Fighting Pollution And Apathy On The Lower Ohio, It’s Not Easy Being A Southern Indiana Waterkeeper Saturday, Dec 7 2019 

NEW ALBANY, Ind. — When Jason Flickner was a kid, he built a dam on the creek behind his grandparents’ house causing it to flood a neighbor’s basement.

When he tells the story now — at 45 and living in the same house — he says his dam was a violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

The story captures Flickner’s current situation: a life interwoven with the waters of southern Indiana and the house his grandfather built in this Ohio River town, intimate knowledge of one of the nation’s premier environmental laws, and a good plan going a little sideways.

Flickner is the executive director of the Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper, a nonprofit he started in 2017 to be the voice for the stretch of the Ohio that runs 300 miles from roughly Louisville, Kentucky, to Evansville, Indiana. He’s a career environmental advocate who doesn’t see many opportunities in that line of work in this part of the country.

He’s starting to think it’s time to walk away, but he feels bound to New Albany. Both his grandparents have died; the future of the estate is uncertain, and Flickner doesn’t want to let it go.

“I feel like not only am I walking away from the family homestead, I’m walking away from the fight that I’ve been putting up for 20 years,” Flickner said from his sitting room, lit through large windows covered in nose prints from his dogs, Willow and Murphy.

To him, building the nonprofit to where it can pay him $40,000 a year is his best chance to keep the house his grandfather built while fighting for a river that he feels called to protect from industrial and agricultural pollution. “I don’t want to give that up,” he said.

Dan Canon, a New Albany civil rights attorney and all-around progressive advocate, said Flickner has earned his environmental bonafides.

“As far as people that are really slugging it out for the conservation movement in southern Indiana, he really is at the top of the pyramid,” Canon said. “He would know more than probably anybody from here to Indianapolis about what that effort looks like.”

Photo by Jeff Brooks-Gillies/Environmental Health News

Jason Flickner watches his dogs run in the yard of his home in New Albany,
Indiana.

And he’s at home here. After saying goodbye to the dogs, Flickner drove through New Albany, smoke from his Winston cigarette rolling out the open window, giving a nonstop history lesson of the area: The glaciers that formed the hills (called “knobs”) folded up against the city’s west side, the exposed fossil beds at the Falls of the Ohio, the buffalo trace where millions of American bison once passed through while migrating between Kentucky and Illinois. This is the land that he knows.

But he’s broke.

He started that day with an overdraft notice on his personal checking account. The organization hasn’t raised enough to pay him a salary. He’s paying bills through side work and an inheritance. He said the organization had around $1,000 in mid-September, which had dwindled to $50 by late October. The way he sees it, he may need to head to the coast where environmental work is more plentiful unless his board agrees to help make a $100,000 fundraising push over the next year.

“We’re to that ‘do or die’ moment,” he said.

He’s not alone. Other red state Waterkeeper leaders — whose groups are all members of the national Waterkeeper Alliance — say they’re also struggling to grow. Progressive grassroots organizing isn’t impossible, but getting local buy-in can be tough. Waterkeeper’s mission of “holding polluters accountable” can mean suing companies in a state where “Indiana is open for business” is a catchphrase for elected officials. And in Flickner’s case, the Ohio River is so big and has been so polluted for so long, even like-minded people aren’t convinced they can make a difference, he said.

But they can, Flickner said, by paying him to pull the levers built into the Clean Water Act.

From The Outdoors To Door-To Door

Flickner was born in West Lafayette in north central Indiana and has had a bedroom in his grandparents’ house since fourth grade. His grandfather was an outdoorsman who raised beagle hounds, ran rabbits on horseback, hunted mushrooms and fished. He’d wake Flickner up on Saturdays at 4 a.m. to net minnows for the day’s fishing trip.

Flickner absorbed his grandfather’s outdoor ethos, preferring time in nature as long as he can remember. He’d go on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University with a specialization from its School of Public and Environmental Affairs, a well-ranked program in environmental policy.

His first advocacy job was canvassing, where he learned to talk quickly and connect with people.

It also gave him an early lesson in what it means to be a progressive activist in a conservative region. In 1998 in rural Indiana, a local sheriff who received complaints picked up Flickner and his canvassing partner and drove them to the county line. They nearly missed their van ride home.

“He actually took us to the jail before he took us to the county line” even though they weren’t breaking any laws, Flickner said. “He was big and he was mean and he had his hand on his gun the whole time.”

The canvasser in him still comes out. One mid-October afternoon, Flickner accepted a free bottle of water from a small group of young Christians spreading the word of God on the Big Four Bridge that connects the neighboring city of Jeffersonville with Louisville across the river. He delivered a five-minute spiel on Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper, handed out his business card and invited the missionaries to volunteer all before they could ask if he knew Jesus. (“I know Jesus very well,” he said.)

Photo by Jeff Brooks-Gillies/Environmental Health News

The house Jason Flickner’s grandparents built in the 1970s sits in the hills on
the west side of New Albany, Indiana.

He had been part of on-and-off talks with Waterkeeper Alliance, the national nonprofit that licenses local groups like Fickner’s, for years to start a Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper group, but the timing was never right. In 2017, having just left a full-time job based in Indianapolis and looking for a way to stay in New Albany with his aging mother in their family home, he said it was a necessity.

‘A conservation warrior’

This isn’t just a job for the sake of a job: The Ohio River is in trouble. Flickner often points out it is the most polluted river in the United States, a distinction the Ohio earned from reports of industrial discharge data that show it taking in, pound for pound, more commercial waste than the Mississippi River.

The waste includes nutrients and toxic heavy metals from coal plants and steel and chemical industries. Nutrients from agricultural runoff and sewer overflows are increasingly fueling harmful algal blooms. A toxic bloom covered 636 miles of the 981-mile river in 2015. Another bloom this year led Louisville Ironman organizers to cancel the Ohio River swim portion of the event. Environmental groups have also criticized the Ohio River Valley Water and Sanitation Commission, an interstate water quality agency known as ORSANCO, for not being tougher on mercury pollution from power plants and other sources.

