Monday, September 26, 2022

A Fifth and Final Ekphrastic Essay About Our 2022 Road Trip: the Prairie and the Dust Bowl


Erosion No. 2, Mother Earth Laid Bare by Alexandre Hogue

When Greg and I were planning our 2022 road trip, our goal was to visit friends and family in Ohio and to investigate some places of interest there, but we also wanted the trip itself to be as full of memorable experiences as possible. One of the most significant things about our journey, it seemed to both of us, was that we would be passing through a swath of the country that had been most deeply affected by the Dust Bowl back in the 1930s. We already knew about the environmental devastation that had been visited on this part of the country because of the destruction of the prairies and the use of bad farming practices, and we hoped to learn more about the Dust Bowl and see remnants of the few acres of prairie that are left. Greg brought along a jump drive on which he had loaded lectures and audio files from books that were relevant to this and other sights we hoped to see, and we listened to them along the way.

On the eastbound trip, once we left New Mexico, we drove across the Texas panhandle, spent the night in Amarillo, then continued across Oklahoma. In Tulsa, we stopped at the PhilbrookMuseum of Art, which has exceptionally beautiful and artfully landscaped grounds. There we saw “Erosion No. 2, Mother Earth Laid Bare” by Alexandre Hogue. At the museum, I stood for a long time in front of this painting in which the outline of a woman's body is etched into and formed from the dry and desiccated soil. Her face is veiled and her lower legs and feet cannot be seen, but otherwise the form of a mature woman's body is represented in the loess-like soil as she sinks into and is surrounded by the severely eroded land. In the distance a small, dilapidated house can be seen, along with a bare tree and a small strip of grass. The house looks abandoned, the land looks depleted, and a viewer might wonder what it was that happened here – unless they knew that in 1936, the date given for this painting, the Dust Bowl was well under way. In the foreground, Hogue carefully depicts one of the causes of the problem, one of the reasons why Mother Earth's body is deprived of the vegetation that once would have covered it and is exposed in such an undignified way.

In the foreground is a steel plow, the sod buster, with its curved moldboard that lifted the sod and turned it over, making it possible for farmers to break through the dense and complex root systems that prairie grasses send down into the earth. The prairies of North America were systematically "broken," that is, turned into farmland, after European settlers arrived. Beginning in the 19th century, various new and efficient types of farm equipment were used, as well as new high-yield seeds and artificial fertilizers, to grow corn and other crops on the land that was once grassland, but the first and most important step was the breaking of the sod, a task the steel plow was designed to do. As a result of these activities, the grasslands of central North America have been reduced by 79% in the past 200 years, and in some places by 99.9%.  All of the grasses and other plants that once formed the prairie ecosystem and made the land so fertile also held the soil down with their roots, and that's why, when this cover was removed by farmers and when drought struck, there was a surprisingly complex yet altogether predictable eco-disaster waiting to happen. We now refer to it as the Dust Bowl.

Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma, USA by Arthur Rothsetin, April 1936. This image is a work of an employee of the United States Farm Security Administration or Office of War Information domestic photographic units, taken as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain in the United States. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ppmsc.00241

While we were driving through Oklahoma, we listened to the first few chapters of The Grapes of Wrath, and I was impressed by the solemnity with which Steinbeck described the terrifying changes in the land that had been brought about by 1930. The opening chapter is a description of drought-afflicted Oklahoma, and listening to it helped us to imagine what the landscape might have looked like then. Farmers in Oklahoma, and throughout the North American grasslands, had been told that "rain follows the plow," and so many of them were not prepared when an earlier period of plentiful rain gave way to a period of intense drought. The topsoil was exposed as crops died, and it was reduced to a powdery dust. What Hogue depicts in "Mother Earth Laid Bare" is the stage on which the Dust Bowl took place, but The Grapes of Wrath focuses on the human consequences of that event. Steinbeck describes the day after strong winds blew across the fields, darkening the sky with dust:

"The dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness, and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn.

"Men and women huddled in their houses, and they tied handkerchiefs over their noses when they went out, and wore goggles to protect their eyes." (The Grapes of Wrath, page 5)


And this was only the beginning of an ecological catastrophe that drove three and a half million people out of Oklahoma and the other affected states. 

Of course, many of those people survived the Great Depression, and both the U.S. economy and the life of U.S. farmers later improved because of the New Deal (and World War II, sad to say). But what about the prairie? The future of that ecosystem and the plants and animals that depended on it continued to be a story of disappearance and loss. Most of the prairie land is gone now, and many people react casually to this fact: It was just grass and empty land, so why does it matter? But grasslands are among the most biodiverse areas on the planet, and in a world that’s in the middle of the sixth great extinction, this rich ecosystem is important. In addition, many of the Native peoples of this continent had a way of life that was deeply intertwined with the prairies, and when the buffalo were slaughtered and the plains were transformed to farmland, many Native Americans’ way of life was threatened as well.  

So what are the prairies like today? After we visited the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, Greg and I headed to Missouri and stopped at Prairie State Park to get a small experience of the prairie ecosystem. Our time was limited, and we weren’t able to go to the visitors’ center; we just parked the car and walked out into the prairie. The air smelled like the essence of sweet grasses and wildflowers. There were swallows overhead and lots of flying insects. We knew there were wild bison around, but we didn’t see them -- just a rich mix of plants and many birds and butterflies. It was early July, so the grasses had grown waist-high in many places, but because this is tallgrass prairie, some of the grasses eventually will get to be eight to ten feet tall. The sounds of birdsong and buzzing, trilling insects made gentle music, and there was a light wind.

In a video we watched before the trip, naturalist Dana Hoisington says the park is the largest piece of preserved prairie in the State of Missouri. A third of Missouri was once tallgrass prairie; now it’s less than 1/2 of 1%. Hoisington says that prairies and grasslands are among the most endangered ecosystems on earth, and he describes many of the plants and animals that live in the park. He also talks about the Osage people who once regularly passed through this area and who depended on the bison for their food and other needs. By the late 1880s, Hoisington notes, there were fewer than 1,000 bison in North America, whereas before the European settlers came, there were as many as sixty million of them. He also says that prairies are worth preserving for their inherent qualities, and he adds, “There's so much natural beauty, but it takes a little different mindset to appreciate it…” After we had been at Prairie State Park for a while, Greg and I were most definitely of that mindset.

