Wednesday, November 14, 2007

#113 - Aquatic Engineering

Aquatic Engineering

11/14/07 (#113)

There are several small lakes that form at this time of year in North Portland, waterways that rise and engulf vast tracts of land to form landmarks such as Lake Chautauqua (occupying the same general coordinates of N Chautauqua Blvd) and Halleck Pond (located where N Halleck St. was known to have existed in September.) These recreational areas abut the curbs of my neighborhood, formed by the confluence of rainy rivulets that flow along the gutter toward the city block's topographical low point, the storm drain, carrying on their waves the thousands of horse chestnut leaves that have spent an unhurried season papering the neighborhood in a veined, pale-yellow wrapper.

The chestnut leaf is enormous, shaped like a droplet of water if a droplet of water was the size of an adult's gym sneaker, and usually falls in the same cluster in which they grow, five leaves fanning out from a single point of connection with the branch, together large enough to form a plausible placemat for a formal dinner on Gilligan's Island. On a day with legitimate rain (not that ubiquitous Portland drizzle that is often referred to as rain), these enormous leaves are hurried to the sewer inlet where they are promptly splayed across the iron grate: In a matter of minutes, the drain is clogged and a pool begins to form. It's not uncommon for the pool to swallow the pavement completely, as the storm drain on the other side of the street is usually clogged with leaves as well.

Growing up in New England, I learned to regard standing water as the enemy: As one old-timer in my town told me years ago, "If it doesn't go where I want it to go, then it'll go where I don't want it to go." In Maine, water that backs up at a street drain will seek the next available low spot, which is most likely our or our neighbor's basement---it's a civic duty to make sure that the drains are flowing freely, as no one wants to hear the sound of their sump-pump turning on every four minutes throughout the night. (Plus, standing water breeds mosquitoes, and the battle against the mosquito never rests: I don't care if it's a puddle forming underneath a slowly melting icicle, sop that slosh up with a towel or it will soon look like the pool at a Las Vegas hotel, with bug larvae taking the place of uncouth brats on spring break.)

Armed with this history, I could mount a nurture-based defense for the behavior that, when seen through the plate-glass window of a cozy living room, must look like madness: A grown man teetering on the edge of the curb, stabbing at the water with a felled maple branch, too foolish to come in from the rain. I could argue that I deserve their thanks more than their ridicule, saving their basements from certain flooding by allowing the city's drainage network to perform as designed, but honestly, I don't do it for them. Benefit to others is simply an ancillary bonus: Mine is a primarily selfish act, aquatic engineering for fun and adventure.

If you're thinking that standing outside on a rainy day poking blindly at a puddle in order to find a storm drain doesn't sound like fun, then you have a stunted definition of fun. (And you can count my wife among your allies, as she invariably delivers her standard "So I'll see you at home?" whenever we approach one of these spontaneous lagoons.) The evacuation of these impromptu ponds provides a three-point fulfillment that is not readily available within the confines of our hectic and overfull days, especially not readily available on the average 35-minute dog walk through the city, including (but not limited to) these pleasures:

An opportunity to reconnect with the simple joys of childhood: The neighborhood where I grew up was bordered on one side by Chartley Brook, a stream that originated somewhere in a Norman Rockwell painting. In this stream I learned about pollywogs, frogs, turtles, crayfish, and a guidebook's worth of other small water life. During summer vacations, or even after school on sunny days, I loved to visit that stream and play for hours: Standing in the water with old sneakers on, I arranged rocks to make breakwaters and harbors, created tree bark boats that sought refuge in the harbors (or missed the harbor and fell victim to the "whitewater" that percolated under the dense copse of birches downstream), and assembled a world where my imagination could spend unfettered hours. Frankly, my adult life doesn't have enough of that type of recreation, so the clogged storm drain is like a portal---as the Chestnut leaf seal is broken, small whirlpools form and gain velocity, sucking nearby flotsam into their inverted cone, and I suddenly have the enthusiasm of a boy standing at the bank of Chartley Brook, unaware of anything except the manipulation of the flow. This is more than mere nostalgia; it's just short of time travel.

Negotiating peace between nature and man-made infrastructure: The clogged storm drain is a microcosm of the battle between earth and industry (don't fool yourself, industry and the environment rarely meet with a genuinely cooperative spirit, even when the best intentions are present), one of Mother Nature's myriad miniscule retaliations for the Hoover Dam, the Manhattan Project, Love Canal, etc. (The earth can certainly justify a grudge.) Yes, I'm aggrandizing, but this small lubrication of the friction between nature and technology provides a palpable sense of harmonic restoration.

The satisfaction of a job well done: My life is cluttered with tasks in various states of completion: Some of these projects require me to conform to someone else's schedule (which can prevent them from getting done punctually), others allow me to work at my own pace (which also can prevent them from getting done punctually.) As such, my brain is constantly being tickled by the loose ends of these endeavors, each of which distracts from the other until I feel like a man populating six crossword puzzles simultaneously. ("Where was that 8-letters down for 'overstimulated'?") But when I chance upon a flooded street, I can enjoy the satisfaction of overseeing a project from start to finish: When I arrive, there is an impasse; through my efforts, there is resolution; when I depart, fishing season is over.

This season I have enjoyed having an apprentice, as my five-year-old daughter precociously recognizes the enjoyment of this seasonal pastime, exercising her body and brain with an improvised deployment of strength and strategy. (Either that, or she simply relishes the opportunity to splash about in an ankle-deep puddle with parental approval.) This companionship does more than provide a semi-plausible alibi for my playing in puddles---aquatic engineering offers a bundle of teaching opportunities: Choosing a suitable poking stick (we discuss the tensile strength of different woods, how to identify hardwoods versus softwoods, what happens to wood when it rots), identifying different leaves (we examine the various shapes of the leaves, searching out as many variations as we can find), and observing the water flow (what makes a whirlpool, why more holes makes for faster draining, how the city's drainage system works.) In fact, I could pitch the whole process as an unscripted biology and physics seminar, a chance to reinforce that the world is a giant science lab and that class is always in session.

That it also looks like two kids and a dog playing in a puddle is purely coincidental.

©2007 wpreagan