Downstream Effects

Author: Rebecca J Fiala orcid logo (University of Illinois Chicago College of Medicine, USA)

  • Downstream Effects


    Downstream Effects



This poem describes a riverine flood that occurred on Salt Creek (the Little Des Plaines River), Brookfield, Cook County, Illinois (4th congressional district), US, as part of extensive regional flooding in the Chicago area on April 18-19, 2013. Both case report and epic, this hyperlocal work is a post-postmodern (metamodern) baroque exploration of human systems and sense-making as revealed through natural disaster. An update is provided in the author note. Three illustrations accompany this poem.

Keywords: alienation, Chicagoland, climate change, environmental justice, flooding, gerrymandering, housing, land use, natural disaster, poetry, river, suburb

How to Cite:

Fiala, R. J., (2022) “Downstream Effects”, Anthropocenes – Human, Inhuman, Posthuman 3(1). doi:



Published on
01 Dec 2022
Peer Reviewed

Downstream Effects

Look          around.                             We’re                     all
                                  on a need-         to-             know basis
                    Whenever I think of it,
I swing by.                          Who knows             what
                                                                  she’ll say
                                                or do.      Today, the creek
is meek,                 easily cros-
                                                sed in a bound;
                    the next, roiling; then, skit-
                                  or teeming;                           still placid,
                                                a nar-
                                                                  row, svelte s,
                    dashed on canvas
                                   to sug-
                                               gest calmness,
quietude, a peaceful life
Languid,                latent in late sum-
                                                                  mer, we’re both
                    slow movers
Barely a buggy drainage ditch,
                    but neon green bal-
                                                                  lroom dream for water
                    striders;          drinking
                    hole      for cautious four-             leg-
                                                                                     gers who leave
                                   canopy and cover                               to meet her;
                    BMX and singletrack style points;                                  a site
                                   for secret plans,                                 strategies;
                                               a tranquil set-
                                                                  ting for long-      delayed talks,
                                   laughter,                                                                     touch,
kiss, embrace;                  variety for sidestep-
                                                                                     ping hikers—
                                   a chance             to stabilize,
                    picking through,            with walking sticks—
                    ensuring the bit-
                                               ter smell of sunbaked algae will not
cling mosquito-              bite tight                  and fol-
                                                                                                      low. Overhead,
a dragonfly lopes                              then scoots. Photographers
                    drop in,           take what they need, slice
back through the woods,               arrow- eyed,
                                   looking for bonus, might-             as-
well shots,                         snatching them up
                    like lost coins. You never know
                                                                                     how things
                                                                  will turn out
                    denly, she pitches in,        retel-
                                                                                     ling the old stories
                    So excited,                        so relieved,
                                   amid so much
change, to share                                                  her long days
                                                                  of youth,                freedom,
                    unobserved by guidelines,          expectations,            plans,
protocols,              deployments,   deadlines—          before finance,
mapmakers,         surveyors,          builders,
                    investors came               and went through
this afterthought town,
                                   perpetually up-                and-       coming
                    latecomer,                        after perspective was lost,
                                   before experience could be pas-
                                                                                                     sed along
                                                                                    or gained,
quickly funded,               expediently developed in response
                                                                                    to demand spikes,
                                               last trainline tract                 built quickly
                                   among its neighbors,
                    an enclave, an outpost, a fringe
                                   of renters, starters, and others
living where we can—                    discon-
                                                                                   nected from/
                    nected to        the city in new
ways,        by ger-
                                   rymander—     in a val-
cool, sheltered bot-
                                               tomland, trap-
                                                                                   ping ter-
subdivided into pel-
                                               letized property, PEZ plots,
                    songbird-      abundant                pass-       through land,
                    carefully skirted
                                               in native set-
                                                                                    tlement maps
                                   [this poem was composed on land
                    native tribes, including the Chippewa, Ottawa,
                    and Potawatomi, held in safekeeping until 1816],
bound by the earlier,     wiser,    wealthier,                higher. Old
                    Mother gets big-
                                               ger, looming
                    from within a hud-
                                               dled, captive audience
Laying paral-
                                   lel all night,                           I leave
                                                                    before sunrise, locking
the door behind me.                                              Yet, I arrive
                                               to find myself
                   trailing behind,
                                   having once again misgues-
                                                                                                     sed her moods,
                                   capabilities, having mis-
                   points of change,                                cause-                    effect,
                                   wishing to please                              the unpleasable
                                   This is not the first time
I have thought                 I was safe
                                                                    when I was not
                                   I have thought                                   I was unsafe
when I was safe.             I do not know. I
                                   not tell.                 Although the staff gauge
                                   is regularly repainted,                    we long ago
                   abandoned documenting
or began covering
                                                                    waterline dates—
though with so many                         recent 100-        year storms
                                   we’d have to mark streets
and sidewalks                 blocks away now,                  the creek
                   having so far overtaken,                               outdistanced
                                   the bridge meant to span and track it
                   Perhaps we all do             have something to forget
                                                                                                     or hide
Inside, we wait,                     reenacting normal,
                   monitoring private
                                                                    then shared        sentinel sites,
                                   low-         lying areas        where water gathers
