Issue 41 — Yes, We'll Gather By the River
In the Watershed: A Journey Down the Maumee River, by Ryan Schnurr
I hope you are cozy wherever you are. Kenji has been setting a fine example for us with his napping and cat yoga practices.
As a result of my research into the Great Marsh, I have recently become aware that the Ipswich River, which runs through it, has been named one of the ten most endangered rivers in the US. I am ashamed to say that I had no idea. Unlike the river that is the subject of this week’s book under review, the Ipswich is not terribly polluted. Yet it is suffering from excessive withdrawals by the fourteen cities and towns that use it as their primary source of drinking water. More than 350,000 people rely on the Ipswich, and at levels of consumption that are not sustainable, especially since so much of the water is exported from the watershed and discharged after treatment into Salem Bay and Massachusetts Bay.
Though such arrangements are politically difficult to alter, something is going to have to give. This lovely waterway, a favorite of paddlers and freshwater fish, may become “a long skinny pond” that no longer reaches the sea in summer, according to Wayne Castonguay, who runs the Ipswich River Watershed Association. The two worst droughts in the river’s recorded history have occurred in the last ten years. Delayed by the pandemic, the Massachusetts DEP will this year be reconsidering the regulations and permits that affect takings from the Ipswich.
The complexities of water regulation and management may not be sexy, but they are completely essential to our ecosystems and to human flourishing. I am glad that writers like Ryan Schnurr are calling out our alienation from this force that gives us life. It seems likely that with the intensifying stresses of climate change, knowing your watershed and caring for it will once again become an essential part of being human. You probably have a watershed association near where you live. You might want to consider joining it.
In the Watershed: A Journey Down the Maumee River
Belt Publishing, 2017
Around the time that her 2020 essay collection Vesper Flights was published (see Frugal Chariot Issue 3), Helen Macdonald wrote a short essay for Lithub called “The Things I Tell Myself When I am Writing About Nature.” Macdonald’s piece functions as a highly personal distillation of style and a piquant list of do’s and don’ts, from one of the most admired practitioners of nature writing today. She advocates for an embrace of the full range of first-person experience (including emotions like ambivalence and boredom), an avoidance of “hushed tones” and romantic notions of the pristine, and an emphasis on complication and wonderment versus polemic and doomsaying. Macdonald argues against twee lyricism, and for a messier, more steely-eyed sort of beauty in writing about the environment. She also admits that she has a reluctance to talk about politics.
Ryan Schnurr’s debut work of narrative non-fiction, In the Watershed: A Journey Down the Maumee River, beautifully anticipates and puts into practice many of Macdonald’s precepts. This personal travelogue of his 2016 journey, on foot and by canoe, brings together the river’s natural and human history and its contemporary environmental crises with intense personal observation and reflection. Schnurr is a writer, editor, and teacher from northeast Indiana. He currently edits non-fiction for Belt Magazine. In the Watershed started out as an essay that he wrote as a student, which was subsequently published in Northwestern Review. Belt Publishing, which has brought out this book, is an outstanding regional publisher based in Cleveland, and I invite you to check out their varied and interesting lineup, which includes the terrific essayist Phil Christman.
Schnurr develops his interest in the Maumee—”a thread gone rogue” as it wends through land that has been cut into an artificial grid of property lines and roadways—after he moves to a house on the shores of the river in Fort Wayne. Schnurr becomes fascinated by the river’s mostly-unacknowledged status as the basis for life in his community. His love of maps leads to an interest in the history of the river, and the germinal idea for what we might call this micro-epic. I say “micro” because at 116 pages (for the main body of the text), this is a book you can read in an afternoon. I say epic because Schnurr does such a fine job in relating two terrible sagas. He recounts the violent struggle to expel the area’s Native peoples, the Miami, and the long history of efforts to exploit its landscape. And he also describes the river’s contemporary crisis of pollution and neglect, to which he bears witness as he makes his way, sunburned and blistered, down the river to Lake Erie. There, sediment flows from the Maumee, spiked with nitrogen and phosphorus, have created toxic blooms of cyanobacteria that are creating vast dead zones, devastating wildlife and putting drinking water supplies at risk. These blooms are so extensive that an entire team at NOAA is following them and issuing annual forecasts.
As Schnurr succinctly puts it,
Probably the truest thing you could say about the Maumee River is that it exists entirely in relationship with everything around it. Probably the second truest thing you could say is that for the last two hundred or so years we have mainly operated as if this is not the case.
Schnurr is a companionable and authoritative guide to this “uneasy entanglement” between the river and the human communities that rely on it—and abuse it. He is humble about his outdoorsman’s skills, respectful of those he meets along the way, and faithful to the unglamorous aspects of the journey (diners, RV parks, floating cigarette butts). He makes a point of noticing signs along the way, and these introduce a drumbeat of warning as he gets closer to the river (“Contact With Water Could Make You Sick”; “This Area of the River Is Not Safe”). The book’s aversion to glamor is central to its core argument: that while the US may have a good system for preserving its most beautiful and pristine lands (though I would submit that this is debatable), it lacks a functioning framework for environmental stewardship of the places where people actually live.
