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Know the West

A native son of Oregon writes of heartbreak, determination


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.