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January 2008 Archives

January 2, 2008

Books - The Illinois (Rivers of America)

The Illinois by James Gray
University of Illinois Press (1989)

This was one of the early books in the Rivers of America series, originally published in 1940. The author was a playwright, and approaches the history of the Illinois River as a sort of stage play, with powerful characters making their entrances, brief lines and then retiring to the wings as history sweeps ever onward.

The river itself is a bit pushed to the background as a simple stage set, and the author doesn't seem too concerned about really bringing the scenery alive as part of the story. Many of the characters appear painted with a broad brush, and their motivations and particulars are only described as benefits the march of progress up the Illinois Valley, instead of what their particular goals might have been. Many of the minor players serve only to make the road level for the Great Men of Illinois: Marquette and Lincoln.

This approach does do well to dramatize the historical events of Illinois as a moving play, but because the characters are never fully fleshed out, the drama seems stiff and a bit unconvincing. The author seems to have done most of his research in the library reading the classics, and less on the banks of the river itself, getting to know and feel the muddy waters that must have flown through the blood of those early settlers of Illinois.

January 3, 2008

Flirting with other rivers - The Sumida

Back in the time when Japan closed itself off from interaction with the rest of the world, the city we know as Tokyo was called Edo, meaning "bay door". Before the shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa moved the capital here in 1603, Edo was simply a small fishing village near the mouth of a large river. But the river was a perfect gateway for trade between the fertile flatlands of Kantō and the protected harbor of Edo Bay. With this fortunate geography, the new capital grew quickly to become the largest city on Earth by 1721, with a population of over 1 million.

Edo Museum diorama

In those days the city was a dense crowd of wooden shops and houses built on what had once been endless reedy marshes. The upper classes of officials and administrators made homes on the Yamanote hills west of the river, while the lower classes were left the bottomlands which were prone to river floods downstream and typhoon tidal surges upstream. Indeed Edo was often wracked by disaster, and earthquakes and accidental fires destroyed most of the city every generation. The citizens quickly rebuilt after each, with a sort of pride in their ability to thrive under such circumstances.

One of the first infrastructure projects that Tokugawa built in the new capital was a moat around the new Edo Castle. Over the years an extensive system of canals spread through the growing city. As early as the 1600s, the shoguns began a system of levees to protect land from floods and dug channels to force rivers into redirected channels around the city. But commerce must continue, and most goods travelled by river, so in many cases a bit of flooding of poor areas was ignored as long as shipping traffic could continue on free-flowing water highways.

The shogun limited the number of bridges across the big river, as a city defense measure. As bottlenecks of foot traffic, the bridges became public mixing areas and provided pleasant open vistas of the water in contrast to the dense narrow streets of wooden buildings. The approaches at the ends of the bridges became gathering places for watching fireworks during festivals, or simply watching the endless parade of boats below.


The river itself became a ceremonial space, as during certain festivals the boat traffic of fishermen and traders was joined by crowds of tourists making their way up to see the cherry blossoms of Asakusa in a waterborne promenade of social finery. Much lore surrounding the famous bridges over the Sumida and the busy activity of Edo along the river was recorded by well-known artists of this "Floating World" such as Hiroshige and Hokusai.


The city and the river have changed much since then. Concrete apartments are now the typical housing, and foot traffic congregates around train stations instead of bridges. The modernization of Tokyo turned it from a city based around water to one based around railways and roads. Super-levees and floodwalls were been built to channelize andredirect the Sumida and other rivers so many times that they are really more interconnected drainage systems than individual rivers. The Sumida is now just a branch of the Arakawa, with its flow controlled by floodgates upstream that send most of the water into the bed of the larger river which flows east around Tokyo between high levees to the bay.

Through the city, the Sumida is contained by tall concrete floodwalls, giving it a bit of a desolate appearance. The entrances to canals and harbors are guarded by heavy metal gates which can be lowered when a typhoon or flood threatens. Like the Mississippi in New Orleans, in times of flood the water level runs higher than the land around it, but here the levees hold the river back as they are supposed to and life continues on dry land without much thought about the river.


