Reading the River An author fishes for meaning in current books, films, and Web sites
Most of us who love rivers trace our passion to a stream. Mine was modest: a woodland brook that tumbled down a maple and chokecherry hillside and into the warm muddy river that flowed from an impounded lake. Standing barefoot and thigh-deep in that ice-cold current and gripping a fishing rod remains my most vivid childhood memory. The symbolism of the cle
ar brook mixing with the muddy water along a fish-rich seam has fed my surface and subsurface consciousness for five decades.
A mega-size documentary, Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk, is the newest and splashiest of dozens of books, movies, and Web sites about rivers. The rough cut I saw captured the majesty of the gorges, and watching Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and company crash through the rapids of Lava Falls in 3-D IMAX may come close to evoking a trip down the Colorado River.
In her more modest DVD Love Song to Glen Canyon (Katydid Books & Music, 2007), folksinger Katie Lee, nearing 90, combines music, spoken narrative, and a collection of extraordinary photographs to weave an elegy to the Colorado River's spectacular upper reaches, submerged when it was dammed to create Lake Powell in 1963. Her sensuous photographs of the sculpted red sandstone and geometric patterns of light and shade create an unforgettable visual record of remembrance and regret.
The friends of rivers these days are often found in courtrooms. Coal River (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), by Michael Shnayerson, is the densely reported story of a band of West Virginia residents and a crusading lawyer who battle the Massey Energy Company over its practice of mountaintop-removal mining. The method decapitates and despoils mountains by removing their forest cover, soil, and rock to extract deposits of low-sulfur coal. The waste is dumped in valleys, burying streams and creating massive impoundments that continue to pollute other waterways.
Of course, industrial humans have been ravaging rivers for centuries. Rivers in History: Perspectives on Waterways in Europe and North America (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008), edited by Christof Mauch and Thomas Zeller, offers a fascinating collection of scholarly essays. Some of the passages are eye-opening: "Since the Civil War, the [U.S. Army] Corps [of Engineers] has rendered some 26,000 miles of waterways navigable to vessels drawing nine feet, thus turning the United States into one of the world's most extensive hydrological systems."
To really understand the dangers rivers, and by extension humankind, face, read When the Rivers Run Dry: Water--The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century, by Fred Pearce (Beacon Press, 2005). His survey shows how wasteful agriculture depletes aquifers faster than they can be recharged by rainfall and how once-powerful rivers, sucked dry by thirsty and heedless desert cities, reach the sea as trickles, and sometimes not at all.
Some of the most useful information about rivers can now be found online. The River Alliance of Wisconsin, for example, offers personal stories in "River Words" and a slideshow, "Cows in the Rivers," that invites readers to post photographic testimony of damage done by livestock. And the York Rivers Association's Web site describes how residents of a small Maine town are using the Internet to protect and celebrate their coastal river gems.
Saving Homewaters: The Story of Montana's Streams and Rivers (The Countryman Press, 2008) is Gordon Sullivan's account of the battles to protect Montana's waterways and a fisherman's prayer of thanks. The emotional pull of rivers is a long-standing strain in American letters, and the personal narrative is often the means of expression. Some of the masterworks: My Story as Told by Water (David James Duncan), The Longest Silence (Thomas McGuane), The River Home (Franklin Burroughs), and A River Runs Through It (Norman Maclean). Sullivan's perspective bends his book's observations toward trout, insect hatches, and tackle-shop heroes and provides an inspirational reminder of the power of citizen activism.
Sullivan, we learn deep in his chronicle, was communications director of the Anaconda Company's Butte operation. He suggests that he left the mining company because it was a polluter--a narrative of personal conversion I hope he decides one day to write. It would give us one more example of the power of rivers to change our lives.
Lou Ureneck (pictured above) is the author of Backcast: Fatherhood, Fly-Fishing, and a River Journey Through the Heart of Alaska (St. Martin's Press, 2007).
Sierra accidentally dropped Lisa Margonelli's bio from the March/April "Mixed Media" about oil. That was particularly dumb because Margonelli, an Irvine fellow, wrote Oil on the Brain: Petroleum's Long Strange Trip to Your Tank (Doubleday, 2007), now in paperback.
