate there was no question about cultural variation; conversion presupposed the total acceptance of Christian dogma and Greco-Roman culture” (p. 40). Many of the rules under which the missionaries worked were designed to guarantee that these expectations were being observed and the intended results achieved.

This system of governance, which was largely secular in its spirit, was interested in mundane issues such as where the money came from, who controlled it, and what was to be done with it. Since the missions were economic institutions as much as religious, and since salaries came from governmental and ecclesiastical sources, there was much to dispute.

At a deeper level, the missionaries were governed by the religious obligations of their religious profession in the Society of Jesus. Polzer describes “the asceticism peculiar to the Society of Jesus—the Ignatian stress on obedience.” These rules combined with the practical circumstances of life in the wilderness “set up scrupulous tensions among the Jesuits who found themselves facing limitless problems that strained their dedication and imagination.”

The rules and precepts which Polzer compiles in this book, and evidence from the records kept by the missionaries, “show the miniscule concern of superiors for exact observance. Because the perfection of the religious life depended largely on such exact observance of the rule in the minds of the Jesuit missionaries, it is a most reasonable assumption that these rules were truly the norms of conduct. What the rules demanded was most probably what the men actually did” (p. 14).

PAC Tour cyclists will be travelling within a gentler system of guidelines. If it’s not fun, Susan Notorangelo asks, why do it? Lon’s guidelines are there to increase the likelihood that all of us, riders and crew together, will have fun.

And that’s exactly what I intend to do!

A melancholy cyclist riding along the Santa Cruz River

February 22, 2013

The Lessening Stream: An Environmental History of the Santa Cruz River, by Michael F. Logan (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2002)

Turkey Creek in the Canelo Hills

Turkey Creek in the Canelo Hills

As American rivers go, Arizona’s Santa Cruz isn’t very much, 205 miles from its headwaters in the Canelo Hills to its confluence with the Gila River near Phoenix where both streams exist as dry washes most of the time.

My interest in this little desert stream is based, in part, on the fact that on four days of PAC Tour’s Border Towns bicycling event we’ll be riding up and down in two valleys that are part of the Santa Cruz’s drainage basin. A second reason is that this river is a useful paradigm for the environmental history of rivers great and small across America’s West and in many other places in the world.

To understand the river’s history, it is necessary to have a comprehensive account of its life as far back as we can get it, with special attention given to the forces, natural and human-caused, that have affected it. Environmental historian Michael F. Logan, whose family settled on the Santa Cruz a few miles north of Nogales in 1880, has provided this narrative. Its usefulness is increased by the fact that he intends to avoid a moralistic overlay to the narrative. Evaluations of good and bad and right and wrong are largely absent, leaving it to the readers to develop their own interpretation of the story’s meaning.

As we bicycle along the historic course of the river and its tributary streams, we can ignore its history. We can focus full attention upon the ride itself and give little thought to the way this river has entered into the human history of the societies that have endured through this desert landscape. All that we have to do is keep to the designated route and revel in the delights of Arizona’s winter sunshine and broad vistas.

As a history-oriented cyclist, however, I keep thinking about the human stories that have unfolded along the roads over which I bicycle mile after mile. As I travel along the Santa Cruz waterways, Logan’s book will provide a multi-faceted narrative that interweaves the interaction of natural and human factors in three eras which he describes as archaic, modern, and postmodern.

My mindset will differ from Logan’s, however. He considers himself to be a materialist, and therefore resists seeing this history as a story of decline. As a religious historian, I pay attention to meaning as well as to fact, and it is more difficult for me than it is for Logan to resist the tendency to develop the morality of the actions that have taken place in the Santa Cruz basin. Topics that interest me include this short list:

Logan1)    The capacity of this little stream to support extensive human development, including the Tucson metropolitan area, vast acreages of irrigated farming, and an extensive mining industry. Even though the Santa Cruz is a diminishing stream, the reservoirs provided by its ancient aquifer continue to support a complex industrial society.

