Easygoing bike ride on Lower River Road

July 30, 2015

Corn Field

July should be a month when the year’s cycling activities reach their high point, but for me family travels got in the way. I was out for solid rides only three times, 60 miles for the month instead of several hundred. For any open road cyclist, this inactivity is a challenge, but for an octogenarian like me it is a potential crisis. With every advancing year, it is harder to keep going. My first rides since coming home have been slow and painful.

Today, with a forecast of 95 by mid afternoon, I did my ride during the morning when the temperature still was temperate. My purpose for the ride was to pick wild blackberries on Lower River Road, Washington State Highway 501, that runs along the Columbia River. From my condo to the new gate that marks the end of the road, the distance is exactly 10 miles. When I started the temperature was 70, with a noticeable NW breeze (http://www.columbian.com/news/2015/jul/12/far-segment-lower-river-road-closes-cars-tuesday/).

The first two or three miles take travelers through the Port of Vancouver, but then Lower River Road passes through a strip of agricultural land that is unexpected so close to a major urban center. Corn fields and herds of dairy cattle are interspersed with nearly dry swales. Near the north end of the road, the Fazio Bros Sand Company mines sand most of which is used for construction in Clark County and vicinity.


In addition to traffic generated by Fazio, the port, and related industries, Lower River Road also services a marina, prison, power generating station, and three public parks. The road is level, well paved, with wide shoulders, and segments of a walking-biking trail that gradually is being developed.

It is extensively used by cyclists and on today’s ride, despite the fact that it was during the working day, several others on two wheels were enjoying this excursion in a semi rural environment. My goal was to put a few more miles into my legs by cycling at an easy pace and enjoying the scenery.

Osprey 2One of the most interesting stops was 8 miles out, near the marina. Two stubs of trees and a utility post were the building sites for active osprey nests and two more inactive nests were located nearby. A county employee was also stopped to photograph these large, sea-faring hawks. She cautioned me to be careful where I stood. Earlier she had stopped at the foot on one of the trees, not noticing the nest. While photographing the other, she narrowly missed being splattered with a juicy glob from a digestive tract high above.

Most of Lower River Road is separated from the river so that travelers can’t see it. Two places provide for public access to the Columbia. One is a viewpoint with trails to the water, situated at a spot where it is possible to discern the place on the Oregon side where the Willamette River joints the Columbia. Fortunately, an illustrated, permanent exhibit gives a brief account of the discovery of the Willamette by Lewis and Clark and helps visitors to identify the confluence that is largely hidden from view.

Much larger is Frenchman’s Bar Regional Park that was opened in 1997. It was named after Paul Haury, a Frenchman who early in his working life was engaged in fur trading in Alaska. Near Astoria, Oregon, he jumped ship to work in the salmon canneries. Wanting to improve his lot, he bought five acres of land on the Columbia near Vancouver to net fishing of salmon.

Sundrenched blackberriesToday’s ride was part of my plan to recover lost cycling capabilities during the next few weeks. Today’s 20 miles were slow and easy, but they are helping my body remember what it is supposed to be able to do. Most of my forthcoming rides will be much more disciplined and aggressive. I know that I can never be the cyclist I used to be, but I want to recover the ability to do metric centuries and more day after day. My training will include a mixture of easy going, opportunities to enjoy interesting places and hard charging training rides. There still is time for two or three multi-day trips before cold, wet weather returns to the Pacific Northwest.

By the way, I did pick blackberries. The peak of the season was half way through July, but there still are places along Lower River Road where luscious berries await an easygoing cyclists like I was today.

Cycling, science diplomacy, and the fresh water crisis

July 25, 2015

My church (First Christian, Portland) is sponsoring a Middle East Forum on Sunday, July 26, 9:00 am and 11:15, with worship in between. Two years ago I posted the following column that reviews a book which discusses one of the most challenging of the Middle East issues.

