The participants arrive at Bucknell on Sunday afternoon and head to The Fence, a local restaurant just on the other side of the Susquehanna River, about two miles from campus.
The participants, professors, and their families enjoy dinner with a lovely westward view of the Susquehanna River.
After dinner, the participants returned to campus to watch Looking to the River, a PBS documentary about the Susquehanna River. The students are asked write a journal entry, following this prompt: What is your response to the Looking to the River film? What did you learn about the Susquehanna River and region? How might you use this information to begin to formulate your portfolio? What is your personal interest in the river and region? Here are their responses:
Considering it was only an hour long, I thought “Looking to the River” contained a lot of information, sometimes confusingly organized, but overall very interesting. I guess my typical reaction to a documentary of this nature is, “Oh boy, this is going to be trite and boring,” but actually being slightly familiar with the area helped the string of facts echo more deeply.
I found three things particularly interesting during the film: the ancient history of the Susquehanna river, its human history, and its environmental history. To me, rivers seem very immediate, the complete opposite of the ocean. While the ocean seems to lap in and out of a timeless source, a river just flows through this moment. A moment on a river is very “now,” not cyclically blank like an ocean can seem. However, the film pointed out that, seen over a larger timescale (300 million years), the Susquehanna river has torn and shaped the land around it, making its movement through its valley intrinsic to the landscape.
I also found the many events which have marked the Susquehanna's life noteworthy, particularly the Three Mile Island incident. I actually had no idea that it occurred around here, never having heard the story of Three Mile Island in any detail. I didn't know about the January 1959 flood which helped end the mining industry in the region, or flood Agnes in 1978. And although I knew Williamsport was once very rich, and now wasn't (having seen the decay of the houses on Millionaire's Row), I didn't know the wealth came from foresting. The film did a particularly good job illustrating how forested Pennsylvania once was, and how shockingly the forests were depleted. Human development has boggled my mind since I was a kid – just thinking about all the labor that went into making and maintaining our roads is overwhelming. The time, energy and resources required to carve Western-style human spaces out of the wilderness amazes me. I have difficulty separating the landscape of the city from what is “natural,” and understanding that even towns as small as Lewisburg stand because they carved a space out of whatever natural landscape existed here before. The photographs of forests of wood cut and lain flat against the ground helped me to visualize this transformation. Finally, I dimly knew of the pollution in the area, but didn't know many details. I was particularly surprised to hear that acid rain, a problem which sounds so exotic, occurs along the Susquehanna.
In terms of the Writers Institute, I think this film has helped begin the process of adding a solid sense of history to whatever I will write about the region. In reading Blue Highways, I have been shocked by the level of historical detail William Least Heat-Moon has included, even for the smallest of towns. I have wondered if he knew this information before he set out on his journey, discovered it on his way, or read of it afterwards. It seems unlikely to me that he would have been able to experience each town as deeply as he did if he did not already have some understanding of the area – and the only way to understand a town is to know where it comes from. Personally, I can relate this to my work as a journalist for my local newspaper. Because I spent most of my life in Phoenixville, and know its history and the transformations it has undergone, I can understand why things that may seem insignificant to outsiders are so important to us, and need to be reported in particular detail. (For example, Phoenixville was home to Phoenix Steel, and pride in that history causes debates over whether or not we should purchase things manufactured with that old steel, such as a rusted ferris wheel.) I do not expect to know the history of every town on the Susquehanna within two weeks, but I feel I now understand some of the currents that shape how people think of the area, which can help me focus on particular aspects in my writing and research.
The film Looking to the River helped me gain a geographical understanding of the Susquehanna that had been missing from my sense of the region. In my mind, the river was one large, snaking jumble; I knew that it served as a huge energy source and I had some concept of its logging background, but I could make no distinction between the river’s branches or the corresponding localized industries. Thanks to the film, I now understand that there are north and west branches to the river, and that after the confluence of these branches, a main stem extends towards the south. I found the segregation of the logging to the west branch and the coal mining to the north branch interesting, and look forward to discovering the cultural impact of these localized industries. As workers began to settle around the river and those people already living around the river began to work, the respective industries must be reflected in unique ways throughout the small towns of the region. Being somewhat familiar with the area – at least enough to recognize town names and know their general location – I liked that the film gave landmarks as reference points. Williamsport on the west branch, Wilkes-Barre on the north branch, Sunbury at the confluence, and Lancaster and Harrisburg along the flat main stem; having these references allowed me to further sort out my mental concept of the Susquehanna. The river is no longer some hulking, mysterious trail, likely to pop up anywhere, on the outskirts of any old Pensy town. Its path and its roles are now fact instead of conjecture, and like its deceptively swift waters, the clearer ideas are carving deep.