The many bridges across the river are still famous, and its easy to take a boat tour to get a good look at them and learn their stories. Each bridge has its own unique architectural personality, unlike the typical functional engineering of most river bridges in the U.S.


Yellow Bridge

Some of the tour boats themselves are unique as well, such as this futuristic craft designed by a cartoonist to delight children.

Jetsons Boat

Just like in the old days of Edo, it is possible to take a relaxing dinner cruise on the river as well, in floating restaurant boats hung with small lanterns.

Sumida River

But the riverbanks lack the life seen in those old wood prints. The only people who live close to the water nowadays are the homeless, who set up their blue tarp shacks under the shelter of freeway flyovers all along the levee walls. The rent is cheap and the living simpler for these refuges from modern life in the midst of a high-powered metropolis.

Tent site

At least there is some open space along the water. At some places there are nice parks along the river as well, with walking and bike trails along the levee. But many of the other smaller rivers and canals through Tokyo still have the grim look of oily drainage canals left over from the industrial revolution, unnoticed by most of the pedestrians hurrying back and forth on the bridges above them.

Dreary canal

January 9, 2008

Sweeping up the last of the Bubbly bike pile

On Sunday I helped clean out the last remnants of the Rat Patrol workshop in the basement of Bubbly Dynamics. Back in 2002, John had allowed use of a portion of the basement of his warehouse for stockpiling bike parts and as a workspace for making funny bikes. Since then the pile of old frames and wheels had grown tremendously, through periods of utter disarray followed by volunteer cleanups and back into disorderly mess. Probably over a hundred creatively resculpted bikes were built there from the stockpile of junk, and the place saw a lot of creative activity in those five years. Some of the parts of the Water Bug trashboat came from Bubbly as well.

But recently a city fire inspector toured the building. Anywhere he saw disorderly piles of stuff, he gave orders that it be removed before the next inspection. So the heap of bike parts in the basement had to go. Over several days a handful of volunteers sorted out the usable materials to save for other bike workshops. By the time I arrived on Sunday, all that was left was the leftovers.

Bubbly Cleanout

In cleaning out a workspace, you are confronted by the remnants of plans and ideas that were never finished. There was the sack of Mardi Gras beads we dumpstered in New Orleans, hoping to glue them on a bike. And over there, I remember working carefully to get the candy-cane paint scheme on that bike frame just right, and now it lies on top of the scrap pile. Here is a stack of forks and frames and pipes cut ready for a chopper which was never completed.

Bubbly Cleanout

Often its good to be rid of these flawed dreams, to sweep them out and make room for new ideas. But each spring cleaning is a death as well as a rebirth, a reminder of the mortality of ideas and passing of time as much as a clearing of fertile ground for new growth. I suppose it is the death of those plans and ideas which fertilize the soil for new ones, so to speak.

Bubbly Cleanout

But a part of me was sad to see it all go. I found myself scrounging in the dust for a few brake cables to replace the worn ones on my current bike. Finally a good use for those things, saved just in the last minute before the bucket of derailleurs and brake levers and cables was taken upstairs to be thrown in the trash pile. But its best not to get too attached to the rest of these bits and pieces that wouldn't have such a chance at reuse but were condemned to the landfill or the shredder. Rest in peace old bikes.

Bubbly Cleanout

January 10, 2008

Books - Cork Boat

Cork Boat by John Pollack
Anchor Books (2005)

A funny and inspiring tale of a whimsical plan to build a boat from discarded wine corks. Since childhood, the author collected used corks for an imaginary raft. Years later he decides to complete the project, but numbers of corks necessary are enormous, and the dream becomes an obsession that takes years of effort.

Pollack was once a speech writer for President Clinton, and the story contains many of the best things about a rousing oration: a childhood dream, on the verge of being lost, but through teamwork and faith and hard work, the author is able to finally achieve his plans.

Well, the story is more fun and silly than that makes it sound. The enthusiasm of the author for his project is infectious, and you may find yourself reviving some old childhood visions, too.

