SI Vault
THE OLD SWIMMIN'-HOLE James Whitcomb Riley—1883
Bil Gilbert
October 21, 1968
Oh! the old swimmin'-hole! whare thecrick so still and deepLooked like a baby-river that waslaying half asleep,And the gurgle of the worter roundthe drift jest belowSounded like the laugh of somethingwe onc't ust to knowBefore we could remember anythingbut the eyesOf the angels lookin' out as we leftParadise;But the merry days of youth is beyondour controle,And it's hard to part ferever with theOld Swimmin'-hole.
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October 21, 1968

The Old Swimmin'-hole James Whitcomb Riley—1883

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To the east of Riley Park is found the only substantial source of industrial pollution, a plastic coating works that is a branch of Arvin Industries. Formerly, enough acid waste from this factory flowed into the stream to kill fish. Acid is still flowing but at a slower rate. The biological effects of the acid that remains are unknown, but they are not obviously fatal to any visible sort of wildlife. Directly above the slaughterhouse there is a small dam across the creek, and along the banks of the created impoundment there is a development community of 30 or 40 mobile homes. Such clusters of new houses, mobile and otherwise, small, square boxes of the sort that bug folk singers, sit on small, square lots throughout the Brandywine Valley. Many of the owners are Indianapolis commuters, and there are apparently more of them coming. A mile above town a streamside swamp is being cleared, filled and subdivided. At the very end of the Brandywine on one side of the marshy quarter section in which the stream rises, Clark and Rozell of Wilkinson, Ind. are offering lots for sale and two new houses are now being built.

A family living in the country creates as much waste as a city one but must dispose of it privately, there being no sewer mains. The usual practice is to put in a septic tank, which holds the solid wastes and spreads the liquid matter over a large enough area so that it is not obvious or objectionable in any one place. Sewage from septic tanks (and for that matter any other system) does not disappear. It becomes part of the soil and eventually some of it enters the natural drainage system, the main artery of which in this area is Brandywine Creek.

The Brandywine Valley is low with very little pitch; the soil is heavy. Drainage is a general problem, much of the land having once been almost a swamp. Some of it still is. In consequence, it is a benign environment for mosquitoes. In years past southern Indiana was malarial. Now, for the sake of health and comfort, insecticides are sprayed over the marshes either by public employees, as is the case in Greenfield city, or by private landowners in the rural areas. One feature of insecticides is their residual durability. The poisons do not break down quickly. All of the spray eventually comes back to earth, some directly, some after having passed through animals. This waste product enters the drainage system in considerable amounts, too.

There is also a somewhat special related phenomenon in the area. The city of Greenfield has put in a new incinerator, replacing its old garbage dump located on the Brandywine. Last summer the original dump teemed with rats. "They're getting hungry, restless," Wilson explained. "So now they're beginning to move up the stream through those weeds and junk, looking for food and runs. We've bought $400 worth of poison. We're going to saturate the area. The poison kills the rats but only makes dogs and cats vomit. Next Wednesday a federal pest-control man is coming down from Purdue University to demonstrate the proper use of the stuff." The rats will die in the Brandywine.

The major crossing over the creek is that of new Interstate Highway 70 that bypasses Greenfield on the north. This divided freeway has. only recently been completed, and the road cut at the Brandywine bridge is still raw, a good source of silt. The other bridges are very small ones, carrying county roads across the stream, but each crossing, of whatever size, constitutes a kind of artificial tributary. Highway ditches carry runoff from feedlots, topsoil, agricultural fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides. Automotive wastes—grease, gasoline, exhaust—drop or settle into the water at the bridges. Also the bridge clearings are obvious places for fishing, throwing bottles and other items or for making love, all of which are activities that contribute to the contents of the creek.

There is, in the end, no method, no instruments of analysis sufficiently sensitive to determine precisely the composition of the compound that flows down the Brandywine into the Old Swimmin'-Hole. Generally, incompletely, however, it is a mix of water, silt, human, animal and industrial wastes, highway drippings, fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, soluble garbage, insoluble trash, dead rats and live bacteria. Give or take a pinch of this and a jigger of that, this is the sort of broth that is the stock solution of most of the rivers, lakes and estuaries of America.

In Greenfield nobody denies that Brandywine Creek is a mess. A few don't deny it because they know it is a mess. The great majority don't deny it because they haven't had occasion to look at the creek in some years. If a stranger shows up and says the creek is full of junk and poison, they are inclined to believe him, knowing how it is with water everywhere these days.

This would seem to be a sneaky, snotty way of saying that, contamination-wise, the people of Greenfield are placid, ignorant copouts. This is not the inference intended, though. Sewage, poisonous water and garbage disposal are about as natural and attractive subjects for casual conversation and speculation in Greenfield as any place else—that is, they are unnatural, unattractive subjects. Also, there are probably as many people in Greenfield, as in any other city, who amuse themselves by walking along creeks counting tin cans—which is very few citizens.

"I haven't been down there in years," says Alta Murdock, who operates a motel on Route 40 several hundred yards east of the Brandy wine, "but if it is unsightly with trash laying around, that certainly is not a good thing for the reputation of the town, considering that it is an old historical landmark. Closing down the stream for swimming was probably a good thing. The children have that pool in the park and that is made for swimming. There is really no reason why they should have to use the creek."

A Mrs. McCorkle, who was on hostess duty at the old Riley home, said, "I suppose it is not very clean, but all that publicity about how dirty the poet's old swimming hole is, is embarrassing. It's natural to want to keep that kind of thing to yourself, don't you think? Actually, I suppose there is not a whole lot that can be done about the real pollution. You know, we have already spent more than a million dollars on a new sewage plant. But, if there are tires and cans and things like that in the creek, we certainly should take action. You know, it is always women who have to take action in beautification and things like that. The summer is a bad time with everyone vacationing, but I am sure in the fall, when we get back together, the women's clubs are going to be asking some questions of the city fathers about the creek. If we don't get answers, maybe we should see if we can get some new city fathers."

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