Monday, November 1, 2010

Greater Than Freight: Moving from t(0) Thru t(n) Along the Highline Canal

Riding along The Zanjero's Line by Mags Harries and Lajos Héder
As far as we know now, people are the only hunks of matter in the universe which are aware of the passage of time, among all the hunks whooshing around and smashing into each other. In addition to being aware of the passage from t(0) to t(n), we also remember the experiences of our motion through space in time. 

To a significant extent, the mosaic of our past experiences form the unique core of our distinct selves, up to the limit of our finite lifespan, up to a maximum for hunks of matter of our type of about 110 years, or on average 78.4 years for an American born in 2008.

We don't just transit from place to place, from point to point, like planets, or FedEx packages. We monitor the sensations which bombard our senses, filter them to create perceptions, then digest those perceptions into thoughts, ideas, feelings, emotions, and memories. These, along with our own internal processes together with aging, cause us to change from moment to moment, which in turn influences the other hunks of matter around us, including (of course) other people. Sometimes these influences causes us to change our minds and change course mid-journey to travel to a new or different destination.

In the Harries and Héder canal vocabulary, circular forms like this signal an entry point. I like it.

If we weren't these self-aware, time-aware, memory-creating organisms, then a system of moving us from point to point something like a FedEx package would be quite sufficient. Giant, adaptable conveyor belts with automatic wappers to wap you off onto a side line to get you where you need to go, perhaps. Or, huge trebuchets that merely launched us in the general direction of our destination, toward the next unit in a global network of trebuchets. 

Or, a massive network of multi-lane roads lined with blank, gray, endless concrete noise walls for transporting hunks of meat from point A to point B in gasoline-powered steel boxes at nominally high speeds. If people were like FedEx packages, that's all we would require to get around. Such hunks of matter would leave point A in one form, and generally arrive at point B in the same form.

A lot of official public policy appears to think of people like that: mindless hunks of matter that just need to move from place to place as quickly as possible like freight, in cars, planes, and trains. Most of our cities and suburbs are designed precisely that way.

If you envision such a system highlighted with bright flashing friction points along the way which slow down the moving packages long enough to separate them from some or all of their money before shoving them back on their routes toward their destinations, adding to their mass either junk made in China or excess food the hunks of matter require for neither sustenance or motion, then you have captured the essence of how we think of ourselves, apparently, because that seems to be the structure of most of the architecture, cityscapes, landscapes, and transport systems that we have built for ourselves.

ENTER HERE, says the arch

I don't see myself, or you for that matter, like that at all. Rather, I choose to think of you and me as self-aware, time-aware, memory-creating organisms, and try to imagine the kind of environment that we could thrive in, as well as ways of moving around that environment which take into account our greater-than-freight selves. 

You already know my go-to option for getting around is the bicycle. Today I rode down to the southern part of Phoenix to see the works by Mags Harries and Lajos Héder along the Highline Canal. This team has been mentioned on this blog before, in glowing terms, for both Wall Cycle to Ocotillo and Arizona Falls, because they really know how to build things which speak to us as being much greater than mere hunks of matter moving from place to place.

All that would be required to get from one place to another along the canal would be to pave both sides and let cars drive down them, too, walled in by blank gray noise walls to damp down the noise and desperation so as to lessen the disturbance to the closely packed economic node resting pods just on the other side. Done. 

Thankfully, some people, including some people who can influence public policy, as well as some people who can influence or direct public projects, as well as voters, have recognized that we are greater than freight, and have directed monies toward enhancing our environments, sometimes those environments which are conducive to walking, cycling, or horseback riding along those canals, such that self-aware, time-aware, memory-creating organisms might benefit from them. The Zanjero's Line is one of those projects.

This is a series of features along the canal which are person-scaled, and which anchor the place within its history, geography, and recent, yet not immediate, memory. They are not designed at all for moving from place to place, except, I suppose, for the bridges which cross a canal which is as wide as a modest long jump. Rather, they are intended to tickle the neurons of self-aware, time-aware, memory-creating organisms as they move from t(0) to t(n).

The zanjero, in case you didn't click on the link at the top of the post to the Harries and Héder site, is the person who controls the flow of the water through the irrigation system, usually by opening and closing valves, although I think they are also the ones who position the siphon pipes or operate the pumps on the systems that use them. Say what you will about water politics, the sustainability challenges of irrigation, and so on, but the zanjeros are the workers with the dirt under their fingernails out there making a living. I use the present tense in that previous sentence because although this particular canal doesn't provide employment for any or many zanjeros in the present time, they are still at work in this valley controlling the flow of water.

So, not just a stretch of pavement for moving from place to place, but instead art that in part reminds us of how earlier self-aware, time-aware, memory-creating organisms in this area made a living. In turn, giving us places on quiet, warm Sunday afternoons to pause a moment in the shade, to reflect on how we ourselves are connected to them through time, and to this running water in this moment. And this one. And the next one. 

This was about a 40 mile ride that included negotiating a route all around the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport. On the east side, I took Priest Drive, which is quite a distance east of the airport itself, but probably the best choice for a cyclist who needs to get around it. On the west side, I took 24th Street, which forms the western end of the airport, and is also a good route for a ride. There were some fun stops along the way that I will save for another post.

Today, in terms of place, I ended up exactly where I started. In terms of time, awareness, thought, self, and memory, though, I moved from t(0) to t(n) and am a different person after that journey. 

I am greater than freight. So are you. Get up. Go ride.


  1. Wait a second. If the world comes to an end in 2012 as some claim to believe, how do people born in 2008 live to be 78.4 years old?

  2. I'm digging those buckets!
    Are they bronze?
    Took me a while to get the symbolism, if that's what it is.

  3. Steve, not that we can be 100% certain based on the track record of the countless deluded people who previously believed they knew the precised end date of the universe and were wrong, but I am willing to bet 2012 ain't it (again), and would be more than happy to take any nice steel road bikes off the hands of those who are committed to that date, since they won't need it anyway.

    I believe those buckets are cast iron, limom. The artists' site linked above says the bucket column is "a take on Brancusi’s Endless Column". Only shorter, and more buckety.

  4. I've wanted to explore this canal since you posted this. I was struck by how the size of the canal influenced the quality of the ride. On other canals the width limits your interaction with the other users. I was able to greet and have conversations with people on the other side of the canal, which cannot be done on the Grand Canal or the Arizona canal.

    ***You may or may not want to edit this out.***

    I saw another very small lane that you describe in your post about the "Interesting Lane Indicator" at 7th St. & the Rio Salado path. At the top of the riverbank is a pond with a resident beaver. I found this out when I realized that I was having a staring contest with the beaver as I was taking a break on the way home from the Highline Canal. A very pleasant surprise. Anyway, maybe the Parks Department wanted to create a lane for the beaver(s) to get down to the river bottom? They just don't have a beaver stencil and just used one that they have on hand.

  5. mseintempe, great observations about the Highline, I found something similar. You can basically long jump this canal, which ends up making it feel a little more social.

    Regarding the Rio Salado, there's a lot of wildlife down there as they develop the riparian demonstration area. I acknowledge the fragile existence of any water mammals that may have taken up residence there, but my main concern for them would be the coyotes which prowl the water courses of the city looking for food, and I'm pretty sure the scrawny wily canines do not count themselves among the select readership of this blog. Beaver stencil: what a wonderful world it would be if more city parks departments had a shortage of those, wouldn't it?


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