WATER IS WILD, it's outlaw. It takes topsoil, it channels serious and grand canyons, it collects in wetlands and goes no place. It stinks, it sinks, it springs. Water falls, flows, gathers, it sinks, it springs. Water falls, flows, gathers, floods. Even so, human beings want to walk on it, and not get their feet wet.
A miracle's a passionate, compelling story, not the usual muck and mire. And if it takes the special effects of engineering, dredging, blasting, bridge work, drainage systems, and various metal-clad machineries to work miracles in nature, well, that's good business, too. We walk on water every day of the week in southern Michigan.
It's a classic American story-domination of the elements-and the action has been most ruthless and visionary and violent when the main players come upon water.
Water starts out simple, very clear. But as soon as it hits the ground we claim, things get murky. And you know how much we claim: every square inch.
Look at some square inches and acres around here. Ypsilanti, for instance. A narrow, funnel-down point in the Huron River Watershed, Ypsilanti has been claimed ground since the French Claim of 1809. On early maps — 1825, 1874-the Huron River takes a sprawling turn at Ypsi, with marshes on both sides of the wide floodplain. A small stream flows into the river near Forest Avenue. A bit later, in 1907, on the delicate, hand-colored survey maps drawn up by Gardner S. Williams, they're still there, the marshes, the stream.
But look around now. Walk around town, along Forest Avenue to the Eastern Michigan University Campus-you won't get your feet wet. That ground where the stream should be, through the middle of campus? Dry ground and sidewalks. Water, water, is not anywhere.
Except for the Huron River itself, other visible waters-the original swamps and streams-have disappeared from the city (as from almost every city), and it didn't take long, a few generations. Miraculous is the word people like to use when they hold Nature down for the count. The most cinematic miracles in the Bible are water ones-Moses parts the Red Sea; Jesus walks on water. But if God isn't on your side in these matters, if you can't single-handedly part a stream and cross it, well, you can bury it.
The place I work in Ypsilanti, Eastern Michigan University, stands on a slope falling away to the south bank of the Huron River. Around EMU, the river takes that wide, formerly swampy, turn after Leforge Road, swings around to the Forest Avenue Bridge and then runs more or less straight into Depot Town and through Riverside Park. The Huron River isn't buried, it isn't completely barriered, but most students at EMU don't notice the Huron River and don't think of it as part of campus. They know the river as part of the scenery in Depot Town, east of school, where Frog Island and Riverside Parks open up the water to view.
In Depot Town, you can walk on a scaffolded wooden walkway that connects the parks and crosses over the river, under the Cross Street Bridge. It's the one place in town you can meander, get close to the churn of the water, hear it wash around the rocks there, and check out whatever debris has snagged in the brush and slung off to one side-a couple of tree stumps, clutches of cans in branches, a tire, some fishing lines.
On campus though, you don't think about water flowing nearby. Everybody drives on Huron River Drive; but at Eastern, close as the river is, Huron River Drive is a drive. The name becomes the road, cut off from view of the water by the Riverrain apartment complex and the Eastern Plaza mini-mall.
Most students could draw you a decent map of the campus with the streets intersecting at exact angles, but the river wouldn't be there. If you said, “Draw in the river,” they'd probably have to think about it. “The Huron River,” you'd say. And then they might be able to back-track the river in their minds, coming upstream from Frog Island and guessing about the turn and about what happens behind the railroad tracks, the old Peninsula Paper Company building, behind the mini-mall.
But where the river comes from-back toward Ann Arbor and Gallup Park-and where it goes-someplace after Ford Lake-that would be distant, un-mappable territory.
We're explorers now in watersheds, with no signposts and few maps or with blank territories on our maps, those drop-offs at the edges where cartographers used to draw dragons in threatening seas. We believe we know where we are. And it's true; we have some very good maps. But, it is also true-we have no idea where we are. We know road maps, not watershed maps. Not vegetation patterns. Not soil maps. Not buried water maps. An address? Most of us know the street number, the ZIP code. But who knows the watershed or its number?-The digits tracking back from outlet to large rivers to streams. The Huron River Watershed: #04090005.
