Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
I recall from graduate school years a semester with Wallace Stegner; in an odd crossing of the ways, Paul Horgan came to visit and discuss his Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History. Stegner and Horgan were lionized in years past; likely the literary fame they once owned is now fleeting.
I once visited Itasca State Park and skipped across a little shallow stream and have since—with some hyperbole—regaled students with “I waded the Mississippi.” I’ve crossed The Ohio River, The Arkansas, The Tennessee, The Missouri, The Charles, and floated The Saint Croix. I’ve meandered along The Hudson and been to that area of the American southwest where The Colorado becomes nothing more than a pathetic trickle. I’ve fished The Snake River, The Green, The Madison, The Yellowstone, and stood at the exact place where The Columbia empties into the Pacific Ocean. And I’ve fished both the holy waters of the Au Sable in northern Michigan and The Big Two-Hearted.
There are many other rivers such that metaphorically I often think I’ve traveled the veins and arteries of America’s heart’s blood.
Web of Water: Reflections of Life Along the Saluda & Reedy Rivers is quite a fine book published by Hub City Press. It’s a regional book, but one which belongs in the larger category of “Rivers of America Series.” It’s a nature book, an ecological book, a history book, complimented by a series of reflective essays; the whole is a partnership among photographers Tom Blagden, Clay Bolt, jon Holloway (who lowercases his name) and Ben Geer Keys. The essays are by John Lane. There’s a superb introduction by Chris Starker of “Upstate Forever,” another partner in this book and an organization devoutly devoted to a healthier watershed.
The book is the culmination of a four-year project which, as the “Foreword” notes, is also “an odyssey into the Saluda-Reedy watershed.” There are roughly ten counties in the watershed, 1,500 square miles, stretching roughly from the southern border of North Carolina southeast to Greenwood, South Carolina. The photographs are illustrations of sweeping vistas, fog in the forest, spring peepers hiding in luscious foliage.
The history is akin to the history of other books on America’s Rivers, more so when we fail to recognize our responsibility toward these resources. A watershed is, as the “Introduction” makes clear, something more than “an area of land or a bounded hydrologic system”; it is, rather, a place “‘within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community.'”
The quote is from John Wesley Powell, whose understanding of a watershed was larger than water as a natural resource. The emphasis on place is mine; Powell’s thesis carries over into this magnificent book which is a suite of photographs and prose pieces detailing the history of the Reedy River and back to a time in which the smell was noxious with sewage and algae blooms.
The Clean Water Act of 1972 was thus a “watershed,” one which led to this broad-based collaboration. Lane writes that a river, after all, “branches like a circulatory system, from its main trunk upward into smaller and smaller creeks, forks, and branches until it reaches a network or better yet, a web, of capillaries, cross-strands, riffles, runs, small enough to step across. At this branching head of the river you expect to find a bursting forth of spring water.”
It’s an intricate web, the photographs make clear, one in which Oconee Bells blossom, Liverworts grow, and is home to the Eastern Box Turtle and Seepage Dancers. A phrase like “bursting forth” suggests surprise, birth, and not the least, some kind of labor.
Far upstream, the headwaters are nothing more than small sections of low ground, wet and marshy, and then forming a tiny stream beginning its flow south. Lane cites a fascination with origins as if wetting one’s feet in the very beginning of a river is like a start, and then a maturing phase, and “termination.” The river isn’t a story but we tell stories about the river. To tell the river’s story we need to listen to the river as it flows much like the words of a story flow. Both, one might note, are public places. And it’s nothing new: Thoreau prompted us to think just so years ago.
Rivers and ponds are places in the imagination rife with head-waters and tail-waters, fast-moving, slow moving, shallow, deep, and quiet places; consciousness flows just so….
Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota have the Falls of Saint Anthony, the only natural waterfall on the Upper Mississippi until it was replaced by a concrete spillway. In downtown Greeville, the Reedy River “falls,” a forty-foot drop, pooling and eddying, conspiring to make the city handsome, an inspiration for settlement, and a public space with a history of commerce and culture. One might think to have the space to one’s self, taking pride in singular ownership. But it’s public space, one with a “living river at its center,” or so Lane writes.
We had some guests for dinner the other evening. Web of Water was on a side-table. After dinner, sitting together, one of our guests picked up the book and became lost to the conversation, and then his wife, too, until the only people talking were my wife and me.
And why not? Best to let it be since that’s the sign of a good book, one that focuses attention, visually, aesthetically, on the lovely flow of words and images.
One story is that the Saluda is named after an Indian tribe. If so, the river is the stuff of legend, of myth, the habitat of ancient spirits. I’ve yet to fish the Reedy or the Saluda but will soon enough.
I once caught a twenty-inch brown trout on the South Branch of the Au Sable. He was sipping gnats. When I was sure he was alive and able to swim away, I released him. I remember looking up and on a grassy knoll not far away was an old man with an old creel and old fishing fear—watching. Dressed as of old. When I looked away and then looked back he was gone, that lesser god, that river-keeper.
When I fish the Reedy and the Saluda, I’ll hope to see that old man again. That would be a blessing. As long as one’s heart remains as pure as those rivers are, it’s possible….
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