On our westbound trip, after we had spent time in Ohio, we wanted to expand our prairie appreciation, so we decided to go to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Once we began to get closer to Kansas, we listened to an episode of the BBC series "In Our Time" about the American Populists. This 19th century movement in Kansas and other Midwestern and Southern states came about because farmers were really suffering from drought and they were also plagued by low prices for their crops and extreme isolation. As a result, a few decades before the Dust Bowl, farmers formed a Populist Party, and their candidates won many offices, both state and national. The fact that U.S. currency was backed by the gold standard was considered by William Jennings Bryant and other populists to be responsible for the low prices farmers faced, so the populists opposed the gold standard. If not for the ways racism was used to turn poor white farmers against poor black farmers, the Populist Party might have had a much greater influence on American politics. Toward the end of the episode, presenter Melvyn Bragg asked if it's true that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an allegory of the Populist era. His guests agree that this is probably true, and as in any allegory, the characters and settings have hidden meanings beyond the overt ones Baum assigns to them in the story. The scarecrow, from an allegorical perspective, represents the American farmers; the tin woodsman the American workers; Dorothy the average American; and the Cowardly Lion is said to represent the politician William Jennings Bryant. 

After we heard about the Populists, Greg and I listened to a couple of chapters of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Though most people know it as a children’s story made into a movie starring Judy Garland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has a complex and interesting connection with the American prairie. In fact, the first sentence of the story is: "Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer's wife." And not only does she live on prairie land that has been “broken” and turned into farmland, but she lives in a world strangely similar to the one depicted by Hogue in "Mother Earth Laid Bare." Baum says that when Dorothy stands in the doorway of the house she shares with her aunt and uncle and looks around, "...she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere." It is from this harsh world that Dorothy and her dog Toto are swept up by a tornado and carried to the land of Oz. The wind, although not personified in this fantasy, is an actor in the story, just as it was in the Dust Bowl when it carried the loose soil skyward to block the sun and drove people from their homes.

By the time we got to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, we were pretty psyched about what we hoped to see there. Unfortunately, though the Preserve's website describes this as the place where "the tallgrass makes its last stand," we didn't have the kind of transformative prairie experience here as we did at Prairie State Park in Missouri. As before, our time was limited, but the areas that were accessible to us didn't have the kind of lush grass and plentiful bird and insect life that we found in Missouri. As far as the eye could see, the grass was short like a somewhat overgrown lawn, and we couldn’t see any bison. We speculated that this is in part because Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is regularly burned and allowed to regrow so that cattle can graze on it. As we stood near the old schoolhouse and looked around, we felt that this land no longer had the heart and soul of the prairie. But at least our trip to the preserve and later our drive through the Flint Hills gave us a view of Kansas grasslands.

So is it possible that we could have another Dust Bowl? According to an October 2020 article in Smithsonian Magazine, the answer is yes. Author Alex Fox cites a study that shows that dust levels have been rising, as much as 5% per year, and this trend coincides with hotter and drier weather due to climate change and a 5-10% increase of farmland in the Great Plains. These conditions mimic those that led to the Dust Bowl, and researchers say there’s no reason such an event couldn’t happen again. And if there is another Dust Bowl, Hogue’s “Mother Earth Laid Bare” is a grim reminder of what human beings and other living things will have to face.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

A Fourth Ekphrastic Essay About Our 2022 Road Trip: Ways of Making Steel


Riverbank, Steel Mills by Al Bright 

While we were in Youngstown, as we drove around to look at the city, I was very much aware of a notable absence: the conspicuous lack of the steel mills that once lined the river. Those mills, when they were still in operation, affected our surroundings enormously, added grit and sulfur to our air, lit up the sky at night, and drove every living thing from the river. Now the mills are gone (except for the Vallourec Star plant, a latecomer), and so are the sounds of train cars coupling in the night and the smoky mill town atmosphere.

Since my last visit to Youngstown, my creative essay about the Mahoning River was published. It’s called “A Dozen Images Made in or Near Youngstown, Ohio, That Show Why People Need Both Jobs and Fish,” and while I was working on it, I spent a lot of time looking at art made in and about Youngstown and thinking about the days when we called the Mahoning Valley the Steel Valley. (Those were also the days during which the Mahoning River was considered by some to be the most polluted river in the United States.) Among the art works and photographs that I really wanted to include in my essay was a painting by Al Bright, not because his abstract canvas illustrated the conflict between ecology and economy but because he was Youngstown’s quintessential artist. He taught art there. He made art there. One reviewer described Bright as a "third generation Abstract Expressionist," and he created many of his canvases in response to live jazz. I was impressed that these paintings were improvised while musicians were in the process of making improvisational art of their own, and though I wasn’t sure exactly how to work such an abstract, nonfigurative painting into my essay, I knew I wanted to try. But before I could do that, Bright died, and I didn’t think there was a respectful and reasonable way to ask to use an image of one of his paintings while his family was in mourning.

Early this year I heard that an exhibit called “Al Bright—the First Federal Years” was being mounted at Youngstown’s Butler Museum of American Art during Black History Month. Online I was able to see a picture of the most representational work I’d ever seen by Bright, “Riverbank, Steel Mills,” and I couldn’t help but think of how perfectly it would have fit into my essay. Of course, this painting didn't quite have the same memorable origins as Bright’s jazz-response paintings because it was commissioned, along with eight others, by a bank for their corporate headquarters. And it was painted in 1986, nearly ten years after the announcement that the Campbell Works of US Sheet & Tube was shutting down. Deindustrialization was well underway by that time, and Youngstown was no longer the Steel City. Maybe because it was painted during that time, “Riverbank, Steel Mills” shows the river and the mills in an unusual relationship to each other. Because the exhibit was extended, I was able to see the painting while we were in Youngstown. 

“Riverbank, Steel Mills” is a landscape, or more properly, a river landscape, and considering that the river is flowing through an area of concentrated industry, it appears surprisingly clean and peaceful. The river is in the foreground – full of cool-looking grey-blue water and so unlike the trickle of hot brown slime the Mahoning was said to be in the early twentieth century. The mills are receding into the background (into the past?); they are not smoking and flaring, and there are birds flying over them. Bright appears to be acknowledging the mills’ significance even as he portrays an almost idealized space in which the mills do not overwhelm the river. Smokestacks rise into the sky like sentinels or monuments, not polluters, and etched into the body of the river are just a few rust-colored patches. These may represent low-head dams, but they also show what water will inevitably do to iron. It’s hard to know if this is also a prediction of economic decline. In any case, the composition of the painting is striking, and the perspective is remarkable – the mills are at the top and the water is in the foreground, so both seem significant. This isn’t the way things were in the 1950s, when industry always came first, whereas in Youngstown today the Mahoning River is actually doing very well, and it’s the economic well-being of the city that’s been undermined. But Bright’s painting could be viewed as a visual affirmation that people do need both jobs and fish, work and a clean environment.

General View of the Republic Iron and Steel Works, Youngstown, Ohio, early 1900s, public domain image, source:

Today, as our deindustrialized country faces the problem of climate change and we slowly begin the transition to renewable energy, the steel industry may seem like nothing more than an indistinct memory. Yet it’s still very much a part of our world. Steel production presently accounts for somewhere between 7% and 11% of greenhouse gas emissions, and because an increased need for steel will coincide with the infrastructure changes necessary to reduce carbon emissions, many experts say that we need to findways to make steel greener. The two most challenging parts of the steel-making process from this point of view are the use of coal in blast furnaces and the use of coke to make pig iron; these processes are still used in about 70% of the world’s steel production. 