For many of us living and thriving in watersheds, ecosystems, and climates, those elemental systems have become deep background, lost to our thoughts and experience. The more a place is settled and built up, the more uncharted its natural features. The lay of the land, the landscape, the fall and flow of water-they all disappear.
And if you decide not to bury water, you can blur it away, set it aside pretty completely. Just about every river, for our safety, is bridged and barriered-there's no drive-by viewing. Most old style see-through pipe railings have been replaced with reinforced concrete sections, shoulder to shoulder. We drive over rivers without knowing it, without seeing their course, their width, their particular ripple. Since they are out of sight, most highway departments don't label the rivers with signs anymore. You're on a bridge, you know that, but what you're crossing-who knows? You can drive across the Midwest on interstates and not know you've crossed any river, any watershed.
Not long ago, the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland was a presence on the Ohio Turnpike. From a car on the bridge, you could look through pipe railings, dizzily, at the river below and know its strange name, maybe hum a few bars of the R.E.M. tune. The river was a clear water stripe, a twist coming out of trees, with high banks and a visible flood plain, some rocks spitting white streaks in the water. The turnpike-any driver could see-was a road built from high ground to high ground, landforms the Cuyahoga River had cut. Now, with the concrete barriers, you can't see the river, you don't know you're on a riverbank. And half the time when I drive there, even though I'm determined to hum “Cuyahoga” in tribute to the river, I miss it and drive right through and feel too bad about it later to sing anything, retro-honorifically.
When we cross over water, we're safe (and sorry). It's a clear cut, straight shot. No scenic distractions. No notion of waterways, watersheds, landforms, nature. Out of sight! Out of mind! Water is wild. It obeys the invisible and elemental laws of gravity, absorption, evaporation-not human laws of boundary, possession, property. Until we get our hands and machines on it.
Water's our source, our sustenance. It bore us, it buoys us, it can bear us away. Still, we believe that we, and by law we do, own water. In the past, we've pretty much done what we pleased with it. In the West, with water a rarity, the story's an old time romance, an ongoing saga-with schemes to conjure up water, claim it, carry it across state lines, and marry it to dry cities and dry farms.
But in the Midwest, in southeast Michigan, where water stood around just about everywhere, such a common thing, the story has always been: ditch it, drain it, bury it, forget it.
Ditched & Buried, To Start With
When I first farmed in southern Michigan, I farmed dry ground. The fields were sandy loams that drained so fast after rains I could often work the ground the same day. The only water on the farm was a stream in the woods at the back of the property. One year a sink-hole appeared in a low spot in the hayfield, and when I checked it out, dug down into it, I pulled up a chunk of broken clay tile — terra cotta, the color of the bricks of houses around here, like a shared of a flower pot.
I had no idea. I'd never seen water collect in those fields. I'd never thought about it or about Michigan soils and glaciated ground, or about its watersheds and drainage. Even though I was obsessed with weather and watched for the high cirrus clouds, drawn back like hair, a sign my grandfather caught me meant a low pressure system moving in, with rain maybe, within thirty-six hours. I farmed hay, and I had to think about rain, know when it would come and how long it would last. I watched the sky and I watched the TV.
Figure 1 (above): Water from the field would seep into the uncemented joints of the drain tile.
Figure 2 (right): Underground tiles formed a patchwork system of arteries leading back to rivers or streams.
But, I thought rain fell and flowed down-hill to the stream or percolated down into groundwater somewhere, the way it did on the farm where I grew up in Pennsylvania. There, everything sank through fine clays into porous limestone or flowed downhill, you could see it, through the network of streams to the Conestoga Creek and on to the Susquehanna River.
