Saturday, December 04, 2004


It was the first time I'd walked by the river after dark and I didn't know what to expect. It was a mild, windy, late-autumn night that promised rain, then cold. I'd been walking for an hour and didn't want to go back inside. There seemed to be some fin-de-saison urgency afoot. Something restless, transitional, inevitable. I felt it in the wind and I wanted to be there when it happened.

I crossed the footbridge. The river streamed, more oily and opaque than usual, a few yards below. A few fat drops of rain hit my cheeks. A harsh light burned on a pole on the other side. I turned onto the path and stopped short, in the grip of a mild horror: the horror one feels at the transmogrification of the familiar. Mother, when she becomes a witch. Father, roaring like an ogre.

Through the bare trees, the floodlit back wall of the grocery store glared from the far shore. Only a narrow service road and a chain link fence separated it from the sheer rock wall drop off to the river. The glare backlit the narrow woods on this side of the river, too, and spilled onto the pathside meadow. And on the other side of the footpath, beyond a narrower strip of grass and a row of smallish pines, big industrial garages -- a taxi company, the power company -- incandesced even more brightly.

Under the lights, the meadow was a nauseous, sludgy gray, studded with pale clumps of switchgrass rising from the sod like dead, phosphorescent bones. What had seemed beautiful by day -- the open, airy seedheads swaying in the wind, the gracefully curling, golden leaves -- now seemed like dead, bleached-out, wraith-like beings, victims of some terrible, toxic event.

It was like chancing upon an old friend at a vulnerable, private moment -- sick, grieving, depressed, disheveled -- when they least expect or want to be seen. I wanted to look away but, transfixed by horror, could not.

In the dreadfully misilluminated night, the meagerness and fragility of the meadow was apparant. Peering closely at little weed worlds -- otherworlds -- through my macro lens, I'd missed it. Daylight, so friendly to retina and flora, kept the buildings at bay. At night, under the monstrous kliegs, brick and concrete facades, barbed wire, and armies of scuttling hackneys and bucket trucks ruled.

The beautiful meadow is just a scrap of nature, a remnant, little more than a vacant lot. A sop to the human need for green. Ugliness and industry encroaches relentlessly. The river reeks of oil and waste as it moves over its bed of shopping carts, tires, bicycles, bedsprings. It's a trash ditch, a midden, a clogged gutter. Wierd, stiff froth, dingy white and tinged with brown, gathers in its coves. Good-hearted conservationists have rallied to its banks, but they are no match for the bullying incursions of civilization -- from the shit-filled disposable diaper beside the path, the Pringles box in the buttonbush, the Budweiser cans rusting in the sedges, the squashed Poland Springs bottles in the bayberry hedge, and the Colgate toothpaste box improbably suspended in the bittersweet, to the rusted culverts on the riverbank with their midnight discharges of secret, poison effluents. The bottom line always trumps the riverbottom.

The bully bides his time. He, as usual, has the upper hand. He seems to be savoring the sight of his victim choking, gagging, squirming, retreating. Questioned, he'll claim good-will, claiming, like any abuser, It's for her own good. He'll insist that private industry can and does self-regulate, and maintains fruitful partnerships with conservationists. Why just look at Philip Morris -- oops, he means The Altria Group -- on the cutting edge of nutrition and health education !

From Fallujah to the Arctic Circle to outerspace, he pilots his murderous juggernaut, announcing: We must kill to save ! We must destroy to build up ! More and more dollars surge upwards toward him and his pals, like a cloud of desperate doves, green at the gills. One or two will, might, trickle down, he promises. Someday.

Just look at his face. The little cocksure motherfucker.

So certain he'll keep on winning.

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