Coke, which is made when coal is “baked” at high heat for long periods of time, has long been a source of toxic emissions harmful both to the workers involved in making it and the surrounding environment. While we were in Ohio, we went to an old, abandoned coke-making facility, and what I saw there gave me a visceral sense of the long-standing ways in which making steel caused damage to the earth. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, coal was heated in brick ovens that were partially buried in the ground, and the resultant coke was used to make pig iron, then a necessary part of the steel-making process. The Cherry Valley Coke Ovens in Leetonia, Ohio, contain the remains of 200 such ovens, and I had read about them when I was working on my essay. We visited the park where the remains of these ovens can still be seen, and though the surroundings were pleasant, with lots of trees and grass, the rows of brick ovens prompted me to think that when they were burning 24-hours a day this place must have seemed like a small butintense corner of hell. Though the ovens were shut down during the Great Depression, they are a sobering reminder of one of the region’s earliest conflicts between economy and ecology. 

In a place like Youngstown where steel was once produced in abundance and now is made by a limited and highly specialized industry, it's tempting to think that this iron alloy is no longer essential. And if steel is an outdated material, it can easily be replaced by some other more environmentally friendly substance, right? But nothing could be further from the truth. Youngstown may no longer make much steel, but steel is still very much needed as the world moves toward carbon neutrality. Steel is a material that can be recycled again and again, and it will no doubt be part of the wind turbines and solar farms that will be built during the move toward renewable energy. Because this transition is still so important, the race is on to find ways to produce green steel (see Justin Mikulka on Democracy Now). It may, for example, be possible to replace coal with more environmental-friendly hydrogen. Though I have my doubts that industrial production, or even the processes by which renewable energy is produced, can ever be truly green, it’s a step in the right direction to work to eliminate the toxic emissions that once polluted the Mahoning Valley. And, to me at least, Al Bright’s painting hints at a possible future in which industry doesn’t harm the natural world the way that it once did but manages to co-exist with it.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

A Third Ekphrastic Essay About Our 2022 Road Trip: Houses, Homes, and Hard Times


Those Were the Days… Smoky Hollow by Bob Barko

When we first arrived in Youngstown, Greg drove us around a little bit to get acclimated, so to speak, and then we went to the home of our friends Kathy and Richard, where we’d be staying for two and a half weeks. We hadn’t seen them since before Covid, and they were very welcoming, as always. Their Mid-century Modern house contains a pleasing mixture of vintage furniture and other cool items both old and new, including Kathy’s displayed collections and a gallery-style art wall. They also have a big, well-tended yard and a garden that they both work hard to maintain. The place seemed like an elegant refuge after six days on the road.

Later, my brother came in from Chicago, and we all went to a Festival of the Arts that featured local artists and was sponsored by the university. At Bob Barko’s Steel Town Studios display, Kathy bought me a digital print of “Those Were the Days… Smoky Hollow,” not because I had ever really had anything to do with the historic neighborhood of that name, but because I had recently been writing and talking about Youngstown’s past (whether or not, as the theme song of All in the Family had it, those really were the days). Barko’s painting clearly depicts an earlier time, and there’s an ice wagon in the lower right-hand corner of the picture. But it's the houses that are the focal point of the piece, and they’re painted in sunset colors, which are reflected in the clouds. The sky also seems smudged by some of the old steel town smoke and grit that was so common when the mills were still operating, and which gave the neighborhood its name. The painting shows lots of people out in the street, walking and interacting, and Barko manages to evoke, as he does in most of his work, a sense of poignant longing for times when Youngstown was a more prosperous place, a place where there was work to do and people could afford to live decently.

In Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown, Sherry Lee Linkon and John Russo say that Youngstown was called the City of Homes in a promotional brochure from the 1930s because at that time it had one of the highest homeownership rates in the country. (Linkon and Russon, pp. 72-73) That was because by then many workers earned a living wage, mainly because of their own hard-fought battles to improve their lot in the workplace. Earlier, the struggles over work issues and housing problems sometimes intertwined, as was the case in the 1916 strike in Campbell, a city that was then called East Youngstown. Workers from Youngstown Sheet and Tube went on strike there because they were angry about both their living conditions and working conditions. During the strike the workers burned the city to the ground, and afterward the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company built prefabricated concrete housing for its workers in an attempt to improve their living conditions. (Linkon and Russo, pp. 28-30) Though this workers’ housing estate had never been a utopian community – the housing was racially segregated and immigrants were kept apart from the native-born – I wanted to see it because I had been reading about renovation efforts there, so one day we all drove to Campbell. Most of the workers’ homes are still standing because they were made of durable materials, but after a hundred years and a lot of recent neglect, the ruination was striking to see -- walls were sagging, paint peeling, windows missing, and there was an occasional view into a crumbling interior. Most of the structures still seem reasonably sturdy and worthy of renovation, and a nonprofit group called Iron Soup Historical Preservation Company is working to fix up the houses and make them livable again. But after walking around this part of Campbell for a while, we could see that it’s still very much a work in progress.

Highsmith, C. M., photographer. (2016) Abandoned auto-repair garage, a casualty of the drastic downturn of the local steel industry in Youngstown, Ohio. United States Youngstown Mahoning County Ohio, 2016-10-06. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Ever since deindustrialization began in the late 1970s, Youngstown has increasingly become a place, like so many others in the Rust Belt, where decay and ruin are commonplace in neighborhoods that once were solid and livable. In an  essay called "Map for a Forgotten Valley: Dispatches from Youngstown, Ohio (Issue 7, New Haven Review)," Christopher Barzak wrote about what he fancifully called "feral houses." He contrasted these with lived-in domesticated houses, and he said feral houses, "tend to roam in bands when their neighborhoods have been lost, forsaken, and huddle together in their emptiness." So many neighborhoods in Youngstown can still be described as lost, with houses gone feral and people gone away as they search for a better way of life somewhere else. I left Youngstown in 1979, at the very beginning of deindustrialization, and I have returned on a regular basis, each time seeing more empty lots where houses were razed and more houses that were once homes but now are barely recognizable as structures at all.

Barzak also talks about the fact that some houses do need to be torn down, but he says, "Each time a house is demolished, I am watching someone's dream of a safe life for themselves and their families on earth being destroyed…" I have had similar feelings of loss and distress about neighborhoods I lived in back in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s in the Youngstown area. During drives around those neighborhoods, I looked with dismay at the empty lot where my grandmother’s house once stood; at the overgrown weedy yard that once supported a house where I had some intense experiences that I later described in a short story about life in a mill town; and at other lost and well-remembered places. But I do have to admit that I felt, more during this visit than any other in recent years, that the destruction was beginning to ebb a little, and I’m happy to say that some of the houses that I once lived in are still standing and sometimes looking well cared for. I even think we found the house where I lived until I was four years old – a two-story red brick house with a big porch and a small yard near Lincoln Park. It made me feel strangely hopeful to know that it was still there.

