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Review

River of Memory: The Everlasting Columbia

By William D. Layman

November 4, 2013

Review By Bruce Shelvey

River of Memory is a snapshot of the Columbia River prior to the massive human manipulation of the region. Layman argues that, when we understand the river in its natural state prior to 1933, we gain a greater appreciation of it and become more aware of our own personal and corporate human identity. In recent years, dams and diversions have obscured aspects of the river’s true identity, and Layman is well aware of the difficulties inherent in reconstructing a nostalgic past. Nevertheless, resurrecting the unaltered Columbia through pictures, maps and paintings, the memories of elders, the diary entries of newcomers, the musings of poets, and the interpretations of historians is his way of enlivening our lost intimate connection with the Great River of the West. 

River of Memory, originating from an exhibition at the Wenatchee Valley Museum in the summer of 2006, ambitiously attempts “whole river understanding.” Layman’s contribution to the literature on rivers comes in the form of his use of concepts like “everlasting” to question the nature of change and the essence of transformation. Does something of the river’s origins remain even after it has been transformed by technology? Unlike Richard White’s Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (1995), in which the Columbia is interpreted through labour, River of Memory attempts to use images, both in photography and literature, to interpret the river’s shape, its function, its purpose, and, ultimately, its meaning. Layman hopes that an earlier memory of the river can act as a critique of consumerist society and a reminder of what we have lost. In this way, River of Memory introduces the metaphysical qualities of the Columbia. We consider it as the embodiment of the human soul (xiii), an orientation point that teaches us something of origins (upstream) and wisdom (downstream). The author asks: “In harnessing the Columbia for our own pleasures, needs, and ends, in what ways have we lost connection to the river’s natural world and, in turn, to our interior selves?” (xiv). Layman answers this question by presenting images and text that encourage us to think of a world outside of ourselves and our utilitarian notions of nature. Interestingly, River of Memory moves against the typical downstream narrative current. As Layman puts it: “We preferred the more strenuous upriver journey in homage to salmon and other fish returning to natal waters from the sea. This corresponds to the indigenous belief that the salmon are ancestors who have made the arduous journey of return for the benefit of all” (xiv-xv). The choice to start at the mouth (read culture) rather than at the source (read nature) of the Columbia is the literary equivalent of “rediscovery” or “recovering,” an attempt to counter the historical. 

There is much to commend in River of Memory, as evidenced by its recently being declared the 2007 Washington State Book for General Nonfiction. The book is beautifully presented: most impressive are the illustrations of indigenous fish drawn by Joseph Tomelleri and Dan McConnell (the lifelike creations are worth seeing as silk paintings if you can attend the travelling exhibition, which runs in various communities until 2008) and the portfolio of captivating black-and-white photographs. Further, when contributors lend their expertise to the text, the narrative is insightful and adds to our understanding of the photographs. The choice of voices from the past, such as David Thompson’s and David Douglas’s journal entries from the winter of 1810-11 (120) or Canadian travelling artist Paul Kane’s description of time spent in the Lower and Upper Arrow Lake region in 1847 (104), give the book a welcome perceptual depth. 

There are some irritants that detract from one’s enjoyment of River of Memory. At times the narrative is disjointed, with brevity rather than thoroughness being the rule. The author provides no remedy for this, not even a footnote or a bibliography. Further, many of the representations deserve a better introduction and possibly even interpretation. For example, when photos tell a story of transformation, like the one on page 15 that appears to show a significant flooding incident in 1934, the author is silent. Nor does he acknowledge that photographs themselves are a way of seeing the world. Images like those of Steamboat Rapids (111) represent a genre of landscape photography that was used to promote development. Perhaps many of the images should have been understood more as cultural expressions of their time than as “natural” representations of the Columbia and its environs. Further, River of Memory has a curious practice of using partial representations of historical maps without providing any visual or textual clues as to scale, scope, or even directionality with reference to the full original map. Spatial information is manipulated without any explanation (2-3, 19), and many of the maps are illegible even when magnified. 

When Layman sticks to his expertise – his intimate knowledge of the lower Columbia River – he is an excellent guide. And he provides something for almost every traveller, from the novice who needs a basic introduction to the place to the expert who desires to gather intimate details of the region’s history or character. Art historians might find this a useful book for exploring how photography represents a certain place/region in time; literati will enjoy indigenous perspectives in verse and the use of river metaphors to shape our understanding of the self; borderland scholars will be intrigued by the distinct impact of the 49th parallel, despite Layman’s attempt to show us a coherent river; historians will appreciate the author’s ability to combine visual evidence with poetic interpretations to challenge our traditional interpretations of the Columbia; and nature lovers will find the book to be a treasure trove of forgotten landscapes and beautiful representations of rivers, forests, mountains, rocks, and fish.