You can write about rivers all you want
but the truth is
most people here
have never touched the water.
—Judith Vollmer, “My Sublimation”
Roughly 130 miles long, the Monongahela River flows northward from West Virginia, mill towns garlanding the bends, what someone once likened to beads on a string. Neither an especially deep nor swift river, navigable by a series of locks and dams, trains cross the Monongahela on steel bridges while we, the people of the Mon Valley, travel from one shore to the other on bridges painted yellow or blue: the Birmingham and Tenth Street Bridges, the Smithfield Street Bridge and the Hot Metal, named for the molten iron once transported across it. There are bridges with forgotten names and bridges known as “abandoned,” a melancholy designation and part of Pittsburgh’s magic. The shores of the river are littered with remnants of the mills. There’s Cupka’s bar on the corner of Twenty-Seventh and Jane Streets, hilltop cemeteries, and, in the water, stone piers holding up no bridge at all.
On a clear day, the Monongahela’s water is like stone, tinted by “the washy disposition of clay-loam land,” as one nineteenth-century source describes it. When the sky is overcast, the river’s surface turns to tin. Coal barges ply these waters, black mounds piled in hoppers, the tug humming steadily beneath cardinal songs and the chastening trills of wrens. In winter, the river’s colors are understated spoonfuls of gray sorbet, the clouds sweetening at sunset with peach and plum. In the bare branches of the trees, silhouettes of nests reveal themselves: potter’s bowls and earthen jugs, the jute bag of an oriole which, in June, flashed orange among the leaves. In a mulberry, a nest shallow and ragged at the edges is balanced like an overturned hat.
From where I sit in summer on the cement pier, the river’s edge is thick with green: the yellow green of the sycamores, the blue green of the box elders, grapevine and honeysuckle winding around a chain-link fence. Turkey vultures drift up high while swallows cut the sky, chasing bugs before darting back to their nests in the retaining wall along Carson Street. Bald eagles have returned to the Monongahela, and a pair of ospreys, and, down at the marina, a ragtag flock of gulls.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how we come to love an unlikely place, the way time and attention not only reveal beauty but also grant a sense of belonging, the feeling of being at home.
Perhaps this happens as the land from which we come, and the people who ferried us into it, begin to disappear.
I didn’t grow up here. Where I’m from, water tumbles out of the mountains and into the reservoirs, but the riverbeds on the plains are dry. Colorado is the land of sun, of drought and fire, but when I think of it now, I picture dusk.
We lived on the north end of town, in an apartment beside a K-Mart, its wide parking lot bounded by Twenty-Eighth Street running north into the Rockies and south to Denver, where my mother worked as a nurse. The sound of cars was not unlike the sound of waves—rhythmic, constant—trucks ferrying food and fuel and furniture, animals on their way to slaughter. In July, we drove the road to Estes Park to find cooler air and a grove of aspen in which to picnic, wildflowers—Indian paintbrush and bluebells, the yellow daisies of arnica and balsam—growing beneath. My mother said it was the wildflowers that made her fall in love with the West—a whimsical explanation for her migration, and so probably true. She brought the hibachi and a cooler of beer to the grove on those picnics, and while she and a friend grilled burgers and smoked a joint, my brother and I galloped through the meadow and dug mica out of the ground, grasshoppers ratcheting through the thin air, the sky a miraculous and untouched blue.
I’m looking at an aerial photo taken by LaToya Ruby Frazier in 2017 of a view upriver from the Hot Metal Bridge. The Site of the Former South Side Works of the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation and the Steelers’ UPMC Rooney Sports Complex is a picture of just that: a strip of land where the mills once stood, where now there is a football field, some office buildings, and parking lots. Frazier’s photograph is as much of the river as of the land, the Monongahela’s bank cutting a diagonal line through the image and dividing it in half. I think of Margaret Bourke White’s aerial photos of Pittsburgh taken in the 1950s, how the city is the focus, the river reduced to a supporting role, a minor feature of the grand human landscape. Smoke from the mills billows up and caps the hills, industry generating its own weather pattern, while the buildings of downtown make a pleasing geometry, everything fitted together with just enough distance to obscure the unseemly streets below.
Frazier’s photograph, on the other hand, registers an emptying out—the parking lots are half-empty, and on the football field, the tiny players in bright jerseys are like spilled seeds. On the hillside, there’s the gash of an electrical substation, and I’m struck by how thin the strip of trees along the Monongahela’s shore is, hardly a wild place in any real sense. And yet, when I’m there in the dappled light, listening to shifting leaves and the muffled sounds of the city, it is as healing as any wild place I’ve ever been. The coal cars thunder down the track and make it impossible to hear my companion, but then the train is gone and quiet rushes in, like blood to a once-constricted limb. In Frazier’s photograph, I notice, you can see shadows in the shallows along the shore.