In fact, there are many beautiful and sturdy homes left in the city, prices are very low, and Youngstown still has a lot to offer. One evening we all watched an America ReFramed episode about Youngstown. It focused on the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation, a nonprofit group that has been renovating houses in Youngstown, in addition to demolishing them when necessary, and on Julius T. Oliver, a Youngstown city councilman who speaks convincingly about the possibility of neighborhood renewal. The work they do is slow but meaningful. A few days later, on one of our drives around the city, we stopped in Smoky Hollow and saw that there’s some renovation going on there, too. There was even a Smoky Hollow Festival this year, which is an indication that the neighborhood may be able to thrive again and the homes there may all be as domesticated as they are in Bob Barko’s painting. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

A Second Ekphrastic Essay About Our 2022 Road Trip: on the Universality of Pottery


Mayans from Mars by Diego Romero 

While we were in New Mexico, I kept saying, and only half-jokingly, how much I wanted to go to Roswell. It’s a place that lives in pop culture because of its UFO-entangled history, and it makes me think about Project Blue Book and The X-Files and other TV shows with bad attitudes toward aliens from other worlds. These attitudes synch with the all-too-common hate-filled reactions to other peoples and nations that pollute our current political landscape. My own attitude toward visitors from other planets is more benign, if also more skeptical, but Greg and I just couldn’t justify the detour to go to the UFO Museum.

Later, on our way home, once again in New Mexico and at the Albuquerque Museum, we saw some ceramic work by Diego Romero, who is of Cochiti Pueblo descent and lives in Santa Fe. The piece I like best is called Mayans from Mars. Its form is not unusual – it’s a bowl with a black-and-white design on its inner surface. Some of that design is simple and geometric, but the rest is as peculiar and intriguing as anything I would have seen in Roswell. Within the bowl, Romero’s often-featured Chongo Brothers characters can be seen driving their vehicle at night under a star-filled sky. They look a little tense, maybe because far above them there’s a small craft emitting a beam that limns the brothers’ vehicle with jagged energy. Just ahead of and not so far above them is one of the eponymous Mayans from Mars in a space helmet of sorts, which makes him look like a disembodied head. He’s just up there, not doing anything in particular, but making us wonder where the Mayans came from and why they were so good at describing the orbit of Mars long before Kepler did. 

Romero makes earthenware bowls and other ceramic pieces from New Mexico clay and commercial glaze, and he brings elements from his Cochiti heritage into his work. Because he and his brother Mateo, who is also an artist, were raised in Berkeley, CA, and because their mother is non-Native, the two men felt that they were seen as outsiders when they first moved to the land where their father was born. The Chongo Brothers, Diego says, “are comic book figures that represent our journey through the arts and Indian country.” He says that when he creates comic-book-style images, he blends them with elements of Native design, notably Ancestral Puebloan and Mimbres.

On the last day of our trip, on the day after we saw Romero’s work at the Albuquerque Museum, we stopped at the Deming Luna Mimbres Museum. Deming is on the Mimbres River, which lends its name to a region of the Southwest and to the people who lived there nearly a thousand years ago and made distinctive black-on-white pottery. The museum has an impressive collection of this pottery, which is notable, not only for its complex geometric designs but for depictions of animals and humans that are both fanciful and artfully rendered.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many pieces of Mimbres pottery were excavated by archeologists and taken to museums in the East. And then for about four decades after the Great Depression, looters dug up as much Mimbres pottery as they could find in order to sell it. Sad to say, Diego Romero will never be influenced by any of those lost and looted works of art.   

By Peter D. Tillman - Man and crane, Mangas/Mimbres pot, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Later, we watched a YouTube lecture on Mimbres pottery and culture, posted by the instructor of a pottery-making class, Marc Lancet, who shows examples of these striking pots and talks about how they were made. He says that similar pottery-making processes have been used by groups of human beings all over the world,  and he adds that, “All the techniques we're going to be using are ubiquitous to the human race on every continent. And I find that very unifying; it's very encouraging to think about the common way that we all approached our early existence and the materials around us."

Making pottery, it seems, links humans of many historical, cultural, and geographical periods and cultures, so this is a good time to note that while we were in Ohio (more about that later), we visited the city of East Liverpool, once known as the Pottery Capital of the United States.  A hundred years ago there were 270 kilns in the city, but now there is only one kiln left standing. We stopped to take a close look at it because the imposingly solid brick form of that old bottle kiln is a fitting monument to the time when there were more than a dozen pottery companies operating in East Liverpool. In those days most of the city’s population was involved in the production of ceramics, especially dinnerware. The city initially became a hub for pottery-making because of nearby Ohio River clay that was so abundantlyavailable; American Indians had shown this resource to the European settlers. 

While we were in East Liverpool we visited the Museum of Ceramics, which features many examples of yellowware made from the yellow-pigmented local clay. Our knowledgeable guide (who also made sure that we knew that in East Liverpool at least, the word kiln is pronounced “kill”) pointed out that by the early twentieth century yellowware was no longer in vogue, and clay was brought in from elsewhere to make the more desirable white china. The museum has a major exhibit of the fine china called Lotus Ware; it also has a compelling display that shows the difficult and sometimes health-destroying process of making ceramics, which often involved the whole family, including children, working together. 

Because of research I had done before our trip, I remembered that down by the Ohio River where the yellow clay can be found, hundreds of petroglyphs cover the surfaces of large flat rocks, very near to East Liverpool. The images inscribed in the rocks are unusual and distinctive, but in the 1920s a series of dams was built, and more dams were added in the 1950s, so the petroglyphs are now underwater. Before they were lost to view, an East Liverpool man transferred imprints of the petroglyphs onto large sheets of absorbent paper. I knew that the Museum had these imprints, and I knew I wanted to see them. But when I asked about the petroglyph imprints, I was told that they weren’t available for viewing, nor were there any Native American artifacts on display at the Museum of Ceramics. Which was too bad, not only because Native people make damn fine pottery, but because describing them would really have brought this meditation on the seemingly universal nature of pottery arts full circle.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

The First of Five Ekphrastic Essays About Our 2022 Road Trip: New Mexico and Nuclear Anxiety


Between June 28 and July 27 of 2022, Greg drove a rented white Toyota Camry from Tucson, Arizona, to Youngstown, Ohio, and back to Tucson again. I sat beside him, doing a little bit of navigating using an atlas and maps we picked up in roadside rest stops; we didn’t use GPS, though each evening Greg did a lot of internet research about the next day’s routes and destinations. Here is an ekphrastic accounting of the trip featuring one of five art works we saw along the way:

Atomic Thunderbird by Tony Price 

On the first day of our trip, after we’d crossed the New Mexico state line and were on our way to our motel room in Socorro, I looked at the atlas in my lap and realized how close we would be staying to the site of the first atomic blast in Alamogordo. I felt a sense of panic for a few intense minutes, and I wanted to say that I wouldn’t stay there, that I needed to go someplace else where the traumatic energy of that 1945 event wasn’t still haunting the terrain. Was it safe, either physically or psychologically, even all these years later

As we drove toward Socorro, I was in a state of nuclear anxiety both in relation to place -- because we were so near to ground zero of the first atomic blast – and in relation to time – because we are in the middle of the worst U.S.-Russian relations since the Cuban Missile Crisis. My anxiety, often just below the surface of conscious awareness like a hot radioactive mist, derives from the fact that the Russians have nukes and so do we, and American leaders seem almost to be trying to provoke a catastrophic outcome during the war in Ukraine, and more recently in regard to Taiwan. 