2)     The ability of humankind to alter the forces of nature. Logan shows how even the Hohokam—the “Ancient One”—were able to change the river’s flow by their simple but highly efficient irrigation systems. In later years, and especially in the most recent postmodern era, this human capacity beggars the imagination.

3)    The strange, disquieting character of what Logan describes as the postmodern era. Even Logan’s determination to avoid moralizing escapes him as he describes the “postmodern vision of the river” as “chaotic and surrealistic.” People with this point of view completely dissociate the river, and all of the politics revolving around its use, from anything that is important to them in their daily lives—and this despite the fact that the Santa Cruz and its aquifer continue to “be central to the survival of human society in the valley.”

4)    Logan’s calm confidence that our culture, like that of the Hohokam more than six hundred years ago, will disappear because the natural world will no longer be able to sustain our way of life. “Just as a river existed before human cultures arrived in the valley, . . .a river will no doubt continue to exist in one manifestation or another long after the last human culture, and I, have passed from the scene” (p. 11).

Despite the somber character of Logan’s eschatology, I tend to share it. As a religious historian I am drawn to the vision of a new heaven and a new earth, but as I bicycle through life the plot of world history seems to be fundamentally tragic.

This bicycle ride through the Santa Cruz basin, enjoyable as it is bound to be, is likely to send me home even more uneasy about our human prospects than when I began the ride.

Padre on Horseback

February 20, 2013

The Padre on Horseback: A sketch of Eusebio Francisco Kino, S.J., Apostle to the Pimas, by Herbert Eugene Bolton (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1963, 1986; originally published 1932)

Bolton-PadreThe person I nominate to be the inspirational example for multi-day bicyclists in the desert southwest is Eusebio Francisco Kino, “the padre on horseback,” historian Herbert Eugene Bolton calls him, who devoted most of his adult years to constant travel across the Sonoran Desert in northern Mexico and southern Arizona.

In 1932 Bolton published a slender book which he described as a “sketch” of the “apostle to the Pimas” whose “well authenticated feats in the saddle” leave southwestern cowboys “aghast and almost skeptical.”

A chapter entitled “Hard Riding” summarizes this endurance on horseback. In 1695, already past fifty years of age, Kino made a 1,500-mile journey in thirty days, averaging thirty miles a day. In 1697, he made another seven or eight hundred mile journey in thirty days and the next year a trip of similar length in twenty-five days, thus averaging twenty-five or more miles per day. In later years, his averages sometimes reached thirty to nearly forty miles per day.

Since Bolton began his scholarly career in 1902, at a time when travel on horseback was still part of the ordinary experience of most people, we can trust his evaluation of the impressive character of Kino’s horsemanship.

It must be remembered that this Jesuit missionary was riding through rough country, without roads, and that he had to find food and water for himself and his horse. Many of the nights, he and his travel companions would stretch out someplace on the desert floor to find sleep and rest.

Furthermore, these were business trips for Kino, to adopt a modern term. He stopped along the way to preach to the people he met, counsel village leaders, baptize, and sometimes marry.

Kino died in 1711 when he was nearly seventy years old, “having spent twenty-four years in glorious labor in this Pimería, which he entirely covered in forty expeditions, made as best they could be made by two or three zealous workers” (Bolton, p. 78).

During my forthcoming week bicycling with PAC Tour, a dozen companions and I will ride from sixty to eighty miles a day for six days. Because bicycles are far more efficient than horses, we’ll go twice the distance in a day as compared with what Kino could cover, but perhaps expend less energy than he did. Like Kino, we will be exposed to the weather and experience the world around us with an immediacy that never comes when traveling in motorized vehicles.

On days when my energy wanes, I will think about the padre on horseback in the hope that his example of physical prowess, spiritual zeal, and humane values will help me continue my ride with renewed energy.