Keith Watkins Historian

Shared Borders Shared Waters: Israeli-Palestinian and Colorado River Basin Water Challenges by Sharon B. Megdal, Robert G. Varady, and Susanna Eden (CRC Press, 2013)

Shared BordersOf course, I gave my permission when Susanna Eden, PhD, asked if she could use my photo of the San Pedro River as cover art on a new book entitled Shared Borders Shared Waters. I had taken the picture from the bridge on Arizona Highway 82 near Tombstone, while bicycling through the region on PAC Tour’s desert camp. Later, I had used it on blogs about roads and rivers in Southern Arizona.

Eden and two colleagues at the University of Arizona were editing a forthcoming book on Israeli-Palestinian and Colorado River Basin Water Challenges. My photo would be paired with one of the Jordan River. My photo, by the way, is the one on the lower right corner of the book.

Since I have always…

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Legacy, Hope, and a Just Peace in the Middle East

July 22, 2015


The most volatile region of the world in our time is the Middle East where religious, political, economic, and environmental challenges defy our attempts to understand or resolve. This year’s General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) provided several opportunities for examining this region, the most impassioned being the international dinner sponsored by the Board of Global Ministries and the Council on Christian Unity.

Five hundred people crowded into a banquet hall and after enjoying a typical hotel dinner listened to an address delivered by Munib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. He is the third Palestinian to be consecrated to this office, which took place on January 5, 1998, at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem.

Younan was educated in Palestine and Finland and has been active in several faith organizations throughout his ministry. He was the first to translate the Augsburg Confession, one of the key documents of the Lutheran Church, into Arabic. He is an active participant is several ecumenical and interfaith dialogues in Jerusalem.

Bishop Younan chose not to entertain his audience with a typical after dinner speech. Instead, he proclaimed a long, tightly written exposition of the issues in that region as they are understood by the Arab Christian community.

He emphasized the fact that his people have been Christians for 2,000 years, and have lived peacefully with their Muslim neighbors for 1,400 years. They reject the paternalism that often characterizes the work of Western Christians who want to help. Instead, he told the audience, the Arab Christians of the Middle East have much to teach the rest of us.

With even great fervor, Younan rejected the anti-Islamic language that so often is sounded by some Christian leaders from North American Churches.

A central theme of this comprehensive address was that the religions around the world must be faithful to the central core that is present in all of these traditions. Although expressed in different language, this unifying theme is that our duty in this world is to love God and love our neighbors. The essential corollary is that all people everywhere, and certainly throughout the Middle East, must reject violence.

Boldly, this Arab Christian leader addressed factors the impinge upon American policies with respect to the Middle East and made it clear that resolving disputes revolving around Jerusalem is crucial for reaching a new level of peace in this part of the world.

Younan spoke with a passion that is rare in public lectures, and I eagerly await the release of his address so that it can be widely disseminated and thoroughly discussed by church people everywhere.

Younan was the speaker or seminar leader at other places in the assembly’s program, but this banquet was his major presentation, and the next morning he returned to Jerusalem.

My one regret is that his address had not been scheduled for one of the all-assembly evening programs. A much larger audience would have experienced his passion and received his analysis of the role of American Christian in religious and political issues related to the Middle East. Substantive evening programs is one of the traditions that deserve to be kept in the design of these gatherings.

One of the topics of conversation in this year’s General Assembly is the future of national and international gatherings like this. During the sixty years that I have attended these gatherings, they have changed in several important ways. Of course, they will continue to evolve and I find it difficult to imagine what the future holds.

But whatever that future may be, churches will always need to demonstrate that they exist in various modes of being—in the interpersonal relations of small groups and local congregations, but also as broad-scale communities bound together by faith, well-reasoned theological conviction, vigorous ethical commitments, and limitless courage in the struggles to transform the life of the world.