Photo by Jeff Brooks-Gillies/Environmental Health News

Jason Flickner points out features of the Ohio River from the fossil
beds at the Falls of the Ohio State Park.

Flickner’s resumé looks tailor-made for this work. After canvassing, he learned the ins and outs of the Clean Water Act while challenging mountaintop removal mine permits with the Kentucky Waterways Alliance. He also fought ORSANCO for stronger pollution standards.

“I know him as a conservation warrior,” said Canon, the civil rights attorney. “If you start talking about conservation around here, his name’s gonna come up.”

And Flickner has already notched a win. In 2018, ORSANCO proposed eliminating its water quality standards for the river. Despite having nonprofit status for less than a year, Flickner appeared in multiple media reports criticizing the proposal, helped rally thousands of public comments and lobbied commissioners. The proposal was withdrawn, and the commission passed a weaker version months later.

Red State Struggles

Still, he wasn’t able to translate that publicity into a fundraising bump, he said. He hasn’t raised much money at all.

Part of the problem is his skillset: He’s always worked on the policy side and much less on development and isn’t sure how to cultivate large donors, which is work he says should be part of his board’s job. He’s also not entirely confident in his interpersonal skills.

“The way that I talk to people about this stuff, it turns people off because it’s just so despairing or it’s so overwhelming or it’s so complex,” he said.

He also said this kind of work is more difficult in historically red states like Indiana, and he’s not the only one who thinks that.

Since 2003, Rae Schnapp has been the Wabash Riverkeeper, which covers the watershed to the north of Flickner’s as part of the Waterkeeper Alliance. She said it’s still a struggle to grow, to recruit board members and volunteers. She said the national Waterkeeper group is getting better at supporting its individual member organizations, but they don’t provide funding. Member groups also pay a fee for the Waterkeeper name, which Schnapp said “might mean different things to different people.”

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental attorney carrying a name intrinsically tied to the Democratic Party, functions as the group’s figurehead, she said.

“That sets the tone for the whole organization, which does sometimes make it difficult in red states,” she said. “But hey, Indiana is a swing state now, so maybe it will be getting a little easier.”

Jessie Green, of the White River Waterkeeper in Arkansas, started her organization around the same time as Flickner, and they often commiserate about their struggles. She said she’s doing better than she was two years ago, having recruited around 200 members who give an annual donation. She’s even being paid some, though it’s less than she made in graduate school. She said she’s mostly working as a volunteer, which works for now because her husband makes enough to keep them afloat. But it’s not sustainable, she said.

“We’re in a red state. Environmentalist is almost a four-letter word in our area,” she said. “That’s definitely part of the struggle.”

But the problem for Flickner isn’t all party-line opposition to environmental causes. A person looking upstream from the pedestrian bridge where Flickner met the missionaries sees a 2,000-foot-wide river that winds back 600 miles to Pittsburgh through a century of industrial pollution and development. It’s easy to wonder: What could anyone possibly do about it?

Photo by Jeff Brooks-Gillies/Environmental Health News

Jason Flickner talks with a group of youth missionaries on the Big Four Bridge over the Ohio River.

“People know that it’s problematic,” Canon said. “People know that we should be doing more to keep the water clean. But the problem is so big for most of us that we don’t really stop to think about it in terms of what are the mechanics of actually making it happen.”

Flickner sees it similarly, often saying that people, regardless of their political affiliation, “wear blinders” to the problem because it feels too big. But the mechanics are clear to him: You sue.

“We’re not talking about population growth,” Flickner said, giving a common example of an intractable environmental problem. “We’re talking about a river where there are actual permits” issued by the state that can be challenged in court.

But to do that, he needs money (because litigation isn’t cheap) and members (to convince a judge his group has legal standing).

‘Something will come through’ 

Flickner is just as frustrated with the people who he knows agree with him on environmental issues. They tell him the work he’s doing is important, but they don’t donate. They complain about the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks, but they don’t give to causes that are fighting the effects.

The day he woke up to a checking overdraft, he said he blew up at two old friends who “commented in ignorance” in text messages about the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent weakening of the Waters of the United States rule, which defines the bodies of water that fall under federal jurisdiction. The next morning, he woke up to an email notice that one of the friends had set up a recurring annual $500 donation to Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper. He was grateful.

In the meantime, in the sitting room with the dog-licked windows, there’s a table with stuff from his grandparents’ house to sort through to see what he might be able to sell. There are also remnants of his grandparents’ turn as antique dealers — chairs, baskets — that aren’t family heirlooms and might get a good price from a local shop.

“I’ve been broke on and off like this my entire life,” he said. “Something will come through. Something always does.”

Jeff Brooks-Gillies, a freelance writer for Environmental Health News, authored this story. He can be reached at jeffgillies@gmail.com.

Good River: Stories of the Ohio is a series about the environment, economy, and culture of the Ohio River watershed, produced by seven nonprofit newsrooms. To see more, please visit ohiowatershed.org

Paddling 300 Miles To Protect The Waters Of Ohi:yo’, The ‘Good River’ Thursday, Nov 14 2019 

For degawëno:da’s, paddling the length of the Allegheny River over the course of four months this year was to be a “witness to the raw element of the natural world.”

The roughly 300-mile trip began on May 18 at the river’s headwaters near Coudersport, Pa., and ended on Sept. 21 by the Point State Park fountain in downtown Pittsburgh.

The 49-year-old New York resident is a member of Defend Ohi:yo’, a grassroots organization committed to protecting the Allegheny River and all waterways. “Ohi:yo’” translates to “good river” in the Seneca language.

The Allegheny and Monongahela rivers form the beginning of the Ohio River in Pittsburgh, and much of the Allegheny River flows within the Ohio River watershed.

Sometimes alone on legs of the journey, other times accompanied by fellow paddlers, degawëno:da’s said the trip was to call attention to the need for vigilance in protecting the region’s waters and to “give people an opportunity to acknowledge their natural surroundings.”

