For much of its course, the Meander rising on the Anatolian Plateau and spilling into the Aegean 350 miles later is a dithering, mazy affair. With its modest drop in elevation, the river was not built for speed; otherwise, why would it be called Meander? But it's not built for comfort, either. Slow and uncomfortable so much of traveling moves to that unpromising two-step. Still, Odysseus made good business of it, and so does Jeremy Seal in Meander, his journey down the river by canoe and, when that wasn't slow or uncomfortable enough, by foot, dragging the canoe behind.
Seal, who lives in England, has made Turkey his bailiwick: he has traveled far, wide, and deep; he speaks the language; he wrote A Fez of the Heart, in which he roams the country in search of a hat and all it signifies. A few years back, while taking one of the little buses that run between villages, he crossed a river that he was stunned to learn was the fabled Meander. It was like taking the bus to Delphi, crossing a lazy stream beneath, and learning it really was the Styx. And, he discovered, you could float the river stem to stern, without bureaucratic obstacles, if more than enough downed willows and vicious farm dogs.
Seal schools himself in the history of the place, for if the river has always been a lazybones, its valley home has always been busy-busy, connecting the Aegean to the vast Asian hinterlands. Xerxes brought his army through the valley on his way to Greece in 481 B.C.; Xenophon and Cyrus did the same with theirs, though in the opposite direction, as did Alexander. Midas and Croesus knew the valley; St. Paul cruised it on his first missionary journey in A.D. 47. Crusaders, for better or worse, pushed through; after the Saracens were finished with it came the Turks, pigtailed nomads, horsemen and archers out of the northeast grasslands, who promptly put down roots. The British built a railroad line there for the Greeks talk of geopolitics. It has been home to Turcoman raiders and outlaw zeybeks, popular rebels against Ottoman rule.
This background stands Seal in good stead as it pumps a ready supply of oxygen into the breathtaking landscape portraits: "The river yawed gently left before spilling into a still lake, which the low sun had slicked with gold," while that night "the lake was skeined in moonlight." He walks through plains bathed in lemon sunlight, following "the road through strawberry fields"; there are the old parts of the river towns, where gardens shaded by orange trees sit behind elegant gates. But this river will prove a study in extremes, for shortly after he pushes off, he pushes out: a gorge presents water too fierce for his canoe. Seal must continue on foot, but he is a good road companion, and he doesn't need to be on the river to float his story.
He finds his way back to water, but then the river simply disappears, which, you will admit, is professional-grade meandering, the ultimate walkabout. What it really underscores is the corruption of the river industries that have poached and poisoned the water, the lack of vision or responsibility. It's a galling fate for a river that once fed great orchards and an agricultural empire, and Seal has a sure hand goading our sense of gall.
But gloom is hardly the only note here. Seal's journey is full of the serendipitous, indelible experiences that shape a life. In an abandoned town, he climbs a derelict, towering minaret of blue- glazed brick to the muezzin's walk, finding the gumption to do so as he considers his epitaph: "Died in a Minaret He Himself Had Caused to Collapse." He visits anchorite caves hewn into a hillside of gneiss, which must have been like chewing diamonds. And there is the fowl: "A ragged chicken watched me retrieve my canoe from the deserted schoolyard. It flexed its stubby wings to follow me across the empty road and down to the river, apparently caught, in the village way, between seeing me off its patch and shipping out itself."
Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at writesformoney.com.
Reviewer: Peter Lewis