“As the evening approached, the channel grew more narrow; the banks more and more precipitous; and these later were clothed in richer, more profuse, and more somber foliage. The water increased in transparency. The stream took a thousand turns, so that at no moment could its gleaming surface be seen for a greater distance than a furlong. At every instant the vessel seemed imprisoned with an enchanted surface, having insuperable and impenetrable walls of foliage, a roof of ultra-marine satin, and no floor…The channel now became a gorge…the crystal water welled up against clean granite, or the unblemished moss, with a sharpness of outline that delighted while it bewildered the eye.”[i]
– Edgar Allan Poe, Domain of Arnheim
How do you describe a river to someone who has never known one?
The Hudson River, a thing of beauty, of nature, of history; a river with as many narratives as bends in its journey from dewy moss droplets to titanic sea. It is a river steeped in meaning – it is a bountiful river, a strategic river, a sacred river, a perilous river, a chameleon river, a river of controversy, a river of commerce, a river of reprieve, a river of conscience, a river that mirrors, a river that brings together and tears apart. It is a river that is constantly doing. The Hudson is a river of change and relations, since its birth as a ‘drowned river’ it has sculpted the landscape around it and been sculpted by it. The billion-year-old Storm King Mountain that buttresses the river’s side has yielded to its power, and plant and animal life have emerged and disintegrated along its shores and in its waters. People have been drawn to its resources and battles have been raged over it. It has helped build a nation, and it has assisted in the devastation of its own inhabitants. It has cultivated the arts, it has spurned growth, it has been a harbinger of decline.
The Hudson River is a thing that is more than beauty, more than nature, and more than history. Its agency spills out over its edges and its power resides in its many variations over space, time, and imaginations. By looking at, listening to, reminiscing about, imagining towards, speaking out about, asking questions of, intermingling with, and writing about the river, I think we can learn something simplistically important about the way things go. Perhaps we can also experience how creativity flows, the interconnectedness of things, and the way we are bound up in things and things are bound up in us.
When I look upon the Hudson, an unexpected line comes to mind, John Locke’s remark that, “In the beginning, all the world was America.” Freedom was found at the frontiers and it was the river that took the hopeful traveler into those lands of promise and possibility. I imagine that in the river’s murmur, in its glimmer, its fortitude, and its bend, Locke’s statement locates a spirit that embodies the social imaginary of his time, of our time, and perhaps of all time – that of great ideals, expansive hope, and coursing potential.
The river I look out on almost everyday is the Hudson. Usually I take note of only the very simple and superficial things. The color of the water and the texture of its surface, then maybe the things floating on top of it, the sun upon it, and perhaps the smells that accompanies it. I take for granted that it will be there, whether I look upon it or not, whether or not I detour my route to ride alongside of it. I also take for granted the cool breeze that it generates, the break that it ensures so that the buildings are not all that I can see and feel. I enjoy the longer daylight hours that it affords and the birdlife that it attracts.
The River as Enchantment
When something captivates us, it escapes us. Early humans gazing at the night sky, observing the movement of the stars, or mimicking the flight patterns of migrating birds begin to dance. Here nature was teacher, mother, and maker. Following the river, I am going to attempt a move from rootedness to distributedness. The story will be about the connection between things and the arrangement that is produced. When we act on the world, we act upon ourselves…the river can more than metaphorically show us this.
Landscape has the potential to inspire. And the inspiration falls upon the animate and the inanimate.
A vista of the Hudson snaking its way through the Highlands inspires a person to write a poem or paint a picture. The curvature of a mountain near Storm King inspires an animal to create a place to spend the winter months. The unknown territory of the upper reaches of the river inspire inventions that seek to explore, cultivate, and develop. The power of a waterfall inspires a new way of creating and distributing power. A grove of trees drowned by a corporation inspires the fury and formation of a collective. A great river inspires a valley to yield, a lake to supply, and life to gather.
The River Divides
Bill Ingold finds there to be an artificially enforced separation between what we call nature and culture, and that this error can be overcome by going back to nature and to materials. He urges us to follow the materials themselves. The river straddles the nature/culture divide. As a thing it is of nature, it is something that the earth created as it is constantly metamorphosizing. The river is where we go when we want to be with nature and commune with nature, but it is also a place we go when we want to connect with our own nature.
The river also challenges the human/non-human dialectic. The river is a place that also has a culture of its own, it gathers, it has a practice, a mode of communication, a shared set of veracities. The river is not human but it has been integral in the development of our humanity. The generations of fishermen, scores of Native American tribes that lived along its shores, the tycoons that built their fortresses along its bluffs, the painters and poets that were inspired, the villagers that called it home, the conservationists that dedicated their lives to it, all these humans imparted themselves in the Hudson and became entangled. The river is a hybrid being.
