Sunday, January 18, 2009

"Cuyahoga" - R.E.M., indie rock (1986)

Let's put our heads together and start a new country up
Our father's father's father tried, erased the parts he didn't like
Let's try to fill it in, bank the quarry river, swim
We knee-skinned it you and me, we knee-skinned that river red

This is where we walked, this is where we swam
Take a picture here, take a souvenir

This land is the land of ours, this river runs red over it
We knee-skinned it you and me, we knee-skinned that river red
And we gathered up our friends, bank the quarry river, swim
We knee-skinned it you and me, underneath the river bed

Cuyahoga, gone
Let's put our heads together, start a new country up,
Underneath the river bed we burned the river down
This is where they walked, swam, hunted, danced and sang,
Take a picture here, take a souvenir

Rewrite the book and rule the pages, saving face, secured in faith
Bury, burn the waste behind you

This land is the land of ours, this river runs red over it
We are not your allies, we can not defend

R.E.M. always prided themselves on their lyrical ambiguity. After all, they were one of the first alternative bands to break into the mainstream, and of course, when the "squares" start listening to your music, you're about done. Michael Stipe and his crew often threw historical references (which had nothing to do with anything) into their songs in a deliberate attempt to create ambiguity and confusion. It was all part of R.E.M.'s was their "cool". This song (and a few others) was an exception to that rule of cool, not to mention that the subject for this song is practically in my backyard.

If you visit Ohio, you'll find that many places and geographical features have very strange and difficult-to-pronounce names. Historically, the area was home to the Iroquois Indian tribes, and many of our geographic names reflect their language. "Cuyahoga" in Iroquois means "crooked river". The Cuyahoga River was aptly named by the Iroquois to reflect the river's course. The river played a prominent role in both the civilization of the Iroquois and the white settlers who came here later. The Cuyahoga is one of the most important rivers in the Midwest both politically and environmentally.

In 1795, it became the western boundary of the United States under the Treaty of Greenville. In 1796, a surveyor named Moses Cleveland arrived at the mouth of the Cuyahoga, where it emptied into a vast inland sea. This sea is what we now call Lake Erie, and the settlement became Cleveland, Ohio (aka the U.S.'s "North Coast"). The Cuyahoga River's flow into Lake Erie made Cleveland an excellent place to set up shop. Lake Erie, as you may or may not know (but will shortly) has direct access to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence Seaway. It also has direct access to the other four Great Lakes. This situation makes the sale of distribution of goods quite convenient, and the city continued to grow. Today, the city of Cleveland is the 33rd largest city in the U.S. and in a 2005 study conducted by The Economist, participants rated Cleveland, Ohio THE BEST livable city in the U.S. (along with Pittsburgh) and THE BEST place in the U.S. to have a business meeting.

The city has long been known as a hub of manufacturing. Business has always boomed for Cleveland, thanks to the Cuyahoga. However, the city wasn't the only thing that ever boomed. Many times, the river itself went "boom". Since 1796, many factories discovered that the water from the river was extremely useful to their manufacture of various products. Many used the river to provide hydro-electric power or as a coolant. As benign as these uses were, during the explosion of the Industrial Revolution, industry's use of the river became not-so-innocent. Many companies were using the river in which to discard various waste materials. Between 1936 and the 1960s, the Cuyahoga's water became so foul polluted, that it actually caught fire several times. Usually we are taught that fire and water don't coexist together, but the Cuyahoga proved that completely wrong.

Besides business of all kinds, there are many boats along the river: passenger boats, bay cruisers, small shipping vessels, etc. It's not only the great deal of water traffic or molten iron ore from the steel mills that spark a fire. One of the most beautiful sights a traveler will see when entering the Cleveland area (especially at night), are the bridges. "The Flats" (what we locals call the lower river bank areas) are a spectacular sight because they are riddled with railroad trestle bridges that span the river at various points. At night, each of these bridges is lit up a different color. These bridges are still very much functional. The river water, itself, catches fire when enough oil, debris, and other combustible and flammable contaminants are dumped. These hazardous materials are not as dense as the water, and so they float. Any spark is enough to raise blazes that did thousands of dollars in damage up and down the river's banks. Because of the sheer size, length, and breadth of the river, and thanks to the high volume of manufacturing mills along the banks, it is unclear what exactly started these fires; however, these flames could be sparked by anything from sparks from a rail of an over passing train to something as simple as an impact wrench or welding/cutting torch.

1969, though, was the final straw. Time Magazine covered the story and had this to say:

Some River! Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows. "Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown," Cleveland's citizens joke grimly. "He decays". . . The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration dryly notes: "The lower Cuyahoga has no visible signs of life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes." It is also -- literally -- a fire hazard.

The Cuyahoga came to such a dire straits due to the complete lack of government authority and control over the business and industrial industry. It was during a boom period of American history, and as such, at the time we didn't quite know how to handle such growth. The government, however, was quick to take action. The deplorable condition of the water helped give rise to the Environmental Movement. Thanks to the faults of the business along the Cuyahoga River, in 1972 Congress enacted the Clean Water Act of 1972.

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"Cuyahoga" - R.E.M., 1986

~info from my own head & from surfing the net and finding such places as:

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