The Ties That Bind
"I wanted to pull my son back into my life. What I had failed to appreciate, of course, was Adam's view of the expedition. For him, the trip meant spending ten days with his discredited father in a small raft and an even smaller tent. It was not where he had wanted to be, not now, not with me, and not in the rain. The trip would take us through 110 miles of rugged Alaska, some of it dangerous and all of it, to us anyway, uncharted. I had no inkling of what lay ahead: fickle early fall weather, the mystery of the river, and unseen obstacles that already were silently forming themselves in opposition to my plans." —from Backcast: Fatherhood, Fly-Fishing, and a River Journey Through the Heart of Alaska, by Lou Ureneck
On the Eco-Couch
In its February issue, San Francisco magazine identified a new phenomenon--eco-neurosis--and trotted out an assortment of stressed-out residents to lament global warming's impact on their psyches. One, for example, said she now spends her weekly therapy sessions angsting about the plight of polar bears. As the story puts it: "Like a lot of other perfectly normal people around the Bay Area, knowing what's happening to the world around her ... is making her sad, anxious, depressed, and even, it must be said, a little nuts."
Some readers may smirk at such hand-wringing, let alone the notion of "normal" San Franciscans. Others will find hope in the trend this collective fretting has spawned: eco-therapists. Read the article at sanfranmag.com/story/green-worry.
The Earth Beat A reporter plunges into his passions
Los Angeles Times reporter Kenneth Weiss doesn't mean to be such a Debbie Downer. It's just that it's hard for a California kid who grew up fishing, surfing, and diving to ignore bad things happening to fish populations and surf breaks. His beat is everything oceanic: offshore oil drilling, the push for marine protected areas, the impact of U.S. Navy sonar on marine mammals, and the plight of polar bears in the Arctic. Last year he shared a Pulitzer Prize for "Altered Oceans," a five-part multimedia series that explains how humans are fundamentally changing the seas. Its horrific conclusion: "Some of the most advanced forms of ocean life are struggling to survive while the most primitive are thriving and spreading." This "rise of slime" could affect our food, health, and--gasp!--coastal real-estate values. Sierra caught up with Weiss at his home in the surfing hamlet of Carpinteria, California, near Santa Barbara.
What prompted you to write "Altered Oceans"?
I spent a lot of time with marine scientists who were watching a tremendous amount of what they'd been studying become fished out or poisoned or smothered with algae and bacteria or disappear for reasons they simply don't understand.
Instead of focusing on an acute calamitous event like a hurricane or tsunami, we were able to focus on the slow creep of environmental decay in the oceans. That kind of change happens so slowly that most people don't notice. They grow to accept filthy beaches and depleted fishing grounds or bays choked with algae.
How do you get readers to understand such a slow-moving story?
I focused on the blowback, the stuff that's coming onshore to haunt us. Stranded marine mammals, big surges of phytobacteria stinking up the beaches with hydrogen sulfide gas, and other horror shows--then slipping in the science to explain why this was happening.
"Altered Oceans" can be boiled down to a couple of themes: We're overdosing the oceans with the ingredients of Miracle-Gro, and at the same time, we're taking out all the filters--the fish and coastal wetlands and other things that keep the whole thing in check. The result is the rise of slime. If you pull back, you can look at it in a fairly simple way that people get.
The series spells out plenty of problems but offers no solutions.
We made the decision not to cap off the series with "Here Are Ten Things You Can Do to Make the World Right" because the solutions are not that easy and scientists tell me that ultimately they are going to have to come at the hands of government.
Did your background nudge you into covering the environment?
I grew up fishing with my dad at a time when it was easy to catch a lot of fish, big fish, in Southern California. That's no longer true. I also grew up at a time when you never heard of a fellow surfer getting sick after being in the water. That's no longer true. And I love to dive. I share the lament of many divers that there's less and less marine life to see underwater.
You studied folklore in college. Does that help you distill scientific data into compelling stories?
My degree helps me understand the structure of storytelling. And it can be helpful when you hang around fishing docks and hear stories that are told as true. A favorite one is that there was a freighter lost off Point Conception years ago that was carrying copper ore and is responsible for the decline of fisheries in the Santa Barbara Channel, because it's poisoning all the sea life. As Jeremy Jackson [a marine ecologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography] told me, "People come up with every imaginable reason for why fishery stocks are depleted. It's really very simple: We ate them."
What issues are you following now?
I'm looking especially at marine mammals. They're a sentinel species for problems with the oceans and, potentially, human health.
What's your environmental vice? I love to eat seafood, especially sushi. I try to eat low on the food chain. I stick with shellfish, such as oysters, mussels, clams, and crab--the species that can replicate themselves quickly or are farmed in a way that's sustainable. —Reed McManus