Along the river, degawëno:da’s saw not only beauty but also industrialization and, on many portions of the trip, he said he felt his ancestors traveling along as well. “I had a few instances where they revealed themselves in different ways.”

He hopes to follow up with many of the people he met along the journey, continuing to impress upon them the importance of protecting the waterway and advocating that it have the same rights to safety and well-being that humans have.

The video was produced by Ryan Loew, with additional footage from Nick Childers, for PublicSource. Loew can be reached at ryan@publicsource.org

Good River: Stories of the Ohio is a series about the environment, economy, and culture of the Ohio River watershed, produced by seven nonprofit newsrooms. To see more, please visit ohiowatershed.org.

Our Reporters Want To Hear Your Ohio River Questions Thursday, Nov 14 2019 

Text “OHIO” to 859-208-2408 to share with our seven-newsroom collaborative.

KyCIR is teaming up with six other news organizations to cover what might be the most under-appreciated water asset in the country: the Ohio River. The Ohio River provides drinking water for 5 million people, and it’s a thoroughfare of business, supporting jobs and communities. But it’s also among the most polluted rivers in the country.

The project “Good River: Stories of the Ohio” will delve into the past, present and future of this river and its region. We aim to inform and surprise you at the same time. Our journalism will share with you the beauty of the Ohio River and its watershed as well as the threats to water quality and wildlife.

You can help our coalition of seven newsrooms tell stories that envision a better future for the Ohio.

The project will launch Nov. 14, but you can start participating now!

Introducing, Good River texts. Here’s how it works:

  1. Text “OHIO” to 859-208-2408. (Note that standard message rates apply and you can opt out anytime by texting STOP.)
  2. Follow the prompts to introduce yourself to us.
  3. Share your story, tip, concern, question or photo with us.
  4. We’ll text you with questions and information in return. (You can opt out easily if you find you’re flooded with info.)
  5. Thanks!

The post Our Reporters Want To Hear Your Ohio River Questions appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Text Good River: Our Reporters Want To Hear Your Ohio River Stories And Concerns Friday, Nov 1 2019 

Text “OHIO” to 859-208-2408 to share with our seven-newsroom collaborative.

WFPL is teaming up with six other news organizations to cover what might be the most under-appreciated water asset in the country: the Ohio River. The Ohio River provides drinking water for five million people, and it’s a thoroughfare of business, supporting jobs and communities. But it’s also among the most polluted rivers in the country.

Alexandra Kanik | wfpl.org

The project “Good River: Stories of the Ohio” will delve into the past, present and future of this river and its region. We aim to inform and surprise you at the same time. Our journalism will share with you the beauty of the Ohio River and its watershed as well as the threats to water quality and wildlife.

You can help our coalition of seven newsrooms — PublicSource, Allegheny Front, 100 Days in Appalachia, Louisville Public Media, The Ohio Center for Investigative Journalism, Belt Magazine, and Environmental Health News — tell stories that envision a better future for the Ohio.

The project will launch Nov. 14, but you can start participating now!

Here’s how it works:

  1. Text “OHIO” to 859-208-2408. (Note that standard message rates apply and you can opt out anytime by texting STOP.)
  2. Follow the prompts to introduce yourself to us.
  3. Share your story, tip, concern, question or photo with us.
  4. We’ll text you with questions and information in return. (You can opt out easily if you find you’re flooded with info.)
  5. Thanks!

Toxic Algal Blooms Persist In Ohio River, But They’re In Decline Tuesday, Oct 22 2019 

Hundreds of miles of the Ohio River are still contaminated with unsafe levels of toxic blue-green algae, though seasonal changes have helped to improve conditions over the last week or so.

Drought conditions across the Ohio Valley in September helped fuel the growth of harmful algal blooms. The algae led organizers to cancel the Great Ohio River Swim in Cincinnati and the swimming portion of Louisville’s Iron Man competition earlier this month.

The blooms are appearing on about 265 miles of river from Louisville to Greenup, Kentucky. This is only the second time the river has had a large algal growth in the last two decades, said Sam Dinkins, technical program manager at the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission.

Back in 2015, an algal bloom expanded to cover more than 600 miles along the Ohio River, he said.

“This is certainly a noteworthy event, but it’s certainly not the worst we’ve seen along the Ohio,” Dinkins said.

ORSANCO

Blue-green algae can produce a toxin known as microcystin that’s harmful to the liver. When ingested or touched, the toxin can cause stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, numbness and other health effects. Pets are particularly vulnerable.

The algal blooms grow throughout the river, often appearing as green, paint-like scum on the water’s surface. The highest sample seen this year was greater than 5,000 micrograms per liter, taken on October 9 in Madison, Indiana.

That’s 625 times higher than the 8 microgram-per-liter recreational advisory threshold in Kentucky and Indiana. However, just a week later, levels at that same site were back below the advisory limit.

The improvements over the last week are driven largely by the changes in season. Shorter daylight hours, cooler temperatures and more rain have helped to restore the river, Dinkins said.

“A number of locations have dropped below the advisory levels now,” he said.

In other parts of the country, high levels of nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen in the watershed have helped to fuel the growth of toxic algae, but so far it’s unclear how nutrient loading has affected algal growth along the Ohio River, Dinkins said.

Climate scientists say the frequency of extreme weather events like droughts will become more common as the temperature rises. That in turn, could increase the frequency of harmful algal blooms.

Despite recent improvements, Dinkins recommended people and pets should avoid contact with water that has obvious algal blooms.

Read more about recreational advisories here.

Swim Portion Of Sunday’s Ironman Canceled Over Algae Blooms Friday, Oct 11 2019 

Part of a this weekend’s Ironman triathlon has been canceled over toxic algae blooms in the Ohio River.

News outlets report a statement by The Ironman Group says officials have determined after water testing that it is necessary to cancel the swim portion of Sunday’s 2019 Ironman Louisville for athlete safety.

Participants had been set to jump into waters near Towhead Island in Louisville before entering the Ohio River’s main channel.

