"Ke (you have many teachers)" is a video travelogue down the Mississippi river, from Carbondale to Bulbancha (or New Orleans), as told through a series of encounters with non-human teachers, among them: a digital lens flare, a smoke stack, a drone, a marsh, and a 500 year old tree. “Ke” is a pronoun for accommodating animacy in non-human, non-animal others, proposed by botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer (Citizen Potawatomi Nation). "Ke" explores the ways in which non-human beings, both organic and mechanical, hold memories of exploitation, profess present experiences of control and adaptation, and sing dreams of remediation and resurgence.
Meandering is a short film exploring the change of the Winooski River in Vermont USA. Computer generated imagery and audio field recording create a digital map of the river from 1900 until now.
This river once sustained the thriving Native American Abenaki people, and was key in social movement between groups throughout the Lake Champlain water basin. Since colonization of that land, it has become intertwined with electrical, gas, roads, and private ownerships.The making of the short film was based on digitizing maps and archiving them. That proces gave the ability to recreate different states of the river through time. Using different audio from locations on the river injected the physical life of the inhabitants, human or not. The 3 dimensional map is a relatively new form of exploring. The explorer does not need to go anywhere anymore. But what is the difference between the physical explorer and the paper or computer explorer? Is there any?
Physically walking in a new land and occupying, taking it over, and changing it according to human needs; from faint footsteps to clicks of a keyboard, there are problematic outcomes to both.
(a-mai-thi) in tamil means calm or peaceful or silent. It pushes us to work harder, better, faster. It also helps us cope with the obsession to be functional. Be functional is the response of a system straining to work amicably over and over again, while the excessive noise of fatigue, anxiety and neurosis is laid to rest until its next uncontainable outburst in the form of protest, collapse, a tear or fatality depending on the capacity to keep adjusting. This work is an attempt to craft a counter-neurosis, using the very material of the excess. The work continues to draw from a chance encounter with anxiety ridden fish and conversations with people I met who work in Dubai, where suspended exhaustion ensures repetitive inertia, where the fatigued are already artificial.
BUBBLY CREEK AND THE FRIENDS OF THE CHICAGO RIVER
Even if you’ve never been to Bubbly Creek, the name seizes the imagination. Fascinating in its history, made infamous by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle, the Bubbly Creek of the 19th century bears little resemblance to the Bubbly Creek of the 21st. Still, the legends and the bubbles persist, though in reality Bubbly Creek today has more active contamination due to ongoing Combined Sewer Overflows and soil runoff than the lingering sediment, compounds and effects of the Union Stockyard waste. A feasibility report and environment assessment from the Army Corps of Engineers released in the summer of 2020 was authorized by Congress near the end of the same year. Now, the restoration will begin once the $17.9 million price tag is covered, ushering in a new chapter for the waterway. Contaminated sediment at the bottom of the river will be capped with sand and stone, and planting native grasses will hold this new bottom in place. The restoration has been championed by Friends of the Chicago River since its beginnings in 1979, and Friends continues its advocacy work for the health of the river system for people, plants and animals. Its mission is unique in this aspect, taking a holistic systems approach to the health of the watershed, plant, animal and human communities. Recognizing their shared and contingent relationships point to critical questions about the relationship between the human and nonhuman, and our mutual entanglement.
Below the vertical bulkhead at the mouth of Bubbly Creek, stripped, overturned vehicles provide critical housing for developing fish communities. These shelters offer fish the chance to grow up, a chance long diminished due to the human dredging of waterways. These provisional housing structures, or Fish Hotels, are now replicated at multiple locations along the river bulkheads, suggesting both the impossibility of going back to a perfectly “restored” or “natural” state prior to human involvement with the river, and the relatable condition of the shortage of affordable housing in Chicago.
Mapped onto these issues are the historic tensions within Chicago at large of class and race, privilege and access, that are expressed through the waterway predictably. Who has a river of leisure, and who has a working river? Who has a river zoned for primary or secondary contact? Who has an inviting waterfront and who’s waterfront is zoned for heavy industry? Bubbly Creek, on the near south side, reflects all of these claims, and lies at the heart of Chicago’s past and demands on its future.
Bubbly Creek, Friends of the Chicago River, Mark Hauser, October 14, 2020
CANAL ORIGINS PARK
My name is Mark Hauser. I'm the education outreach manager for Friends of the Chicago River. As education outreach manager, I administer the Chicago River Schools Network, so I'm a resource for teachers in terms of classroom exercises and field experiences out to the Chicago River for their students. I’ve been with Friends of the Chicago River for thirteen years.
