After some 13 years spent paddling his canoe on Peachtree Creek, the open sewer and dumping ground that cuts like a belt across Atlanta's midsection, Dave Kaufman has some pretty trenchant observations about what that polluted, neglected stream reveals about the city we call home. In Peachtree Creek: A Natural and Unnatural History of Atlanta's Watershed, this telecommunications-technology strategist by day encounters a largely invisible remnant of a long-gone Atlanta snaking beneath interstates and parking lots where homeless people live, garbage is dumped and our distance from the natural world grows.
What inspired you to first begin your 13-year exploration of Peachtree Creek? Initially when I was a kid and first came to Atlanta, I was living on Clairmont Road near the VA Hospital and would get out and explore, walk down the railroad tracks and came upon the ruins of the old Decatur Waterworks. As a kid it was really exciting to find all this stuff there. I was kind of intrigued by what this was and how it got there. And then, as I got older and was commuting through Atlanta, I would see it crossing various places, Peachtree Road of course on Clairmont, all the way out to the Chattahoochee, so I was wondering how it came through the city. And then finally, as I was getting into my late 20s, I started doing a lot of canoeing. I saw this body of water, it was like, "Well, why isn't anybody jumping in here? It's right in our own back yard."
What did you want people to take away from reading Peachtree Creek? An awareness. One thing that I certainly suffered from as a kid is the world appeared very encapsulated. It's TV, it's roads, it's cars, it's going to work, going to school. It's detached from nature. We kind of lose that foundation that we are part of an ecosystem. Despite the fact that we can engineer culverts and dams and things like that, water is still a source of life, and you can't just turn your back on it. You can't just pave over it and ignore it ad infinitum and expect all the problems to stay put.
Shortly after watching Deliverance as a kid, your father announced you were moving to Atlanta. How have your initial movie impressions of the South jibed with the reality of living here? You never discovered any bodies on Peachtree Creek, did you? No, but I discovered a lot of things that our culture has rejected. It's interesting. How do you find a piano in a creek? Or lawn mowers? Velour couches? Trucks? While I never found any bodies, I think about some of the homeless people that have lived along it and really have no idea about the contamination state and getting in and bathing. I came across this couple having sex in the creek one day. They kind of freaked out when I walked up there. And I was like, "Look, I don't care what you're doing, but that water's really dirty."
Your book really chronicles a host of invisible aspects of the city: its history, where our trash and waste end up, the homeless who camp by the creek. Was it ever sad or frustrating to spend so much time contemplating things most Atlantans seem completely oblivious to? It was kind of nice, actually, to have places that are right in the city but nobody knows about or very few people do. I'd see a couple fishing down there or something, seeking out that same kind of thing. These places are there, and there are still people that enjoy them, but the frustration comes back to the water quality. Where else could you go fish in metro Atlanta? But obviously, anything you pull out of there needs to go back in or be put out of its misery. Ugh.
The only disappointing aspect is the level of isolation from the environment that a lot of us feel. One phenomenon that I saw when I looked at the Peachtree Road bridge, I could see three generations of bridge. The first one was just a stone bridge, probably one lane for walking horses; the whole idea was just being able to get across the creek and then progressively they got taller and wider so that [with] the final one, most people don't even know they're crossing water. It's more important to get across it fast.
Your long journey on the creek also allowed you to meet a lot of marginal people you would probably not encounter in your day-to-day life. How did the journey change your perceptions? You talked about one homeless man in particular. Most of the time when I approached people in that kind of setting they would typically take off. Very skittish. This guy was very cordial and as we talked it just became very apparent to me that I had a lot of stereotypes in my head about homeless people. And with this individual in particular it became very apparent he didn't have the skills to survive in what is actually a pretty complex society, to understand the dynamics of finding a place to live to paying rent on a regular basis to holding a job and dealing with all of those issues – the things a lot of us take for granted. Not everyone has that set of skills, that cultural understanding.
When I walked back to my car it looked a whole lot more impressive than when I got out of it. All of a sudden I realized that I was fortunate in a lot of ways.
It is easy in a rapidly developing city like Atlanta to lose touch with nature. Do you have any recommendations about what people can do to connect with nature and bring it into their lives in a meaningful way? Well, I'm a firm believer in getting out – especially people with kids – getting out, getting away from the TV, getting away from technologically based entertainment. Don't get me wrong, that's where my career is. I'm as much into the technology as anyone else. But take the time to get out there and walk around a park or sit on the edge of a creek or turn some rocks over and become aware of the natural world.
You end the book on a relatively positive note about the ability of Atlanta to be a better caretaker of its natural environment. What makes you feel optimistic? I am optimistic that the awareness has been raised, and there have been stated commitments by the city to deal with some of the problems. At the same time, with the level of development this will never get back to being that "natural" stream. That's the environmental side. The socioeconomic side, I'm not that optimistic about it. If anything, we grow more callous, more unaccepting of people that may have a social deficit for whatever reason. Atlanta passed the no-panhandling ordinance. Not that it ever got enforced, but it's just kind of a statement about how we're going to treat that portion of the populace.
You basically spent 13 years canoeing in a garbage heap. Did you take any precautions to protect your health beyond donning a wet suit and trying to stay out of the water? No, that was pretty much it. I did wear two pairs of shoes, these nylon wet-suit boots that you would typically wear with a wet suit, and then I'd wear tennis shoes over them. I think, quite honestly, I learned more about the water quality after. I knew it wasn't good but I really didn't know how bad it was.
You also participated in a 1992 trip to Greenland to recover some planes left on a glacier during World War II. Is there some connection between that search for abandoned objects and history and your interest in the overlooked, neglected creek? Absolutely. I actually started Peachtree Creek in 1990 before the Greenland thing. I often say I combined three hobbies: photography, exploration and canoeing. And the exploration of it was great; I could just drive down to the creek and find something. The Greenland thing popped up as kind of a lifetime adventure but with huge investment all the way around. You don't just get up in the morning and decide you're going to go to Greenland and find some aircraft. There's a whole lot of prep involved.
Do you have any advice for people wanting to explore the creek themselves? I hope it inspires them to explore. I would not recommend trying to canoe or boat any part of it. The two biggest things are pollution and the changing water levels. I talk about that at one point, a guy almost drowning. So I would absolutely encourage them to get out and explore, find out where it is relative to them and try to find an access point and just go out and go for a walk and see what they find.
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