That’s why, on the trip home, when we saw the sculpture called Atomic Thunderbird by Tony Price at the Albuquerque Museum, again on our way to stay in Socorro on the last night of the trip, I was so intensely affected by it. I was impressed by Price’s dedication to his art, to what he consciously thought of as beating swords into plowshares. I found it moving and immediately thought of him as a kindred spirit.

Self-styled Atomic Artist Tony Price was only eight years old when the first atomic bomb was set off near Alamogordo. He was living in New York at the time, but he was later deeply affected by the event. After he moved to New Mexico in the 1960s, he began to visit the salvage yard at the Los Alamos National Laboratories, where he mined the glass and metal pieces he found there and turned them into sculptures like Atomic Thunderbird. He began to focus his life as an artist on what he called "our nuclear nightmare." 

Trinity Site obelisk. The black plaque on top reads: Trinity Site Where The World's First Nuclear Device Was Exploded On July 16, 1945. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Source: Samat Jain - Flickr: Trinity Site Obelisk National Historic Landmark

Atomic Thunderbird
, made of salvaged stainless steel, bronze, plastic, and fiberglass, radiates a good-natured strength, seemingly unaware of its toxic lineage. Its round head, eyes, and torso give it a biomorphic quality. The title implies that it has some relationship to American Indian mythological birdlike entities of the same name that symbolize power and strength, and thunderbirds from many American Indian belief systems have the power of the storm at their command. In its squat build it resembles some thunderbird depictions that I see online, but Price’s thunderbird reference is more a matter of resonance than cultural appropriation. The Atomic Thunderbird has no feathers, though maybe those curved shapes on either side of its body are wings. Its tail is like the tail of a rocket, its center implies no heart but only a machine’s cold workings, its color is a silver cleansed of traces of life. So Thunderbird yes, in the sense of an entity that’s powerful, and no, in the sense of an organism that could save humans from anything, particularly themselves.

I recently learned that some of Price’s Atomic Art sculptures are on display at Biosphere 2 in Oracle, AZ, which means his kindred-spirit approach to nuclear anxiety is still available to me, now that I’m home. 

Monday, March 30, 2020

Spring in the Time of Coronavirus

Winter rains have been good this year, and wildflowers grow in profusion beside our neighborhood walking path. As local government decrees keep us closer to home (most recently we have been strongly advised by our mayor to stay there as much as possible), a small group of us walk our dogs at the same time each morning, maintaining social distancing.

The colors of these wildflowers are deeper and more vibrant than the colors of wildflowers I remember back East. Their English names, which I learned when I first came to Arizona, often simply add the word “desert” to  the names of common garden flowers.
Desert penstemon
There are many spikes of desert penstemon, their pink flowers like small trumpets calling bees and hummingbirds. Half a dozen or more stems cluster together and grow 2-3 feet tall.

We don’t have Mexican gold poppies here, but yellow-flowered brittlebush seems to be everywhere, and each plant is filled with dozens of blooms. There are also desert marigolds and other, smaller, less showy yellow flowers, too.
Desert marigold
Desert verbena is low to the ground and less plentiful, but its blue-violet blooms are fragrant and long-lasting.
Desert verbena
And then there's desert globemallow, with many orange, cup-shaped flowers on each shrubby plant.

Desert globemallow
After our walk the other day, as Greg and I headed for home, we saw a turkey vulture on top of a phone pole, wings raised to the morning sun. This action, like our frequent handwashing during this time of COVID-19, is a way to vanquish microbes. The raised wings make the big bird look like a supplicant, its red head vulnerable in the early morning light.
Turkey vulture with one wing raised
The vulture is a living symbol, bearing its guilt by association as a carrion eater, and so our morning walk was like a living vanitas. Those paintings were intended to remind us of our own mortality — telling us to remember that life is very short and we will all die. Symbols found in vanitas paintings often include skulls, fruit, and flowers, but a vulture will certainly do as a reminder that all is vanity.

Aloe vera flowers
Even so, as we walked through the back gate, I noticed how much progress spring is making -- the succulents are starting to bloom and get new growth. The aloe vera plants are sending up spiny stalks and unfolding orange flowers. The prickly pear cactus are making lots of undifferentiated buds that are hard to tell apart at first but it soon becomes clear which will be flowers and which will be new pads.

Prickly pear budding
And though I am existentialist enough to think frequently about how short life is, I still wanted to show off my pictures and say what I think about them. Because all may be vanity, but the world is still a sight to behold.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Why Take Pictures When Everyone is a Photographer?

Mexican Bird-of-Paradise
In 2005, for my final project in a Dreamweaver class, I used some of my own photographs in a redesigned website for The Cafe Irreal. Most of my classmates, who were tech savvy enough to learn to use complex software and to understand the basics of html and Javascript, were nonetheless unsure about how to put a photograph online. I told them that I took photos with my Yashica point-and-shoot film camera, had them developed, scanned them, then uploaded the jpegs produced by the scanner. Just thirteen years later, with sites like Flickr and Instagram allowing people to upload photos by the billions, it’s almost impossible to believe I was ever the photographer in the room.

And so in 2018, despite my experience in my long-ago Dreamweaver class, it has been difficult for me to convince myself to continue to take photos. It’s been over a year since I’ve posted any pictures on this blog, though at one time I enjoyed doing photo essays. And I can't help but have noticed the glut of selfies and the endless iterations of tourist photos of the same locations. A quick survey of the statistics regarding photos on the internet does little to encourage me to add my own images. Here’s just a sample of the truly awe-inspiring numbers involved:

Bernard Marr at Forbes, in an article called "How Much Data Do We Create Every Day? The Mind-Blowing Stats Everyone Should Read," says 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created each day, and “our current love affair with social media” is responsible for a significant amount of that. He then goes on to note that each day Snapchat users share 527,760 photos, Instagram users post 46,740 photos, and more than 300 million photos are uploaded to Facebook.

And those are not the only places you’ll find lots of photos. For example, there are the photos uploaded by the 75 million “registered photographers” on Flickr. In addition, there are more than 100 billion + pins per month on Pinterest, which usually contain images. What could I possibly photograph that would add anything to this huge influx of images from around the world? How can I motivate myself to take pictures when everyone is a photographer? There was a time when I posted my photos of Prague, but how can I feel that I’m adding valuable content when there are 843 pictures of Charles Bridge on Yelp alone?