                   like a tale
coming back to the tel-
                                       through the retel-
                                                                            ling, memory
                    being           the original trickster
Each reflective surface                           presages another
                                                       At night, we can-
                                                                                          not see
the broody pud-
                                    dles expand,           the network advance
We guess,               each with our own
                    mental gauges, fil-
                                                       ling in accord with the too-           near
tap of rainfall, which sounds dif-
                                                                                          ferent, calibrated
                    individually          within each home. No glint,
                    no glim-
                                    mer,        no shine in the shadows,
                    though the level rises                          steadily, in unison,
                                    concealing earth’s variability
                                                       with new
reveals glossy, uniform surfaces                        in one palette
                    where before        were limitless                         textures,
shapes,                    colors of our personal interactions
                                                       with habit, space
Until now,              with the water
                                                       in motion,                                we couldn’t see
                    how the earth                        was worn, shaped
                                    by her hands
                                                                        Old Mother’s desire paths grow,
                                    leaving her mark:
                    a fur-
                                    row between yards,
                                                       an imprint snaking
                                                                        beneath fence lines,
                                                                                          ping into garages
and under siding, waterfal-
                                                       ling over
                                                             poured slabs—
                                       the old route.          Freshly,
the earth feels                           her hands
                     working the clay, compres-
                                                             sing corners,
                     crafting edges, pounding, pres-
                                                                             sing deeper
all the sweet spots,
                     confidently heeling in          further than before,
                                                     len, sod-
                                                             den, as clear run-            off
                     is replaced
by a new opacity
                                                             After a time,
                     the creek may well
catch a toe                              at the bend of the bridge,     spraying,
                                       ling, washing over           mushrooms, soft
and sturdy,                              a fairy ring, that flexes,
                                       sways in a pres-
                                                             sure-              burst-      release
cascade of sun-                    sparkle and foam
                     Sometime later, she                        may hook a knee,
looping                                    to a resting squat,
                                       full of energy,                  before standing
                                                                                                    at full height
                     in the steady swing that announces:
                                       The      Show      Has        Begun
Small fish greedily fol-
                                                     low Old Mother’s                angled,
                     swirling trails. Occasionally,
                                       panfish are stranded,                            orphaned
and pocketed,                               trying to make sense
                     of a partial story                  from a loving,
but forgetful, parent,        gasping,                              gaping,
                     their mouths                              tangled in another les-
                        Unsure who       is more out of place, we
eye one other
                                     on the perpendicular
                        Out of bounds. The water is                                out
                                     of              bounds.                      The creek              jumps
the bank.                  Those closest begin moving things
                        (Just in case)     to higher shelves,                    rol-
                                                                                                                ling rugs,
carefully set-
                        ting valuables                      on the steps up, warning
                                     others to be careful,                laughing, reas-
themselves against paranoia,                                 trying not to alarm
                                     those who are not alarmed,
                        considering whether more should be done,
                                     not wanting panic
to invite destruction,
                        left alone
                                     with self-                  recrimination
                                                       and the renewed resolutions
                                     of someone who
knows bet-
                                     ter—      having eliminated                    then allowed
                        wood,                 textiles,                  paper,         electronics
                                     in this place that is             ours but not ours, or
                                                       ours but only                             temporarily, or
                        ours on loan,
during dry weeks only
                                     We do what we can, put-
                                                                                                     ting roots
down                         to stretch out wherever pos-
for this short life, dig-
                                     ging in,                                                holding
on with money                                  from tomor-
                                                                                                     row’s pockets [as
determined by underwriters]. Abruptly, we attune
                        to the sadness
                                     of those who slept
here before,                                    tied by a com-
                                                                                              mon clinging
                        to should-               be, masked by fear
                                                             of losing what’s not yet
taken.                       Who’ll be next?                           Who           is
                        downstream?                            Do they                   know?
                                   It is enough
                                                             to make a strong man lie
Old                Mother                       loves to talk about Noah
                        (An elaboration                       obviously more true
                                   because it’s so much bet-
                                                                                              ter her way:
                        Water                        sets the world spin-
                                   though Noah’s story was not
                        about delight but hor-
                                                                                ror,      obliteration
A bub-
                        ble then a drip. Sud-
                                                                                denly,                    a faint,
                        unfamiliar stream
and only slowly                            a quiet lap-
                                                                                ping    that could be
                        a small animal grooming                  or drinking,
unquestioningly comforted by neces-
                                                                                sity’s routines
                        of self-                    care
There is often a lull                    before upstream
water col-
                        lides, gathers,                          mer-
                                                                                              rily rushing
