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Confluence: A River, the Environment, Politics and the Fate of All Humanity

Confluence: A River, the Environment, Politics and the Fate of All Humanity

by Nathaniel Tripp

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This book is a true confluence of art and science, politics and pragmatism, ideas and plans for action. It highlights the ways in which rivers connect us all to one another. While our society has made great progress in terms of local environmental improvement, such as cleaner water, we’re still dodging the big issues, such as global warming. We have lost the


This book is a true confluence of art and science, politics and pragmatism, ideas and plans for action. It highlights the ways in which rivers connect us all to one another. While our society has made great progress in terms of local environmental improvement, such as cleaner water, we’re still dodging the big issues, such as global warming. We have lost the vision of our planet gained in 1969 when astronauts sent back photographs taken from the moon.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This is a powerful book. . . . It will work on your psyche the way a really good poem does.” —Valley News

“Short, elegant, and engagingly personal . . . deserves to be read in an afternoon and thought about long afterward.” — New York Review of Books

“This is an important book about seeing the main current amid the frothy rapids. Its author is not just sharp, he’s wise, and therefore often troubled, but also always redeemed. Staring into one body of water he sees reflected back the world, as it is and as it ought to be.” — Bill McKibben

Product Details

Steerforth Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.52(w) x 8.46(h) x 0.51(d)

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A River, The Environment, Politics, & The Fate of All Humanity



Copyright © 2005

Nathaniel Tripp

All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-58642-106-9

Chapter One

This river begins as all rivers do, with a drop of rain, a wisp of
fog. It gathers on stone, amid fern, and weeps from the
branches of wind-shaped spruce. The movement downhill is
silent at first here where the bare bones of the earth meet the
sky. The dripping and seeping seems of little consequence
amid the tumble of postglacial boulders, the dark silence of
high-altitude forest, the lichen, and the reindeer moss. The soil
is thin and sour along this rocky spine, which marks the border
between New England and Canada. The climate is harsh,
and the beauty, stark. To the north, fading through sun-bleached
hues of blue and gray, lies the watershed of the
St. Lawrence; to the west, the Great Lakes, the industrial
heartlands. The river runs south 410 miles to the Atlantic,
rugged White Mountains on the left, smoother Greens on the
right. On the very clearest of days a brown smudge of hydrocarbon
haze marks the distant coastal cities, but the view is
often obscured by cloud, which settles down from above or
creeps up from below. Everything is dripping and ghostlike in
the fog. Summer and winter, storms boil in without warning,
bringing ice rime, lightning strikes, powerful winds, more fog.

According to thetradition whereby humans and nature are
distinct and separate entities, even adversaries, this is a foreboding
place where chaotic nature clearly has the upper
hand. In the romantic tradition this is a place to be nearer to
God, where one comes to be inspired. Yet all this is an illusion,
for even here the hand of humanity moves invisibly with
the mist, carrying acids, hydrocarbons, and heavy metals
from industries and generating plants a thousand miles and
more downwind, and the scars of recent logging run across
the slopes like an outbreak of mange. But water works magic,
and in a small, serene bowl that the last glacier left amid the
stone, the water consolidates to begin its journey. The trip to
the sea may take months in a dry time, weeks during wet. It is
a course that follows our nation's history, from past to present,
gathering our spoor and suffering our politics. Hikers
often visit here to witness the beginning, climbing up a steep,
narrow trail from the customs station. As always, the water
completes the illusion, innocently reflecting the sky.