At first I thought maybe I should buy a new camera – I’m still using the same Kodak digital camera I bought ten years ago – but then I ran across an article reminding me that it’s not the equipment that makes great photos happen, it’s the photographer. See “Why Your Camera Gear Doesn’t Matter” by Stacey Hill at Digital Photography School.

So I took the old Kodak out and took some pictures of Mexican Bird-of-Paradise in bloom in a beautiful array with wasps and bees and butterflies flitting around. And I came up with the photo at the top of this post, which has a nice bokeh background, and I remembered why I like to take pictures. So maybe I’m back…

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Mahoning River in 2017

At the end of my previous post on the Mahoning River, I quoted from Dr. Lauren Schroeder’s eloquent 1974 testimony to the EPA about the then-urgent need to clean up the river. Dr. Schroeder is a long-time advocate for the Mahoning and is now Professor Emeritus of the Biology Department at Youngstown State University. Though I arrived in Youngstown too late to hear any of his recent talks on “The Saga of the Mahoning,” on May 27 I actually got to speak with him by phone.
The Mahoning River near Girard, Ohio; photo taken in May of 2017
Dr. Schroeder told me that the river is generally much improved since the days when riverside communities dumped their sewage into it – which continued until the 1960s – and local industry used the river as a dump for waste products. (According to a brochure produced by Friends of the Mahoning River, during a single day of operations the nine Mahoning Valley steel mills discharged 400,000 pounds of floating debris; 90,000 pounds of ammonia nitrogen; 500 pounds of cyanide; 600 pounds of phenolic waste; 800 pounds of zinc; and 200 barrels of oil into the water.) But though the river has made a remarkable comeback, Dr. Schroeder acknowledged there are still problems.

Three areas, he said, are of most concern: 1) Legacy sediments that contain pollutants from industry – which he said constitute 30% of the problem; 2) Continuous runoff from storm sewers and other nonpoint sources – also 30% of the problem; 3) And habitat degradation resulting from low-head dams – another 30% of the problem. Dr. Schroeder said that the removal of the low-head dams would allow the river to flow freely and cleanse itself, and as a result pollutants could be reduced by 30%. At that point the Mahoning could come close to meeting the Ohio EPA’s “warm water fisheries habitat” standards. And in fact the removal of the low-head dams is already being planned.
Crossing the Mahoning Avenue bridge on the way to RiverFest 2017
“Because mills and railroad tracks lined the river from Warren to the Pennsylvania line, the banks of the Mahoning were never developed,” Dr. Schroeder told me. As a result, he added, you can canoe or kayak along the river and see the riparian environment much as it looked before the Mahoning Valley was industrialized. On June 3 I was able to see people doing exactly that at the 2017 RiverFest, which is organized by Friends of the Mahoning River.

This event takes place near the old B & O Station on the banks of the Mahoning, and the main parking lot was already full when my friends and I got there at noon. Because I had recently spent time reading about the river’s tortured history, it was a nice contrast to hear music on the riverbank, see children playing nearby, and watch people launching canoes and kayaks and paddling them serenely up and down the river. We weren’t interested in taking a boat ride, but we walked beside the water on a shady trail, which was lined with a number of large trees and flowering plants. The riverside smelled of vegetation and moist earth, and there was no trace of the noxious fumes that used to waft from its waters.
Boats in the water at RiverFest 2017 in Youngstown, Ohio; photo taken in June of 2017
A number of local groups tabled at RiverFest, including Frack Free Ohio and the Sierra Club. At the Ohio EPA table, in addition to informational brochures, there were small trays of river water that held crayfish and the larvae of drangonflies and/or damselflies. These, I was told, had been taken from the river that morning. During the mid-twentieth century, by contrast, the only living things found in the Mahoning were sludgeworms, which can survive in polluted waters few other creatures can endure.  I asked about fish and was told they have been regularly tested by the EPA and are now considered safe to eat once a month -- and even more often than that for some species.

At the Friends of the Mahoning River table, I picked up a brochure that said the Mahoning is now one of only a few inland river systems in Ohio in which you will find muskellunge fish (known as muskies). Other fish that have made a comeback include walleye, small and large-mouth bass, channel catfish, sucker species, and carp. Because of this surprising diversity, among other reasons, Friends of the Mahoning consider their river to be a “diamond in the rough,” and the fact that 2017 marked the sixth RiverFest, with a seventh being planned for 2018, shows their ongoing commitment to restoring and caring for the Mahoning.

Like the Friends of the Mahoning, Dr. Schroeder seems very positive about the future of the river; however, he said that the story of the Mahoning, though an important one, is small compared to an environmental issue with global implications such as climate change. When the mills were operating at their peak, he added, you couldn’t see across the river because of pollutants in the air, but the clean up that has taken place since then has been due to the efforts of the EPA. This agency is now facing major budget cuts, and the question of how we will resolve climate change without the EPA’s continual oversight reminds us that our future is uncertain.

When I asked Dr. Schroeder if one of the threats to the Mahoning in the future might be fracking, which is currently experiencing a resurgence in the Mahoning Valley, he said that incidental illegal discharges could affect the river for a while but wouldn’t have long-term consequences unless they are widespread and continuous. He noted that in 2013 when 200,000 gallons of crude oil and brine were illegally dumped into a storm drain which in turn emptied into the Mahoning, the responsible party ended up serving jail time.

I had found several references to this illegal discharge into the Mahoning when I was researching the river’s history, and I knew that members of Frack-Free Mahoning Valley had been part of an apology made to the river in 2013. In mid-May I had attended a meeting of that group, and I was impressed with their seriousness and their concern with all the possible impacts of fracking, such as increased numbers of earthquakes and possible contamination of the water supply. Right now the group is focusing their efforts on getting a community bill of rights on the ballot so that citizens have a greater say about issues like the quality of their drinking water and fracking. Though they have tried several times in the past to get this issue on the ballot, they're making a concerted effort again this year. (The text of the Community Bill of Rights can be found at the Protect Youngstown site.)

During the course of the meeting, one of the group's members noted that if the Citizens United ruling could give corporations legal personhood, the same rights could and should be given to human communities and the natural world. A few days earlier I had read the Whanganui River — New Zealand’s third longest and revered by the indigenous Maori people — was granted rights which means that polluting the river is now legally equivalent to harming a human. I left the Frack-Free Mahoning Valley meeting wondering how the Mahoning River ecosystem would have fared in the twentieth century if that much-abused river had been given legal standing.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

A Short History of the Mahoning, Once Called “America’s Dirtiest and Hottest River”

When I was growing up in the Mahoning Valley during the 1950s and 1960s, people didn’t talk much about the river. We thought of it as a toxic brew of steel mill effluent and other industrial wastes, and we knew better than to go anywhere near it. The Mahoning River was so unapproachable, unclean, and untouchable that it was a joke at best and often a source of community shame. That’s why when a 12-year-old girl jumped into the Mahoning last week, I really took notice.

