The Mighty Etowah

Google Maps.

I did something today that I have been wanting to do for a long time: canoe the Etowah River. I was hoping to make it all the way from Cartersville to Rome, but we didn’t get started early enough and so we only made it to Neel’s Landing, where the Etowah meets 411. But it was a highly enjoyable experience, and it provides a completely different perspective on the local topography, one that would have been familiar to Native Americans (or to Reinhardt’s co-founder John Sharp, who attempted to establish a ferry service between Canton and Rome). 

This is the dam that creates Lake Allatoona in Cartersville, and which would nowadays impede a direct fluvial service from Canton to Rome. The dam was built in 1950 by the Army Corps of Engineers. I took this photo four years ago. It served as our starting point. 

These pilings carried the Western and Atlantic railway over the Etowah. A student of mine claimed that the bridge itself was destroyed seven times during the Civil War, as it changed hands. The W&A now runs slightly to the west, on the other side of GA-41 (the bridge in the background). 

This dam, designated the Thompson Weinman dam, was a surprise for us as there were no signs warning about it on the river. Fortunately we realized what the sound was in time, and found the portage. 

The Etowah Indian Mounds from the river, which is how Mississippians would have arrived at the site.

Other things to see on the Etowah include turtles (my companion counted 291 of them), blue herons, plenty of swallow mud nests underneath bridges, fish, lush vegetation, Indian fishing weirs (made of rocks, and somewhat tricky to navigate), and lots of luxurious riverfront property with signs sternly warning you against trespassing. It would be nice to develop more of it for public use. 

Producing far more power than Allatoona Dam is Plant Bowen, allegedly the second-largest coal fired electrical generating plant in the western hemisphere. The river provides an interesting view of it. 

It was nice to see a rainbow on our drive home!

This route, by the way, has been signified as the Etowah River Water Trail, and the organizers have posted helpful mile and half-mile marker signs along the way. We started at 46 and ended at 23. 

Jigsaw Puzzles

Are you doing a jigsaw puzzle during your coronavirus lockdown? Perhaps you’ll be interested in this short history of the pastime:

The origins of jigsaw puzzles go back to the 1760s when European mapmakers pasted maps onto wood and cut them into small pieces. The “dissected map” has been a successful educational toy ever since. American children still learn geography by playing with puzzle maps of the United States or the world.

The eighteenth century inventors of jigsaw puzzles would be amazed to see the transformations of the last 230 years. Children’s puzzles have moved from lessons to entertainment, showing diverse subjects like animals, nursery rhymes, and modern tales of superheroes and Disney. But the biggest surprise for the early puzzle makers would be how adults have embraced puzzling over the last century.

Puzzles for adults emerged around 1900, and by 1908 a full-blown craze was in progress in the United States. Contemporary writers depicted the inexorable progression of the puzzle addict: from the skeptic who first ridiculed puzzles as silly and childish, to the perplexed puzzler who ignored meals while chanting “just one more piece;” to the bleary-eyed victor who finally put in the last piece in the wee hours of the morning.

The puzzles of those days were quite a challenge. Most had pieces cut exactly on the color lines. There were no transition pieces with two colors to signal, for example, that the brown area (roof) fit next to the blues (sky). A sneeze or a careless move could undo an evening’s work because the pieces did not interlock. And, unlike children’s puzzles, the adult puzzles had no guide picture on the box; if the title was vague or misleading, the true subject could remain a mystery until the last pieces were fitted into place.

Read the whole thing. It reminds me of a delightful article I read in the American Scholar many years ago, which I found just now on JSTOR. It begins:

It is a terrible thing to admit, but I love jigsaw puzzles. It is a terrible thing to admit because I am a professor of English. I work in Texas, in the heartland, where I often get the impression that I am expected to be an ambassador for high culture to Middle America. Granted this authority, I could confess to loving almost anything else without shame. Baseball? A taste I share with philosophers and poets. Bewitched? The subject of Cultural Studies dissertations. Wonder Bread with gravy? My culture’s authentic cuisine. But when I say that I have a taste for jigsaw puzzles, I place myself beyond a social and intellectual pale.

In my crowd, there isn’t a single way in which jigsaw puzzles constitute an acceptable taste. First of all, there’s their status as reproductions. I know academics who would as soon march naked in a Fourth of July parade as own reproductions of art. Worse still, most jigsaw puzzles are not even reproductions of good art. They are reproductions of kitsch. In the 1950s and ‘60s there apparently were people who had a genuine appreciation for fluffy cats with big eyes, groups of sad clowns, rodeo cowboys in action, and blurry photos of the Tetons….

Worse still, doing jigsaw puzzles indicates a complete lack of originality. Your work is literally cut out for you. The puzzle is in a subclass of the kit or model – in fact, the lowest possible stratum of that subclass. Building a model ship from a kit is just barely respectable, because the product at least takes obvious skill and can charm the eye. And as anyone who had built such models knows, their most sophisticated form requires “kit-bashing”: scavenging bits from this kit and that, importing unsupplied materials, redrawing the instructions to suit yourself. You can’t kit-bash a jigsaw puzzle. Much as I might like to put Homer Simpson in the Sistine ceiling, the damn piece just won’t fit.

I enjoin you to read the whole thing if you have JSTOR access (actually, you can register and read 100 articles for free in this time of lockdown). But events have moved on since the article was published. Artist Tim Klein has discovered that puzzles of the same dimensions from the same manufacturer usually use the same die-cut pattern for the pieces, so you actually can do a bit of “kit-bashing.” Check out his Puzzle Montage website. 