Lights and music at a church convention

July 20, 2015

Opening Worship

Columbus, Ohio: General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The opening session of this biennial gathering of my small, left-leaning denomination featured a stage full of musicians—a mass choir of singers from churches across the United States and Canada, keyboards galore, other music makers, vocal ensembles, and solo voices. The worship evening included dramatic readers, a full-voiced preacher, and a concluding celebration of Holy Communion at the Welcome Table. All was fast-paced, highly amplified, and bathed in a constantly changing light show.

In quiet time following the benediction, I remembered the first national gathering of my church that I attended. It was in 1953 when the event was called the International Convention of Disciples of Christ. Billie and I had been married for one year and earlier that summer had graduated from our church’s small college in Eugene, Oregon. Since Portland was our hometown, it was easy to attend the Convention.

The evening assemblies, as best I can remember, were held in the Civic Auditorium, which was a standard performance hall with stage in the front and rows of seats filling most of the space. Lighting and sound systems were designed for stage performances, lectures, music events, and high school graduations. Other convention activities were scattered around the central part of Portland, at First Christian Church, other churches nearby, and the Masonic Temple across the shaded arcade that is still a distinctive feature in this part of Portland.

Two experiences from that convention remain as vivid parts of my life’s store of significant memories.

The first was a brief conversation with Orman L. Shelton, dean of the Butler University School of Religion. I had been accepted as a student and later that summer Billie and I would drive to Indianapolis so that I could begin my studies for the standard degree that would lead to ordination. We knew only one person from that school, Ronald E. Osborn, who had taught at our college during our first year and then had moved to the seminary faculty.

I had chosen the School of Religion because of its reputation and because most of the Disciples’ general offices were also located in Indianapolis. Students also were assured that they would be able to secure employment as pastors of small churches through central Indiana.

Shelton was immaculately attired in a light brown, tropical suit, with white shirt and color-coordinated tie. The most memorable aspect of his personal presence, however, was the mesmerizing way that he looked at me. Never before nor in all of the years since have I been so affected by a person’s gaze.

Years later, one of the seminary’s long-time professors, Alfred Edyvean, told me that he too had been affected in that way when he first met Shelton. For him, however, the purpose of the conversation was for Edyvean to come to the faculty to teach public speaking, preaching, and drama.

My second remembrance is the exhibit hall. I had grown up in a small Independent Christian Church, to use the terminology of that period, on Portland’s southwest exurban border. The International Convention, however, was the showcase of the Cooperative Christian Churches. Although in much of the country these two factions had largely parted company, in Oregon they maintained an uneasy continuity of association.

Although I was well acquainted with the issues in this intra-church dispute and leaned slightly toward the Cooperative side, the Portland convention was my first exposure to the character and scope of mainstream Disciples. The exhibit hall was where I could see it clearly displayed. The various program agencies were well represented: the United Christian Missionary Society, the Pension Fund to which I was already subscribed, and the National Benevolent Society whose work at the Beaverton Christian Home was familiar to me. Church related academic institutions, such as Texas Christian University and the seminary where I would be studying, had their representatives on hand.

For the first time, I realized that my church was far more expansive than the family-based congregation in a sub-standard building on an obscure side street near an abandoned railroad track where my Christian life had been formed.

During the sixty-two years since that Portland convention, I have attended many of these national gatherings. My deepest involvement was the year that my colleague and mentor, Ronald E. Osborn, was president of the convention. He asked me to coordinate worship for the evening sessions. Everything was different then. In those days, music would be provided by organizations like the host city’s symphony orchestra, and the choir would sing anthems from the classical repertoire. Scripture readings, prayers, and sermons were the same kind of activity that would take place on Sundays in churches across the country, except elevated to the grander scale called for by the auditoriums where the conventions took place.

Times have changed, and so have the churches. Of course, the national gatherings have to change, too. But is this year’s General Assembly the way things should go? (To be continued; photo by Russ Smith)

In God’s Time: A Hymn Festival at Sweeney Chapel, Indianapolis

July 15, 2015

Sweeney Chapel

Sweeney Chapel on the campus of Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, is one of the most distinctive churches in the nation. It was designed by architect Edward Larrabee Barnes as the final element in a modern campus that he described as pre-Gothic in style.

