Perhaps more than any other natural feature, rivers seem to capture writers' imaginations. Even this column, with its geographic scope limited to the Pacific Northwest, has covered a substantial stack of books about rivers - Robin Cody, Jack Nisbet and others writing about the Columbia, Lynda Mapes on the Elwha, Mike Sato on the Green/Duwamish, and now Abby Phillips Metzger contemplating the Willamette River.
"Meander Scars: Reflections on Healing the River" is based on Metzger's investigations along, on and in the river that holds two-thirds of Oregon's entire population in its extended basin.
A relatively young writer, Metzger extends her own lifetime's worth of observations by interviewing old-timers and researching historical maps and records of earlier days. She creates a portrait of a waterway that has been significantly transformed from a wild river to a tamed if not altogether placid channel that today is variously used for hydroelectricity, transportation, irrigation, recreation, and other purposes.
"Meander Scars" demonstrates how the Willamette once was a network of sloughs and channels that flooded seasonally, eventually creating a rich floodplain that 19th century pioneers converted into farmland. But flooded fields can devastate crops, so the push to manage the river began, and once it was controlled more people found the bottomlands an attractive place to live and to work, which meant that even more engineering came into play: damming, dredging, draining, filling, straightening.
In some places along the Willamette today, one river mile used to be five or six miles of meander, and rate of flow has more than doubled in some seasons.
In the face of all of this change and habitat loss, Metzger accompanies different individuals and entities who now are trying to restore the river in some measure. From farmers to fish biologists to weekend do-gooders, many people are getting involved, from planting trees to build up the riparian zone, to wrestling with invasives so that native plant species aren't choked out.
Even as Metzger gets down in the mud and does the work, she ponders the philosophical underpinnings of the act of restoration - eradicating some species in favor of promoting others.
And she brings up the notion of "pre-storation" - a concept I hadn't heard of before - that entails planning and planting for conditions such as climate change that are likely to occur in the future.
(But my favorite new vocabulary word from this book is shadooski - jargon for a device that river biologists use to measure shade.)
Metzger takes readers along as she canoes vestigial sloughs, gets dunked in her kayak, camps along a beaver trail, and turns over rocks looking for signs of insect life. Her writing is passionate and sometimes floridly metaphorical, but her aim is sincere: to help us consider the complexities of a wild river and to think about not only the widespread implications of meddling with its flow, but also about the immense and perhaps impossible work of trying to repair our misdeeds.
But does that mean we shouldn't try?
Barbara Lloyd McMichael writes a weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at email@example.com