The Kentucky Division of Water issued an advisory recently advising people to stay out of the river due to algal toxins. Officials said the advisory will remain in effect through at least Sunday.

Contact with the blooms could cause stomach pain, vomiting, nausea, difficulty breathing and other issues such as skin irritation and limb tingling.

Coal for Christmas…2018 Comes to an End Monday, Dec 31 2018 

Coal Barges trapped against the dam at the Falls of the Ohio State Park

Runaway coal barges on the upstream side of the dam at the Falls of the Ohio State Park.

What a poor excuse for a blogger I have turned out to be!  Just my second post of what has been an extremely active year which, however, is not ending on positive notes!  Just in from the news room…2018 was Louisville’s wettest year on record.  We are just over 69 inches (it is pouring now as I write this) of rain for the year breaking a record created in 2011.

That’s not that long ago and welcome to the new norm.  When I started my Artist at Exit 0 River Project, I was partly curious if could I “witness” climate change within the relatively small confines of this well understood park situated in my own backyard?  Certainly, the increased levels of precipitation over time point to this.  The Ohio River during 2018 had high water moments and February set a new all-time record for rainfall for that month.  The river had high water moments during July, September, and December a couple of times.  We have had monsoon-like storms that literally have dumped billions of gallons of water on our area.  Almost everything dealing with the weather is becoming an event.  The city is digging out a couple of massive stone catch basins for all the excessive rain water that overwhelms our sewer system with some of these storms.

The disaster currently playing out breaks my heart.  On Christmas day we all got coal for presents.  An upstream tow pushing 15 barges loaded with coal broke loose hitting our Second Street Bridge.  Of course, the river was way up and at least six of the barges have sunk releasing by a current estimate about 9000 tons of coal into the river!  There are still barges trapped against the dam (see above photo) This is an ongoing, unresolved situation and even more coal could end up in the water.  I will stop here with this, but 2019 will begin this way.

IMG_3120

Final Styro-figure group of 2018.

This is an image of my last figurative group of 2018.  The river has knocked them down now, but parts of them haven’t completely drifted away.  After the loss of my first absurd Styrofoam group of the year, subsequent high water events and vandalism prevented this from going much farther.  Much of the second half of 2018 was taken up in maintaining my various “plastic gardens” scattered throughout the park and skirting around encroaching waters.  This, however, has always been my main site which is easy to access and plentiful in terms of found materials.  At this site, I continued working with found flip-flops creating double spiral designs and meandering patterns dug into the sand.  I continued working with found cigarette lighters which remains this year’s medium for me.  I have estimated that I have picked up at least 800 spent cigarette lighters this year alone!  I continued to create and maintain other plastic assemblages from debris found in the park.  I have worked with found balls, soft drink bottles with questionable contents, and aluminum can bottoms which are the only part of the aluminum can that survives the river here and yes I have worked with coal too.  Rather than tell you…here are a few images to show you.

Found plastic assemblage in the western section of the park nestled in the root system of this wonderful tree.

IMG_9263

Found plastic assemblage created on site in the eastern section of the Falls of the Ohio State Park.

Found plastic assemble with purple jack-o-lantern in the western section of the Falls of the Ohio.

Last look at this plastic assemblage set up in the western section of the park. High water eventually took this piece down.

Double Spiral Found Flip-flop Arrangement

Found flip-flops were used to create this double spiral design.

Meandering pattern made with found flip-flops.

This piece eventually incorporated over 160 found flip-flops picked up in the park. Wiped out in early December.

Found Flip-flop piece at my outdoor atelier at the Falls of the Ohio

Final flip-flop piece before the river rearranged my studio site during late December.

Found cigarette lighters on a great pine stump.

A great pine stump was the site for this found lighter project.

Found lighter piece in discarded tire

Lots of sunken tires out here and they make good micro sites for projects.

Meandering found cigarette lighter design on found mattress

This mattress came in with the river and makes a good site for these found lighters.

Sunken tire and found soft drink bottle with contents piece

Found soft drink bottles with contents set in a discarded tire.

Found soft drink bottle with contents piece.

The colors come from sport and other soft drinks in their plastic bottles.

I also did my share of smaller figurative pieces.  Here is a favorite that originally was a slow motion video shot with my iPhone.  I started to play around a bit more with video by offering small video “tastes” of some of the things I do to amuse myself at the river.

My bird observations have manifested themselves in found objects that have become their own creative ornithology.  Here are a couple recent favorite sightings of these very rare birds.

Butcher Beak looking for food

A high Ohio River has this Butcher Beak searching for food near the water’s edge.

Black-tailed Tern

On Sand Island by the Falls of the Ohio, I spotted this rare Black-tailed Tern in migration.

Young male, Violet-tailed Bowerbird

A 2018 highlight was coming across this Violet-tailed Bower bird finding river treasure for its bower.

I realize that I can’t post everything I made this year, but here were a few of the projects  that still resonate with me.  I will keep making art and seeing where life goes from here.  I hope we all have a great 2019!  I will be watching with interest what happens with our coal spill.  I have already tested out a few ideas.  See you next year from the Falls of the Ohio.

Coal Man

From this Summer…a coal man formed in a drift of coal dust and gravel.

Death Takes a Float Trip

2017 Favorite Wildlife Sightings from the Falls of the Ohio Sunday, Dec 24 2017 

What a year it has been for animal watching at the Falls of the Ohio.  The finite landscape at the park keeps continuing to change as the populations of Canada geese and white-tailed deer make their now daily presence felt.  I recall going years before finding a single deer track out here.  Not too long ago as I was working on an artwork in the sand…I was surprised by a doe and two nearly grown fawns that almost stepped on me in their hurry to escape their blunder!  Seeing deer out here has almost become a daily happening.  I’ve also seen several large bucks and managed a good photo of this regal specimen from earlier in the year.