The Power of the River
As a thing that has had a great many interactions over the course of its existence, the river has done many things. It has defended, it has poisoned, it has spawned, it has inspired. Jane Bennett writes, “Thing-power entails the ability to shift or vibrate between states of being, to go from trash/inanimate/resting to treasure/animate/alert.”[ii] I walk along the Hudson and I must acknowledge its thing-power. It changes things, it changes me, it itself changes. I overheard it once said that you are never looking at the same Hudson. There are so many relations bound up in this thing we call the Hudson River. When considering the river, I want to explore its relations, alliances, and trials of strength.
The River as Rhizome
The river is clearly rhizomatic in many fundamental ways, especially when you take all of its webby relations into account. Having no subject or object, the rhizome is composed of ‘directions in motion’ and grows from the middle, extending its lines of flight.[iii] The Hudson’s original name, the river that flows in two directions, speaks to the rhizome’s characteristic of being comprised of ‘directions in motion.’ As the rhizome grows from the center outwards in all directions, any one relation occurring within the realm of the river, can be traced outward, as it joins with other relations forming alliances and breaking them as well. We can enter at any one of an infinity of openings. Deleuze and Guattari propose that perhaps the rhizome’s most important characteristic is that it always has multiple entranceways.[iv]
A tree that is nourished by the river drops one of its branches into it during a storm. The branch is bathed by the river and baked by the sun until in becomes a bleached piece of drift that the current and tide carry to and fro. The piece of wood joins others like it along with bits of debris and end up getting washed up on a long stretch of rock on the west side of the river’s Manhattan shoreline. After time passes in its rocky crevice, someone picks it up and places it within a sculpture that stands for several days and then collapses back into the river. The wood is adrift again and eventually breaks down into its organic elements and settles on the bottom of the river where it is fed on by small invertebrate whom are then eaten by a river fish. The river fish travels up a not so distant feeder river and spawns, not so far away from where that branch from the tree over the river fell.
The rhizome has no beginning or end, it is all middle. It is an alliance with no center, it is a multiplicity of dimensions, and it is constantly in motion.[v] Any point within the rhizome can be connected to anything else, it can be ruptured at any point, but it will start up again forming a new or already existing connection.[vi] “The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, and offshoots.”[vii] At any point in this description, you can substitute the word ‘rhizome’ with ‘river.’ The river does the work of a rhizome, you can chose a moment, a dimension, a material, a happening, and see it as if it is captured in the momentary flash of a camera, or you can take in what is beyond the edges of the frame and go beyond its singular dimensionality and recognize the work of the rhizome.
The River as Assemblage
I am borrowing the concept of assemblage from Deleuze: an ad hoc collectivity that is historically situated, alive, decentralized, and constituted of the human and non-human, the material and immaterial..[viii] The Hudson River is an assemblage. It contains things animate and inanimate, stories, sounds, collectivities, energy, time-past, time-present, and time-future. It has an effect that is at once reflective and transparent; it is iridescent. It acts as a lens that enables one to simultaneously see through and reflect back. The dual ability to penetrate and mirror has inspired me to think about the Hudson as a thing anew, a thing among things, one that can give insight into what a thing does, how it does it and how figuring out what it all means is not really the point.
The Hudson is not a tool, a paradigm, a symbol, a resource, an icon, an idea, a landmark, a treasure, a way of life… its more all of these things, in addition to those things that allude categories, that are not able to serve as descriptors. Ferreting out the meaning of the assemblage is an exercise that is as futile as picking up a piece of driftwood on the banks of the Hudson’s Upper Westside and trying to figure out where it came from and how exactly. Perhaps more interesting and rewarding is to pick up that piece of driftwood and integrate yourself into the assemblage by creating a work of art. In this way, you just may feel more connected to the river and to yourself, as you are swept up in the current of not why it all matters, but simply that it does.