Frazier did grow up here, in Braddock, a mill town tucked against the river. This photograph is part of a collaboration with Sandra Gould Ford, another artist who grew up in Braddock, and who worked for nearly a decade at the J&L mill. Ford brought her camera into J&L as it was closing, and she saved maps and injury reports and letters to workers, some of which Frazier made into cyanotypes, photographing Ford’s archive in blue, including this document:
|CLASSIFICATION OF ACCIDENTS FOR 1913
|BURNS, HOT METAL, FLUE DUST, ACID
|CAUGHT IN OR STRUCK BY MOVING MACHY.
|SLEDGES, HAMMERS, HATCHETS, ETC.
|FIGHTING OR PLAYING
|ACCIDENTS NOT POSSIBLE TO CLASSIFY
Alongside this landscape of injury is a photograph taken by Ford—smoke rising from the mill still in shadow, the river bedecked with slabs of broken ice.
On the X-ray of my mother’s spine where black should be, precious dark sky, white bone presses against the nerve and threatens to slice it apart. In a few months, maybe sooner, my mother will lose control of her bowels, and eventually she will be paralyzed. She reaches for a glass in the cupboard above the coffee maker and cries out, a lightning strike of pain that sends her first to bed, then to the surgeon. The sound she makes is unlike anything I have ever heard her utter.
As long as I have known the Monongahela, she has been a working river. I’ve never known her without barges shuttling coal, without cement piers or the smell of asphalt drifting up from the Clairton Coke Works in autumn, or, for that matter, without the office buildings or the sports center that Frazier photographed, or the tech workers and physical therapists sitting by the Mon on their lunch breaks and walking their dogs after work. The nature of work on the river may have changed, but the fact of it hasn’t. But still, the legacy of old industry persists.
In 2019, the Monongahela Valley had some of the worst air in the country, and in a recent study, children living in the Monongahela Valley—in poor and working-class neighborhoods close to power plants, steel mills, and coke works, in riverside towns like Braddock—suffer asthma at rates nearly three times the national average. When I moved to Pittsburgh in 1996, many of the buildings which had once made up the J&L mill had already been dismantled, the site of its South Side Works a brown field out of which the city recovered a slag pot the size of a kid’s swimming pool and a scattering of ingots. They stand sentinel over the Monongahela, public art mysterious as Stonehenge to most passersby. Later, an outdoor mall was built on the old mill site, replete with a Cheesecake Factory and REI. Last spring, construction began on luxury apartments. Riverside living.
In the nineties, a friend told me he wouldn’t feel safe eating more than a couple fish hauled out of the river, though he practiced only catch and release. And while cleaner than in its industrial heyday, in 2010 the Monongahela was nevertheless ranked the nation’s seventeenth most toxicant-polluted river. Still, skipjack herring and ghost shiners could be found in the water at Braddock that year, along with bluegill and green sunfish and gizzard shad—a total of thirty-two species of fish, fourteen of which are considered “remarkable”—either protected, important sport species, or species intolerant of pollution. Yet it is also the case that the river’s fish continue to struggle and disappear, for that same year in Braddock biologists found only three smallmouth buffalo, and the mimic shiners were gone.
My mother worked as a nurse for thirty years, lifting patients in and out of beds. Before that, she danced with the Washington Ballet. She jogged for years and worked out on her ski machine in the sunroom, took up ballroom dancing in her fifties, and walked in the park, walked up Broadway carrying hats she’d knitted to give to the drunks outside Lu Jac’s Liquors. She lived alone in Denver after my brother and I left home, caring for the house and the garden, shoveling the walks, hauling the trash to the curb, fixing what needed to be fixed. She has always been strong, depending on her physical competence to provide for herself and for us, and so the pain in her back and legs was for many years a fact of life she simply endured, not something she—or any of us, frankly—wanted to think too much about. Over-the-counter pain medication helped, as did physical therapy, but eventually my mother was unable to walk the three blocks to the thrift store or work in the kitchen at the shelter, her spine having crumbled like a set of old stairs.
