mad in pursuit journal


Age of Exuberant Engineering

[>>>Midwest trip continued]

at Alton LocksI'm turning into a Green Earth person and was alarmed at a recent National Geographic article shedding light on how the mighty Mississippi has, in so many ways, become a sewer draining all that is wrong with America. Its pollution has caused a huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. And New Orleans taught us what a screw-up the Army Corps of Engineers is, right?

Missisippi River at Keokuk IowaSo I have a confession. As we traveled up the Mississippi and then along the Great Lakes, I loved the scenic views but what really excited me were the locks and dams and railroads and grain elevators and big combine harvesters for processing the miles of feed corn and soy beans.

What an American story.

A cynic might say, sure, manipulating and abusing our waterways like a pimp abuses his whores tells the story of American greed. Granted. But what I also see is energy and genius.

along Lake MichiganIn the early days America was endless -- no boundaries, no limits. But as we planted our grain and corralled our cattle, the question became "how do we bring this bounty to market?" And so our forefathers figured it out. As we drove along I began thinking about the bygone Age of Exuberant Engineering in America. We had product. We had grand ideas. We had muscle. We made things work. Mother Nature opened herself up to our innovations.

The combine harvester separated grain from useless cellulose in a single operation. Railroads were built. Grain elevators collected the harvest. Over the course of a century, the Upper Mississippi River was dredged and channeled by the Army Corps of Engineers till the building of the ambitious "9-foot channel" system of locks and dams that guaranteed passage for barge traffic. Wow.

Oh, sure, I know the lyrics to "Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime?" and last night we watched "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940). Our genius is matched only by our ignorance of the consequences. Our big ideas are matched only by our greed. We overdid it. We have poisoned the rivers. Markets have crashed. Bridges and levees have collapsed. Grain elevators sit empty. China is the limitless, muscular titan of 2007.

Jim at shore of Lake MichiganI wonder how we can restore ourselves. Interesting that in Iowa and Wisconsin gasoline at the pump contains up to 10% ethanol. The prospects are getting people excited again about bringing a new American product to market. I hope our best minds can pull themselves away from designing video games and get to work on America again.

9.17.07 [continued>>>]

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Contemporary exuberance in engineering from Maya Lin, commissioned by a group of Northwest Native American tribes for the Confluence Project along the Columbia River, commemorating the Lewis & Clark Expedition.