After living on the edge of the Columbia River for thirteen years, crossing it time and time again, cycling on roads and trails skirting its shore, and living the good life because of the low-cost electricity that it generates, I’m reestablishing my life in a far, distant part of the country. Part of my grief work is rereading Richard White’s elegant monograph about the great river of the West.
The publisher who commissioned this book stipulated that it have no footnotes in order to appeal to general readers. White, who then taught at the University of Washington in Seattle, succeeded in writing a lucid, interesting, non-technical little book, but the ten-page bibliographical essay at the end of the book indicates the depth of his research.
While The Organic Machine is organized chronologically, tracing the way that the peoples who have lived in its watershed have successively worked with the river to accomplish their life needs, its narrative drive is philosophical, examining “the river as an organic machine, as an energy system which, although modified by human interventions, maintains its ‘unmade’ qualities. . .My argument in this book is that we cannot understand human history without natural history and we cannot understand natural history without human history” (p. ix).
White addresses modern environmentalists who “stress the eye over the hand, the contemplative over the active, the supposedly undisturbed over the connected. They call for human connections with nature while disparaging all those who claim to have known and appreciated nature through work and labor” (p. x).
He suggests that readers “might want to spend more time thinking about Ralph Waldo Emerson and Lewis Mumford and less about Henry David Thoreau and John Muir” (p. xi), which reminds me of an idea presented by Steven Solomon in Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization. Discussing the hydrological society of ancient China, Solomon discerns contrasting approaches to engineering solutions to water-related issues.
“Taoist engineers designed waterworks to allow water to flow away as easily as possible, exploiting the dynamics of the natural ecosystem, just as they urged Chinese leaders to gradually win support for their goals through persuasive dialogue. . . Confucians, on the other hand, advocated a more forceful manipulation of both nature and human society to achieve the public good.” The underlying principles “framed a fundamental engineering debate which has reemerged on the global level today as the world seeks environmentally sustained solutions to the water scarcity crisis” (101).
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