Opting for the lesser operation, my mother will endure six hours of surgery rather than twelve. The surgeon who will perform the procedure is known for his small hands and finesse, and he will stand over my mother’s body and work to repair her. Titanium rods will be inserted between her vertebrae from her lumbar spine to just below her shoulder blades, and then he will shave off her laminae and grind them down, mixing my mother’s bone with bone from a cadaver to use like mortar and brick her up.
Early nineteenth-century Brownsville, a town just over the border from what is now West Virginia and one of the first towns westward-bound emigrants arrived to after crossing the Allegheny Mountains, was considered one of the Monongahela’s finest. From an 1821 account in The Navigator, a guide for riverboat captains with descriptions of tides, shoals, ripples, and the river’s towns, I find this:
[Brownsville] contains (1810) about 120 houses, principally of wood, some handsomely built with stone and brick; a market house, an episcopal church, 18 mercantile stores, two tanyards, a rope walk, two boat yards, two tin and copper manufactories, two factories of nails, one printing office, which issues a weekly paper, a post office, a ware-house, one scythe and sickle maker, blacksmiths, silversmiths, (one of whom makes surveyors’ compasses,) tailors, shoemakers, saddles, &c.
Steamboats were made in Brownsville, and many of these appear in photographs collected by a man named Howard Etzel—pictures of paddle wheelers with black smoke pouring from their stacks, boats pushing coal hoppers and plowing through ice, boats named Reliance and Aliquippa, Dorothy M. Bride and Titan, the Reaper and Coal City and Crucible, and of course, the Monongahela. In some photographs, a ship has run aground, while others document a ship’s retirement: “William Whigham on Way to Boneyard.” (In my notes I’ve written, “where old ships go to die.”)
So this is what I’ve got. A tally of things made and done on the river, and some black-and-white pictures of ships—and me, trying to piece together from them a story of working bodies, of my mother and the river.
The Monongahela people lived in the valley for six hundred years. They grew corn and beans, and while they may never have had direct contact with Europeans, the disappearance of the Monongahela people could have been the result of contact with European diseases. Other explanations include war and drought. The author of The Navigator describes coming across “curious carving on rocks…some bearing the shape of a man’s foot, a horse’s foot, a hand, head, a turkey, a fish, birds, beasts, &c.” He recounts the belief held by some that the household items, pots, and art couldn’t have been made by native people but must have been the artifacts of ancient Europeans, a long-lost colony from Wales—though it should be said that he, the author of The Navigator, does not put much stock in the idea.
The river’s name as I know it comes from a Lenape word, Mënaonkihëla, meaning “crumbling banks.” On the Lenape Language Preservation Project’s Talking Dictionary site, I listen to a native speaker say the river’s name, with an emphasis on the third syllable, making the word sound like the river herself, pulled through the land.
Though I am your daughter, I am also your good son. As you are my mother and father both.
Painters have a way of talking—a clipped, matter-of-fact reporting on process, pragmatic talk of color and light. A few years ago, I read Celia Paul’s Self-Portrait, in part because I was curious about her affair with Lucian Freud, but also because, for three decades, Paul most often painted her mother. In this way I felt a kinship, for while not directly the subject of my work, my mother is always present, the person I carry with me into my sentences.
Celia Paul’s mother sat for her daughter from the beginning of Paul’s career until her mother’s death, after which Paul painted a portrait of her sisters in grief. There are many pictures of her mother alone and with other people, looking at her daughter and looking away. But it is the portrait of her mother as Saint Brigid asleep on the moors, her hand drawn to her collar and the dark hills rising behind, that I return to, perhaps because it is a picture of loss, Paul’s father having died as the painting was made. The story of Saint Brigid, of giving a blind woman sight if only for a moment, moved Paul, for in that moment, Paul writes, the woman beheld a sight so beautiful—“fields and cattle grazing”—she knew it would last her a lifetime. In Paul’s version, it is Saint Brigid who experiences the miracle. “My mother is dreaming up her own protective world,” she writes. “She is the spirit of nature.”
“Painting is the language of loss. The scraping off of layers of paint, again and again, the rebuilding, the losing again. Hoping, then despairing, then hoping. Can you control your feelings of loss by this process of painting, which is fundamentally structured by loss?”
The winter of my mother’s surgery, I return to the study of light. Attending to the way the sky colors the water, I notice how it deepens the river’s blue one day, and then pulls up a rich olive green on another. On the winter solstice, a day with only nine hours and sixteen minutes of light and a sky that is resolutely overcast, I learn that there are three twilights: civil, nautical, and astronomical. That in civil we turn on our headlights, while in nautical sailors navigate by both the horizon and the stars; that in astronomical twilight, we can see the farthest stars detectable by human eyes.
