There have been many books written about the desecration of the American landscape by uncaring people, corporations and moneyed interests. New Orleans author and Tulane professor Oliver Houck has added his own memoir of his travels down some of the nation’s most beautiful rivers and added commentary on his experiences as he has seen rivers once beautiful become spoiled by narrow-minded humans.
New Orleans Author Pens Beautiful Book About His Experiences Canoeing America’s Rivers
But desecration of beautiful American rivers is not what this book is really about. There are some writers who can just tell of their experiences in a matter-of-fact way to impart information that is all surface and no depth.
These are the books I start and perhaps put aside with the thought that, yes, what is here is worth reading, but somehow the author has not infused me some sense of wonder.
Oliver, who I know, calls the stories in Downstream Toward Home: A Book of American Rivers personal stories and as such perhaps he seems to indicate most people won’t be interested in them.
But this is precisely what makes this book so engaging, these trips down Americas rivers are close to his heart and he relates his journeys with personal insight and feeling.
Each chapter, which covers one trip on one river, is written like a short story, some only a few pages long. As I was reading I kept thinking, shoot I wish I could write like this, I wish I could see a scene and write it so easily and crisply that the images just jump off the page. Well, that is what Oliver has done.
I was amazed, while sitting with the book in my hand in the comfort of my home, as I was transported over tranquil waters, along the jumble of swamp and forests, under the spell of massive rock cliffs, and through dangerous rapids with the threat of injury or death ever near.
And somehow over the decades that he has been exploring rivers he has come through it all relatively unscathed and is able to relate to us what he has seen through his own unique viewpoint of someone who cares deeply about our natural inheritance and landscapes, and is able to look on the foibles of man and governments, who have sought to trample these beautiful wonders in the name of some type of ill-conceived progress, with forgiveness.
Many of the stories are exciting, some loaded with suspense as he meets some unsavory characters along the way who have him wondering if he’ll make it back to his car alive. And then there is the hair-raising adventure of being lost in the Atchafalaya and encountering a beast of a man crawfishing.
These stories are written with such beauty and eloquence, which only someone completely in love and inspired by the natural world could write. Here is an example early on in the book the type of writing that appears on every page.
“If there is a yet prettier river in Florida than Juniper Springs a strong candidate would be the Wicassa, which rises from its own springs in a Lord of the Rings landscape choked with cypress knees and then opens into a wide river with long grasses underneath that trail downstream in braids. Large fish pilot the canoe, spooked out of one refuge and seeking another. One afternoon Lisa and I watched an osprey dive down to take one, a reckless, all-out plunge into the water, and no sooner rise with the fish in its claws than meet an eagle screaming down out of the sun and set to rob him.”
His adventures stretch from Washington D.C., then down south, to the west all the way to the Northwest Territories where he engages us with a history lesson about the demise of a 150 men trying to find the Northwest Passage and his near-to-death encounter with a grizzly bear.
This is a book to be savored over time, not gotten through in a couple of sittings. And also good to be shared and read out loud with friends and family. If you want to learn something about America’s rivers, the beauty that awaits those adventurers who want to explore them, and perhaps to get an idea of what’s been lost with the onslaught of human progress and, despite this, what amazing beauty still remains, this is the book you must read.
Prepared to be moved, prepare to be inspired. You might just want to take a canoe and go out exploring yourself.
You can get the book Down Stream Toward Home on Amazon.com
This is Oliver Houck’s second book reviewed on this blog. His other book Down On The Batture is just as beautifully written and engaging. Check it out. Professor Houck is one of our best New Orleans authors.