Just one aspect of the Hudson’s assemblage consists of the creatures and life forms that depend upon its waters. If we examine this webby world of life that ebb and flow in and out of the river we encounter a sundry and dynamic arena. The most numerous of the Hudson’s plants are phytoplankton. Marsh plants form the most productive denizens. And trees of all shapes and sizes hem the river’s edge, something that Henry Hudson was astonished by. The animals of the Hudson River include white-footed mouse, moles, Norwegian rats, river otters, mink, shrew, and muskrats. The bird life consists of geese, swans, ducks, sandpipers, egrets, herons, gulls, warblers, blackbirds, bald eagles, osprey, and wrens. The amphibians and reptiles that travel in and out of the water include frogs, toads, salamanders, snapping and painted turtles, terrapins, water snakes, and garter snakes. Fish enact ecological choreography, flowing in and out, up and down the river on the tides dictated by their animal instincts. Common Hudson River fish include shad, catfish, sturgeon, flounder, striped bass, bluefish, carp, river herring, hogchokers, and eels. Invertebrates live below the surface and in the muddy bottom, creatures like crabs, mollusks, aquatic worms, and insect larvae.
Spinoza also has something to say about nature, suggesting that it is a place where bodies seek to forge alliances with others in order to enhance their power, much like ideas increase their power when they ally themselves with other ideas.[ix] As for the role humans play with regards to nature, we are not outside of the assemblage, “we may learn to alter the quality of our encounters, but not our encountering nature.”[x]
Spinoza said, “It is never we who affirm or deny something of a thing; it is the thing itself that affirms or denies something in us.” Now, I take issue with this assertion. It is a statement I have previously believed in, but now I find it lop-sided and problematic. For we do affirm and deny things – everyday and every moment we do. And things do, in turn, act on us.
I walk to the river and I affirm it. I opt to bypass it in order to take a more direct route to my intended destination, and I deny it. When I am constructing a sculpture out of bits of driftwood and debris on the side of the Hudson, I select my pieces one by one, combing the surface and crevices of the rocks, affirming certain pieces and denying others a place in my construction. But the power is not all mine, the determination is not solely my own. Things do affirm or deny something in us. Standing alone on the banks of the Hudson, I am captivated by something that eludes descriptive words, for it is pure feeling and communion which resists intermediaries.
The world is alive with constantly configuring compositions, alliances and rivalries. Look at the world with a Spinozan lens and you will be incited to ask which alliances and configurations are able to assemble most productively, and are capable of adding positive intensities. For these will be the strong assemblages, the ones that if you join, will allow you to do well by doing good.
The River Wants
The river wants us to take note of the effects of ‘progress.’ If we harness the iridescent nature of the river – its ability to both see through and reflect back – the river reveals particular relationship with, and narrative of, progress. Can we think of the river in the way that Walter Benjamin thought about his Angel of History?
“His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings spread…his face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward, this storm is what we call progress.”[xi]
The river is all-seeing, it does not have the ability to blink out an irritation or selectively see. The river is open wide; it is receptive. Unlike you and I, who are swept in the current of what we perceive to be our realities, the river, whose existence and experience of reality stretches over a billion years, has an encounter that is total, like that of gravity, where any moment is all moments, and each singularity is also a multiplicity. And what we perceive and deem to be progress, is not so different from debris, for it builds on itself and fills things up, and collects in heaps. Time, progress and history do not move in a single direction, just as this river does not. And the question of redemption is left open – watch a storm moving up a river and you will shiver with fear and delight.
The River Weaves
Heidegger felt that we are not able to build anything up unless we already dwell within our surroundings. He said, “Only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build.”[xii] Here I think we can distinguish ‘building something up’ from the modern notion of ‘progress’. To live is to be capable of building things – things being ideas, relationships, self-identity, achievements, stories – the things we make of our lives. The lives we lead (or as Ingold would put it the lives we weave) are determined by our capacity to dwell. And how is one capable of dwelling in the world? Dwelling implicates interacting with the materials and forces around us, being able to integrate oneself into the net that is the sieve through which life flows. It encourages us to know the world for ourselves, and to participate in it. For Ingold,
“Dwelling in the world, in short, is tantamount to the ongoing, temporal interweaving of our lives with one another and with the manifold constituents of our environment. The world of our experience is, indeed, continually and endlessly coming into being around us as we weave.”[xiii]
I believe that the river carries out these acts of dwelling and building up. It sensuously engages with the worlds around it, not by choice but out of necessity. It dwells upon the earth because of forces and materials that interacted before the dawn of man. One of the things that it has contributed to building up is our story.
The Unfolding River
Heidegger says the world worlds, Ingold says the world unfolds. When I think about what the river does, the idea of unfolding resonates. The world unfolding is something experienced, and no thing will experience it in the same way.
