GENE LOGSDON: Watching The Basketballs Float By


The Contrary Farmer

There’s always something new headed your way, especially if you live beside a river. I visited Wendell Berry recently and we had the most marvelous time just sitting on his porch watching the Kentucky River flow by. The whole state had been experiencing serious flooding at that time and the river was way out of banks, licking up against his garden. Not as high as the “Thirty Seven Flood,” as it is referred to in Kentucky, which covered what would become his garden. (Everyone along the river knows exactly how high that famous flood rose, either in memory and with in-land markers.) We were discussing the awful erosion this part of Kentucky has suffered because of last few years’ corn and soybean craze that suckered landowners to once again cultivate land that their ancestors had learned the hard way should be kept in pasture. We had seen lots of gullies newly gouged out the rolling landscape on our way to Wendell’s farm. I was wondering how much mud would be deposited in the Gulf of Mexico just from this flood. Then Wendell said, in that tone of voice he assumes when he is about to say something droll: “But I haven’t seen any basketballs float by for an hour or so.”

“Please?” We were at the height of March Madness at the time, but basketball was not a part of the kind of madness we were discussing.

“When the water comes up this high this fast, hundreds of basketballs and soccer balls come floating past,” Wendell said.

I started watching for basketballs. In a flood on a big river like this, the debris all goes to the center of the river. It looks like a ribbon of something almost solid out there. One big white thing bobbing by at that moment, Wendell said, was part of a floating boat dock popular along the river. Some lumps were logs. Most were unidentifiable. The flooding river was much more fascinating to watch than a basketball game. Whatever happens to all that flotsam? (I haven’t found out yet.)

“Used to be, corn shocks floated down in flood waters,” he went on. “There was a fellow years ago famous for his flock of privies sitting up on his land above the river. He had a power boat he used during floods to drag them out of the river. Could use them for all sorts of things.”

That reminded me of another famous river rat, Harlan Hubbard, whom I had visited on the banks of the Ohio River years ago. He had pulled a huge roll of paper from the river. Water had soaked the outer two inches or so but he said he gained enough usable paper to last a lifetime. Some of the lumber in the house he had built (above the Thirty Seven Flood waterline to be sure) came from the river too. When I told these stories to Carol’s family whom we visited later, they remembered a relative who lived along the upper Mississippi. He and a neighbor had great fun competing with each other. When they spotted something floating by that looked interesting they would jump in their canoes and see who could latch on to it first.

Big Data could count the basketballs floating by and correlate it with the density of the mud in the water. Then it could figure out how to deduce from the number of basketballs per hour how much erosion was taking place on the hillsides. If the counters really tweaked the numbers enough, they  might be able to tell us whether the madness of soil erosion has gone up with the madness of March basketball. Cultural historians, at least mad ones like me, would love to know whether sports madness has any causal relationship to farming madness.