Right now we are at the confluence of the South Fork of the South branch of the Chicago River, otherwise known as Bubbly Creek, and the traditional South branch of the Chicago River. The park we're standing in now, Canal Origins Park, was started in 2006 I believe. It's part of the Chicago Park District and it was planted with native prairie and trails that go out to the river. A lot of fishermen come out here to fish in the Chicago River.
Bubbly Creek was not created by humans. It was actually a function of the groundwater and the surface water flowing in this area after the glaciers receded about 12–15,000 years ago. This is a naturally occurring body of water. When it was originally created, it would have been much shallower. It was actually dredged to a deeper depth so that it was navigable by US Law.
When the first European explorers came, this was a series of very shallow wetlands that you could traverse in rainy periods and actually get to the Desplaines and eventually the Illinois and the Mississippi rivers. That's one of the reasons Chicago is built where it is, because of this travel through. It was easy to do by boat, which was the main source of transportation back then, but it was not originally dug by humans. It was dredged later, and largely filled in.
Bubbly Creek goes down for about two to three miles, and then it actually splits off into an east fork and a west fork. Those were later filled in when the Union Stockyards came in. But it's still fed underground—it came up from underground, and also surface rainwater would have filled it.
(image: 1886, Rand McNally).
The Union Stockyards were put together by seven different smaller stockyards, meaning slaughterhouses for meat, pigs, cows, things like that and also nine railroad companies that were centered in Chicago. Prior to the early 19th century, the main meatpacking industry city in America was Cincinnati. It was actually nicknamed Porkopolis at the time. Because of the coming US Civil War and cutting off of some of those southern cities like Cincinnati, Chicago became more important in terms of meat packing. So these seven small meat packing facilities and the railroad companies actually came together and created a larger stockyard to centralize the entire industry. It was sited right on the border of then-Chicago. When the stockyards were created, it wasn't actually in the city of Chicago, it was on the boundary. That probably had to do with some kind of property tax assessments. They wanted to be actually outside of the city—of course they were quickly engulfed by the city.
To take you back to that time, you have to understand that people didn't really understand chemistry. They knew that water could be good or bad and that you didn't want to drink bad water—it caused miasma and general illness. But they didn't really understand the mechanisms. So the philosophy at the time would have been to get it as far away from the human civilization as possible. The solution to pollution was dilution. You put pollution in enough water and the water becomes good again—that was their thinking. We know better today.
Anything they had that they didn't use in some kind of manufacturing or industry was put into the river. That was their disposal mechanism for the Stockyards. Now, it's fortunate that there was a phrase that they used, ‘everything but the squeal on the pigs.’ And they did do soap manufacturing, perfumes, pharmaceuticals—they really did use a lot. It was mostly some of the internal organs and some of the blood that was left over from the slaughtering of the animals—that's what was put into the river. And there was no water treatment, they simply swept it off and fed it into little ditches and canals. And it went right into the river.
When you put a lot of biological components in water, some of the nastier things were going to actually float to the surface and congeal into this kind of black brownish sludge. And they discovered that you could go out and harvest it. You could cut it up into pieces, bring it back in and make soaps and other petroleum-based products out of it. If it's processed entirely, I don't know how much it would smell, but yeah, it is pretty disgusting, but they were trying to do everything they could to scrape together a life and make as much money as they could. As a matter of fact, I have a nice side story with that.
The meatpacking industries were largely Morris, Philip Armour and Gustavus Swift, the three biggest meatpacking plants, but there were others. Hammond was another one, but the one I want to talk about is the Wilson Company. Wilson was an offshoot of one of the other meatpacking industries, and they realized that they could make more money with the byproducts of the meatpacking than they could with the meat itself. Because of the competition in the meatpacking industry, there wasn't a whole lot of profit there. But what they did is they started going into leather manufacturing and other things. And this Wilson Company actually rebranded itself as simply a sporting goods company. When you go out and buy a football or a soccer ball or a volleyball, that Wilson brand comes from the Chicago meatpacking industry. They now solely make a lot of the leather products; they’re the official maker of footballs for the NFL, and that all comes from Chicago meatpacking. I love that story.
The Union stockyards were the big source of a lot of the organic pollution. There was human sewage too, but the blood and offal from the animals that was being put into the river solidly from 1865 until at least wastewater treatment in the 1930s. That's when the Water Reclamation District actually put in some of the first wastewater treatment. That would have taken care of some of that. But the stockyards were here until 1971, and I'm sure there was always some kind of surface runoff and some of it still went into the river.
BACK OF THE YARDS
When the stockyards were created in 1865 it quickly created the Back of the Yards community, (or Packingtown), next to it with workers that would live and work in that area. The European immigrants that were there, their whole life was largely centered around the stockyards.