As I stand on the shores of the Hudson, the world unfolds – at that moment I am thinking thoughts that related loosely to the vista, to an old friend, and to the play of light; I am inhaling the smell of organic matter; I grow older by five minutes, my body temperature lowers slightly, my eyes take note of several details that my mind may not. The rock half-submerged at the river’s edge is getting lapped by the water’s rhythmic banter, little by little the rock’s surface is changing; every once in a while a larger wave cracks over it and it reacts stoically. Two mallard ducks bob on the surface of the river, occasionally diving down and then resurfacing not too far away. The tree overhead is in blossom, the light and moisture that the river provides has allowed the tree to grow fast and strong, it is taking in both of these nourishments as it sheds a few blossoms into the river below.
To the river, the unfolding encompasses all of these becomings and more. If we follow the paths along which things, “flow, mix, and mutate”[xiv] we will not be telling separate stories of unfoldings. For the river, what is emerging is a story that is told through its involvement with its total surroundings, “and from the manifold ways in which it is engaged in the currents of the lifeworld.”[xv]
The River as Polluted
To progress or to preserve? The Hudson is a river has something to say about our contradictory desires. What is a pure thing? And what contaminates a thing? When change happens and it is deemed detrimental or disadvantageous to a thing, if it breaks a thing, exposes its ‘black-box’ and pollutes it, the thing becomes something else. When the Hudson River was polluted by industrious people and things, it went from being a river of revelry to a river of refuse. At the turn of the century the river’s contamination became an unavoidable topic. A Pollution Commission was set up to investigate the extent and causes of the problems. It was found that every quart of harbor waste contained at least an ounce of human waste, that balls of grease clogged the few sewers that existed, the gaseous bubbles were arising from subterranean muddy deposits, petroleum slicks coated parts of the harbor, and industrial wastes of many types were being deposited ranging from sulfuric acid to caustic sodas.[xvi] In the 1970’s 175 million gallons of raw sewage was let out into the Hudson every day. On a map created by the New York Geographical Society, the river was marked by a blackened out line because it was deemed a river for industrial use.
The Hudson River is the largest federal Superfund site in the US, covering a 200 mile stretch. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) dumped by General Electric continue to contaminate both the Upper and Lower Hudson River. GE’s dumping, most of which was done without permits, occurred from 1946 until 1977, when PCBs were banned. PCBs cause cancer in animals and are a probable human carcinogen. PCBs cause neurological, reproductive, and endocrine problems, as well as birth defects in both humans and wildlife.[xvii]
The birth of the modern environmental movement was born on the banks of this river. In 1962, a battle to save the eroded root of an ancient mountain chain, a picturesque mountain named Storm King became the site for upon which people started to join together and to speak out for things – for mountains, for the environment, for the rights of non-human elements. Campaigns were waged to save things from ourselves: mountains were lobbied for, fish were petition for, chemicals were sanctioned against, trees were made to be inalienable, animal species were monitored, earth and landmarks were sanctified.
The River as Network
The river is something that flows; it is not static, it is not stagnant. It may have seasonal and diurnal cycles, but its actions are not altogether predictable. The river combines many forces – natural, physical, social, temporal, spatial. It provides a medium for creativity to flow, connecting ideas, resources, and people.[xviii] These connections form networks that reach deep within and stretch far beyond the formal confines of the river.
A tree is felled by a man in the Catskills in 1889 that joins an assembly of thousands of other fallen soft-wood tree that float down the Hudson for over 100 miles, propelled on their way by scores of dams upstream that are released at precise times. This tree is just one of over 1 billion board feet that floated down the river to Glenn Falls during the height of the Wood Rush. This tree maybe pulped into paper, burnt into charcoal, nailed into railroad tracks, food for new steam engines, or fed into fiery factory furnaces.
A side of a mountain is cleared of its surface by a fire sparked by a passing locomotive. The next spring the earth cannot hold the waters from the mountain snow melt and a deluge is sent down the river which floods towns like Troy and Athens. Businesses are lost, workers are out of jobs, and children get days off to rejoice and play.
An electric company empties its waste into the nearby river. The toxins mix with other natural and unnatural substances and form a new brew that diseases the fish. The fish are caught and consumed by river dwelling people who get ill. People activate and demand an investigation. Research is performed on the water and wildlife, and science and capital are activated in order to appease the people and save the business.
An engineer is commissioned to connect two states divided by the river. The engineer employs knowledge, labor, nature, commerce, and politics to transform his idea into steel, suspension, and locomotion. For many moons men live and die to create this thing and when it is finished, serves as an artery and a synapse. Communities are created and destroyed, the world is one measure more connected.