When the seminary began using this space in 1987, however, some of the faculty and students responded unfavorably to the facility. Although it was a moderately sized room when compared with some of the larger Indianapolis churches, its classic proportions, austere whiteness, reverberant acoustics, hard surfaces, and lack of adornment conveyed a sense of formality and distance rather than the intimacy that was becoming a mark of contemporary liturgical practice.

Responding to these concerns, the architect proposed a rearrangement of the pews and designed other appointments to be used when a closer sense of community was desired. The architect’s acoustical consultant helped the seminary overcome difficulties that had been experienced when the chapel was first used. Over time, the community and the building came together.

As director of the chapel when it was designed and for the first years it was in use, I reveled in the space and was inspired by a sense of awe that was conveyed by the “sacred emptiness” which architect Barnes, citing theologian Paul Tillich, declared was its primary symbol of the divine.

The immense Latin cross of hammered stainless steel, its liturgical furniture, and the striking baptismal pool declared that the room was designed to be a Christian house of worship.

Although I retired and moved away from Indianapolis twenty years ago, these remembrances were kindled on July 13, 2015, when I was on campus briefly to use the library. A small sign near the chapel entrance announced “Hymn Festival: In God’s Time” 3:45–5:00. I rearranged my schedule in order to participate.

CTS Chapel 1

When I entered the chapel at 3:30, it was already filled. Two hundred fifty people were occupying all the seating and the stone bench that lines two of the chapel walls. They were rehearsing the anthem that they—serving simultaneously as congregation and choir—would sing as part of the service. The program books that everyone carried indicated that the American Guild of Organists, Great Lakes Region, was holding its 2015 convention in Indianapolis and this event was part of its program.

The festival included the singing of nine hymns, from differing periods of congregational song. Some stanzas were sung in unison, others in parts, some with cantor but most of them with the full congregation doing all of the singing. In addition to the Holtkamp organ, a string quartette, flute, percussion, and grand piano were used to accompany our song.

The officiant for the service was Robert A. Schilling who for forty-one years had served as minister of music and the arts at North United Methodist Church, a short distance away, and for twenty of these years had also been an adjunct faculty member at Butler University whose campus adjoins the seminary. Reader for the service was D. Paul Thomas, actor, director, and playwright with a distinguished record. He too is a resident of Indianapolis.

Holtkamp OrganThey knew how to speak in a room with the reverberant qualities of the chapel and their strong voices intensified the power of the words they spoke: readings from the Bible and poets from earlier years and our own time, and prayers from several sources. For his voluntary at the beginning of the service, Ryan Brunkhurst who attends Indiana University-Jacobs School of Music and studies organ performance with Dr. Janette Fishell, chose Toccata and Fugue in E Major by J. S. Bach and Partita on Nettleton by Joel Martinson. His concluding voluntary was Prelude and Fugue in B Major by Marcel Dupré.

Of course, the congregational song was the most powerful part of the service. The texts were strong and the tunes vibrant and singable. These examples of Christian song combined a sense of the grandeur of God and the beauty of the world in which we live. At the same time, they acknowledged the many-sided character of life in the world.

The themes of death and resurrection as well as the reality of despair and hope resounded throughout the service.

CTS Chapel 3The service was conducted with a degree of formality that is suitable in public events when people are affirming their deepest commitments in life. There was nothing trivial or sentimental about this festival, yet it conveyed a strong emotional impact. The liturgy invoked the mystery of faith and confidence that the God we know through Jesus Christ comes to us in love which is “the key of life and death,” using words from a poem by Christina Rossetti. A poem by Maya Angelou closed the service with lines that affirm that “love costs all we are” yet is the one force “which sets us free.”

