Down The River
E. P. Dutton, Inc.
Henry David Thoreau once said “Time is but the stream I go a fishing in.” This statement aptly describes the opening chapter of Down the River, a chapter dedicated to journal entries and ruminations on the writings of Thoreau. Abbey reread Thoreau while traveling down the Green River, a tributary of the Colorado, with a group of friends. The journal entries are dated sequentially, making the time element especially apropos.
For a writer like Edward Abbey though, the river is a metaphor much more complex and varied than what one chapter can illustrate. The title “Down the River,” also harkens back to a chapter of the same title included in his classic work Desert Solitaire. In this chapter he traveled down the Glen Canyon portion of the Colorado with his friend Ralph Newsome. That trip was just before completion of the Glen Canyon Dam, nemesis of all that Abbey held sacred in nature, and the creation of Lake Powell, which he called a sewage lagoon.
The view of the Glen Canyon dam as symbol of the wilderness despoiled introduces yet another meaning of the title. Specifically the meaning is, “Sold down the River.” This phrase sums up what Abbey thinks of mechanized tourism and most construction projects. He sees nature and man falling before the progress of what he calls the “military-industrial state,” and encourages his readers with the thought that this state, in both capitalist and communist forms, is on the verge of collapse. These thoughts are essential to understanding Abbey’s writings as equally condemning liberal and conservative thoughts from an anarchist perspective.
The book Down the River is divided into four sections, each of which includes a journal of a river trip as well as assorted essays on nature, pollution, rural lifestyles, natural areas, and people. Although Abbey’s detractors have labeled him a misanthrope, his essays in this book show him not as hating mankind so much as industrial society. His essays value the simple life of the wilderness and condemn technology, especially the Rocky Flats nuclear fuel plant, the MX missile system, and dams on the remaining free flowing rivers.
The rivers described in the book’s four sections include the Green, the Tatshenshini (in the Yukon), the San Juan, and the Rio Doloris. The sections on running the rivers include some of Abbey’s best natural history writing. The other portions are equally good, but I have difficulty grasping the book as a unified whole. The river metaphors are powerful. They speak of time, lost values, and unblemished nature, but they don’t quite hold the book together. Although Down the River lacks a single thread of continuity, it emerges as a tapestry of landscape, friendships, protest, and difficulties overcome. It is well worth the read.
- Reviewed by Ray Zimmerman