The River as Nature
The Hudson is technically a river valley into which the ocean water has been admitted by subsidence of the land, transforming a large part of the valley into an inlet. The Hudson’s tidewater extends almost half the river’s 315-mile length (from Troy to its mouth), and twice a day the waters run downstream, and then at slack tide the tidal portion stills and with the flood tide the water reverses and flows north upstream. It is this action that gave this river its original name and its otherworldly characteristic of defying nature’s advice. The nutrients are held in place by the ebb and flow of the tides, instead of being washed out to sea, the richness of the Hudson waters are retained in an even push and pull that require life and death, give and take.
The Hudson crosses in a north-south direction near the eastern boundary of New York State. Arising from the most remote parts of the Adirondack Mountains, 4000 feet above sea level, the head of the river is considered to be Lake Tear-of-the-Clouds, which pools near Mount Marcy. This lake is younger than the glaciers but older than man.[xix] This section of the Hudson has many falls and rapids and several large tributaries join this part of the river, including Fish Creek and the Mohawk. The river’s tortuous course is further propelled by mythical sounding sources like the Opalescent River, Calamity River, and the Falls of the Hanging Spear, as it sweeps around obstacles like Balm of Gilead, Bad Luck Mountain, and Ruby Mountain, and makes its way towards Glenn Falls.
The lowland region of the river is embedded with ancient Paleozoic rocks. The scenery in this part of the river consists of gently sloping hills of colorful of woodland and patch worked farmland, along with the occasional village. Thirty miles from Troy the Catskill Mountains loom in the west. Along the banks of the river are great beds of clay. The river then widens as it approaches Albany sweeping past now post-industrial landscapes.
The river enters the northern portals of the Highlands and for16 miles the river is bordered by steeply rising hills, offering striking views of grand variety. It is here that the river crosses a belt of ancient crystalline rocks of moderately high relief, comparable in geological structure to the Adirondack region. The lowest section of the tidal part of the Hudson extends from the lower end of the Highlands to New York Bay. This is a region of ancient and metamorphic Paleozoic rocks on the eastern side, and mainly Triassic rocks on the west. Because they are less resistant to denudation, these rocks have permitted a broadening of the valley which reaches a width of four miles wide close to the Tappanzee.
Through the Gateway Peaks of Storm King and Breakneck, just below Piermont, the range named the Palisades rises picturesquely from the water’s edge to a height of between 300 and 500 feet. They are formed of trap, a form of lava rock that was intruded as a sheet into the Triassic sandstones, developing prismatic jointing upon settling.
At its mouth the Hudson broadens and branches, giving way to islands and a broad harbor. The Hudson empties into the Atlantic and its true end reaches over 100 miles into the sea, as the river bottom dives down and the seawater rolls in on top of the river waters. A submerged valley, traceable over the continental shelf, is thought to map out an earlier course of the Hudson when land stood over 2000 feet higher than today, and when the inner gorge above New York was being excavated.[xx]
The River as River
[i] Dunwell, Frances F. The Hudson: America’s River. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 320
[ii] Bennett, Jane. 2004. The force of things: steps toward an ecology of matter. Political Theory 32(3): 354
[iii] Delueze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 1988. Introduction: Rhizome. In A Thousand Plateaus, pp. 23. Athlone Press
[iv] Delueze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 1988. Introduction: Rhizome. In A Thousand Plateaus, pp. 13. Athlone Press
[v] Delueze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 1988. Introduction: Rhizome. In A Thousand Plateaus, pp. 23. Athlone Press
[vi] Delueze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 1988. Introduction: Rhizome. In A Thousand Plateaus, pp. 7, 10. Athlone Press
[vii] Delueze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 1988. Introduction: Rhizome. In A Thousand Plateaus, pp. 23. Athlone Press
[viii] Bennett, Jane. 2004. The force of things: steps toward an ecology of matter. Political Theory 32(3): 446.
[ix] Bennett, Jane. 2004. The force of things: steps toward an ecology of matter. Political Theory 32(3): 353
[x] Bennett, Jane. 2004. The force of things: steps toward an ecology of matter. Political Theory 32(3): 353
[xi] Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 257-8
[xii] Ingold, Tim. 2000a. On weaving a basket. In The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, pp. 348. Routledge, London.
[xiii] Ingold, Tim. 2000a. On weaving a basket. In The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, pp. 348. Routledge, London.
[xiv] Ingold, Tim. 2007. Writing texts, reading materials. A response to my critics. Archaeological Dialogues 14:35
[xv] Ingold, Tim. 2007. Materials against materiality. Archaeological Dialogues, 14:14-15.
[xvi] Dunwell, Frances F. The Hudson: America’s River. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 242
[xviii] Dunwell, Frances F. The Hudson: America’s River. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 305
[xix] Carmer, Carl. The Hudson. (New York: Rinehart and Company, 1939), 3