Kino’s life and work will be most evident on the first and last days of the tour as we travel through the middle basin of the Santa Cruz River valley between Tucson and Nogales. We’ll see churches at the two northernmost sites where Kino established missions: San Xavier del Bac, which still functions as an active church for the Tohono O’odham people, and Tumacacori, which for more than a century has been a National Historical Park. We will also travel close to two other locations where the Jesuit mission system operated.

As I bicycle along on well paved Arizona roads, enjoying the luxuries of modern life and PAC Tour’s provisions, including hot showers and real beds at night, I will think of Eusebio Kino, S.J., who died as he had lived, so Bolton tells us, “with extreme humility and poverty. . .His deathbed, as his bed had always been, consisted of two calfskins for a mattress, two blankets such as the Indians use for covers, and a pack-saddle for a pillow” (p. 78).

The Cactus Classic

February 16, 2013

One of the most interesting bicycling routes I’ve ever traveled!

suguaroStanding alone and in full dignity, a mature saguaro cactus conveys a sense of unflappable dignity. Since it is covered with spines that discourage intimacy and may be fifty feet tall and weight six tons, it is not exactly friendly.

Yet any one saguaro by itself seems benign, which may be one reason why my ninety-year-old, stroke-impaired mother, on her first visit to our new home in Arizona, snuggled beside a solitary saguaro, as close as the spines allowed, to have her picture taken. Two veterans: one fragile and just shy of a century, and the other already well past that age and strong enough to continue its vigil another hundred years.

A broad mountainside of these gigantic creatures, however, is an unnerving sight. Each one stands its ground seemingly unaware of its fellow creatures, unmoved by the wind and absolutely still, yet poised as though it would spring into action at the slightest provocation.

In the Saguaro National Park in the Tucson Mountains west of the city bearing that name, they are spread out in a seemingly random, unordered pattern. Nothing moves in this phalanx of fifty-foot, branched zombie clubs that warn travelers to stay away.

The only softness in these large displays, as seen from a safe distance, is provided by modestly sized cholla cacti spread out between the saguaros. Like most cacti, chollas have sharp spines, which actually are modified leaves, but on the chollas, they are unique. They cluster on the wart-like projections from the plant’s stem and are covered with papery sheaths that disguise their danger.

From a distance, they appear soft and inviting, but up close their true nature is revealed. The spines become detached so easily that they seem to jump on their own to attack anything that wanders by.

As we bicycled through the National Park, on the first day of PAC Tour’s Cactus Classic (February 2012), our company of cyclists was riding at a safe distance from the saguaros and chollas. After traveling through the southwest suburbs of Tucson, we climbed our way to a higher elevation on Kinney Road and the McCain Loop where some of us found ourselves interspersed within a group of Tucson cyclists using the grades for hard training. The bright sun and mild temperature were a welcome change from the cool, Pacific Northwest raininess from which I had come.

The above paragraphs come from my travelogue based on a weeklong bicycle ride a year ago. To read the full account of the tour: The Cactus Classic. 

Liberal Religion and American Freedom

February 11, 2013

Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality, by Martha C. Nussbaum (New York: Basic Books, 2008)

NussbaumAs a liberal, I have always believed that it is important that we keep religion and politics clearly distinguished and that we avoid the intermingling of political and religious authority and power.

Not that I have always been consistent. While not objecting to released time religious education when my children were in public school, I opposed (as did most liberals) the use of tax money to support any activity related to parochial, especially Catholic, schools.

In recent times, I have worried about the way that secular civil policies are being interpreted in Europe. In our country, I have puzzled over the right policy concerning the insistence that full face photos have to appear on drivers’ licenses regardless of religious disciplines. Increasingly I have been distressed by the alliance of right wing politicians and conservative Christians (Catholic and Protestant) who are seeking to enforce certain religiously defined practices and prohibitions by governmental action.

Lately, I’ve puzzled over what might be the right course of action, and on what grounds, with respect to requiring that health plans be required to provide contraceptive coverage.

All of the above makes be appreciate Martha C. Nussbaum’s book Liberty of Conscience. At the University of Chicago, she holds appointments in the Philosophy Department, Law School, and Divinity School, and she brings all of these disciplines to bear upon her analysis.