But what about the unspectacular places? The no-longer wilderness? What about the places that perhaps were spectacular once but have already been sullied? A lot of this country is not picturesque in the conventional sense, and a good deal of it has already been chewed up and spit back out . . . we simply haven’t been concerned, historically, wth the health of, for example, Wood County, Ohio.
One can only applaud this cri de coeur as a call to action. I pause, however, at the statement “we simply haven’t been concerned,” and for me this “we” signals the weakness of an otherwise fine book. Like Macdonald, Schnurr seems not to want to write about politics. Although it is certainly true that not enough people have been concerned with the health of the Maumee watershed, it is also true that many, many people have been dedicated in their efforts to restore it: they are the activists, scientists, bureaucrats, engineers, and elected officials who have been fighting for the health of the watershed for close to one hundred years. Schnurr does cite some of their work, but without really sharing their voices or detailing their struggles.
For example, the book ends with various hopeful notes, including the completion of the $529 million Toledo Water Initiative. This mammoth effort to eliminate combined sewer overflows and other discharges was the result of eleven years of litigation brought by the EPA under the Clean Water Act, which resulted in a 2002 consent decree. To finance the project, a voter referendum to increase sewer rates in the City of Toledo was required. While this culmination of thirty years of advocacy, litigation, enforcement, planning, and cooperation represents a remarkable event in the life of the Maumee and Lake Erie, it rates only a brief mention at the conclusion of Schnurr’s book. A historic tunnel project (costing almost $200 million!) to improve sewage handling in Fort Wayne also gets short shrift. In the Watershed might have worked better if the balance of the story had been tipped a bit less toward the past and more toward the present, such that the reader might have a chance to learn from effective blueprints for action on our collective challenges—especially given the huge amounts of funding now flowing for infrastructure projects under the Biden Administration.
These modest reservations notwithstanding, this is a book that inspires me to cry out, “More of this, please!” In the Watershed is a perfect example of the sort of tightly written, hyper-local bulletin from the Anthropocene that we need right now, from writers around the world. The author’s willingness to consider the spiritual dimension of humanity’s crisis also seems essential. We urgently need writers like Ryan Schnurr to summarize the science, describe the destruction, and engage with human communities to assess their capacity to respond. There is a micro-epic playing out in every watershed around the world, and each one calls out for a bard.
Other Voices, Other Forms
Over the winter holidays, Joni Mitchell released a new video version of her 1971 song, “River.” The song is accompanied by animated illustrations created by Mitchell herself.
Poem of the Week
The epigraph for In the Watershed is from the late Montana poet Jim Harrison.
how the water goes is how the earth is shaped.
Here is his poem, “The River.”
Yes, we'll gather by the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river. They say it runs by the throne of God. This is where God invented fish. Wherever, but then God's throne is as wide as the universe. If you're attentive you'll see the throne's borders in the stars. We're on this side and when you get to the other side we don't know what will happen if anything. If nothing happens we won't know it, I said once. Is that cynical? No, nothing is nothing, not upsetting just nothing. Then again maybe we'll be cast at the speed of light through the universe to God's throne. His hair is bounteous. All the 5,000 birds on earth were created there. The firstborn cranes, herons, hawks, at the back so as not to frighten the little ones. Even now they remember this divine habitat. Shall we gather at the river, this beautiful river? We'll sing with the warblers perched on his eyelashes.
Copper Canyon Press has recently issued a three-volume edition of Harrison’s collected works, and it’s a beauty. The initial print run has sold out, but a second printing is due in April.
For Your Reading Radar
A tip of the charioteer’s helmet to subscriber Bob Mason for letting me know about Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds, by paleo-biologist Thomas Halliday. The publisher blurbs it thusly: “The past is past, but it does leave clues, and Thomas Halliday has used cutting-edge science to decipher them more completely than ever before. In Otherlands, Halliday makes sixteen fossil sites burst to life on the page.”
For Your Calendar
Return of a Native is the new memoir by British feminist scholar Vron Ware. The LRB says: “Ware’s take on what it means to be English has, thankfully, little time for nostalgic visions of a post-Brexit rural paradise. In Return of a Native and with a sly nod to Thomas Hardy, she revisits her home turf in Hampshire to explore what it means to see the world from a small place.” LRB will host her in conversation with Hazel Carby on February 15th at 7 PM GMT. Details here.
Bookshop of the Week
Let’s hear it for Hyde Brothers Books of Fort Wayne, Indiana. This haven for used books and the people who love them is also home to two charismatic felines.
This might be a good week to go for a walk by a river near you. Drop me a line if you do. xo Nicie
Cover Photo: Harmful Algal Bloom in Maumee River, Toledo, Ohio: September 22, 2017
Photo Credit: Aerial Associates Photography, Inc. by Zachary Haslick
Detail: Pilots from Aerodata have been flying over Lake Erie to map the general scope of Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB) throughout the western basin. In addition to these amazing photos, during the flyovers additional images are taken by a hyperspectral imager (mounted on the back of the aircraft), to improve our understanding of how to map and detect HABs. The lead PI for this project is Dr. Andrea VanderWoude.
For additional info on our HABs research, including hyperspectral work, visit our website https://www.glerl.noaa.gov/res/HABs_and_Hypoxia"