A native son of Oregon writes of heartbreak, determination

  • David James Duncan, author of My Story as Told by Water

    ADRIAN ARLEO
 

As its subtitle suggests, David James Duncan’s latest book of essays, My Story as Told by Water, has a little bit of everything: "confessions, Druidic rants, bird-watchings, visions, prayers." At its core, the book is about how this native son of Oregon — author of the novels The River Why and The Brothers K — came to love watery wild places. It turns out he came, like the rest of us, through faltering missteps and mishaps and mistakes and youthful idiocy.

This is the story of a boy who fished his way out of (and into) heartbreak. It is a book for anyone who has experienced the shock and wonder of seeing a wild thing for the first time. It is encouragement to those who choose to love a place in spite of the odds that the place will be ripped apart. Duncan invites us to consider that heartbreak actually allows us to see — both the life around us, and our real purpose in the world.

David James Duncan talked about My Story as Told by Water as part of a program devoted to ‘the disappearing West,’ which aired on Radio High Country News.

An insane passion for rivers

I was 6 years old when I had my first encounter with a large male coho salmon. This was about 125 miles from the Pacific, and the stream was tiny. And to see this 16-18-pound, ancient-looking, red and green, very totemic-looking animal, staring at you with a lidless eye, cruising the pool as they’ve been doing for tens of thousands of years … It just somehow went right to the core of me. I’ve always loved moving water, but that was one of the times when the level of passion became almost insane.

Salvation in a city creek

Growing up 20 miles east of the industrial side of Portland, I made the mistake of bonding with the wildlife and the old-growth forest that were about to get nuked by development. Fairview Creek was a beautiful little five-mile stream through those same industrial suburbs. Six years in a row, I caught my limit of trout on opening day, which, in those days, was 10 fish. My brother died at 17 of a series of failed heart surgeries, and this little creek, for a while, helped me with my grief — because it kept generating life.

From My Story as Told by Water

Each time I killed a trout, the pain would ease for a time inside me … A consciously snapped trout-neck was like blues-string consciously bent against the day-to-day industrial harmonies ... Nothing soothes quite like the blues. A little trout stream, if played for keeps, can be a miles-long blues tune ...

At six-thirty or so on a rainy April morning, I crept up to a favorite hole, threaded a worm on a hook, prepared to cast — then noticed something impossible: there was no water in the creek … The aquatic insects were gone, barbershop crawdads gone, catfish, carp, perch, crappie, bass, countless sacrificial cutthroats, not just dying, but completely vanished ... Up in the gravel pits at the Glisan Street headwaters, the creek’s entire flow had been diverted for months to fill two gigantic new settling ponds.

My favorite teacher was dead.

An urban river revival

I think there’s a lot more love and passion for rivers than I ever would have dreamed, 20 years ago. People are unearthing urban streams that have been in flumes, and planting indigenous plants along them and bringing back populations of trout and salmon. A lot of people are waking up to the fact that rivers and streams are some of the most crucial features that our cities and suburbs have.

A land of beautifully broken hearts

What was Mother Teresa’s prayer? "God, break my heart so completely so that the whole world falls in … ?" There are beautifully broken hearts all over the West. This place is still incredibly beautiful, but the last hundred years haven’t gone very well. And the current years aren’t going very well, in terms of our treatment of the land. But there’s something about heartbreak. It becomes as broken as you think it possibly can be, and you find that you’re still standing. So then you think, hmm … let’s try and do something.

Off the Air is drawn from interviews conducted by and produced for Radio High Country News. The original radio programs can be heard on Real Audio at www.hcn.org/radio. A Radio High Country News interview with David James Duncan is available on CD.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS AND FINANCE MANAGER
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a national grassroots organization led by women, seeks a resourceful, self-motivated, team player to serve as Operations and Finance Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    ORGANIZATIONAL BACKGROUND Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) fosters community stewardship, education and awareness of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • WYOMING STATE DIRECTOR
    Save the World ... or at least a piece of it! Join The Nature Conservancy and make a tangible and lasting impact by creating a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR FOR AN ENVIRONMENTAL ADVOCACY NON-PROFIT NEAR YOSEMITE
    Demanding, but rewarding, advocacy work on forest, water, wildland, and wildlife issues. Applicants should have experience dealing with land management planning, public speaking, grassroots organizing,...
  • NEW AGRARIAN APPRENTICESHIP
    Quivira Coalition's 2020 New Agrarian Apprenticeships in Regenerative Ranching and Farming -Apprenticeships run 4/20 - 11/20 Applications accepted 10/15/19 - 12/1/19 NAP partners with skilled...
  • PHILANTHROPY DIRECTOR AT WILDERNESS WORKSHOP
    Wilderness Workshop seeks a full time Philanthropy Director to raise funds for our team. Learn more: www.wildernessworkshop.org
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT WITH WESTERN RESOURCE ADVOCATES
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks an enthusiastic and organized problem solver to join our growing team as an Executive Assistant. The Executive Assistant is instrumental...
  • WYOMING OUTDOOR COUNCIL
    Two positions: Development Director OR Development Writer, Communications Director. Full job descriptions at https://wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org/careers.
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Great Land Trust seeks to hire a Conservation Project Manager. Position is full-time, based in Anchorage, Alaska. First review of applications will be on October...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eagle Valley Land Trust Executive Director Position Description Summary of Position: The Executive Director, working with and reporting to the Board of Directors, has overall...
  • FINANCE & LOGISTICS COORDINATOR
    The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, founded in 1928 as an independent nonprofit organization, is a biological field station located near Crested Butte, Colorado. Our primary...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    See Full Job Description
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Position: Development Coordinator Responsible to: Executive Director Time Commitment: 15-20 hours per week, or as otherwise agreed upon General Description: The Development Coordinator assists the...
  • EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a full-time Education Manager for the Bears Ears Education Center to provide day to day operational and administrative oversight. See...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED SCP SOUTHWEST REGIONAL DIRECTOR
    Seeking to hire an experienced advocate/manager to oversee the organization's sportsmen/women-driven advocacy in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Open until filled
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    for northern AZ collaborative conservation ranchlands group
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Partners are seeking an experienced and energetic Executive Director who is excited about the opportunity to lead our growing organization! A full description of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country News Seeks an Executive Director to advance its mission, grow its audience and influence, and strategically and sustainably guide the organization through a...
  • 2 PROPERTIES ON THE WESTERN EDGE OF THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Organic farm, hot springs, San Francisco River runs through both. [email protected]
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.