Nobody has visited through the long winter. For almost
five months the snow has drifted deeper. On still, frigid days
the only sound was the raven. On still, frigid nights the northern
lights made the snow shimmer red and green. Now it is
near the vernal equinox, and as the warm sun climbs higher,
winter's grip is loosening at last. Chickadees sing their spring
song from the spruce trees as the snow slumps lower.
Glistening rocks and south-facing slopes emerge from the
three- and six- and ten-foot depths of snow. Myriad insects,
excited by the heat, scurry from the flakes of bark, the blanket
of duff where they have lain dormant for so long. All
across this vast, high tumult of ancient rock, the land and the
river are reawakening. The water is audible now, trickling
through the alder limb dam that beavers have erected at the
source. Within the next mile the stream will have dropped five
hundred feet in thready cascades, already completing 20 percent
of its vertical journey to the sea. It pauses to fill the first
of several headwater lakes; pristine, silent, white. There are a
dozen named ponds nearby, too, stepping down toward the
sea, and maybe a hundred unnamed beaver ponds and bogs
lying in the flats between steep hillsides, studded with dead
tree stems and stumps that stand out like exclamation points,
rimmed with the dark, steeple-shaped spires of spruce and fir.

For ten thousand years this was a hunting ground, sometimes
shared and sometimes disputed by the tribes of the
adjoining watersheds. Several hundred years ago it was a
crossing place for war parties and smugglers. Smuggling still
goes on today. Drugs are only a small part of it. Pirated
movies and videos, Pakistanis and Guatemalans, computer
chips and cattle often find their way through the network of
old logging trails, too, although nothing could match the volume
of bootleg whiskey in Prohibition days.

A hundred years ago this would have been when the log
drives began. All winter teams of men and horses would have
been at work, cutting the virgin timber and yarding it to
streamside or piling it on lake ice. Then, as the thaw progressed,
ten thousand years' accumulation of forest wealth
would begin its journey south in forty-foot log lengths in
order to build a nation. Driving between fifty and eighty million
board feet of lumber downstream each year was rough
and dangerous work that is romanticized today, but several
lives were usually snuffed out between the rolling logs and icy
waters each year, and the only memorial was a pair of spiked
boots nailed to the nearest tree. This has always been a place
of struggle and bloodshed.

Now the skidders, slashers, log forwarders, and grapples
work year-round, and the hills resound to the whoops and
moans of high-speed diesel engines. Increasingly, especially
on weekends, it is also the song of the snowmobile that
drowns out the croaking raven and trumpeting jay as a new
recreation economy emerges. The forest resource is declining,
and men are being replaced by machines. Ownership of the
forests themselves and the mills that processed their product
has passed into fewer and more remote hands, gone overseas
or gone entirely. Vast clear-cuts, which liquidated the second
growth, now sprout brambles and brush, which in turn is
supporting a burgeoning moose population, adding to the
illusion of wilderness. Tourists come to see the moose. They
slowly drive the back roads in air-conditioned comfort,
cocooned in steel and safety glass.

There are almost no year-round residents until one reaches
the first village, twenty-six miles downstream. It could just as
well be a village in Alaska, for here, too, the land has shaped
the people as much as the people the land. Skidders, snowmobiles,
and log trucks are in the yards alongside swing sets and
aboveground pools. In these uppermost towns there is no zoning,
partly because it represents government interference, and
partly because, up until the recent recreation boom, there has
been little measurable growth to be zoned. The frontier lost
momentum and stopped here on the farthest fringes of the
watershed, and still today the mind-set is often more extractive
than cultivative. The plow is still less important than the
ax and the gun, and if, as on the frontier, there seems to be an
undertone of violence at times, it may be due as much to the
harsh and whimsical climate, the hard and dangerous work,
as the politics, for in a relationship with the environment that
is so often adversarial, individual rights are fundamental; any
interference with those rights is deeply resented.

Many of the families in these uppermost headwater intervales
trace their roots back two centuries to when their ancestors
first settled here in the highland crossing between
Canada and northern New England. Because of irregularities
and lack of clarity about the border, not to mention the
smuggling, the settlers here disputed which country they
belonged to among themselves until they agreed to form a
nation of their own, the Indian Stream Republic, named for
the river's uppermost sizable tributary. They had their own
constitution, their own laws, and their own army of sorts.
The dispute was eventually settled with minimal violence, but
the spirit remains inviolate. Land confiscation for storage
reservoir construction in the 1930s left lingering resentment,
and when the Army Corps of Engineers began eyeing Indian
Stream for its next big flood control project in the 1950s, the
reception was less than warm.

