Sunday, April 21, 2024

Quote of the Day (Michael Wood, on Destroying Rivers and the Past)

“The health of our rivers is vital to everyone. If you love history, it is even more pointed, for in our landscapes are carried all our histories. Destroy a river and you also lose its past; it is akin to losing part of our collective memory. We live in times of the degradation of landscapes across the world, caused by poverty but also by the deliberate actions of the rich and powerful. And in Britain these disasters threaten not only our environment and our physical and mental wellbeing but our history, too.”— English historian, broadcaster, and documentary filmmaker Michael Wood, “Michael Wood on…The History Carried in Our Landscapes,” BBC History Magazine, April 2023

Professor Wood’s article deals with rivers in Great Britain. But these waterways—from the Hudson and Potomac in the east, through the Mississippi and Missouri in the heartland, to the Columbia in the West—have been crucial not only to American commerce but also American culture.

The Passaic River in northern New Jersey might not be as famous as these, but it has been as important to those lining its shores. This waterway has been essential to commerce in the area, but also shamefully abused, even listed in 1970 as the second most polluted river in the United States.

In September 2013 I took the image accompanying this post, of a revived tract of land on its banks: Riverfront Park in Garfield.

The creation of Riverfront Park shows what can be done with great effort in a concentrated area. Much remains to be done elsewhere along this 80-mile-long river to ensure the health of residents in the area—and the maintenance of historical memory of how the waterway helped give birth to America’s manufacturing industry.

In addition, the stream forms the backdrop to William Carlos Williams’ poem Paterson, which, the doctor-turned-writer noted, “follows the course of the Passaic River, whose life seemed more and more to resemble my own: the river above the Falls, the catastrophe of the Falls itself, the river below the Falls and the entrance at the end into the great sea."

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