The Mahoning River near the Riverwalk in Warren, Ohio; photo taken in May of 2017
She was on an outing in Warren, Ohio, sponsored by Children Services, and no one seemed to know why she jumped in. But she floated along in the icy water for fifteen minutes, then passed over a low-head dam before she was rescued and taken to the hospital. Doctors found her to be chilled but otherwise in good health. As I read about her experience and her narrow escape from harm (the Warren Fire Chief said it was a miracle she survived because others who had gone over the dam had not been so lucky), I wondered what would have happened to me if I had jumped into that river back in the twentieth century.

A quick search online turned up a few references to the river’s past that sounded familiar. The blogger at Bob on Books, who sometimes writes about growing up in “Working Class Youngstown,” said, “My wife recounts going over the Mahoning on her bus to elementary school and watching greenish wastes pour directly into the river and watching the river bubbling. We used to joke that you wouldn’t dare wade in the river because you would dissolve.” A writer for the Youngstown paper, The Vindicator, raved about a 2016 fishing trip on the Mahoning but began his article by saying, “As a child of the 1950s and ’60s, I learned to associate the Mahoning River with nothing remotely connected to fishing./ It was water, yes. But it was polluted water. The Mahoning was the lifeblood of industry in Warren, Niles, Girard, Youngstown, Struthers, Campbell and Lowellville, but it was poison.”

These gruesome descriptions piqued my interest, and because I’m visiting friends in Youngstown right now, I decided to do more research. Though The Youngstown Vindicator is available online as part of the Google archive, it is difficult to search because many issues are missing and some of the text is nearly illegible. Luckily, diligent librarians at the Youngstown public library saved several folders full of newspaper articles about the river. These span nearly the whole twentieth century, from the 1920s through the 1990s, and the clippings gave me a sense of the things that seemed to characterize the Mahoning during much of that time: It was hot; it was contaminated by sewage; and it was contaminated by the toxic effluent of the steel industry. Though sewage and toxics still affect the Mahoning watershed, they were much more noticeable problems back then.

As early as the 1920s, the Vindicator occasionally published nostalgic articles about the river in its former, less polluted state. In 1926 the paper showed readers a photograph of a skater, taken fewer than fifty years earlier, with the accompanying description: “Here is a relic of the days when the Mahoning flowed water; water that would freeze. Instead of a current of fluid that carries Gulf Stream warmth and forever emerges victor after encounters with zero weather, the river then consisted principally of water.” [1] The river was so hot because its waters were used to cool red-hot steel, but at that time it was also more of a channel for human waste than for water.

A 1924 Vindicator editorial commended “an effort to clean up the Mahoning river between Girard and Warren and transform what is now regarded as an open sewer into a stream of beauty.” [2] But the problem of sewage contamination of the Mahoning proved difficult to resolve because it was expensive for local communities to build sewage treatment facilities. And there wasn’t as much of an incentive to do so when cities along the Mahoning could just dump their waste into the river. They might have continued to do so if it hadn’t been for the needs of the steel industry. In 1933, a Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. engineer called for a release of water from nearby Meander Lake because “with the river water low and the flow very slow, sewage emptying into the river from all valley towns, including Warren and Niles, is not diluted sufficiently, causing bad odors and miasmatic conditions affecting the men in the mills.” [3]

In 1936 the National Resources Board decided to study the Mahoning River basin with an aim of improving sanitation, which in turn would "primarily benefit the Youngstown steel industry and industries related to it." The Vindicator article about this study went on to say that 25 local steel plants needed a lot of water for cooling and that temperatures in the Mahoning River near Youngstown were often 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The sewage from the nine communities in the Mahoning watershed, with their combined population of 276,000, caused "objectionable odors," and "use of the water so polluted also means clogged pumps, increased pumpage and extra other costs to plants.” [4] I'll leave it up to you to imagine what was clogging those pumps, but the hot, sewage-contaminated Mahoning would certainly have sickened anyone who spent time in its waters. When I was a child we were frequently warned against wading or swimming in any of the ponds and creeks in the Mahoning watershed because they were “contaminated” -- and as recently as April of 1962 divers who needed to enter Lake Newport in Mill Creek Park in Youngstown had to be inoculated against typhoid.

A 1931 Image from the Warner Theater Inaugural Program Cover -- Barney Carnes, Artist; from The Mahoning Valley Historical Society; photographed on an exterior wall of the Five Star Graphics and Printing Co. in Girard, Ohio, near the banks of the Mahoning River.

Later on, the creation of sewage treatment facilities and a system of reservoirs to control the flow of the river helped to solve some of these problems for the local population and for the steel industry. But though industry needed the Mahoning for its own purposes, that didn’t mean they intended to treat the river kindly. During a brief slowdown of steel production after the Depression began, the condition of the water improved, and in a 1932 article called “They’re Fishing in the Mahoning Now That the Mills Are Down” I found the first instance of the widely quoted local dictum that jobs should be more important to the people of the Mahoning Valley than fish. [5] And in fact, as soon as the War effort began in earnest, things got worse for the Mahoning again.

By 1946 the Christian Science Monitor was inclined to call the Mahoning “America’s hottest and dirtiest river,” and went on to give this harsh description: “Lined with giant steel mills, railroads, fabricating plants, and power-generating plants, waters of the stream in hot summer months are used over and over again, 10 to 20 times… The water is used for steam boilers; generating electricity; cooling ceramic linings, doors, and jackets of blast furnaces and steel furnaces; and for washing or cooling red-hot steel being processed.” [6]

By 1950 the U.S. Geological Survey was calling the Mahoning “the most polluted stream in the United States,” [7] and though there was pressure to clean up the river, in 1951 the Vindicator reported “Anti-Pollution Action Here Largely on Paper.” A list of waste products included acid-iron, phenol, flue gas wash waters, and scale-bearing wastes, [8] but though the government had begun to pressure the steel industry to clean up its act, remediation was reported to be stuck in the planning stage. The sewage wasn’t quite as bad, but the water was still very hot and dirty.