On the far shore at the river, an old mill building that has been given a new roof, its steel bones decked out in solar panels, fades from view. The horizon is still visible and even with the light from the city, I see a few stars blinking on.
My mother wakes in the ICU, amazed by what I do not know. My god, she says.
For the next week, I arrive to the hospital early and leave late, driving her beat-up Fit back to her house in Capitol Hill to feed the cat and watch TV before catching a few hours of sleep. The hospital where my mother is in the ICU is the same one she worked at for twenty-five years, and though I sleep in the spare bedroom when I visit at Christmas or on her birthday in May, this week I sleep in her bed, a magic spell I cast hoping to keep her safe.
In the room next to my mother in the ICU is a man naked in bed. Nurses and doctors step into paper suits and put on respirators to enter, and there are often two people sitting in the hallway outside the man’s room drinking cafeteria coffee and keeping vigil. Early on in the pandemic, as hospitals filled with people drowning in their beds, it was discovered that COVID-19 patients fared better on their stomachs, as this gave them more room to breathe. And though I try not to look at the man as I enter and leave my mother’s room, I glimpse the soft curve of his buttocks one morning, his legs dappled with dark hair, the sheets rumpled as if he is merely a restless sleeper, Celia Paul’s mother on the moors.
I wonder if my own mother has been dreaming. We talk of bardos, and I ask her if she still dreams of drowning. She’s in and out of consciousness then, and I can see her traveling between worlds, not always sure she wants to return to this one. In the dream, which she has recounted to me many times, she swims in the sea on a sunny day. The water is calm, the shore near, but then the sky darkens, and the waves kick up. The shore recedes, and she is carried out to sea. Yes, my mother says, she still dreams of drowning, only now the ocean is made of broken glass.
In The Tibetan Book of the Dead, I find instructions for the journey after death. Itincludes a series of verses read by a spiritual teacher or friend to the dying person just before and then after the cessation of breath, and before the soul, or energy, or whatever it is that animates us, has exited the body—“just about the time taken to eat a meal.” The trip from death to rebirth seems a lot like riding one of those rickety carts through the Kennywood haunted house, musty smell of cobwebs and old machinery, monsters jeering from the shadows. Then, at the end of a long corridor, bewildering apparitions appear. And so the verses offer comfort and encouragement by way of description: This is what you will see—but don’t be afraid; this happens to everyone, keep going!
When I return from Colorado in February, pale-blue porcelain berries hang in clusters on the fence. In September, the goldenrod and boneset were buzzing with bees, but now they are silent. Crows jangle in a gray sky. The sun arrives late and leaves early, dipping below the hills by late afternoon, and I sleep for ten, eleven, twelve hours each night, turning in bed like a hand turning on a table, knuckle to palm.
Queer people spring from the heads of gods, or from flowers. My friend Nathan was one of those people, as was his friend the painter, who made portraits of minor gods surrounded by four-petaled flowers and fish that swam in the sky. The suburbs disgorged these friends, and they caught rides to NYC and Denver, but I sprang from the flower of your body and grew up learning to be a queer person by your example. Which was of a woman who was also not, who applied makeup as if for the stage, and paid the bills, and occasionally took lovers, but who did not instruct me in the art of being a woman so much as the primacy of the body as a place where pleasure is found, and also a house of work. The women in our family have worked and worked and worked.
Recently, you told me that you never really understood being a woman. This, after I told you I no longer feel like one, or that finally, after all these years, I’m letting the idea go. That makes sense, you said, given who you are, who you always have been. In this way, a mother is also a lover. She knows her child and yet understands from the very first the fact of separation: I came out of your body and am made of it, and yet I have kept many secrets from you, as you have from me. It’s this mix of intimacy and mystery that carries us along, a deep curiosity and desire to reacquaint ourselves with one another again and again, and so fashion a queer family in our way.
A friend and I slip into the river from an old barge half-buried in the mud. The water is blue and smells of river weed and mud and fish. I don’t know how the barges got here (there are two), or who abandoned them or when, though many things have been dumped into this river or discarded on her shores. Hunks of glass surface with river bottom attached, slag poured a hundred years ago; in 1956, a B-25 bomber crashed into the Mon on New Year’s Eve and was never recovered. Trees grow out of the barges, as does dame’s rocket, Hesperis matronalis. Someone has even tied a rope to a high branch for swinging out wide; people come here to smoke dope and have sex (my friend and I surprise a couple in the flowers), but also just to cool off and be by the river. Not a particularly strong swimmer, I stay close to the hull, treading water and looking up at the trees, while my friend swims farther out.