John works the northernmost farmland of the river valley,
where Indian Stream slows to meanders and has set down a
fertile plain. There were once a few farms still farther up than
his, but they're all underwater now. His is still too far north
to raise corn, but he boasts of how well his grass grows here,
in the long daylight of summer. He keeps dairy cows and
raises sheep, harvests timber, and makes maple syrup in what
would have been lake bottom, too, if the government had
gotten its way. He points proudly to a newspaper photograph
from that time in the 1950s, of his family, holding shotguns
pointed south. They are standing beside a sign that to this
day proudly proclaims the border of the Indian Stream
Republic, even though it is now mostly just a state of mind,
but Indian Stream itself still runs free.

John complains that the people here were lied to, that the
so-called flood control dams that were built have turned
out to mainly serve the industries of recreation and power
generation. He fears that the spring floods will return, as they
have in so many recent years. "The needs of the little guy who
tries to make a living on the land are getting squeezed," he
says, with as much grief as anger, speaking not just for himself
but for the others around him, too, for along with the fierce
independence of spirit there is also a strong sense of family
and community, and the well-earned distrust of outsiders is
balanced by extraordinary generosity. It pays to listen to his
well-chosen words. Like so many of the others up here, he has
gained a certain perspective on the rest of us from his farthest
end of the valley. In talking to him, I wonder sometimes which
of us is worldly, and which the more isolated. Here, the
threads of history and generations are still connected to the
land. They still are what the rest of us once were as a nation.

Now it is sugaring time, and there is hope for a good sap
run. It would help to offset the disastrously low price paid for
milk. Soon steam is curling from the woodside sugarhouse.
Even the trees are beginning to feel the surge of spring. Here,
just above the forty-fifth parallel, halfway between the Tropic
of Cancer and the Arctic Circle, the time of snowmelt is thrilling,
immobilizing, often cataclysmic. Water gathers in every
hillside cleft and starts to wear its way down, an annual passion
play reenacting the withdrawal of the glacier ten millennia
ago. Frozen waterfalls of ice - turned blue or green or rust red
from mineral springs - begin to weep from rock faces, and the
frozen earth turns to soup, closing the back roads and skid
trails. The waters swirls under ice, rises more and sculpts fantastic
shapes. The water is still nearly as cold as the ice itself,
and although its purity has already been compromised by
ubiquitous air pollution, it is as close to pure as surface water
can get these days. You can drink it. It is what gives meaning to
the term headwaters. These capillaries, these farthest-reaching
fingers, are the interface of the river with the sky.

Meanwhile far to the south, where the river meets the sea,
the springtime pulse of cold meltwater has kept the broad
river swollen for more than a month. It sheens across the
mile-wide channel, floating above the salty tide beneath,
brushing the greening banks of white oak and silver maple at
the feet of lavish estates. Daffodils are blooming. So is the
shadbush, punctuating the woodlines with bursts of delicate
white blossoms. At the river's mouth, where vast sandbars
have long kept big ships out and dashed hopes of a major
port, there are schools of fish milling about, bobbing up to
sample the exciting tingle of snowmelt, the molecules of
Indian Stream, then going back down again to the saline
refuge they have known for a year or more. They feel the
back-and-forth play of the tides against the shoals, gathering
in ever-greater numbers. Some of these fish, such as the shad
and other members of the herring family, have always been
coming here. Now that the water is cleaner they are coming
in greater numbers than in recent memory, beckoned northward
along the Atlantic coastline, spawning from the St.
Johns River in Florida to the St. John River in New
Brunswick, Canada. As their internal chemistry adjusts to the
cold fresh water, they begin to move upstream, mostly at
night, seeking their natal streams. They have built up extra
reserves of fat for the ordeal ahead. They will not even eat
until their job is done and the eggs of another generation are
in place, far from oceanic predators.