January 16, 2008

A Float Trip on the Li Jiang - Part 1

The Li River is a small river in Guangxi Province, China, but it runs much larger in Chinese culture. It is most famous for the spectacular karst scenery along its banks between the river towns of Guilin and Yangshuo, the steep haystack mountains that are well-known in Chinese landscape paintings and one of the most treasured topographies in China.

Li River

The river flows southward toward the Pearl River, but north of Guilin a canal was built in ancient times, the Ling Canal, constructed in 214 BC, the oldest existing canal in the world. By digging through the low divide between the Li and the Xiang (which flows to the Yangtze), the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty was able to expand his territory and trade southward. Then as now, the central government put enormous resources into controlling the rivers of China.

In October 2007 the Li was low, retreating to a narrow band between wide shallows of mud and weeds. Probably the perfect place to find fish.


Fishermen with funnel-shaped nets worked their way through the weeds on bamboo rafts, while in the open water a cormorant fisherman sent his birds into the river for prey.


The Li River is especially known for this ancient practice. The cormorants are trained from birth to recognize and obey their owner. A narrow band around their necks prevents them from instinctively gobbling the fish they catch, so they bring their prey back to the boat. The fisherman tosses it in the basket and sends the bird out for another. After several dives, the fisherman calls the birds back to rest, and chops one of the fish into small pieces as a reward for the divers.

Cormorant Fisherman

Meanwhile, close to shore, someone is lurking in the thick weeds.

Armed with a Harpoon

Its a man armed with a harpoon and a snorkeling mask, covered in slime and crouching in the muck patiently for something to swim by.

Armed with a Harpoon

Pity the poor fish in the Li River, its a wonder that any of them survive to adulthood. Even the snails among the rocks are good enough to eat in this river.

Hunting for Snails

Up the river, small tour boats are heading upstream. The city of Guilin, like so many cities of China, is booming. This city, however, is known for its parks and quality of life, and the government has recently completed a small lock and channel to connect two lakes to the river, so that these tour boats could make a grand loop of all the sights in town in a couple hours.


Tour boat

A whole train of boats are on their way up river now.


Passing by the fishermen and bathers and one man harvesting weeds. I watched him haul the weeds back to shore in an innertube and pile them on a cargo trike. Are they for eating? Or perhaps just for livestock to eat.

Harvesting weeds?

Down the shore a bit there is one of the famous sights of Guilin, called Elephant Rock. Here a karst knob rises directly from the edge of the water, with a little cave worn through its edge that looks like an elephant dipping its trunk in the water. From the right angle anyway. Most of the time the elephant is directly in the river, but when I visited it was a bit high and dry.

Elephant Rock

From high on top another karst outcrop on the grounds of a Ming Dynasty palace, you could see the sprawl of the city. The fabulous scenery this region is known for, the rugged karst topography of classic Chinese landscape paintings, surrounds this city like an endless scroll, but most of it was lost in the haze of rapid urbanization.


Who wouldn't want to live in such beautiful and fascinating surroundings? But I got the impression that Guilin was being ruined by its own success. Despite its pretty parks and the busy little central square of restaurants, this choking haze of charcoal smoke and auto exhaust was spreading a filth far out into the countryside and cutting the city off from the historic scenery that had made it famous.

Guilin Sunset

January 18, 2008

Cormorant Fishing on the Li River

A video showing one of the fishing demonstrations on the river for tourists. The real workaday fishermen don't often wear the old-time bark rain coats seen in the video, but the process is pretty much the same.

January 21, 2008

A Float Trip on the Li River - Part 2

The next day I woke early to be ready for the boat trip from Guilin to Yangshuo. I had purchased my ticket late the night before, in some confusion over which ticket seller was best. A note on the bulletin board at the hostel warned that the travel agency on the corner was not selling legitimate tickets, but the price of tickets sold at the hostel desk seemed quite high. I thought of joining a German couple who wanted to charter a private motor boat and split the cost, but a Norwegian guy told me he had acquired a ticket at a reasonable price at the travel agency by negotiating away the lunch normally included. I came to suspect that the note on the bulletin board was not some tidbit of travellers advice, but a ploy by the hostel service desk to not lose their business. Even the smiling and helpful desk clerks seemed to be on the make in this town.