But here in Michigan, with the complex and mixed soils, glacial hummocks, sands and gravels overlaying marls and clays, water collects. It stands around. Until somebody digs a ditch, carefully sighted down slope, lays some drainage tiles, and buries the water. On most of the farmland of Michigan now, the watershed lies underground, where water flows at terrific pace during thaws and rains. Buried, water is invisible, silent. You walk right over it. All eighty acres of my farm were ditched and drained (see Figure 1). I had no idea. There was no record of the work, no maps. But in the years I farmed those fields, the old clay tile drainage system broke down, one tile after another. The tiles filled up with dirt or roots. Or the clay just shattered like stomped-on glass. Low spots got wet and stayed wet. Unplowed places sprouted sedges, cattails, and clumps of reeds.
When I plowed the bottomlands, I'd sometimes cut through the tops of strange graydirt chimneys that crayfish kicked up in wet ground. I could look straight down the chimney hole to water, six inches below the surface of the field. I was farming a bog. The tractor would push out a kind of waterbed ripple through the dirt.
In the end, it wasn't worth it, working that ground, and I quit farming the low spots. As more tiles broke, small wetlands formed, and the extent of the tiling was clear. This was a huge water network, a watershed underground—coursing, flowing, and lying low.
I see any farm field with a different eye now. I can see what's in it, and I can guess what's under it. In Michigan, if it looks like dry ground, you can bet somebody's buried the water. I still don't know where all the tiles are on my farm. It's a patchwork system of arteries. A map of the old drainage system, the watershed underground, might look like the sketch in Figure 2.
After walking the stream in rubber boots, I spotted several outlet points of the tile, three places in the banks of the stream. In the fields, I know the main tile lines because I've broken them now, crushed the tile, and let the water collect, as part of the Federal Wetlands Reserve Program. Five huge wetlands formed-these would have been woodland swamps, in beech and maple forest, before the white settlement here. All that water restored, resurfaced. Out of sight! Acres of water on a dry farm!
In the decades that closed out the nineteenth century, almost all of southern Michigan's woodland swamps were cleared of trees and drained with clay tiles for farming. In many towns, along with the saw mill, the brick and tile works was the major industry. Nobody wrote much about it, but the southern Michigan landscape in those days must have been nightmarish — trees cut, stumps uprooted, brush burning in huge heaps of flame; families in fields with shovels or with animals harnessed to ditching blades, children hauling in and setting those tiles, one at a time, thousands and thousands of tiles in the trenched fields; then the work of shoveling dairt and covering it all up. Burying the water!
Today to keep a farm dry, fields are drained and re-drained with plastic tiling. The process is fairly quick, surgical, with laser transits, trenching machines, and huge rolls of yellow tiling unwinding into the ditch. But the thinking and consequence are the same: ground is a surface for farming, for human use; and water must go underground.
In towns, too, like Ypsilanti, water was ditched and buried. Water had its use, but it had its limits. To run flour mills and sawmills, the Huron River was cut into in several places, channeling water to the mill wheels and returning it to the river. Frog Island (which is not an island at the moment) was no island to begin with, until a millrace was dredged in the 1840s, cutting a good chunk of ground away from the bank. Frog Island stood apart in the river for over one hundred years, long after the mills were gone, until gradually, through the 1960s and 1970s, the millrace filled in with years of sediment and became a dump for concrete, construction and railroad debris.
Figure 3: Owen Creek wound around and flowed more or less parallel to Forest Avenue and on down to the Huron River at the railroad bridge.
Ypsilanti is a small point, one turn, in the Huron River watershed, but it's got it all-the love and desire of water, the loathing, the ditching, and the burial.
Ditched and Buried, Again
Every water affair goes on and on. It just won't quit. Settlers drained foul swamps with clay tiles; they dredged stream banks and cut out millraces. Then, later, a real dissolution, a thunk, a hush of a close; civic leaders drained the city watershed and separated themselves from whole streams. The work it took and still takes to work these miracles. The labors of love and of machineries to bury water, walk on it, and then walk away.