The film stressed the river’s connection to the Chesapeake Bay – connection perhaps being an understatement, the latter actually being the final body of the former. I knew that the Susquehanna fed into the Chesapeake Bay, but there was a disconnect somewhere in my thinking. For some reason – a reason that one of the speakers in the video explained must plague Central and Northern Pennsylvanians when they fail to associate keeping their local stream waste-free with protecting “The Bay” – I assumed that water from the Susquehanna trickled into the Chesapeake in some indirect way, after having traversed other waterways and meandered through other country. I was wrong. The Chesapeake Bay is the grand emptying point of the Susquehanna, its permanently wet flood plain, the estuary uniting river and sea. With this realization I’m coming into a better understanding of the river’s larger implications. Movement, that inescapable, unrelenting force, is always at hand when dealing with this landscape. Containment is imagined, sought, attempted and failed. Harrisburg – one of the few settlements along the river to forgo flood walls and other river barriers. What does this say about their relationship with the water?
My interest in the greater Susquehanna landscape comes from my personal experience with the area. I’ve always been captivated by the land in a recreational sense – a nostalgic, comforting haze surrounds my past and continuing adventures in central PA – and that has fed an academic, historic, and literary interest that I hope to expand and hone at this institute. While working on a deep mapping project for Alf (Penns Creek was my landscape of choice), I found it so satisfying to connect my personal impressions of the waterway to sturdy historic roots, to characteristics that have been embedded into the landscape over time. To discover that my sense of the region was founded in something real, something that was long-marinating and felt by people outside of my own family, was both exciting and soothing. The people creating the landscape, the landscape creating the people – it made so much sense. Things I had felt for a long time I suddenly knew, and there was a difference. The film spoke of a divine providence shining through in the Susquehanna. I knew immediately what that meant, I’ve felt that glowing, spiritual love, and now I want to explore it through writing.
My family has two cabins in the area, one right on Penns Creek and the other atop a hill of farm land and forest. I’ve spent a lot of time fishing, tubing, eating, shooting, running, catching, mully-whomping and cricking, and I’ve got some stories that would make you laugh, cringe, and shake your head all at the same time. I’ve got a sense of the outskirts and backwoods worked out in my head and my heart, and I want to connect that to the vein of the Susquehanna.
I think it took about two years attending Bucknell University before I really came to realize that the Susquehanna River was in the backyard of our campus. I spent the summer after my sophomore year in Lewisburg, and I began for the first time to really interact with this area. Before then, most of my time spent in “Lewisburg” really did not venture far beyond the borders of the campus, except perhaps for occasional infrequent trips to the Freeze for ice cream. I often say that I fell in love with Lewisburg and the surrounding area that summer, and at a time when I was feeling more than dissatisfied with many aspects of Bucknell culture, it helped me to finally enjoy my time here. Though I only needed to travel about a half a mile or more outside of campus, experiencing downtown, driving Rt. 45, and walking along the river became the small escapes I desperately needed to help me fuse my college experience with some sense of the world outside what many call the “Bucknell bubble.”
But despite a growing personal relationship with the Susquehanna as a landmark in my experience of living in Lewisburg, I continue to lack an understanding of the river’s historical and cultural significance not only to this town, but to towns in the surrounding area and all throughout central and western Pennsylvania. The film was an excellent introduction to the story of the river in connection with the people, events, and other natural resources. For instance, I have a greater understanding of the area’s development, the river’s influence on surrounding economy and population growth, and its role in historical events like great floods (i.e. the Johnstown flood) and even the Civil War. In a short period of time (1 hour, 19 minutes, and 30 seconds to be more precise), I feel like my knowledge about the geographical and historical significance of the Susquehanna River has improved significantly to provide me with a general foundation upon which I can develop further reflections throughout the experiences to come during this writing workshop.