“King of the Road.”

“Iron Horse.”

“Waterfall Grille”

UPDATE: More from Ladbible. You can now get a 51300 piece puzzle for $500, a 2000-piece puzzle with no picture, and a 144-piece puzzle of transparent plexiglass. 

Board Games

From the Public Domain Review:

Ten thousand years ago, in the Neolithic period, before human beings began making pottery, we were playing games on flat stone boards drilled with two or more rows of holes. By the Early Dynastic Period in Ancient Egypt, three millennia later, board games were already represented in hieroglyphs. And on the wall of Nefertari’s tomb, built in the twelfth or thirteenth century BCE, someone painted the queen playing Senet, one of three Ancient Egyptian board games whose pieces have come down to us, along with Mehen and Hounds and Jackals.

The ancient Greeks, for their part, had Tabula, an ancestor of backgammon; the Romans added Latrones, an ancestor of chess. All across the ancient Near East, people played the Game of Twenty Squares, while in ancient China they played Liubo and in ancient India Moksha Patam, which was rechristened Snakes and Ladders when colonials imported it to Britain in the Victorian era. Wherever there has been civilization, strange to say, there have been games played on boards.

Until about the seventeenth century, these games tended to be traditional folk inventions that could not be traced back to a maker. Their boards were also relatively abstract, consisting of squares, triangles, spirals, or holes. With the advent of the Enlightenment and the rise of capitalism, however, the board games of Europe — like so much else on the continent — began to change. By the end of the eighteenth century, games were being produced for the marketplace promoting everything from ferry rides to colonial conquest. To appeal to consumers (a category of persons that had not previously existed), these games were made to be played on boards printed with pictures that represented specific places, people, and things. The artists who designed them strove to attract the public eye and capture the public imagination, appealing to the modern craving for what Walter Benjamin would call “novelty and shock”.

Read the whole thing.

Let’s Call it Swimming

From History Today:

How Europe Learnt to Swim

For 1,500 years, Western Europe ‘forgot’ how to swim, retreating from the water in terror. The return to swimming is a lesser-known triumph of the Enlightenment.

Humans first learned to swim in prehistory – though how far back remains a matter of debate between the paleoanthropological establishment and the followers of Elaine Morgan (1920-2013), who championed the aquatic ape hypothesis, an aquatic phase during hominid evolution between 7 and 4.3 million years ago. Even though we may never have had an aquatic ancestor, compelling evidence exists for the swimming abilities of the representatives of the genus Homo since H. erectus, who appeared some 1.8 million years ago. In the historical period, the myths of the ancient civilisations of the eastern Mediterranean testify to a positive relationship with water and swimming, mediated until late antiquity by a pantheon of aquatic gods, nymphs and tritons.

By the medieval period, the majority of Western Europeans who were not involved in harvesting aquatic resources had forgotten how to swim. Swimming itself was not forgotten – but the ability to do so hugely decreased. Bodies of water became sinister ‘otherworlds’ populated by mermaids and sea monsters. How do we explain the loss of so important a skill? Humans have never given up running, jumping or climbing, so why did so many abandon an activity that was useful to obtain food and natural resources, vital to avoid drowning and pleasurable to cool down on a hot summer’s day?

The retreat from swimming began during late antiquity, as evidenced in the writings of the fifth-century Roman military writer, Vegetius, who bemoaned the fact that, unlike the hardy legionaries of the Republic, ‘whose only bath was the River Tiber’, the recruits of his day had become too used to the luxuries of the baths and had to be taught how to swim. Roman baths were furnished with large, shallow basins (piscinae), but these were designed for soaking and sitting and not swimming. Nevertheless, is it conceivable that the majority of the population of the Western Empire could forget how to swim? It is, if one considers the size of the urban bathhouse infrastructure and the concentration of the population living in inland cities in the late-imperial period. In 33 BC, Rome had 170 bathhouses; by late-fourth-century, that number had grown to 856.

Much more at the link, although as a friend pointed out, the Roman Empire may have been based on cities, but the vast majority of people did not live in them.

The author of this piece, Eric Chaline, wrote Strokes of Genius: A History of Swimming (Reaktion, 2017). My friend Nicholas Orme wrote a history of British swimming that I see is still in print. The post title is a lyrical reference.

Horse Racing

Mike Huggins talks about his newly-published book Horse Racing and British Society in the Long Eighteenth Century at Proofed, a blog of Boydell and Brewer:

I had not realized how important the annual racing week was in the leisure calendar of so many county and large market towns during the eighteenth century, helping foster consumerism and the urban renaissance. For many women of the middling classes for example, the racing was almost incidental, but was looked forward to for weeks before with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. It offered many social opportunities; socializing with the titled and the county set, attending assemblies, balls, the ordinaries or the theatre, appearing in the grandstand, and dressing up, demonstrating status and conspicuous consumption.

Racing was equally significant politically. The early Jockey Club was much more than a racing club. Its members were mostly Protestant, Whig and committed to the defeat of Stuart Catholicism, and were usually MPs or otherwise leading figures in the political elite, like the Duke of Bolton. Racing played across divisions of Whig and Tory, court and country or Hanover and Jacobite in complex ways. Hanoverian sons demonstrated their independence against their father by spending money racing. Race meetings were sites of assembly for political discourse where prospective and current parliamentarians lobbied for support, exploited the dynamics of patronage, or used attenders as focus groups.

More at the link.