Although some animals seem to be increasing…there are still the occasional rare and once in a lifetime encounters that can occur.  Moments like this are what keep me coming back to these shores and willow woods.  Recently, a red fox streaked across my path and while not a rare mammal was nevertheless a park first for me!  I have also been discovered by an assortment of raccoons, groundhogs, opossums, squirrels, and chipmunks as I bumble through their environment.  Still only two beaver sightings by me since 2003 and none this year.  Evidence of their presence here is everywhere, however, they seem to be the most active at night.  Now my next entry qualifies as a true event and I will linger on this a moment since I was also fortunate to take some nice images to enhance the tale.  Have you ever heard of a Clark’s shrewrat before?  Probably not, no offense, I presume here, but we have trouble remembering our own kind much less anything else alive we share the experience of life with.  Seeing one was my wildlife viewing moment of the year.  Let’s start by looking at one.

It was almost Halloween, a gorgeous late autumn day when hiking in the park, I glimpsed an unfamiliar mammal drinking from a pool of Ohio River water.  In size, it’s between a small house cat and a large squirrel if that helps at all?  As it warily moved around the muddy landscape it moved quickly and stayed very low to the ground.  I was able to observe it over the course of the next few hours and I’m positive it knew I was nearby.  It’s history is interesting.  Clark’s Shrewrat is named after William Clark who is believed to have supplied the first written descriptions and specimens early in the 19th century.  Clark, the brother of Revolutionary War hero General George Rogers Clark went on to his own renown as a leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  What was unclear was whether or not the shrewrat evidence was collected on that epic journey or was of more local origin?  Finding one here is important because it would suggest the latter since Clark’s Shrewrat was never common anywhere over its former range and very rarely seen now.  To date, we have no idea as to their numbers?  Are they more common than we think or on the verge of extinction?

Clark’s Shrewrat belongs to the Insectivorous order of mammals which also includes moles and shrews.  It is strictly carnivorous and will attempt to overwhelm any animal it thinks it can kill.  The bulk of its diet, however, seems to be birds, other small mammals, fish, insects, and is not averse to scavenging carrion.  As a hunter, it is stealthy and overwhelms with surprise and speed.  For prey larger than itself, it often first tires and wounds its victim before administering the coup-de-grace with a surgical bite to the throat.  It is relentless and will pursue fish underwater in otter-like fashion as I was able to observe.  Here it is just before enjoying a shad dinner!

Many years ago, I had two sightings of a mink that hung around for a couple of days.  Experiencing the shrewrat felt similar.  A frenetic, nervous animal in constant motion and ever guided forward by a hunger that it cannot satisfy.  It does seem to be at the mercy of its metabolism.  The few records that exist on its life span seem to suggest a short one of three or four years at most.  Since there is simply not enough information extent on this rarity…it seems the obvious next step is to continue to monitor whether Clark’s shrewrat is indeed becoming established in the park?  I hope so since the park needs to maintain as much diversity as possible.

Now, to talk about a few of the great birds I’ve seen over the year.  I won’t go into as much depth.  Here are a few of my avian highlights with accompanying imagery.  It does seem to becoming more common for uncommon birds to show up at the Falls of the Ohio.  Is this a potential signal that climate change could be at work?  Birds can appear almost anywhere and many do…however, it does seem that many long distance migrants are being challenged by habitat loss and important food items whose timing has been interrupted by a climate in transition.  Nothing like showing up at the usual time for a feast of horseshoe crab eggs, but their spawn happened a week ago and you still have thousands of miles to travel.

This inquisitive creature is called the Bark Bird and I happened to see one this summer.  It’s so named for its habit of searching through the crevices in tree bark as it searches for the small arthropods that make up its diet.  It often goes up and down the tree head first like nuthatches do.

The only true shorebird on this list is the Arctic Curlew.  It uses its long, blue bill to probe soft mud for small worms.  I chanced upon one in June while exploring the fossil beds.  This is an example of a bird that is at risk because the route of its migration is so long that maintaining suitable habitat along its route may prove too great a challenge.

Here’s another migrant, the Land Lark.  Usually, a bird recorded west of the Mississippi River.  I remember that this bird appeared at the Falls of the Ohio after some serious thunderstorms with damaging tornadoes  passed through the Midwest of the United States.  Simple but nice coloring with its green crest and bill and light blue wings against a snow-white body.

This lovely Yellow-tailed Thrush was another unexpected discovery.  Normally, found in the summer in the Hill Country of Texas…I’m not sure why it showed up here?  I was sure glad to see it and I have several other nice images of it.

A new park record…the first recorded instance of the Ohio Valley Blue-bill nesting with park confines.  I came across this bird sitting on its nest which I was shocked to see was an old barge cable that had snagged in a tree.  I think the blue-bill formed the nest by judicious pecking and pruning the fibers of this large rope.  I’ve saved my favorite bird for last.  Not because it is rare, but because the pictures came out so well!  Here is another the Blue-winged Merganser which is small, fish-eating duck that pursues its prey underwater like the shrewrat does.  Also like the shrewrat, this merganser has a bill full of needle-sharp teeth for holding onto slippery fish.

The crest of feathers atop it head give a regal appearance to this small red-eyed duck.  We often see the Common Merganser around here, but this was fun to observe as it pursued small aquatic life stranded in the pools of a retreating river.  I guess as this year may prove to demonstrate, we may see many more peculiarities in the natural world the more we mess with it.  I will continue to record and observe these changes within the park and post them in the trusty riverblog.  To finally end, one more image of Clark’s Shrewrat to savor!  Until next time from the Falls of the Ohio State Park.

A Short History of “The Assembled” Sunday, Oct 8 2017 

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While my poor riverblog has been waiting for me…I have quietly been having one of my more creative years at the Falls of the Ohio State Park.  When I visit the river, I’m making several projects with the junk I find as I walk along this familiar landscape.  My previous post shows some of the ways I have played with color and form using other commonly found and mostly plastic materials.   I also had fun this summer creating my own absurd brand of figurative sculpture from the river-polished polystyrene I have collected and stored out here.  Beginning in May of this year, “we”, meaning myself and the public,  have successfully added new figures to a growing site-specific installation at my favorite outdoor atelier under the willows.