Sturgeons and striped bass will join the upstream rush,
too, in what is one of nature's greatest displays of determination
and fecundity, but the most revered fish among them all,
now milling about at the sandbars, is the Atlantic salmon.
One particular salmon, a thirty-seven-inch, nineteen-pound
female, has come south, retracing her way down the great
North Atlantic gyre from the coast of Greenland. That her
conception was attended by a pair of rubber-gloved hands,
that her incubation was by stainless-steel trays and electric
water pumps, seems of little consequence now. This river
once belonged to her kind, too, but they had been excluded
from the spawning grounds they preferred farther upstream
for nearly two hundred years and hammered by the increasing
pollution of the industrial age.

Long after the house lights of Old Lyme and Old Saybrook
have gone out, darkening the night sky still farther, and when
the traffic on Interstate 95, vaulting high over the river, has
dwindled to a minimum, the lights of a few fishermen still bob
on the water, driver and striker paired to a boat, one man at
the helm while the other carefully pays out the gill nets. They
watch the net floats on their two- and four- and six-hundred-foot
sets, waiting for that sudden sag, feeling for the thrust
against the tide. Aircraft course through the heavens far overhead.
The stars slowly turn above the horizon's big-city glow.
The fishermen talk while the bankers and brokers sleep.
Sometimes a laugh rolls across the water while the changing
tide gently hisses against the boats, against pilings and bridge
abutments and expensive yachts nestled together by the shore.

Then they haul the long nets in, drenched with cold river
water, picking the hard, rainbow-hued shad free of the net,
commenting back and forth on the size, sex, and number of
them. This is still as it has been here since long before
Europeans came, but while there are more fish once again,
there are also fewer of these men every year. The small markets
are going, and the supermarkets don't care. There are
only about a dozen people left hereabouts who know how to
bone a shad, which is quite a trick in itself. Besides, there are
a lot of easier ways to earn a living. Here, too, as in the headwaters,
time may be running out for an occupation that once
seemed timeless.

Chapter Two

Viewed from the distance of the moon, the astonishing
thing about the earth ... is that it is alive.

-Lewis Thomas

Spring advances northward up through the watershed, covering
a hundred miles in a week, rising a hundred feet of elevation
in a day. You can see it spreading: amber, then chartreuse
on the distant hills. Fiddlehead ferns uncurl from the fertile
floodborne riverside soil. Woodland wildflowers hastily
bloom before the leafy shade overtakes them, and birds are
migrating northward along with the fish, keeping pace with
the growing food supply. Now a gentle rain is falling across
the northern hills, which are still gray except for the red blush
of the swamp maples that I've been watching from the house.
I'm listening, too, for as the ground thaws, woods frogs are
the first amphibians to awaken and begin working their way
through the forest to the temporary woodland ponds where
they will lay their eggs, safe from predatory fish. Their croaking
is wooden, almost like the raven. Soon they will be joined
by other frogs, spring peepers, toads, and salamanders, and a
more melodically rejoicing chorus of voices will rise above
these vernal ponds, and my pond, too. It means it is time to
start the garden.

The rain not only refills seasonal ponds but also recharges
the vast watershed of soils and gravel beds and rock fissures
deep underground. On average only about half the rain that
falls goes into the river - less than that in a dry summer,
when the trees act like sponges, and more when the rains
come hard and fast or combine with snowmelt. This is what
gives the river its pulse: rising in the spring, responding to
both the change in seasons and the whims of weather. Plants
and animals depend on the river's rhythms to start a new generation.
The silver maple, too, casts her spawn upon the rising
spring waters, setting another generation in riverbank


Excerpted from CONFLUENCE
Copyright © 2005 by Nathaniel Tripp.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

From the Mekong River in Vietnam, where he served as platoon leader during the Vietnam War, to the Connecticut River near his farm in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, rivers have coursed through Nathaniel Tripp’s life. Shortly after returning from Vietnam, he produced the first “public service” television advertisements about the environment for the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society. As part of the Connecticut River Joint Commission, he has worked with scientists, bureaucrats, politicians, lobbyists, property holders, and advocacy groups to balance federal, state, corporate, and individual interests. He has also written children’s books and produced films and television shows about nature and science. He has lived on a Northeast Kingdom hill farm in Vermont since 1973 and is married to author Reeve Lindbergh.

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