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12 June 2011

Columbian Wilderness


In The Organic Machine, Richard White provides an excellent "wilderness" history (my phrase, not his) of the Columbia River.  His account flows through linearly through time, but also follows themes as if linear time must occasionally pause and stew in a reservoir before plunging through the spillway.  The result is a magnificent story of the forces - both human and non-human - at play on the river. 

White starts with a description of the natural processes which carved the river we know today, and the early human interactions with it.  He details the ways in which the Indians along the river worked it and allowed it to work for them by bringing them abundant food in the form of Salmon.  In fact, the story of the Columbia presented by White is the story of work, but not the work for knowledge of which some social scientists and environmentalists are so enamored.  Instead, this work creates the river.  It is the work of the river and the work of the animals and people on the river, and all are mutually constituting.

White argues that, in the late 19th and 20th centuries, the Columbia became an "organic machine" - the realization of the Emersonian dream of wedding the natural to the human.  But, he argues, the marriage was ultimately a failed one, for the ideals that were sought for both nature and society were never realized.  Lewis Mumford envisioned a world powered by electricity from natural resources.  This "neotechnic" would transform society, creating a more equitable and democratic world.  However, the politics and economics at play on the river failed to bring this vision about.  Furthermore, the many dams placed along the river transformed the river's ecosystem:
"The architects of the new river have been nearly constant in their protestations of concern for the salmon, but they have quite consciously made a choice against the conditions that produce the salmon.  They have wanted the river and its watershed to say electricity, lumber, cattle, and fruit and together these have translated into carp, shad and squawfish instead of slamon." (90)
What was truly unique about this book, for me, was the way it depicted the creation of a world on the Columbia.  There was no master overseer determining all, there were simply many different interests (both human and non-human) trying to make their way and to carve out a little space for life on the river.  Some of these interests, such as the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), were more powerful and, thus, more capable of implementing their vision than others, but none was ever fully determining.  Rather the river we see today was carved by myriad agencies acting upon the river for many different purposes.  All of this work has created a new river:
"... [T]o simply renounce development on the Columbia is equally to miss the point. We can't treat the river as if it is simply nature and all dams hatcheries, channels, pumps, cities, ranches, and pulp mills are ugly and unnecessary blotches on a still coherent natural system. These things are now part of the river itself. There are reasons they are there. They are not going to vanish, and they cannot simply be erased. Some would reduce the consequences to a cautionary tale of the need to leave nature alone. But to do so is to lose the central insight of the Columbia: there is no line between us and nature. The Columbia, an organic machine, a virtual river, is at once our creation and retains a life of its own beyond our control."
There are many more quotes I would like to reproduce from this book.  It is well written and full of insight, but I'll let you read it for yourself!

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