Rolling on the rivers

  • ADIOS AMIGOS: TALES OF SUSTENANCE AND PURIFICATION IN THE AMERICAN WEST Page Stegner 224 pages, hardcover: $24. Counterpoint, 2008.

  • Karl Bodmer's "Remarkable Hills on the Upper Missouri." PLATE 34, FROM MAXIMILIAN, PRINCE OF WIED, TRAVELS IN THE INTERIOR OF NORTH AMERICA, LONDON: ACKERMANN, 1843.COURTESY DEPARTMENT OF RARE BOOKS AND SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA

 

In Adios Amigos: Tales of Sustenance and Purification in the American West, Page Stegner revels in striking juxtapositions: the fragile beauty of rivers contrasted with their staggering power to destroy; people working to preserve forests and wildlife alongside a younger generation bent on using nature for self-serving purposes. This absorbing collection of essays stems from Stegner's experiences rafting and canoeing Western rivers, including the Colorado, Yampa, San Juan and Missouri.

Stegner effortlessly mixes historical accounts with descriptions of the land, drawing comparisons between his own experiences and those of past explorers and artists such as John Wesley Powell and Karl Bodmer. In lesser hands, this might be a dull read, but not here. Take this description of the walls at White Cliffs along the Missouri River: "They have weathered into an architectural symphony of columns, spires, pedestals, flying butresses, and alcoves. Prince Maximilian in 1833 saw 'pulpits, organs with their pipes, old ruins, fortresses, castles, churches with pointed towers.' "

To give his descriptions punch, Stegner heaps up the details, almost to the point of absurdity: "(Melted snow) is now coursing down every crack and crevice in those head-water mountains, is now trickling, running, gushing, pouring, surging, flooding down every fissure, furrow, ditch, gully, gulch, ravine, and canyon, is overflowing the Wild Horse Dam above Mountain City, is ripping down banks, tearing out trees, washing away livestock, cow and cowgit alike, women and children, little does and lambsy-divey."

But Stegner wants his readers to do more than just notice the beauty of the land; he wants them to preserve it. Quoting his father, Wallace Stegner, he writes: " 'We are the most dangerous species of life on the planet, and every other species, even the earth itself, has cause to fear our power to exterminate. But we are also the only species which, when it chooses to do so, will go to great effort to save what it might destroy.' Which, I wonder, will we ultimately choose to be?"

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