                                                                                forward                 like progress
or How-                  you-             been old friends,                    reunited
                        by chance,                                  pushing away Plan A, going
in together, joining up tables,
                        palming and pul-
                                                          ling vacant two-                      tops,
                                   asking/                             not asking
                                                           for all the coat
                       and purse chairs. Everyone makes way,
moving aside or leaving,                     maybe grudgingly, maybe
                                   with more options or bet-
                                                                                         ter plans anyway
                       Some can                or must              adapt,
                                   match and embrace the spirit,
                       staying on
                                                                             The rain slows
or even stops.                               The sun peeks in.              The dog
                       always needs walking.                     One man goes out
for his Bet-
                                   ter-                be-         double-                bag-
newspaper. Another
opens a beer.                                 A young couple wanders
                       their now clean deck barefoot, wine glas-
                                                                                                             ses in hand,
deciding whether/                     when      to open a fresh bot-
An older couple                                             sends the kids
to the store. Others roam                                      to expand
                                                           the information radius
                                   by foot                           and by pad-
                                                                                                             dle or oar
                       Tilted and tucked away                    for just this day,
                                   leaf-              covered watercraft
whisk out,                                      push off,                                and glide
                       from                          all                          directions
This is before                                explosive violence,
                       external concus-
                                                           sion         and a disar-
that descends stairs                   before ascending them,
                       switching back,                     like a rid-
                                                                                           dle,           a prank,
                         a practical joke, while also
                                       locating new internal
stairwells to climb—                   strad-
                                                                              dling both,
a mir-
                         ror-     image dance,                            a race to the top
                         at matched pace,                  a sloshy visual echo
A mute effortles-
                                       sness cuts off
the household’s rut-
                                                             ted traf-
                                                                              fic pat-
                                                                                               terns,     severing
                         daily bookend routes. An insubstantial
substantiality                            fills the space, speaking quickly,
                         clearly to the body,
                                       in no uncertain terms, with stop-
ping force:
                         Get out.                  You don’t belong here
                                       Old Mother has the floor
Doors blow off hinges,                                sending knob and lockset
to the opposite wall,                  revealing the futility
                         of locks and doors. The water
                                       relocates to separate
                                                                              rooms the washer
and dryer;                  the legs on the wash
splay in the heave and tus-
                                       Once inside, Old Mother does
not restrain curiosity—                             and sometimes
                         just likes
                                       to stir the pot.         Precisely, gently,
                         she will turn                         objects stored
in corners                  by 90 degrees, swal-
one shoe whole                              but toy-                boating another
                         Guiding from beneath a box
                                        through a wob-
                                                                              ble to a slow bob,
                          as if reading contents before consumption
or instructions                              before use,
                                                            she mindles-
                                                                                              sly replaces it
on the same shelf,                                         perhaps in favor
                          of a healthier       or faster option. Nah,
                                                                                                           she says
                                        Don’t need that
The rain returns.                          The pause returns, mixing
                          thoughts,              feelings                 with no bearing
                                        on a changing situation                   or outcomes
Rising floodwater is quiet,                                        except
                          during a change of direction
                          or an expansion,                                 when it reclaims
a former position                                           after a long time away
                                                            In a house,           it’s like
                                        water folding            and unfolding,                shaking
                          it off, shaking it out,                          just starting over
and refolding for a trim-
                                        mer fit in a reorganized area. It curls
It crimps. Then,                            it sounds like applause,
starting slow
                          and ending slowly
while a frog and cricket sing
After the river                               has receded,
                          after the stream recedes,
                                        amid the skid-
                                                                              ding, stained withdrawal
of slow, spore-                             saturated silt,
                          along the sludgy, belched-             up
                                                                                              banks appear things
the creek has taken and combined                        with things tos-
                                                                                                                            sed in
                                        on another day                        or decade,
                          items discarded guiltily,                                    accidentally lost,
                          perhaps taken by surprise
                                       in spring sunshine—             in addition
                          to objects that must
                                       have required an accomplice,          surely
                                                            a two-      person job
                                                                               Although, if pres-
Old Mother, who denies nothing
                                       and makes no promises,                    may just
                          find her
                                       way around to admit-
                                                                               ting, nearly brag-
                          that she did it all                  herself! She sure
could               use      a nice bench,                            a six- pack,
                          a flowerpot—                         and why not   take up
                                       smoking again                        at this point?
                          What are                you            gonna do about it?
Go on.                           Although she may break you          if she can,
                          can’t help              but love her,
                                       but don’t expect her
to thank you for it