One wonderful development is that on three different occasions, visitors discovering my site have interacted with or added their own figures to this group from the materials I have left behind for that purpose.  I did “harvest” a couple of figures after they made their first appearance here for a group show I’m participating in October 2017 at Murray State University.  That exhibit is entitled “Folk Fiction” and I’m elated to be showing at my old undergrad alma mater.  Besides, it’s always good to have survivors.

Autumn began with a visit from my equally anonymous nemesis…forever branded by my sons as the “Smashers”.  Whomever they are…they don’t play well which has resulted in the recent vandalism of several of these figures.  More about them later.  Now seems as good a time as any to provide a short history of this figural Styrofoam group I call “The Assembled”.  This story begins at the river on May 14, 2017 with the creation of the first sculpture.

After a wet spring with frequent bouts of high water, I was able to configure a site under the trees and near the old railroad bridge.  Over the next several months I kept adding recently found materials from the area while I pursued different art projects.  This was the first Styro-figure I created here and he’s a bat-earred naturist!  After he explored the landscape of this day in many other images, he eventually took his position greeting visitors to my outdoor studio and soon to be growing gallery.  As this installation grew, each new figure was photographed in different contexts at the park before joining the others back at my eastern most studio site.

"The Naturist" stands watch over the Styro-larder during May 2017

“The Naturist” was the first figure to join “The Assembled”.

My next figure is also the largest.  I remember needing to wait until enough of the absorbed water was gone from this big hunk of Styrofoam to just be able to lift it.  I call this piece the “Queen of Clouds” because the sky was so beautiful on the day it was made.

I remember that the wind kept blowing this figure over and it was difficult to get it to stand in place while I shot this short video.  The large fan blades that make up this sculpture kept falling off until I found a better way to attach them to her head.  The nose is a large wooden fishing float I found out here.  It’s mouth is the plastic cap from a deodorant stick.

Two Styro-figures at my outdoor studio during June 2017.

The “Queen of Clouds” parked at my studio under the willow trees.

Here’s another large figure from the month of July.  I really like how expressive the head turned out on this one.  His mouth is a red reflector that really caught the light well.  I dragged this one down to the Ohio River and documented it with this short video and lots of photos.  Afterward, it too joined “The Assembled” at my river studio.

One of the fun moments during this project was discovering visitors had added two new figures enlarging this group to four!  By days end, it was five figures with my latest absurdity with the bright red reflector mouth.  I was starting to get excited by the opportunity to create a nice little crowd this summer since plenty of Styrofoam remained to be used and people were playing along instead of just destroying what was on hand.  I also started to piece together a couple of other projects nearby.  One began at first with just a handful of found flip-flops of various colors and sizes.  Each visit to the river usually resulted in more found foot wear to add to the design.  I also created a colorful  rainbow-like arrangement from discarded plastic containers that also was a stand alone piece, but also went well with the other projects.  As the summer was approaching its height, wild grapevines were beginning to frame my grouping at the Falls of the Ohio.

Styro-group "The Assembled" in July 2017 at the Falls of the Ohio.

Three more figures joined the group.

As the summer wore on I couldn’t wait to visit my spot and listen to the oriole’s call and the sound of running water.  My site was always changing and my sculptures had survived a few summer storms as well as being vulnerable to vandalism.  So far, so good and so I continued to add new pieces here when I visited this section of the park.  Here are a few more for your enjoyment.

A Rose for Mosquito Nose

Small Styro-character I called “Mr. Mosquito Nose”.

The Assembled with Mr. Mosquito Nose.

Rare view of “The Assembled” with “Mr. Mosquito Nose”.

I took “Mr. Mosquito Nose” home with me after this picture and he will reappear in an exhibition I’m participating in the early fall.  This next piece turned out to be a visitor favorite.  He began with me finding a flipper that I used for his headdress and the fishing lure that became his nose.  Between what I found that day and what was already in my collecting bag…I soon had the makings of an orange and greenish-yellow theme for this shamanic or high priest figure.  The staff he sports is capped with a found plastic jet toy I came across on the riverbank.

"Shamanic Figure with Staff and Flipper Headdress"

Shamanic Figure carries a staff capped with a found plastic jet toy.

Here he is in context with the other figures as the month of July began to pass.  If you like trains crossing over bridges then you might like a couple of the videos I have here including this one showing an early flip-flop project at this site.

Another day and another figure and in this sculpture’s case…it’s pretty silly and strangely neurotic looking with its crossed fishing float eyes!  Here he is posed sitting on a driftwood log with one leg crossed over the other.  Soon he too would be added to “The Assembled”.

"Indecisive Dude" at the Falls of the Ohio.

“Indecisive Dude” sitting on a weather-bleached log.

Here is a video that is a good overall site view of my outdoor atelier and it shows this latest figure in the fold.  It also features a passing train crossing over the old railroad bridge and yet another flip-flop arrangement in the form of a large spiral in the sand.

I like the way the spiral turned out and I tried working with the found colors as best as I could.  There is so much individual variation between each sandal…right or left, large or small, bright blue versus dark blue, etc…  I do feel that this piece really added to what I had already started here with “The Assembled”.  Here is a still image from that moment.

My outdoor studio site at the Falls of the Ohio, August 7, 2017.

Spiral flip-flop arrangement along with “The Assembled” at my studio site, August 7, 2017.

We are into the month of August now and I keep adding figures and rearranging my site on a regular basis.  It’s generally a very good month for me if I can get out to the river three or four times.  Plus, I like to also do projects in other areas of the park and so a few weeks might pass before I next visit this particular studio site under the willow trees.  I thought this next figure turned out nicely.  It was aided by finding a nice hunk of polystyrene that was irregularly shaped enough that it could imply motion.  He has a friendly demeanor to him if you can ascribe such qualities to an altered chunk of river-polished Styrofoam?

Smiling Figure next to discarded cooler.

Smiling Styro-figure next to an old cooler that washed into the park.