The stockyards were the meat packing industry, but there were also tanneries, steel metal processing, pharmaceutical soap manufacturing, and a lot of those industries were run by the families that also did the meatpacking. So everything they needed from schools to doctors, whatever they had was there. It was a self-contained community, largely populated in the 19th century by Lithuanians, Poles, and Czechs early on. Then as you get into the 20th century, you have the influx of Mexicans and African-American communities.
The Back of the Yards community was a little further down south from us past 31st Street. We're in Bridgeport up here, Chinatown is just up the road. Pilsen obviously that way (north). Most of the people that lived and worked in that area were in the Back of the Yards because that was on the gated side of the stockyards—they lived as close as they could to the stockyards.
THE JUNGLE, UPTON SINCLAIR
Upton Sinclair was politically a socialist, so he was out to expose the working conditions and get better working conditions for the families that were at the stockyards. He was appalled by it so that in 1906 he wrote The Jungle, thirty years after the stockyards had been founded on Christmas day, 1865. So you have thirty years of people working ten to twelve hour days, three dollars a day, not making very much at all. He really wanted to shine a light on that and get better working conditions for the people that were living and working in that area, that was his reasoning. After his book came out and everybody was appalled, the first outcomes in the 20th century were the Food and Drug Safety Act and Food or Meat Processing Act—those laws that protected the actual products for the consumer. That was the first outcome. We didn't actually see workers’ rights until it was late in the Depression, almost World War Two. We saw the first unionization of workers in the Union Stockyards, and that's when you finally started having better working conditions, shorter working days, higher pay, and things like that. Before that, the history of the Stockyards, for workers for forty or fifty years was a lot of internal bickering between factions.
When you put a lot of organic components into water and they sink to the bottom and they float to the top, a lot of those biodegrade into methane and hydrogen sulfide. So when Bubbly Creek bubbles, that's the primary byproducts that you're seeing. I'm sure there's a little bit of carbon dioxide and some other things in there, but it's mainly methane and hydrogen sulfide, which are both flammable.
We were burning our river in the 19th century well before Cleveland was burning the Cuyahoga in the 20th. Not major fires, but little sections of it when it got clogged with debris and wood and lumber that didn't flow because this was a very stagnant body of water. Still, kind of is. It would get clogged with flammable debris, get enough methane and boom, it would light on fire.
The history of 19th century Chicago is one of practically yearly outbreaks of either cholera, dysentery, later on scarlet fever, things that are all basically waterborne kinds of illnesses. So if you have sections where people are not really taking care of themselves, they're very congested—a lot of people that live in small areas where the density is really high—you're going to get a lot of these diseases where viruses and bacteria passed from one person to another. We're familiar with that today in the pandemic with Covid-19. The more you can air things out and spread things out, the better off you are. There was no professional health care service in the 19th century, but people learned that if you disinfect and you clean the surfaces, they were much better off. So the health care problems—a lot of these cholera outbreaks and whatnot—actually spurred on some of the health knowledge that we learned later on that was much more important, and actually created the health care services we know in the 20th century. Milk pasteurization is a good example, that occurred in Chicago in 1909. That was a big leap forward in terms of making people a lot healthier, and being able to keep milk on the shelf longer than just a day or two.
Since 1971 we, of course, have had the environmental movement. The very next year, the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 and that really had a big effect on the EPA being around finally to police what is being put into the river and how much. But there is to this day still bacteria being put into Bubbly Creek. There's a pumping station two miles from here down at the end of Bubbly Creek and when there's a huge influx of rain we get what's called a combined sewer overflow. We can't put everything down into the Deep Tunnel, which is an underground system of huge tunnels in Chicago, so we still do occasionally get raw sewage coming into this body of water. So it still does bubble to this day because there are pockets of decomposition still going on. It is hard to say when it stopped because it never truly has. It's diminished, but it's not fully gone.
Speaking very generally, since the environmental movement of the late 60s/early 70s and up until where we are today, I think as a society we've come to value the environment a lot more. It just recently became a decision of the community and of the city to do things like the boathouse and these condos. The opportunity has always been there. To put a fine date on it, the US EPA that came in 2011 finally mandated better water quality standards for this body of water. So if you really wanted a hard date on it, 2011 is when we all, when the government at least, said this should be cleaner.