We feel it before we see it. A barge pushing coal up the river, a deep vibration as marvelous as whale song.
I suppose magic is what I’m trying to write about—the magic of the river and of my mother, the magic with which I was raised and that I have carried with me into this other landscape, the magic that has found me here.
The first modern ordination of women priests in the Catholic Church happened on the Danube, where no diocese could be held accountable and punished, in 2002—though the seven women who were ordained, and those who followed in ceremonies on the St. Lawrence Seaway off the coast of Canada and the Bodensee outside of Germany, were subsequently excommunicated. As were the twelve women ordained as priests and deacons in the first such ceremony in the US, held at the confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers in Pittsburgh in 2006. “The ceremony opened with each woman bringing a vial of water from someplace special to her and mingling the waters in a bowl that would later be poured into the river.”
Three months after my mother’s surgery, we venture to the park near her house. We sit on a bench and look out at the manmade lake, cormorants, slippery as eels, diving for fish. Some days, they’re in the cottonwoods stretching their wings, but not today, and though they mostly come up empty, one slick black bird surfaces with a silver fish in its beak. It tosses back its head, and the fish disappears. My mother wears a lemon-colored sweatshirt, her face clear and direct. Is it the pain she’s suffered or the relief from it? The doctors say my mother is a marvel, her recovery a testament to her physical strength and remarkable for a woman her age. In a month, she’ll be walking halfway around the lake, and then all the way around. And when goldfinches alight in a stand of willows by the shore, my mother is filled with wonder. Oh, she says. But by then, the birds are already gone.
We were a different kind of working-class family—two kids and a single mother with a good job living paycheck to paycheck. We didn’t go to church, and we didn’t have a dog, though my mother did try to organize a nurse’s union in the seventies and caucused for Jesse Jackson, took in her children’s wayward friends, and regularly rescued cats from the local shelter. Like other single parents, her mode was work and magic. Magic in her white nurse’s uniform and the cap that she pinned to her hair, magic in how she disappeared each night and returned again every morning, in the whimsy that surfaced between bouts of exhaustion and worry, warning us at dinner one night that we might not have enough money for groceries, and in the morning making peace-sign-shaped pancakes or driving up Trail Ridge Road to watch the world fall away, threading the narrow path with nothing but sky on either side.
The devastated landscape, my mother’s devastated body. The conviction that work is meaningful, but also that work destroys bodies and pollutes the river, that work breaks us down. The people who made their fortunes in Pittsburgh, men like Carnegie and Frick, heroes to so many, thought of people like my mother and me, and of the land, as disposable, things to be used and discarded, people and a place from which they could walk away. Residents of Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh and parts of the Mon Valley where I live, “have a cancer risk more than twice—and in some cases twenty times—that of those living in surrounding rural areas,” according to a 2013 report. I think of LaToya Ruby Frazier’s diptych, a gutted Braddock hospital and her mother hooked up to tubes and wires; of the coal that continues to surface in my garden, the cats riddled with tumors, dead now, the autoimmune disease I have after twenty years living here. It does not surprise me to learn that Frazier, who developed lupus as a teenager, no longer does.
When my mother tells me she doesn’t know if she’ll survive this, by which she means her precipitous sense of loss, the surgery and aging and her body breaking down, I want to perform the miracle of sight, to make her see the white birds I saw in New Orleans, hanging like lanterns in a tree, or to love the color of the rivers back East, as I do, or the rain, or to believe that having seen wildflowers in a meadow once is enough. Then we are at the lake again having a picnic of sandwiches and blueberry pie, and after, we walk onto the dock. It’s sunset, purple martins darting through the sky, daredevils grazing the surface of the water. The air is filled with their chatter and the lake sparkles, and on a small island there are white egrets in the trees.
The summer after it was released, we saw Saturday Night Fever twice, and each time my mother baked a lemon meringue pie. We drove through the foothills past the strip club, and she backed the camper in and hung the metal speaker from the window, then opened the hatch so we could watch the movie propped on our elbows in bed. What I remember isn’t watching the movie, but watching her—after the opening scene, after Tony Manero’s shoes keeping time to “Stayin’ Alive” once we’d arrived at the Odyssey with its lit red floor. The sun was down by then, but I could see the mountains, and I could see my mother in her jeans and T-shirt, the soft outline of her department-store perm, Tony and his crew on the screen behind her, and she was happy, dancing in the gravel lot.