Tubal Cain Owen was an entrepreneur and a believer in the Book of Revelation and a great believer in scientific principles. He was a success in most of his endeavors and businesses-shipping, milling, farming-although his belief that the Bible prophesied “flying machines” led him to construct, on scientific principles, years before the Wright brothers, an “aeroplane” in his backyard. The construction never flew, but that one failure didn't diminish T. C. Owen's faith in technology and his visions of a fantastically improved life.
Owen Creek burbled through Tubal's lawns. On an 1874 map of Ypsilanti, Owen Creek winds around and flows more or less parallel to Forest Avenue, down to the Huron River at the railroad bridge (see Figure 3). If the creek were there now, it would run behind the I-M sports complex and down the street past Pray-Harrold and on under the Alexander music building. Of course, there's no stream, and there's no mouth of a creek down slope at the Huron River. What there is at that point (walk down Forest Avenue to the bridge and look north) is a 6 ½ foot reinforced concrete pipe: The Owen Outlet Drain (see Figure 4).
On early Drain Commission maps, it's the Owen Creek Outlet. But more recently, the maps say simply Owen Outlet. The file folder in the Washtenaw County Drain Commission office is labeled Owen Outlet. No creek no more. It's ditched, piped, buried. Done for! Like the wetlands that farmers drained and tiled underground, many streams and some rivers-the Grand River in Jackson, for instance-were buried in Michigan towns, to facilitate city construction, to control the storm water and flooding caused by that construction.
Gulf air might build up in weather systems and dump on EMU, but the rain that falls no longer follows the watershed topography into Owen Creek; it's channeled underground in the Owen Outlet Drain. Grates in parking lots and cuts in sidewalks collect water into a network of buried streams and tributaries. But in spite of the extent of storm drains-or because of their miraculous invisibility-buried water remains somehow mysterious, a hidden knowledge. Who knows where the water goes? A few engineers!
Not many people in Ypsilanti know. The map of the storm drains on file in the Ypsilanti Office of Public Works was drawn in 1960! It's a beautiful yellowed map, frayed all around, with a few penciled additions. “They told me to guards this with my life,” the woman said who set it out on a table. “It's the only map we've got.” “Nothing more recent? How do they know where to fix these things?” “Well, some of these guys have worked here a long time.”
Buried water's a mystery. Cultish! Out of sight! Secret, forgotten, hushed up. Did somebody say repressed? At EMU, drawings of the campus's storm drains, including the Owen Outlet Drain right down the middle, date from 1970, before the Alexander Music Hall was built on top of the drain. If you put your ear to the ground during spring thaws, could you catch a murmur? A hum?
Talking to people at Eastern, Dan Klenczar, then project manager for EMU's physical plant, knew about Owen Creek. He was the only person I found who knew that there had been a creek on campus and that the creek had been put in a drain. He wasn't sure when. The Country Drain Commission knew the date of construction, 1929. Seventy years ago. Nobody knew why, although “construction, probably,” “expansion” was a good guess.
In some places seventy years would be recent history. But here, and in the United States generally, landscape memory is short-term memory. And when we bury water, the first thing we want to do is forget it. Still, sometimes old names carry watershed history. Check out a map of the Huron River watershed. Ypsilanti's the base of a bottleneck. The watershed narrows there between two hills; and the river starts to pour itself out toward Lake Erie. At this point in the watershed, you can literally see from one side of it to the other. From the hill with the Ypsi water tower, on Summit Street, you can sight across to the other side-the old Highland Cemetery and, beyond that, Prospect Road. The names recall what the settlers and early surveyors knew. What we've forgotten.
Figure 4: Early map of Ypsilanti showing the meandering of Owen Creek through what is now Eastern Michigan University.