I was impressed by how well the creators of the documentary and the people they interviewed not only described historical and environmental facts about the river, but also showed how the river is relevant to widespread cultures, economies, and environmental issues throughout Pennsylvania. In other words, they covered the river’s impact in the past, but they also focused on its significance to the present and future. I think that, in order to understand and improve the way we live, the process of integrating experiences of the past and present with a sense of concern and responsibility for the future is essential. At the moment, I’m not entirely sure how all of this—a mixture of information from the film and my personal connections with the Susquehanna—will flesh out to form a coherent writing portfolio, but I think that as the week progresses, my seemingly random musings will find a way to come together naturally.
I confess: I’ve never really studied the Susquehanna before.
Watching Looking to the River last night, though, I had a strange sense of déjà vu. I’d picked up more than I’d previously thought, it seems. While background on the Eerie Canal’s less famous sequel or the problems caused by flooding was entirely new to me, other portions of the documentary were considerably more familiar.
If there was one thing third grade managed to hammer into my head, it was “Save the Bay.” I’ve lived in Maryland my whole life, and there was a big push in environmental awareness as I was going through elementary and middle school. All of those problems with nitrates and phosphates, sediment deposits, and low levels of oxygenation felt just like home. Of course, the complaint there was that lots of this runoff was coming from Pennsylvania and New Jersey where Maryland environmental laws didn’t apply, and this film took the more positive spin by saying “The Susquehanna is where the Chesapeake begins.”
Knowing that I’d soon have to develop a portfolio topic did something to focus my attention throughout the evening. My reactions to the documentary were largely screened through that filter. I perked up at the mention of petroglyphs, but the review in the film was sparse enough to make me think there wouldn’t be much material concerning them. The same thing happened when they brought up the mystery surrounding the river’s name. Both names and historical linguistics being rather hobbies of mine, the question easily sparked my interest. However, once again this seemed a narrow vein from which to mine an entire project. Pardon the metaphor—my mind seems stuck in an environmental groove.
Reading up on the Superfund sites is guaranteed to depress me and everyone with whom I share my research. I’ll save that as a topic of last resort.
I think that the single most interesting reoccurring theme had to do with the fact the Susquehanna isn’t navigable. I’d certainly never thought about it before, but it explains so much about the historical development of the region. I’m so used to the major rivers of American geography being available as arteries of trade and travel, I think I almost assumed that the Susquehanna would have once been equally available to deep-draft boats.
However, Harrisburg is not a port city, the way Baltimore is a port city. It never was. It makes me curious about the differences. It has me wondering: how would central PA be different if the Susquehanna had been a bit deeper? Not a question that can be definitively answered, of course, but in my experience those are the most intriguing.
When I stop to think about it, I’ve spent the better part of the last year minutes from the Susquehanna, but during the semester I saw it only a handful of times. It is beautiful, though. I should have made an effort, I think.
The documentary film Looking to the River was everything I expected it to be—historical, informative, and visually captivating in its portrayal of the Susquehanna River, a body of water that actually empties into the estuary known as the Chesapeake Bay. I never would have guessed that the Maryland blue crabs that I often enjoy eating during the summer are directly affected by the environment that surrounds me during the school year. Our actions affect people beyond our immediate living area. I also learned about the river’s significance in terms of hydroelectric energy, agriculture, and the economy, as well as its relationship to the Underground Railroad, coal mining, and the lumber industry.
As my dad and I drive by farmland, mountains, quaint little towns, and even a “trading post”, I can’t help but wonder about what existed before all of the highways, factories, universities, fast food chains, and billboards flooded the area. More importantly, who existed? It excites me to think that Native Americans and colonial soldiers could have walked through the very forests and fished in the very river that I have a chance to explore closely. I also found it interesting that Samuel Coleridge inspired visions of a utopia along the Susquehanna River. I would like to explore how the region has changed over the years:
What would Coleridge say if he saw the valley and river now or when all the lumber was depleted or during the Knox Mine disaster?
Is there a standard for what can be called “ideal”? What if I crafted a new sense of the
“Susquehanna utopia” in my poetry?
