Our river wasn’t always so sluggish. It used to patter through this neighborhood, a serpentine meander through cottonwoods and willows, bouncing against the sandy rise to the east and the ancient lake bottom gently sloping up to the west. On the 1905 plat map the river snaked right through my alley. My neighbors on streets to the north and south have their houses set right on the old riverbed or where oxbow islands sported a lush prairie ecology. Superimposed on this true Chicago River are the harsh lines of the deepened channel–how God might have designed it if she’d gone to DeVry. Wherever the channel strays from the straight and narrow, the angular deviation is penciled in.

When the bank collapsed–or “readjusted” itself, as the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District would say–along the North Branch by my house, neighbors anxiously pestered the alderman and the district for action. As the summer wore out and fall fell, anxieties were quieted and Gaia rested. It occurred to us that the whole incident may have been just one episode in the river’s relentless determination to heal itself. The river wants a floodplain. I explained to my riverside neighbors that I would be willing to sacrifice up to four houses, four lots, to accommodate her yearnings, my house being the fifth from the river.

When floodwaters deluged Des Moines last summer, commentators sagely reiterated for us the folly of trying to constrict the mighty Missouri and Mississippi. Rivers are made to flood, they reminded us. A floodplain is standard equipment. It’s designed to fill at high water. Its edges mark the limits of the river’s meander. It hosts a lush characteristic ecology. It acts as a highway of hospitality for migrating birds and animals.

But plowed up it makes for a good crop. So people build levees and berms to corset the river’s potential. When the river swells to a record high it tops the levees and soaks all the heedless development on either side. Then news cameras come to cover the grief, and the big heart of the nation covers the cost. Floods are funny disasters, because if your home or farm or pizza parlor is located just a few feet uphill from the floodplain there’s no disaster, just a high river with good fishing.

After the waters recede and the CD players are dried with the leaf blower, we scratch our potato heads and build right back on the floodplain.

Floodplains and wetlands act as sponges, clarifiers, and digesters of water contaminants. During big rains, extensive wetlands soak up the downpour and release it slowly into the drainage or let it percolate into the aquifer. Thoughtful city planners might have mandated a half-mile strip on either side of our river off-limits to development; but instead lots were crammed into the city subsections shown on my map. The grid’s tiny rectangles, barely big enough to contain a two-digit identifying number, fill the plane as efficiently as any Sierpinski gasket.

Wetlands also help absorb and process water contaminants. But no wetland could handle the abuse the Chicago River watershed has taken for the last century. River-bottom sediments today are saturated with the organic toxins and metal residues of our industrial chutzpah. The layers read like the pages of a sad and criminal history.

In the fall of ’92 a Bureau of Mines scientist suggested that our river-bottom sediments might be processed using flotation techniques routinely applied to low-grade ores. The river-bottom scum is a mother lode of lead, chromium, silver, mercury, and other metals.

That April a comprehensive assay of Chicago River sediment was performed by the bureau at 51 sites along the North Branch. Information on concentrations and distribution of 11 trace metals was obtained. The results were neither happy nor surprising.

Chromium, for example–a metal commonly used in plating, alloying, and photographic processes–is toxic to plants and animals and a suspected carcinogen. In an attempt to quantify what it is that defines elevated levels of trace metals in our rivers and streams, the Illinois EPA established a five-tier classification system for each metal that runs from nonelevated through slightly elevated, elevated, highly elevated, and extremely elevated ratings. Chromium was found at elevated levels at every single site assayed, except at Dundee Road. Every site south of Foster ranked as extremely elevated. By my house at Montrose the levels leap past extreme and then get worse, until at Grand Avenue they’re stratospheric.

Or take cadmium, commonly used in the electronics industry, in phosphate fertilizers, and in pesticides, and linked to neurological disorders. Grand Avenue once again takes the crown, with cadmium levels three times higher than extreme; its status is approached by all sites south of Fullerton. Downstream from Central Park all the collected sludge showed at least elevated levels of this metal.

For those more interested in upscale heavy metals, silver levels are four times the extreme mark at Addison, Cortland, and Grand avenues. But before you hurry off to stake your claim, know that this silver is molecularly dispersed amid mercury, arsenic, copper, iron, lead, manganese, nickel, and zinc. In the words of the study’s authors, Irwin Polls and James P. Allen, “There is no significant portion of the river that does not have elevated levels of at least a few trace metals….Every site below Dempster is in the extreme category for at least one trace metal.”