Bringing water to the arid Southwest: William Mulholland as exemplar of success and failure

July 2, 2015

StandifordThroughout human history the American Southwest has been a land where the manipulation of water has allowed the deserts to bloom and support highly concentrated urban areas. Pre-discovery societies succeeded in creating concentrated hydrological societies that survived for long periods of time before over-reaching their capabilities, but the American achievements since the latter part of the nineteenth century have been much grander in scale, both in the technical manipulation of water supplies and in the grandeur of the civilization that has emerged.

The list of cities that manifest this American achievement includes Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, San Francisco, greater Los Angeles, and San Diego. The greatest splendor, of course, is exhibited by Los Angeles and the cluster of cities that revolve around this urban core.

Although many people participated in the development of the modern American Southwest, William Mulholland stands out. In his biography of this heroic figure, Les Standiford recounts the details of Mulholland’s achievement, but also portrays the tragic possibilities that accompany greatness.

Mulholland spent his entire career working for the Los Angeles Water Company, beginning as a laborer in the late 1880s, soon becoming superintendent. With the city’s population reaching 9,000, he recognized the potential for growth and quickly became convinced that this potential could only be realized if the city could find resources for a vastly increased water supply.

The source that quickly came into view was the Owens Valley more than 200 miles distant in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Mulholland concluded that rights to the water could be secured and that an aqueduct could be built that would transport this perpetual stream of water down to the city of Los Angeles, thus assuring its growth far into the future. His clarity of vision, engineering acumen, and political skills enabled him to launch this almost unimaginable project.

On November 5, 1913, following ceremonies at a place called the Cascade, below the Newhall Pass, the wheels were turned that allowed the Sierra water to flow into the city’s water supply system.

The project was never without controversy, which continued after its completion. People in and around Los Angeles, some in high places, opposed the project from the very beginning. Others lived in the towns and cities of the Owens Valley that had been radically changed by all of the real estate, financial, political, and environmental factors that had been involved. This continuing distress, of course, dimmed the sense of achievement that Mulholland and his colleagues could enjoy.

None of this could have prepared them, however, for the disaster that happened during the night of March 12, 1928. Two years earlier the 195-foot high St. Francis Dam had been completed as part of an auxiliary storage system for the water coming from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles. The selection of the site for this dam and many of its engineering specifications had been provided by Mulholland himself. After the dam’s completion, he concluded that it was safe despite certain disquieting factors that the operations staff called to his attention.

The dam collapsed, sending a torrent of 12.5 billion gallons of water cascading through San Francisquito Canyon. Some 450 people lost their lives, “a disaster outdone in California history only by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake” (7). This dam’s collapse “is considered to be among the world civil engineering disasters in US history” (245).

In public hearings following the disaster, “Civil Engineer Mulholland was a pitiable figure,” according to some reports. “Questioning had hardly begun when he broke in with the remark, ‘On an occasion like this, I envy the dead’” (247–8).

The jury agreed that there had been serious mistakes by the Los Angeles Water Board and Mulholland himself, but found no evidence of criminal intent and no criminal prosecution took place. He continued working for the water bureau, but retired early in 1929. His remaining years were marked by diminished capabilities and he died on July 22, 1935.

Standiford notes that Mulholland could easily be described as a workaholic, and remembrances of his family seem to confirm that judgment. He then tempers that judgment by saying that “it was not a simple issue in Mulholland’s case. In his eyes, he had been blessed with the opportunity to do work that he loved. If some men dreamed of being free of their work, he looked forward to doing his” (210).

Although the manipulation of water in the desert Southwest has continued for nearly a century since the disaster that concluded Mulholland’s career, signs are pointing to a crisis that threatens the entire system and the civilization that it has supported. Like Mulholland, we have enjoyed this era of great achievements. Could it be that we now need to learn how to face disaster?

Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles, by Les Standiford (New York: Collins, 2015). Standiford has written twenty books and novels and is director of the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami.