Of rivers, boats and baseball umpires

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Another Way
the River Has:
Taut True Tales
from the Northwest

Robin Cody
208 pages,
softcover: $18.95.
Oregon State
University Press, 2010.

Robin Cody inspired me to buy a kayak.

A confirmed landlubber, it didn't occur to me to become familiar with my local waterways until I read Cody's eclectic collection of essays, Another Way the River Has: Taut True Tales from the Northwest. Afterward -- still afloat on his bright stories of the mischievous Clackamas River, the frenetic Willamette, the swift blue Columbia -- how could I not get out onto the water?

Cody is an Oregon native who previously penned the Oregon Book Award winner Voyage of a Summer Sun. He's part of that crew of Northwestern nature writers who articulate what it means to reside at the confluence of loggers and tree-huggers, hunters and hippies, Portland urbanites and Clatskanie farmers. In languorous, meandering prose, he glides from a history of the area's humanity to ecstatic discourse on the spider that has taken up residence in his wooden boat, The Turtle.

"I like to place my magnifying glass against the inside of the window," he writes, "and watch the spider's little anus squirt stickum. When it gets too personal, I put the glass down and remember to breathe evenly. Of all possible ways of capturing and socking away food, who would have thought of this?"

And who would have thought to pair lyrical accounts of river-rambles with a profile of professional cowboys at the Pendleton Rodeo, or a piece about baseball umpires, or meditations on at-risk youth astonished by their first glimpse of a great blue heron from behind school bus windows?

The writer Sam McKinney, who presented Cody with The Turtle, observes in the title essay, "What we see of a river is not ours to choose." What we see of Cody's decades of experience as a teacher and writer, umpire and school bus driver, is also not ours to choose. Just as those boating a river may round a bend to find that it's shifted tone and landscape, so, too, these pieces move abruptly from evocative descriptions of birds and beaver to an unabashedly funny profile of a 6-year-old girl with spina bifida in a breathtaking piece titled "Miss Ivory Broom."

What do disabled children and umpires and rodeo cowboys have to do with Cody's passion for the waters of the Northwest? Nothing, and everything. The river has a way, in this supple essay collection, of inspiring us to consider unexpected possibilities and new ways of looking at our terrain.

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