April 19, 2013: Two green sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus) were found in the author’s basement. Initially thought to be dead, they were safely and swiftly returned to the creek.

March 15, 2016: Brookfield (IL, US) Canoe Launch, Salt Creek Water Trails.

Scharf, A. F. (1900). Indian Trails and Villages of Chicago and of Cook, DuPage and Will Counties, Ills. (1804): As Shown by Weapons and Implements of the Stone Age. Scharf Map.pdf. Retrieved August 30, 2022.

Author Notes

The Native American, Anishinaabeg (Nishnaabe, Neshnabé) tribes listed—the Council of Three Fires, representing the Ojibweg (Chippewa), Odawak (Odawa), and Bodéwadmik (Potawatomi)—and the date shown are from Kircher, M. G., ed. Brookfield, Illinois: A History,1 in reference to the Treaty of St Louis (1816), 1 of 14 such treaties signed in the St Louis, Missouri, area.

The riverine flood described occurred on Salt Creek (the Little Des Plaines River), Brookfield, Cook County, IL (4th congressional district), US, as part of extensive regional flooding in the Chicago area on April 18–19, 2013, only a few years after the global financial crisis. Many local households that barely survived the manmade financial systems disaster were ruined by this natural disaster.2

Perhaps surprisingly, the hero of the story in this case was business interests. The insurance companies that carry Federal Emergency Management Agency flood protection policies sued the municipality (along with many others) for illegally storing water in people’s homes.3 Although the lawsuit was dropped,4 the willingness to act appeared to result in changes to federal flood mapping and improvements to the village’s mitigation efforts,5 despite inconsistent local cooperation in collaborative data-sharing and planning processes.6

Independent of community engagement and, relatedly, accurate property transfer disclosure data,7 eventually the land tells us about itself. This poem addresses a personal reckoning of this kind—along with the concept and challenges of ownership amid ongoing displacements8 that result from neglectful relationships toward nature and each other within larger, interconnected sets of often non-supportive human systems.