I clearly remember that the river was in deplorable condition throughout the 1960s and 70s, and both government and industry did their best to make sure it stayed that way. In 1965 the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare called for a hearing on pollution of the Mahoning River, and in his testimony Congressman Michael Kirwin harshly condemned the HEW for their concern about the temperature of the water and the fact that fish couldn’t live in it. He asked whose life the river was meant to sustain: "People? Fish? If one means sustain the life of people, that is just what the Mahoning is doing now. It is now and always has been and, I trust, always will be, an industrial stream. Certainly, without it, there would be no economic life in the Mahoning Valley. There would be no roaring steel mills, nor humming associated and supporting industry. I submit that the Mahoning is doing a workhorse type of job in sustaining life right now.” He dismissed fish as largely a concern of “our sporting population,” and concluded by saying that while Native Americans might once have fished in a pristine Mahoning River, “[t]he Indians had no television to watch and no jet planes on which to ride. And I ask you now, who was better off, the Indians or you and I, here, today? If losing the fish in the industrialized stretch of the Mahoning was the penalty we had to pay, then I say, and I think you will agree, it was a penalty worth paying.” [9]

When the Cuyahoga River in nearby Cleveland caught fire in 1969 (not for the first time, but the incident was reported in an issue of Time Magazine that was widely read because it included coverage of another water-related scandal, the one at Chappaquiddick), national outrage about our foul waterways helped facilitate the passage of the Clean Water Act. In the early 70s the Ohio Water Pollution Control Board set “Fresh water fishery” standards on the Mahoning’s industrialized stretch [10], but in 1973 Ohio Governor Gilligan was asked to help reduce the need for pollution controls in the river. This request was the “first move in a campaign to get pollution standards relaxed on the valley’s economic blood stream.” [11] In 1974 the EPA agreed to compromise [12] and, as time went on, largely absolved the steel industry from their responsibility for pollution control.

The Cuyahoga River today; photo taken in May of 2017 at Cuyahoga Valley National Park

In 1976 an article with the apt title of “Jobs -- Not Fish -- Win in Ohio Steel Town” appeared in the New York Times and explained to the nation why the E.P.A. had decided to “allow the Mahoning to remain dirty.” “Each day,” the Times reported, “the eight steel mills that sprawl along the Mahoning’s banks dump 158 more tons of debris into the water. Nobody here seems to care very much.” The Times reported that pollution control measures would be expensive for the aging plants of the Mahoning Valley, and according to a study done by Ernst & Ernst, 28,890 jobs could be at risk. That was why the Western Reserve Economic Development Agency, a group sponsored by the Commerce Department, organized the meetings that “finally derailed the E.P.A.” Though hearings were held, the community united in its fear of economic ruin, and “[w]hile an endless line of local public officials and other witnesses paraded before the packed meeting room, all of them condemning the proposed requirements, 500 steelworkers marched outside carrying signs that read, ‘We want jobs, not fish’ and ‘Steel, not eel.’” [13]

And then in September of 1977 came a day known as Black Monday when the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company announced that it would shut down the Campbell Works and lay off the workers there. Soon after, other Sheet & Tube plants, as well as those of U.S. Steel and Republic Steel, followed suit. More than 10,000 jobs were lost in the steel industry and thousands more supporting jobs were consequently phased out. The industry that said it would have to eliminate jobs if forced not to pollute the river, closed down anyway not long after it received exemptions. And though the E.P.A. was rebuked by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit for giving the steel industry a free pass [14], the steel industry escaped unscathed. And then, at least for a while, the Mahoning Valley had neither jobs nor fish.

Though the people of this area have never really quite recovered from these hard times, the end of industrial contamination did lead to improved river quality. By 1991 the Vindicator could report that the “Mahoning resurrects itself,” and Dr. Lauren Schroeder, Youngstown State University biologist and tireless champion of the river, said the Mahoning River was finally able to meet the Ohio EPA’s water quality standards. [15] As for the fish, in 1995 the Ohio EPA was still pulling fish from the river that had been blind since birth, that had tumors around their gills, or that had fins and scales eroded by bacteria. Again asked to comment, Dr. Schroeder said he remembered when 7,000 gallons of oil were dumped into the water daily, so it was likely that carcinogens were still present in the river. [16] It wasn’t, in fact, until 2015 that the EPA was willing to say that it was safe to eat fish caught in the Mahoning River once a month.

Though I wish I knew how the girl who jumped into the Mahoning is doing now, I realize that privacy laws prevent the media from inquiring further about her. Hopefully, the river is now a place where a child can take an ill-advised plunge and experience few side effects. One child’s well-being is reason enough to worry about the state of the river, but have you ever wondered why the consequences were so severe when the city of Flint, Michigan, changed the source of its drinking water to the Flint River? It wasn’t just coincidence that the river water leached the lead from the pipes of Flint households and created an unimaginable nightmare for Flint residents, particularly parents who worry about the long-term effects of lead on their children’s health. The Flint River, like the Mahoning, was a “workhorse” of the industrial era and contaminated by human and industrial waste so that it had to be chlorinated to eliminate disease-causing bacteria. This in turn made the water acidic and able to leach the lead from Flint households’ pipes. What happened in Flint is a reminder that Dr. Schroeder was right when he said, in his testimony before the 1974 EPA hearing on the Mahoning River: “If the ecologists have done nothing else in the last 50 years they have demonstrated that natural systems are immensely complex and interdependent and that man is not above or separate from these systems. If humans are to have a healthy existence both physiologically and psychologically, then the system of which we are a part must be healthy.” Then, as now, that would include healthy rivers.

Here are some cursory endnotes on the articles that I found in the clippings file but couldn't fine online:

[1] “They Skated on the Mahoning And Here’s Picture to Prove It,” Youngstown Vindicator, February 22, 1926

[2] “The Mahoning River,” a May 16, 1924 Youngstown Vindicator editorial

[3] “Boehme Says Release to River Was Step to Guard Health,” Youngstown Vindicator, August 18, 1933

[4] “National Board Will Study Mahoning River Sanitation,” by Paul May, Youngstown Vindicator, September 2, 1936

[5] “They’re Fishing in the Mahoning Now That the Mills Are Down,” Youngstown Vindicator, June 23, 1932

[6] “River in Ohio Cooled to Aid Steel Industry,” Christian Science Monitor, March 1, 1940

[7] “U.S. to Make Report on Mahoning Pollution,” Youngstown Vindicator, April 19, 1950

[8] “Anti-Pollution Action Here Largely on Paper,” Youngstown Vindicator, June 17, 1951

[9] “Local Folks Were a Little Indignant Over Federal Hearing on Mahoning River Pollution,” Farm and Dairy, February 24, 1965

[10] “Steel, OE Protest River Costs,” Youngstown Vindicator, September 30, 1971

[11] “Ask Gilligan Cut River Standards,” Youngstown Vindicator, December 19, 1973

[12] “Agree to Ease River Cleanup,” Youngstown Vindicator, January 15, 1974

[13] “Jobs -- Not Fish -- Win in Ohio Steel Town,” by Steven Rattner, New York Times, April 5, 1976

[14] "Can firms duck rulings by pleading poverty?" American Bar Association Journal, Vol. 63, No. 11 (November, 1977), p. 1529

[15] “Mahoning resurrects itself,” Youngstown Vindicator, April 5, 1991

[15] “Sick Fish Tell a Tale of Pollution,” Youngstown Vindicator, February 5, 1995

A Fifth and Final Ekphrastic Essay About Our 2022 Road Trip: the Prairie and the Dust Bowl

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