A few weeks ago, I visited the Carnegie Museum to see an exhibit on art and work. It included Movin’ On Along: Barge and Towboat Ballet, a short film by Mierle Ukeles in which barges do indeed dance. Commissioned by the Three Rivers Arts Festival in 1992, Ukeles worked with the Mon Towing Company to choreograph three barges, and with retired steel workers to choreograph a demonstration down at the Point. In act one, barges filled with recycled glass, aluminum, and steel execute moves like the “Donut” and “Half Donut,” the “Crisscross” and “Flop a Barge” (“an extremely dramatic maneuver”), and in act two, while the barges continue their slow-motion dance, people hold up signs that on one side call for “National Health Insurance Now!” and on the other make, in Ukeles’s words, “short poetic demands”: “Recycle Glass!” “Recycle Steel!” “Recycle Wisdom!” “Recycle Dreams!”
In Movin’ On Along, Ukeles is attentive to work, summoning the rivers’ industrial past while looking toward their reclamation and renewal:
I created two shapes for two of the barges: a sixty-ton recycled-glass mound in the shape of a diamond to signify value, and a ziggurat construction of eighty bales of flattened recycled steel and aluminum cans as a symbol of structures of elemental power….
I also wanted to honor the old-time steel workers who had worked in mills around Pittsburgh all their lives. The quality of the steel produced here had always been linked to the quality work of this highly skilled labor force. Yet after the industry largely tanked, the skies went dark, no longer lit up day and night by gigantic fiery furnaces powered by the workers’ endless toil. Many companies went bankrupt and abandoned their workers, many of whom had chronic steel-related diseases and injuries. They were left high and dry with no health insurance and were mad as hell.
Watching the dance, the barges’ slow-motion turns and lumbering pas de deux, I laughed at the gorgeous absurdity of it all, the tugboats piloted with enormous skill nudging 135-foot-long barges, executing difficult and dangerous feats that were, in the end, just beautiful.
History is still here, in the mills and their wreckages, in the steel bridges spanning the Monongahela, in the trains and the barges carrying coal, in my mother’s spine collapsed and repaired, all of it holding for now.
You said something once about the color of the rivers out East, and it’s true—they’re not blue like the sky in Colorado, or, for that matter, blue like the ocean, which you love; some days they’re green and brown, and though blue might slip in, it’s always tempered, as the skies in Pittsburgh always are by clouds. When a painter asked me what I love about John Kane’s landscapes, I told her I think maybe it’s the clouds. Maybe it’s the way they float over the Earth but also break up the sky, the way they sit on the land like a lid. Childe Hassam’s pictures of the New Hampshire coast do that too, so I suppose the sky in Colorado is too much for me sometimes, too bright and beautiful and blue, but maybe that’s not right. Maybe it’s just that I love both, and that when I’m under one kind of sky, I long for the other. Or perhaps it’s that we carry these other places within us, what Camille T. Dungy calls “ghost landscapes,” that we apprehend what might have disappeared and what still lives alongside us.
In pictures of the Monongahela at the turn of the last century, the shoreline blasted by machinery and pollution, most of the trees are dead, and the hills are mud. Yet in an essay by Edward K. Muller, I find quick mention of what was here before: sycamore, silver maple, slippery elm, and black willow trees. From where I stand, the slippery elm and black willow seem all but gone, yet the sycamore and silver maple have returned, and while birds and animals and the wind surely contributed to refurbishing the once-barren earth, I imagine some seeds just hunkered down and waited until it was safe to grow.
I think of a 1910 map of Pittsburgh’s waterlines marked in blue, and of Pittsburgh’s “fourth river,” an underground aquifer that supplies water to the fountain at the Point and to some city residents like me. The blue on the map isn’t a color you’ll find in any river here, but that doesn’t really matter. Nobody loves the Mon, a friend who grew up in Pittsburgh says when I tell her I’m writing about the river. Stand on the old cement pier and look down into the muddy Monongahela. A few miles downstream from where I sit on the pier in summer she ends just as she began, at a confluence, her green and brown waters merging with the Allegheny’s blue to become the mighty Ohio. But here, where we are, she’s still the color of stone, and there are people swimming off the prows of pleasure boats and jumping into her warm water from the hull of an abandoned barge, while above, vultures stitch the sky. The coal barges are on the river too. We’re all here, I guess you could say, working with what we’ve got, making what we can out of the wreckage—some days forgetting all that and just taking in the sky and the water.