Here is the video from the end of this day showing this piece in the context of my studio under the trees.  This clip also reminded me that it was a hot day peppered by annoying gnats that also buzzed around the camera.  I will mention that generally speaking…biting flies and mosquitoes are not usually an issue to visiting the park.

Still two more figures to go before the fateful day the Smashers appear and reality reasserts itself.  I improvised all my figurative sculptures on site from materials collected out here.  I still feel it’s important for me to respect the hard-won shapes that nature has provided.  Interestingly, I still feel that the river “humanizes” Styrofoam in particular by knocking of the hard edges and generalizing the overall forms.

"The Happy Hunchback" listening to birds singing.

“The Happy Hunchback” strolling through the willow woods listening to bird song at the Falls of the Ohio.

Moving very slowly and deliberately, the “Happy Hunchback” cranes his neck toward the treetops.  It’s late August, have the orioles and indigo buntings already left?  If it weren’t for the other life forms also inhabiting the Falls of the Ohio, this multi-year “art” project would not have sustained my interest alone.  I can’t believe my luck!  Between the time of this figure and the next…a visitor added another sculpture and awarded my Shamanic sculpture “Best in Show”!

"Best in Show " award...presented anonymously.

“Best in Show” Award…presented anonymously.

I had stashed this green plastic ball with my rainbow-colored plastic containers.  Makes a fine award and I have to admit, that I did put a lot of time into this particular figure.  I’m sure I had the biggest smile I can muster when I first saw this.  Whomever you are…thank you!

"The Assembled" at the Falls of the Ohio, mid September 2017.

“The Assembled”, mid September 2017 with “Best in Show” figure.

Another view from that day showing my overall site with a different found flip-flop design and my plastic container color spectrum on the left.

Outdoor studio and gallery, mid September 2017 showing "The Assembled", heart-shaped flip-flop arrangement, and plastic container color arrangement.

My outdoor studio and gallery with heart-shaped flip-flop design.

Just one more figure to go before that fateful day when the Smashers stop by and temporarily put a hitch in the magic that was this summer at the Falls of the Ohio.  I am amazed that nothing negative had happened sooner.  In the back of my mind, I understand that the river always has the last word in this process and so I don’t get too attached to the things I make out here.  Weeks would go by before I would re-visit this site in the eastern section of the park.  I was also spending a lot of time in the western section of the Falls of the Ohio which has a different quality to the landscape and receives fewer visitors.  I like to visit there when the purple loosestrife flowers are blooming because they are magnets for butterflies and other insects.  Moving on, here’s the last figure to officially join “The Assembled”.

"Raccoon Eyes" sipping from a found cup at the Falls of the Ohio, September 2017.

“Raccoon Eyes” enjoys a found beverage at the Falls of the Ohio, September 2017.

With his spiky hair-do and wide smile, the likable “Raccoon Eyes” likes to pause for refreshment when he can at the Falls of the Ohio.  Locals visiting the park bring these giant cups and I guess seeing all the other debris that has washed into here makes it okay to leave more trash behind?  The world is just absurd…and hence this project.  Old “Raccoon Eyes” took a hit, lost and eye, along with one of his arms when the Smashers came by.  Here is one more video this time showing my site before fate intervenes.

The little figure I ended the last clip with went on to have an adventure of his own and didn’t become a part of “The Assembled”.  He’s a close if diminutive cousin.  The Smashers came and went and it’s fortunate that more wasn’t actually destroyed.  My naturist character, who was the first character here, had his head split in half.  One of the volunteer figures that appeared was decapitated and I found its head in the tree branches above where it once stood.  The “Happy Hunchback” lost all the features in his head and was rendered permanently senseless.  The “Best in Show” figure lost and eye and his staff, but looks repairable.  I think whomever did this ( teenage boy(s) loom large) must have had second thoughts while in destruct mode, because it looks like some sculptures were barely touched.  I like to think that this is what happened and perhaps a little remorse set in before complete havoc was wrought.  I found a nearby stick that I remember setting aside for future use that more than likely served as the weapon.  I can imagine the temptation to not “light saber” all of them into bits must have been great.  This is my best interpretation based upon reading  the scene.

"The Assembled" after being visited by the Smashers.  Early October 2017

View of “The Assembled” after recent vandalism.

Of course you know that I’m not going to leave it here.  When I came upon the scene, I took some pictures and then off for a trek across the fossil beds and had a great day walking to the hydroelectric plant.  Yesterday, I brought my friend Peter Erwin along for a visit to the Interpretive Center and afterward we visited my studio site.  Using what I had on hand…I repaired what I could and recycled other parts to create new personas to replace the previous ones.  I think it’s going to be okay and I look forward to experiencing the continued evolution of this developing site.  I still have a little more work to do, but this is where I left it yesterday.  As for this post…one of my longer ones…reveals the level of engagement that this special place still holds upon me.  I think it also appropriate at this time to rename this group of survivors…I’m now going to call them “The Re-Assembled”!  Until next time from the Falls of the Ohio.

"The Re-Assembled", Found Styrofoam and other materials, Falls of the Ohio, October 7, 2017

“The Re-Assembled” at the Falls of the Ohio. October 7, 2017

“The Naturist” visits the river at the Falls of the Ohio.
The “Queen of Clouds” at the Falls of the Ohio State Park.
Large Styro-Figure on Willow Island
Shamanic figure with “The Assembled” while a passing CSX train goes over the bridge.
Falls of the Ohio Site View with “The Assembled” and Flip-flop Spiral
Outdoor Studio View at the Falls of the Ohio, August 2017
“The Assembled” with “Raccoon-Eyes” and heart-shaped flip-flop design.

