How Did I Miss This Book (Until Now)?
Have you had this experience: you read a book that has been around awhile that is so good and so up your alley that you can’t imagine how you had missed it?
Blaine Harden, once a reporter with the Washington Post and now a Seattle-based writer, published A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia in 1996. In 2011 a revised, and updated, edition came out.
A River Lost was the March reading for my book club. We were especially fortunate to have the author as our guest for the conversation.
Harden describes the process by which the mighty Columbia, a river with the greatest vertical drop of any in North America, was turned into a machine for the production of inexpensive electricity, barge shipping, and slack-water for various recreational users.
When I was a kid we would return from Washington D. C. to Oregon to visit family. After a stint in the Willamette Valley, we would head up the Columbia Gorge to Pendleton, where two aunts lived, and on to northeastern Oregon and the grandparents. That trip from Portland to the Dalles now, as then, is dramatic and beautiful. As a child I felt like I was entering the wild west as we drove up the Gorge.
But what I also remember is the myth. It went like this: the dams on the Columbia were the mighty sign of American power and progress. Technological wonders that demonstrated our amazing genius and capacity to turn nature to our ends and open a future of unlimited possibility.
When I was a child, the drive up the Columbia focused the myth of progress and of the bright and prosperous world of our creation.
But there was a lot that hidden in the shadows cast by the blinding, bright light of the myth of progress. Harden helps us look into those shadows.
The impact on salmon species has been most prominent. But a related matter, upon which Harden is especially revealing, is the cost to Native Americans. Indians of the Northwest have not only been victims of racism. It has been, argues Harden, a kind of genocide.
Before coming home to the Northwest to research and write A River Lost Harden had been a reporter in Serbia, during the time of ethnic cleansing and genocide there. Returning to the Northwest, he found genocide, of a different form. Native cultures were decimated by those clueless or indifferent, or both, about salmon and the cultures dependent upon this amazing fishery. With a dose of racism added in (“the Indians are the problem, they steal the fish,”) there was no concern for treating Native Americans with a modicum of fairness as the dams altered or destroyed ten thousand year old salmon runs.
This is tough stuff. It turns out that all of us who have enjoyed the cheapest hydro-electric power in the nation are implicated in sins that aren’t “over there,” but “right here.”
Harden also takes us to Hanford, where the Hanford Reach portion of the Columbia is — ironically — one of the more pristine areas on the Columbia, for water and wildlife. Too much danger of radioactivity to venture there for dam builders and recreational users.
Another theme that Harden hits hard is the strange relationship of people in Eastern Washington and Oregon to the federal government. That might be summed up this way, “Get the damn government out of our hair — and send us more federal money.” That attitude persists.
While there is much more to highlight, I was also struck by the way that the science on salmon is not simple. Who and what are to blame? Scientists couldn’t produce black and white judgments, only shades of grey. The power companies used “grey” to stall and dissemble for decades. Shades of global warming and climate change.
Harden’s book is of particular interest to me not only because I live in the Northwest but because of family roots in northeastern Oregon, which is part of the Snake River watershed, flowing eventually to the Columbia. We have rafted often on either the Snake or the Grande Ronde rivers. Intensive efforts have been underway to restore the salmon runs on the Grande Ronde. Breeching of the four dams on the Snake is a recurrent focus of debate and controversy.
It may be that the days of the dams on the Snake are numbered, but not because the salmon protectors have won. Rather, wind and solar power have developed to the point in this region that those dams on the Snake may soon no longer be cost effective.
Harden is, more recently, the author of a trilogy of books on North Korea. “I hate Trump, but he did exactly the right thing in meeting personally with Kim Jong Un.” He is at work now on a book on the Whitman mission which promises to ruffle more feathers here in the Northwest.