Nussbaum illuminates how distinctive the American system of religious freedom is in the history of human societies. It has very few ancient precursors. Contrary to what I had assumed, it is not a product of the European Enlightenment.

Instead the initiator of this organizing principle of the American experiment was Roger Williams, an ardent Puritan preacher and prophet whose convictions about soule libertie ran counter to orthodoxies in Europe and the American colonies, including New England—the “City Set on a Hill.” Its basic characteristics were developed into a constitutional structure by a remarkable group of American political figures, including Jefferson and Madison.

Since then, the system has been developed and interpreted, although in back and forth fashion, because of changes in American life and deepening judicial reasoning. Unfortunately, the system has been threatened by fear and paranoia, and by flawed decisions of the Supreme Court. Nussbaum’s illustrations include bad decisions by Justice Frankfurter in an earlier period and by Justice Scalia and Chief Justice Rehnquist in more recent times.

It is clear that the American system of freedom, fairness, and equality—all based on the first amendment—must constantly be tended, nurtured, defended, and interpreted. It is easy to draw the conclusion, although we ought to be cautious in so doing, that this pattern should be lifted up as a standard for other nations and societies.

One reason why the system has worked better here than in Europe, is that Americans have defined themselves politically rather than by blood or soil. We have violated our own principle in matters of race and ethnicity; but even here the deeper principles of equality and fairness have begun to help our nation work toward a better life for the diverse peoples of the nation.

Nussbaum calls attention to the relative ease with which the United States has accommodated Muslims in recent times. Our political tradition, she suggests, has been well taught and has penetrated deeply into the American psyche.

Liberty of Conscience is tightly argued, extensively illustrated, and interesting. In contrast to a suspense novel, however, it can be put down and is sometimes difficult to pick up again. Much of the exposition revolves around cases in the Supreme Court in which the meaning and application of the first amendment have been developed. A good way to make personal notes for the sake of understanding and remembering the book would be to make a list of these cases with identifying comments for each one.

Nussbaum often refers to the separation of church and state. Although she appreciates the intention of this idea, she skillfully shows that ideas of fairness and equality are more useful in helping us maintain liberty of conscience in American life.

Among the book’s strengths are the introduction and conclusion. In the introduction Nussbaum summarizes her intentions for the book and gives defining paragraphs for eight concepts and six principles that are central to the American tradition of religious equality. We would do well to commit these lists to memory!

The conclusion offers a concise and hopeful exposition of the American commitment to developing and maintaining an overlapping consensus about matters of individual conscience and the wellbeing of the society. With many others, including Nussbaum, I am anxious about threats to the American tradition of religious equality. This book helps me understand it better than I did and bolsters my confidence that this tradition will prevail.

Borderlands Bicycle Tour

February 8, 2013


High fog, 33 degrees! Just the morning to think about my annual week of bicycling in the warm winter sun of southern Arizona!

This year’s tour will travel through border towns: Nogales, Patagonia, Sonoita, Bisbee, Douglas, Tombstone, Sierra Vista, and Tucson. As I drink my Peet’s coffee, looking out at Portland’s bleak sky, one thing is clear: I have to spend the rest of the month in serious training—of my legs and lungs, and also my heart and mind.

Long ago I decided that one way to build coherence into my travels is to focus attention on two or three themes that are illuminated by the places through which I ride. For a retired academic like me, that means reading up on places where I’ll be cycling. Guidebooks help a little. Even better are materials that discuss the history and culture of the region. This kind of study helps me understand and more fully appreciate what I see while riding along through unfamiliar countryside.

For this year’s trip, “Border to Border” (week two of PAC Tour’s Desert Camp for 2013) my reading will explore three themes.

Eusebio Kino, S.J., and the chain of missions he established in the Sonoran Desert between 1685 and 1704. The three northernmost sites are strung along the road between Tucson and Nogales: San Xavier del Bac (still functioning as a parish church for the Tohono O’odham Indian Nation, Tucumcacori (for more than a century a National Historical Site), and Guevavi. Although I have owned books about this system of missions for well over a decade, the time has come actually to read them, and I’m making a little progress.