Flip-flops, Mystery Fluids, and Spent Cigarette Lighters Monday, Jun 5 2017 

Each year has a different character to it and for what I do at the Falls of the Ohio, a lot depends upon what I find.  Last year, there was an abundance of plastic bottles in a full spectrum of colors that stood out among the natural driftwood.  This year, we have had a mostly high river due to locally intense rains throughout the Ohio River Valley.  There have been successive waves of wood and plastic that have had me wandering the wrack lines filling my collecting bags and stuffing my computer with images.  The Falls are not a big area, but the dynamic changes that rearrange the riverbank keep it interesting.  This year I have concentrated mostly on formal arrangements on site using flip-flop sandals, plastic soft drink bottles with colored backwash in them, and I have also been astounded by the number of cigarette lighters I have been finding.  Following are a few of the many compositions I have already made this year.Chromatic arrangement in Flip-flops, Falls of the Ohio, Feb, 2017

Made this one on a sunny day in February.  I found all these flip-flops on a single walk along the riverbank which is how I still like to work out here.  I get ideas for projects based on what that day’s walk presents.  Kind of like going to the grocery store and seeing what’s ripe and in season.

Flip-flop arrangement on the sand, Falls of the Ohio, March 2017

Why flip-flops?  First, they are a ubiquitous part of human life around the river and they float and travel great distances to reach the park.  I also like the idea that these sandals are unique to the people who wore them and have their “soul or spirit” imprinted on them.  They come in a variety of colors and sizes and can be as variable as people.  There is also that saying about not understanding others until you can stand in their shoes.

Flip-flop ring, Falls of the Ohio, April 2017

A work from April of this year made with flip-flops.  Some colors seem to be harder to find than others particularly a true red or yellow.  Once in a while, I will also pick up and use the sole of some other kind of foot ware if I think it will come in “handy”.

Cottonwood Tree Composition, late May 2017, Falls of the Ohio

My latest flip-flop composition from late May.  Sited in the western section of the park, this piece is situated by a favorite cottonwood tree that I have shown in posts many times before.  It uniquely has a space under the roots that you can stand under.  It is a favorite place for locals to party.  Now for the next part of this post…”Mystery Fluids”.

Found soft drink and sport drink bottles with partial contents, Falls of the Ohio, April 2017

Usually found floating in rivers and other bodies of water are these partially consumed sport and soft drinks capped and in their bottles.  At the Falls of the Ohio I find them intermixed with the driftwood and everything else too.  Often, it is the bottom of the bottle that is sticking up from the wood.  I think being starved for color is why I gravitated towards this common element of our waste stream.  When the light hits these bottles just right…the colors can be very jewel-like and attractive.  Here are a few of the projects and images I made with them this year.

Found bottles and contents with the skyline of Louisville, Feb. 2017

Found bottles and contents, western section of the Falls of the Ohio, April 2017

Found bottle composition with contents, Falls of the Ohio, 2017

I have photographed these bottles in a variety of contexts and combinations over the year.  Their contents are amazingly well-preserved and I have never found one that had mold growing in it.  It could be that conditions have rendered these bottles sterile?  Did they get too hot, too cold, not enough oxygen?  Certainly, there is plenty of sugar, electrolytes, and preservatives in them.  On site, I usually have arranged them on the back of stranded logs or boards that have floated in here and then I take my pictures and walk away.  At my main outdoor studio…I have now been caching some of these bottles and flip-flops too for later in the year when the water level is low.  Now for the final category….found cigarette lighters.

Found cigarette lighters by various manufacturers, Falls of the Ohio, June 2017

Took this photograph a few days a go and represents my record for found cigarette lighters in one day out at the Falls of the Ohio.  I think there are 103 lighters here all gleaned from the driftwood.  I have always known that cigarette lighters are out here, but not until now have I concentrated on them.  When you begin looking for them, they can be everywhere up and down the riverbank and intermixed with the driftwood.  Once upon a time, the ability to create fire was a special and important skill.  It’s more than the climate that is changing.  Before I show you what I made with a hundred lighters, here are some earlier attempts.

BIC lighter color line, found cigarette lighters from the Falls of the Ohio, 2017

This found lighter composition is unique in that only “Bic” brand lighters were used.  The are arranged on the back of a log.  I still like referencing light through color.  The irony of our dependence on fossil fuels to make things like plastic and energy is that it comes from sequestered carbon created from sunlight by plants living millions of years a go.  Now we need to just look up in the sky to see that same source of energy in the here and now.

88 Cigarette Lighter Oval, Falls of the Ohio, 2017

I think from April?, but definitely the western section of the Falls of the Ohio State Park.  Created this oval from 88 found lighters.  The river was still very high and this arrangement is up against the riverbank.

Found Lighter Circle, Falls of the Ohio, 2017

68 Found Lighter Circle, Falls of the Ohio, 2017

Lighter circle made with 68 found cigarette lighters.   You can see the marks my fingers made in the sand adjusting the lighters to expand the circle.

Nearly forgot about this one!  “Stump Star” composed of 48 found lighters, a yellow reflector, and of course…a stump.  Made under the willow trees, the light playing through the tree canopy made this piece hard to photograph.  It just occurred to me that I have no idea where butane comes from?  All of these once stored compressed butane.  As these physical objects age and are exposed to the elements, their metal components are the first to corrode and rust away.

Another day and visit to the river.  I try to maximize each opportunity out here by making as many site specific pieces from the various materials I encounter.  Here’s a quick piece with my the toes of my shoes poking in for good measure.  I call this one “Keep Calm” because there’s one lighter that says that…or “From Clear to Blue” because if you look closely you can see between the white and blue lighters is one clear one.  So far, that’s the only one like that I’ve seen out here.  Okay, one more to end with and it’s the one with over a hundred lighters.  I made another composition with these lighters, but decided to try a more open design and it turned out better than the first.Double-spiral Cigarette Lighter Composition, Falls of the Ohio, June 2017

When given the chance to go to the river or write about past experiences…I will opt for the river, unless the weather is bad and it has already rained hard today.  I’m staying busy and engaged with art all around me which has had a calming effect on me considering all the political decisions people are making regarding the health of the environment and everything else too.  If you are interested in some of what’s in the Ohio River and other rivers in this country…then I’m your blog.  Until next time from the Falls of the Ohio.

Double Spiral found cigarette lighter composition at the Falls of the Ohio, June 2017

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