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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"Have we had occasion to enforce them? Not to my recollection. You can't put a gun to a man's head over something like this. You've got to be flexible, work it out. If a man is going to raise hogs, he has to put them somewhere.

"I live on Sugar Creek. Years ago I swam there. Last summer my little grandson was swimming in Sugar Creek and he got a real bad infection. He can't swim there anymore, which is too bad, but I can't truthfully suggest what county government alone can do about it. It's a general condition. Here is an example. There is a farm I know that for years was a one-family place. Now it has been subdivided into little lots, and there are 16 families living in their own homes on the place. So just there alone we have 16 times more problems than we used to, and I can't say sanitation is the most urgent one. We have to consider schools, roads, protection. Maybe we would all be better off if we lived like we did 50 years ago, but we can't. So we have to put up with the way things are now, which means you are not going to swim in the Brandywine or Sugar creeks. It is too bad but it is not exactly the end of the world."

So there is a common refrain in the responses of Commissioner Bullman, Mayor Hurley, Sanitarian Wilson, Editor Spencer, Mrs. McCorkle and others. It is: "It's not my fault." Now, again according to literary and intellectual convention, this observation should serve as a metaphysical launching pad for a burst of purple conservationist prose that would illuminate the rotten truth—that it is their fault—that they and a lot of the rest of us are guilty as hell of poisoning the land. However, on the whole, the commissioner, mayor, sanitarian, all of them may make more sense than the customary purple prose. At the tightest technical level it is not their fault, because the American system of government is based on the principle that it is the inalienable right of any public officeholder to have a place where he can pass the buck.

In a larger way (and now we return to the mythic-bigger-than-the-Hudson Brandywine) colloforms in the water, poison on the land and smog in the air are not even the fault of the system, much less anyone operating within it. It is true that you can name numerous, apparently malicious wrongdoers: slobbish litterbugs stopping springs with bologna sandwiches; venal pesticide pushers; smutty auto lobbyists telling people that, while exhaust fumes may not actually be good for them, they are necessary; and corrupt politicians who permit all this to go on. But these folks are essentially social psychopaths, probably no more numerous or important than congenital kleptomaniacs.

Pathological nest foulers may make an attractive target for beautifiers, cleaner-uppers and sweeteners of the land, but their total influence is trivial. If they were all disposed of tomorrow in some human landfill, the Brandywine, real and mythical, would not again be what it was in James Whitcomb Riley's day. It would not be, because between 1883 and now more of us than ever before have used the land harder than any land has ever been used before.

People riding along Interstate 70, coating things with plastic, building suburban houses, raising pigs, slaughtering pigs, growing beans, keeping bugs from eating up the beans, killing mosquitoes, making garbage, answering nature's call are not, under any sane, compassionate system of philosophy, ethics, morality, guilty of anything but living. The land is poisoned with use, and daily becomes more foul because of use.

So what—so what do you do? So in the short run, when the Brandywine begins to stink, the thing called for in the name of sweet, temporary self-preservation is a bigger and better sewage system and adjuncts thereto. But in the long run that may be trivial.

Because I am an ecologist and an optimist, and because it is a notion that had occurred to me previously, I liked Dick Wilson's figure about "too many animals in too small a pen." Like every other species, we live by using the environment. We will use it as long as we are able to, as hard as we can. Then we will have to leave when we have used up our place of living. If there is no place else to go, by reason of everything else having been also used up, then, to put it euphemistically, a lot of us will have to stop using the land. When this happens, when the pressure to use the land is relaxed, the land will come back, be purified, become suitable for new use—the "worters" will gurgle again. If one is sufficiently optimistic, the whole matter can simply be regarded as one of life and death.

Oh! the old swimmin'-hole! When I
last saw the place,
The scenes was all changed, like the
change in my face;
The bridge of the railroad now crosses
the spot
Whare the old divin'-log lays sunk and
And I stray down the banks whare the
trees ust to be—
But never again will theyr shade
shelter me!
And I wish in my sorrow I could strip
to the soul,
And dive off in my grave like the old

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