It’s tempting to seek culprits in this legacy of abuse–the heady entrepreneurs who ran discharge pipes out the back of their factories into the once clear-flowing stream–and subject them to the people’s-court punishment of bathing in the river and drinking the sludge. These point-source discharges have been illegal since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1977, and most have been eliminated. But non-point-source contaminants continue to pass through the sewage-treatment process, plaguing current river restoration plans. Radiator antifreeze, transmission oil, starter fluid, and insecticides trickling in through the branchlets of the sewage system indicate that the culture of thoughtless consumption and defecation persists widely.

The North Branch is composed of two distinct river habitats: that of the shallow, meandering stream north of the low-head dam at Ainslie, and the slow-moving dredged channel south of the dam, which also connects the river north to the lake through the locks in Wilmette. This river bottom is rich in metallic and organic toxins and the fine silts to which they cling, and subsequently poor in those bottom-dwelling organisms that thrive in healthy river habitats. Just as our sick political environment gives sustenance to a host of slippery bottom dwellers, so our river sediments are populated mainly by a signal collection of pollution-tolerant worms, leeches, and midge larvae. The fantastically diverse taxa of a healthy river system are gone, eliminated during the cataclysm of 1905, when the river was transformed into a component of the city’s waste-treatment system. Native clams, mussels, and crayfish that might have volunteered to settle in the silty channel bottom never really had a chance. As the sediments were loaded with organics and toxins, a septic ecology inhospitable to a diverse benthos quickly evolved.

The Water Reclamation District’s 1990 assay of the North Channel found 28 species of annelid worms (Tubificidae and Naididae), 4 species of leeches (Hirudinidae), and 23 species of midge larvae (Chironomidae). Together they made up 97.9 percent of the invertebrate community. To these humble creatures–the most pollution-tolerant forms of the diverse families that once thrived here–and their bacterial and viral cousins, we’ve left the task of processing industrial toxins up the food chain.

Though we might not feel the urge to sink our feet in the mud and wiggle our toes among these creatures, they represent a striking incipient recovery from what, 20 years ago, was a dead benthos. The diversity in annelid worms alone is significant, but the existence of 73 benthic species is a sign that the river ecology is moving in a positive direction. As a general formula, moderate populations representing diverse taxa equal health, resilience, and wide evolutionary potential; large populations representing few taxa equal danger and instability.

What to do with poisoned river silt that threatens to stall the rebirth of a healthy river biota? Ecologists studying the problem at dozens of agencies are still not sure. A flurry of diagnostic surveys are being funded and the information channeled into a statewide data base. A number of pilot strategies are also being suggested. At a recent conference on the Chicago River one consultant from Canada insisted, in eco-doublespeak reminiscent of the Reagan years, that contamination with no measurable effect on the fauna and flora should not be considered pollution. He felt that cleanup funds are too scarce to waste on cosmetic, noncritical projects.

Other scientists are searching for appropriate microorganisms that could be convinced to help bioremediate toxic silt. Most such solutions considered entail massive, obtrusive manipulation of the ecology. The current best bet for ensuring improved water quality is more stringent watershed protection and wetland restoration.

But the impulse to rehabilitate the Chicago River, make amends for past abuse, and construct a vastly better, healthier, more spiritual human-river linkup seems more robust than ever. Citizens are seeking opportunities to take part in restorations, cleanups, and planning. The river plat maps show the old course curling sharply eastward north of Montrose, then fanning out directly under the foundations of Waters elementary school. The school’s administration is seeking resources to institute a comprehensive K-through-8 river-studies curriculum. Such a program, based on the Chicago River at LaBagh Woods, has been going on for more than two years at Amundsen High School. The curriculum includes water-quality and species monitoring, local history projects, creative writing, and art based on river themes. The river, long viewed as a septic nuisance, is now becoming a portal to the natural world.

One afternoon in late October I heard workers bellowing as they were “clearing debris” from the banks of the river south of Montrose. The “debris” consisted of live shoreline trees suspected of leaning off the plumb line. This work crew was hard at the task of separating the top half of a tree–the branches, nests, and trunk–from its base and roots, which were tangled in the shoreline soil, securing the bank.

One fellow labored on the bank with a roaring chain saw, while his partners worked from a small barge outfitted with a clamshell bucket. The operator bit at the foliage with the clamshell, working it as if it were a carnival toy, while the barge bounced and bobbed precariously. The resident ducks organized some furious display, flapping their wings around like windup toys, chasing each other in a circle. A crew member stood at the bow and marked the territory by spraying pee in a wide arc onto the riverbank.

Later I described this last scene to a neighbor friend, who said, “Well, that’s natural anyway.”

“Yeah?” I said.

“Ain’t it? Think about fish. They pee in the river and worse–for their whole life–don’t they?”

The river changes, depending on how you look at it. It can be a passage to a natural, spiritual world. Or it can be a Porta Potti. Right now it is both things at once.