An ever greater need, however, is to learn more about Kino himself, and with the help of Powells Books in Portland, two volumes are on their way. Because this reading connects my two blogging interests, American Religion and Aggressive Cycling, my background reading will likely influence columns on both sides of keithwatkinshistorian during the next few weeks.

Nabhan - RainPre-industrial Patterns of agriculture in the Sonoran Desert. When Spanish conquistadores and priests traveled northward through the desert in the 1500s and 1600s, they discovered thriving indigenous civilizations that were well adapted to the arid climate. The interweaving of mission agriculture and Native American development of a food supply is an important part of the history and culture of this part of the world.

My guide to this topic is Gary Paul Nabhan, whose academic career at the University of Arizona has focused upon the ethnobotany of the region. Some of his books, most of them at least half read, are on my shelf, and I hope to pick them up again.

Although Nabhan grew up in Gary, Indiana, his family is Arab/American, with continuing family connections in the Middle Eastern deserta. His interest is scientific and cultural, and he has spent most of his adult life in close communion with desert people, especially the Tohono O’odham (referred to in some of the literature as the desert Papago).

Nabham also was instrumental in establishing one of the most interesting organizations dealing with food and nutrition. Based in Tucson, it goes by the name Native Seeds/SEARCH. This organization specializes in preserving indigenous fruits and vegetables and also food-producing plants and trees brought by early Spanish colonizers that have since become indigenized.

In cooperation with the Nature Conservancy, Native Seeds/SEARCH maintains its own farm near Patagonia where it cultivates many of the seed crops that it conserves and keeps alive. I hope to visit the farm on this year’s tour as I bicycle along the Nogales-Sonoita Road.

LoganThe Lessening Streams. The critical issue in sustaining life in arid lands is the availability and effective use of water. One source of supply is the river system, which in the northern reaches of the Sonoran Desert consists of tributaries of the Gila River (itself, a tributary of the Colorado). In preparation for last year’s tour, I bought The Lessening Stream: An Environmental History of the Santa Cruz River by Michael F. Logan, professor of history at Oklahoma State University, whose family homesteaded near this river in the 1880s.

I read the first 50 pages last year and now must try to read the 200 remaining pages. One reviewer of the book describes it as  “one of the finest studies of the history of a particular watershed that I have read.”

There’s much to read in the next two weeks as I train my mind for “Border to Border.” And, of course, the bodily side of training, already much neglected in this wet Northwestern winter, has to be intensified soon.

These next three weeks will be filled to overflowing.


Unity in Edinburgh and Oxford in the summer of 1937

February 6, 2013

The greatest concentration of Christian thought and action in the history of the Church since the Reformation

In the summer of 1937, representatives of churches from around the world gathered for two conferences. During July, they met at Oxford for the Conference on Life and Work, focusing on the theme “Church, Community, and State.”

In August, representatives met in Edinburgh for the Conference on Faith and Order, which dealt with “the dogmatic and ecclesial questions confronting the churches and more specifically with the problem of church unity on the basis of creed and doctrine.”

A year later, Swiss theologian Adolph Keller wrote that “together they represented the greatest concentration of Christian thought and action in the history of the Church since the Reformation.”

An American journalist, Charles Clayton Morrison, analyzed the conferences in a sociological manner, in sharp contrast to Keller’s spiritual-theological approach. His analysis focused upon the impact of these conferences on American participants.

Oxford and Edinburgh, and the plethora of publications they engendered, helped set the stage for the unity movements that have continued across the Christian world since that time. Church leaders at these conferences were deeply committed to ideas and issues that led to the launching of the Consultation on Church Union twenty-five years later. This connection is what persuaded me to give attention to the two conferences in that summer on the eve of World War II.