I handed my ticket over and boarded a charter bus in front of the hostel. We made a round about the city to pick up other foreigners and headed out of town. At this time of year the river was far too low for our boats, so the bus took us a dozen miles out of town to a landing where the channel deepened as the river entered the rugged mountains. In typical Chinese tour fashion, a guide spoke the entire way on a microphone, of local legends and scenery, some of which was interesting, and some of which seemed only to kill time on the highway.

Boat train

At the landing a long line of tour boats prepared for boarding as the tour busses pulled up one after another. The way to the boats was through a gift shop of souvenir foods and t-shirts. In typical Chinese tour fashion, our group of 40-50 were not given boat tickets or instructions other than to wait right here. Eventually the guide returned with his little flag to lead us onward.

Across the gangplank and onto the tour boat, we could now see that the train of 15-20 river boats was already in motion down river and we were about the last caboose of the line. The lower deck of the boat was crowded with long tables and overstuffed benches, much like a diner afloat. One by one we passengers took seats at the tables as a waiter brought tea. Our table was a diverse mix of Polish college students, Canadians on holiday, a French diplomat's family on leave from Hong Kong.

Li River scene

After a bit of conversation we all made our way to the upper deck to watch the scenery. The guide had warned us that vendors would try to board the boat to sell trinkets and that we mustn't encourage them. Suddenly there they were, rowing their bamboo rafts frantically out from shore. As they neared their tippy rafts were caught in the bow wake and it seemed sure they would flip and be sucked under the propellers. Somehow they hardly disturbed the cigarettes hanging from their lips and hooked a leg up on deck of our craft.

Waterside peddlers

The peddlers held up their wares and shouted offers but no one was much in the mood for plastic toys and rock crystals right now. Is there really a market for that stuff out here on the river? I have no idea why they tried to sell those things, someone must by them to make it worth the trouble. After a while they gave up and cast off and back upstream to their little shanties on shore.

Rocky spires

The mountains rose higher on both sides of the river, with cliffs and caves right down to the water line and craggy pinnacles on left and right. There were some with names, such as Goat Hoof Mountain, and Nine Horse Cliff, but mostly it was just rugged limestone and thick greenery.

Li River scene

In the shallows farmers had tethered their water buffalo. True to their name, they seemed to be quite pleased to dip their big heads under the water to graze the bottom.

Water buffaloes

In some places the river seemed so shallow I was amazed we never touched bottom. Looking down from the top deck it was fun to see the river cobbles racing by in the clear water.

Li River scene

Presently it was time for lunch. This whole time we had been following closely on the heels of the boat ahead of us, watching the cook in his open air kitchen at the rear of the boat with his ladles and pots.


Back in the diner below we were treated to a spare meal of stir fried vegetables, fish and rice. Everyone except for the Norwegian, who sat on the upper deck alone.

Li River scene

Halfway through our meal the guide came rushing down the aisle. If we'd like, we could look to the rear of the boat and see the famous mountain scene pictured on the 20-Yuan note. Sure enough, it was a spectacular tableau of spiky crags in the haze, a sublime scene.

Li River scene

But eventually our float trip came to an end as we pulled into Yangshuo. A few too many hours in the sun for me, but what a pleasant way to spend the day, just watching a long scroll of mountains and trees roll by.

Li River scene

One of the attractions in Yangshuo is a riverside pageant in honor of the culture of the Li River, directed by Zhang Yimou, director of many films from "Raise the Red Lantern" to "House of Flying Daggers". The production has no plot, per se, just a rambling spectacle involving hundreds of actors singing or paddling bamboo rafts across the river in unison. A pretty picture of colors and light, but I recognized some of its visual language from the fishermen I'd seen on the river in the last few days.

Impressions San Jie

From a long line of girls in lighted costumes marching far out across the water to processions of water buffalo and cormorants, the pageant evoked a picture of life along this river in an unbroken stream from ancient times until today. It was really quite beautiful.

Impressions San Jie

About January 2008

This page contains all entries posted to Down Chicago’s Drain in January 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

December 2007 is the previous archive.

February 2008 is the next archive.

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