On the other sides of these hills, water flows away through other watersheds, finds different rivers and different outlets to Lake Erie. Without a map, who would know? We count on the names, Summit, Highland. But what if the name shifts-Owen Creek Outlet to Owen Outlet? The creek is gone from the maps, gone from the name. Out of sight! Out of mind!
When it comes to water, we've lost our senses.
We bury water. We forget we bury it. Who buried Owen Creek? It wasn't Tubal Cain Owen. The stream fit into his lavish and sweeping design of the property. And nobody then knew the scientific principles for the construction of pipe big enough to hold the stream. By the time Tubal died in 1913, the state of Michigan was anxious to purchase the land, to allow the Normal School, now EMU, to expand. EMU's president, Charles McKenny, argued that the Owen enterprises, though in competent hands with Owen's son, could become “a serious menace” if passed on to other interests.
The Owen family resisted sale of the property and battled the state in court, but they lost; and not long after World War I, the Normal School gained title to all the property, including the well, the stream, the homestead, the old factory buildings. The place would be cleared to make way for, one after the other, buildings on the expanding campus: Roosevelt, Jones-Goddard, Pray-Harrold, the IM building, Downing, Quirk, and Alexander Hall.
About the time of the Owen buyout, in the spring of 1918, another event may have contributed to the fate of Owen Creek. With heavy snows and a sudden thaw that year, the Huron River flooded through Ypsilanti, breaking both Superior and Peninsular Dams and inundating the low-lying parts of town. No doubt Owen Creek flooded as well. As a consequence, the Washtenaw County Drain Commission began a series of storm drain constructions along Owen Creek, first a short drain near the source, in 1922, and then an extension drain in 1925. The main section of Owen Creek remained intact, though, flowing all the way through the campus and into the Huron River.
In the end, it wasn't fear of flood so much as love of power-the power of light that buried Owen Creek. In May 1929, Clayton Deare, the Washtenaw County drain commissioner, wrote a letter to Michigan's governor, Fred W. Green, asking for state funds to cover drain work on the state's property at the Normal School. He wrote, “As you formerly lived in Ypsilanti, you will probably recall the old creek that empties into the Huron River near the Lake Shore Freight Depot [Forest Avenue]. A petition has been filed with me to enclose this drain. It passes in between houses and continues on up through the Normal property. I have talked with President McKenny who stated they would like the drain enclosed on part of the State Property for the reason that they intend to build a new power house on the spot where this creek now lies.”
A power plant it would be. And continues to be on the spot where the creek now lies buried. The Washtenaw County Drain Commission put out a call for bids on the Owen Creek Outlet Drain, specifying pre-cast reinforced concrete pipe, 6 feet 6 inches in diameter, for a drain that would follow “the general course of a creek, at some places being in the present creek bed and in other places in a new course.”
Water and power! Power and light! To have light, we ditch and drain a creek. Or dam a river. We walk on water. We run on water. We have the power to do what we want. On the slopes and streets of Ypsilanti, water falls and it disappears. It goes underground. We forget all about the sprawl and the spray of water, its name, its course through the watershed, its stink or its skid over rocks, the body-roll turns, and then we forget we've forgotten.
Figure 5: The Owen Outlet Drain near the Forest Avenue Bridge.
The maps of water and watersheds are ancient-rare, as recondite, as maps of the psyche. Memory fails, and fast.
It may be a miracle to walk on water. Make that wishy-washy stream look like ground. Tame it. Shut it up, shut it down. Forget it. But, Lethe, remember, that river of forgetfulness, we cross over into hell. And then if we bury the river! There it is-we forget we've forgotten. The place may be tillable, arable, a good site for a power plant, but how will we know where we are when the water's buried and there's no map? What kind of miracle is it, if we don't know we're walking on water?
Note: “Buried Water” first appeared, in a slightly different form, in The Huron River; Voices from the Watershed, edited by John Knott and Keith Taylor (Univ. of Michigan Press, 2000).