Six decades of river exploration

Review of “Downstream Toward Home” by Oliver A. Houck.

 

Downstream Toward Home
Oliver A. Houck
256 pages, hardcover: 
$35.
Louisiana State University Press, 2014.

 

Tulane University law professor Oliver A. Houck first caught John McPhee’s attention in 1987, when the famed New Yorker writer began researching the elaborate levee system that controls the Mississippi River. In McPhee’s resulting essay, “Atchafalaya,” Houck represents the “ecologue” determined to fight the river’s manipulation. His voice is assertive and direct: “The greatest arrogance was the stealing of the sun,” Houck tells McPhee. “The second-greatest arrogance is running rivers backward. The third-greatest arrogance is trying to hold the Mississippi in place.”

Houck’s latest book, his fourth, is Downstream Toward Home, a celebration of rivers from Alaska to Florida, from the St. John in Maine to the Gila in southwest New Mexico. Small moments of outrage burst from the page, but in general the writing feels restrained, as if the author — 30 years and countless environmental battles after his encounter with McPhee — has lost some of his bite. This is less the bold Oliver Houck of “Atchafalaya,” than an aging conservationist determined to revisit and share his memories before they fade: competing with the crew team at Harvard, getting lost in a swamp, hitchhiking in West Virginia, paddling small creeks after big rains, exploring Colorado’s Cache la Poudre, camping with his students and more.

But the former “Louisiana Conservationist of the Year” can still engage readers as we accompany him on a lifetime of river journeys. In a book filled with bite-size anecdotes, several stand out as truly remarkable, not simply because of their subject matter but because of Houck’s unique and often mystical take on the world. “It was more elegant than a dog ever could be,” he writes, describing a fox near Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek. “It was standing in a pool of light from a lamppost, the mist sparkling as it filtered down, a red fox, stock still, waiting. I slowed to a walk, hardly breathing, but it soon knew me for what I was and it turned, slowly, and trotted away into the gloom.”

Even when he describes the environmental victories he helped to win, Houck refuses to leave readers with false hope. Time and again, Houck reminds us that “nothing saved is forever.”

“The Buffalo (River) and all rivers, and all wilderness, and entire ecosystems, and an increasing number of living things at this juncture, are as safe as we let them be and no more,” he writes. “Some find that a comforting thought. We are the species in charge. Some find it proof of our proximity to god. I do not find it either one.”