You know, the Chicago River is really resilient. We have used and abused and neglected this waterway for hundreds of years and it still has vibrant communities of fish, mammals, birds, arthropods, insects, everything. If you had to grade the water quality, it's probably on the order of a B- or C+, somewhere in there, and yet animals find a way. I have personally seen mink running along the bank over here, there are geese and ducks and 300 species of birds that use this as the flyway through the city. It's very, very important, and it is still being used. There's a cormorant right there, for example. They’re actually such an ancient species of bird that they don't have the oils and the waterproofing. That's why, after they fish for a while, they have to come up and dry off. You'll see them hanging out with their wings out. Just trying to dry off, it’s crazy.
People fish here too. There are regulations as to how much fish you can consume, and I believe from this part of the river, you really shouldn't at all. I would always check it out and be on the safe side and don't consume it unless you know for sure. Generally, fish in the Chicago River are catch and release. You wouldn't want to consume them. Especially a bottom feeder, like a carp or catfish. They're going to pick up more of those heavy metals. I would not advise going swimming here, if only because if you do stir up some of the sentiment, there are certainly heavy metals and whatnot here. But other places that are upstream of here, Ping Tom Park, Clark Park, as long as you don't ingest the water, it's totally safe to go swimming, if you really want to. As a matter of fact the Friends of the Chicago River is starting to promote swimming programs.
The Army Corps of Engineers just recently completed an evaluation of Bubbly Creek and that included sediments and pollutants that were found in the sediments. I must have read the summary, but in the report I didn't find what actually was there. But it did list several organic compounds, including PCH and also heavy metals. So they are there. I would imagine it's probably on the order of lead, mercury, common metals, things like that.
I've done field trips here for students and we've caught animals like leeches, big Chinese mystery snails which are invasive species, or red swamp crayfish, which are from the Southern United States. They're weird and exciting to me. I did a radio interview for WGN, I believe it was. They had asked what's in the river, and they had me talk about some of the animals. But there was another gentleman that they interviewed, I think, from the Army Corps of Engineers, who talked about the cars that were in the river. If you go out in the channel over there, where it says “no wake,” there are cars flipped upside down, down in the bottom of the river on the edge, intentionally placed there for habitat, as a substrate for baby fish to use and other animals to use as hiding places so they can survive. That's one of the things I thought was kind of strange about the river in this area.
Friends of the Chicago River is small, we're only twelve employees. So, the secret to our success is really partnership—to have a strong mission, to constantly sell that, and to bring other partners together. People who have the same vision and mission as us, including the city and the Water Reclamation District, the Park District, the Forest Preserves and lots of other organizations, so that we can have an impact and make a larger impact than just ourselves. Some of the major breakthroughs, I would say, in regards to the accomplishments of Friends of the Chicago River, was that in 1990 we were able to get Mayor Daley to announce the riverfront setback ordinance. We also started a paddling program in the mid-nineties. Chicago River Day started in 1992—that's a clean-up that we have done every year since then. Then, going into court from roughly 2003 to 2011 for the Use Attainability Analysis (UAA). We actually were in Illinois Pollution Control Board hearings to have the US EPA raise those standards, and that happened in 2011. And then, more recently, we had a fish hotel in downtown Chicago, which was a floating structure for baby fish. And that was such a success that the city, when they implemented the Riverwalk, actually put fish hotel type structures down in the water for baby fish. And lastly, we actually had nesting osprey come out on one of our polls that we put up several years ago. We had a pair of nesting osprey in 2020 for the first time.
As part of the Chicago River Schools Network that I administer we, for grant purposes, have to show if we're having any kind of changed behavior or attitude in the students. So I survey anywhere from 400 to 1000 kids every year that I take on field trips and we do a pre- and post- survey, now 12 years or more. And every year the kids have shown an increased positive attitude toward and a willingness to volunteer for the river. The biggest thing that changes that attitude about the river is simply coming out here and seeing it in person. I wish every student in Chicago could come out here, put boots on, wade into the water, catch a crayfish, hold it, do a chemistry test and actually see it for themselves. Because if you see it personally, you're going to value it more.
Caring is the most important thing you can do to improve the quality of the water. Do whatever you feel comfortable doing in terms of participating for cleaner water. If that's getting out and volunteering to cut down non-native species, that's great. If it's writing a letter to your congresswoman or congressman to have the Deep Tunnel completed or enact better water quality standards, do that. Come out and volunteer at River Day or just get out and recreate—go out and paddle, go out and canoe, pick up some trash. Or stop throwing away trash illegally, cut the source out. If you have something, recycle it or throw it in the trash can. Don't throw it out here.
This is actually the headwaters of the Illinois and Michigan Canal. It was the very first canal by the builders of the City of Chicago. The canal went ninety-seven miles, starting right here all the way down to LaSalle, Illinois. It was the first way of connecting us with St. Louis and New Orleans before we ever had airplanes. It's long gone now, but this is where it started, and they built the turning basin right here where the port was.