I believe this work will be of interest to others processing a flood experience, of which there are a great many within the United States9 and, sadly, elsewhere.10 It helps people to have our problems, experiences, and observations described when we are left wordless by climate trauma; we feel heard, understood, and better able to reclaim agency,11 regardless of whether we feel or ultimately take the opportunity to join one another to ‘rework ourselves’ within a fuller understanding of place and human community.12


  1. Brookfield, IL: Brookfield History Book Committee, 1994.
  2. Uphues, B. (2013). One for the record books. Riverside-Brookfield Landmark. April 23, 2013. Available at: Retrieved August 30, 2022; Uphues, B. (2013). Brookfield offers help for flood control. Riverside-Brookfield Landmark. June 11, 2013. Available at: Retrieved September 12, 2022; Uphues, B. (2014). Brookfield’s new building boom. Riverside-Brookfield Landmark. January 28, 2014. Available at: Retrieved August 30, 2022.
  3. Ziezulewicz, G. (2014). Insurance co. sues Will County, 12 towns over flood damage. Chicago Tribune. April 29, 2014. Available at: Retrieved August 31, 2022; Uphues, B. (2014). Insurance firm wants to recoup flood payouts. Riverside-Brookfield Landmark. April 29, 2014. Available at: Retrieved August 31, 2022.
  4. Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School. (2014). Illinois Farmers Insurance Co. v. Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. U.S. Climate Change Litigation database. Available at: Retrieved August 30, 2022.
  5. Uphues, B. (201). Brookfield pump station a go for 2016. Riverside-Brookfield Landmark. February 2, 2016. Available at: Retrieved August 30, 2022; Uphues, B. (2021). Streets, basements flood after June 26 deluge. Riverside-Brookfield Landmark. June 29, 2021. Retrieved September 12, 2022; Uphues, B. (2022). Brookfield to restart cost share for home flood-control systems. Riverside-Brookfield Landmark. March 22, 2022. Available at: Retrieved August 30, 2022.
  6. Federal Emergency Management Agency. (2014). 3.3.19 Brookfield, Village of Summary (CID 170066). In Flood Risk Report Des Plaines River Watershed, 07120004 (pp. 88–90). Available at: Retrieved August 30, 2022; Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. (2018). Lower Salt Creek Watershed-based Plan. Available at: Retrieved September 12, 2022; Cook County Department of Emergency Management and Regional Security. (2019). Cook County Multijurisdictional Hazard Mitigation Plan. Vol 2: Municipal Annexes: Brookfield Annex. Available at: Retrieved September 12, 2022.
  7. Hersher, R. (2020). Living in harm’s way: why most flood risk is not disclosed. All Things Considered; National Public Radio. October 20, 2020. Available at: Retrieved September 13, 2022; Frank, T. (2021). Home sales need better disclosure of flood risk, experts say. Scientific American. February 2, 2021. Available at: Retrieved September 13, 2022; Natural Resources Defense Council. (2022). How states stack up on flood disclosure. Available at: Retrieved September 13, 2022; Federal Emergency Management Agency. (2022). Flood Risk Disclosure: Model State Requirements for Disclosing Flood Risk during Real Estate Transactions. Available at: Retrieved September 13, 2022.
  8. See note 2.
  9. U.S. Geological Survey. (2022). Water resources of the United States: project alert postings. Available at: Retrieved August 30, 2022.
  10. FloodList. Floods and flooding. Oderbruch, Germany, European Union. Available at: Retrieved August 30, 2022.
  11. Illingworth, S. (2020). ‘This Bookmark Gauges the Depths of the Human’: How Poetry Can Help to Personalise Climate Change. Geoscience Communication, 3: 35–47. DOI: Retrieved August 30, 2022; Bentz, J. (2020). Learning about Climate Change in, with and through Art. Climatic Change, 162: 1595–1612. DOI: Retrieved August 30, 2022; Carroll, R. (2005). Finding the Words to Say It: The Healing Power of Poetry. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2(2): 161–172. DOI: Retrieved September 1, 2022; Sima, R. (n.d.). More than words: why poetry is good for our health. International Arts + Mind Lab. Available at: Retrieved September 1, 2022; Srivastava, M. (2021). Can poetry heal collective trauma? Thesacredwell (blog). August 25, 2021. Available at: Retrieved September 1, 2022; Ataga, J., & McNiece, Z. (n.d.). Poetic meaning-making: a new path to trauma work. NBCC Visions. Available at: Retrieved September 1, 2022; Sax, A. (2019). Understanding trauma: the healing process of poetry. Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry (blog). March 5, 2019. Available at: Retrieved September 1, 2022.
  12. Plumwood, V. (2007). A review of Deborah Bird Rose’s ‘Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation.’ Australian Humanities Review. Retrieved August 30, 2022.

Competing Interests

The author has no competing interests to declare.