Although Morrison’s analysis of the conferences was analytical and detached, some of his other writings during this period show some of the characteristics that Keller expressed: the dread of impending crisis, anticipations of the collapse of civilization, a conviction that the churches were failing in their work of saving civilization in a form that would be faithful to God and healthful for all of its people, and the urgency of Christian unity in order for the one church of Christ to be capable of doing what God intended it to do.

Read more–Oxford & Edinburgh 1937

Biking the Columbia River Levee, Hurricane Katrina, and the Vanport Flood

February 1, 2013

Columbia River Levee

My Monday bike ride includes ten miles along the Columbia River Levee. For part of the distance the wide, paved bike trail runs between the levee and the riprap-protected riverbank. Other sections of the trail take cyclists, runners, walkers, and skaters on top of the dike. At other places, the trail is on the town side, with cyclists using the shoulder of Marine Drive, a heavily traveled industrial arterial.

The river is broad; Mt Hood dominates the eastern horizon, and much of the trail is a tranquil route where cyclists can ride as fast or as leisurely as they desire.

An article by Steve Law in this week’s Portland Tribune has reminded me of the fragility of things that seem to be built for the ages. One of the vivid memories of my adolescent years was a Friday afternoon in mid May 1948. I was running the mile on the track at Jefferson High School and, in fact, ran my best mile ever: 5:05, which even then was only a mediocre time.

What I remember even more, however, was the strange weather. Day after day, we enjoyed bright blue skies and warmth that ordinarily didn’t come for another six weeks. Despite the fact that there had been little rain the entire spring, the Columbia River kept rising, fed by unseasonal snow melt because of constant high temperatures in the Cascade Mountains.

People were getting worried, especially the 18,000 still living in Vanport City, Henry Kaiser’s experiment in wartime housing. It had been built on a flood plain protected by a railroad embankment rather than a proper levee, but the engineers told everyone “not to worry. It’s safe, but if the danger level increases, we’ll give you plenty of warning.”

At 4:05 on May 30 (Memorial Day), water broke through a 200-foot section of the embankment. By nightfall, Vanport was under water. Miraculously, it seemed, only fifteen people lost their lives.

Steve Law’s feature story notes that the 18.5-mile Columbia River levee and related structures protect $20 billion worth of property, including the Portland International Airport, which is one of the scenic attractions on the city side of the bike trail.

The point of Law’s story, however, is to call attention to “so-called levee encroachments which include Marine Drive, hundreds of privately owned condos and other buildings, 4,000 trees, BPA [Bonneville Power Administration] transmission towers and miles of utility lines.”

The chief problem of these improvements is that they penetrate the surface levels and create channels into the sand that constitutes most of the levee’s bulk. Water follows these channels and inevitably leads to erosion.

Most of the knowledgeable people, including officials at the airport, speak reassuringly about the safety of the protective system.

So did the knowledgeable people in 1948 and during the Katrina disaster. Law is certainly correct when he notes that the Portland levee is built on a much more solid natural foundation than the one in New Orleans.

Since Katrina, however, the Corps of Engineers has revised standards for flood-control systems. “But only 121 out of 1,451 U.S. flood-control systems have earned ‘acceptable’ ratings so far in the first national inventory—ordered after Hurricane Katrina—and the Columbia River levee isn’t among them.” Steve Law indicates that so far 1,004 of the systems have earned “minimally acceptable” ratings. Although he doesn’t report on the Columbia River system, it can be presumed that it would be included in this second category.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has, however, identified eight trouble spots, which Steve Law reports. The cost of bringing this system into the acceptable range “is unknown, but it figures to be in the tens of millions of dollars.”

Of course, I will continue to cycle on the levee system. Despite a rainy winter, the Columbia as it runs through this part of the region is far from flood stage.

The repair of this system, however, has now been added to my list of decaying infrastructure features that governmental agencies need to address. If only our leaders, local and national, had the imagination to plan for renewing roads, bridges, and levees! And the courage to gather funds and start the work.

We all would be much safer, and a lot of people could go back to work.