I also took down some interesting images and phrases that I could potentially use in my writing, like the collapse of the Knox Mine, boom rats, the river’s Y-shape, the ice caps, fish elevators, and petroglyphs.
During the course of the film, there was a plethora of important information that was conveyed to the viewer. The history of the Susquehanna River is much more vast that what one might think upon initial contemplation of the water body. The film did well in its attempts to summarize many of the more major experiences of the river in its correspondence with man and the ways in which man has used or abused and been effected by the river. There were several numerical figures and comparisons pertaining to the river and how it was used that aided in making an impact upon the viewer, causing one to become more invested in the experience as the level of one's understanding increased. Additionally, dedicating a large section of the film to the manner in which the Susquehanna River was used during the timber and coal mining booms showed both the greed of man and, at the same time, the strides that man as a collective has taken to try to take better care of the natural resources that he has found. Devices such as the fish elevators incorporated into the dams show how many corporations and attempting to strike a balance of harvesting energy for human consumption while ensuring that the ecological footprint upon the river is reduced, allowing for the continuation of many aspects of the river's nature.
As well as learning about the lengthy history of the river, I was struck by the scale of the river. I knew that the Susquehanna River was fairly large, but I had no true idea of the massive amount of water that it delivers into the Chesapeake Bay. The dependence upon the river during the time of the early European settles was also new to me. In this day and age, and American society, the concern for water is minimized due to the systems that were established before our time; however, settlers had to look for direct water sources, whether they be rivers, creeks or springs. The role the Susquehanna River played during the Civil War was also extremely interesting. Thinking upon the size and the extent of the river also allowed me to come to a greater realization of how much our society depends upon a resource we generally think as only for entertainment purposes. When we think of a river, many people think of swimming, boating, sport fishing, or other such activities. Most times we don't think of the gallons of the river that go to the growth of lettuce or the feeding of livestock. On average, a single person in the Susquehanna River area uses 185 gallons of the river's water just in the course of normal living, adding up to somewhere around 500 million gallons withdrawn from the Susquehanna River every single day. Personally, I find it difficult to believe in some regards, but upon reflection upon the interconnectedness and the resources that go into the objects with which I interact on a daily basis, it comes into a sharper focus.
There are many ways in which the information and ideas that were presented during the course of the film can be incorporated into the portfolio. One of my goals of the portfolio will be to try to present some of this information of how much we depend upon a resource to which we typically give little thought. Smog measures and recycling take up much of our concern because we can see them and the effect they have upon the environment around us. The state of the Susquehanna River, however, is too far removed from the majority of us for it to be on our minds as much as it should. This is perhaps one of the dangers of the level of technology we enjoy in the modern era, as with the ease of obtaining a resource, the less thought we give to it. Overall, I plan to construct my portfolio so that it would help to enlighten readers unfamiliar with the role of the Susquehanna River without necessarily pushing an agenda upon the reader; displaying the interconnectedness of so many seemingly disparate pieces might assist people to think more about how their actions affect other people and natural resources.
Honestly, my personal interest in the river and region, before this program, was basically limited to my proximity of the river. However, from what I have already learned, there is something more there, though I don't know if I can completely quantify it. Part of it can be attributed to a deeper realization that we are all tied to the land in some fashion, even though we no longer think that we are. People have the ability to move from one coast to another in the matter of a few hours, and with that knowledge, we tend to lose sight of how much the land still plays a role in our lives on a daily basis. Bottled water from a stream, a salad from the corner deli, the fuel pumped into the gas tank, all of it comes from the land, but we don't see it as plainly as the miners, derrick workers and lumberjacks. Our survival and well-being is entirely contingent upon the condition of the Earth, and if we all can take a greater personal interest, even with our local resources, the condition of the Earth has the potential to make great strides toward restoration. However, as the film showed, there can be a danger in focusing too precisely upon only the local area without paying due mind to the interconnectedness of other areas, as the movement to rescue the Chesapeake Bay somewhat alienated those people living along the northern and western portions of Susquehanna River. In generally, though, the more conscientious we are toward the resources upon which we depend and the area in which we live, the better both we and the Earth will co-exist. As an inhabitant of this area, I owe a great deal to the Susquehanna River.
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