Book Reviews | Literary Arts

“We probably should have looked at the map”: Zak Podmore’s Confluence

It’s early summer and the water is high. My mother grasps the handles of two wooden oars and feels the Colorado River surge through her arms. A gray ring of raft surrounds her, sixteen feet from bow to stern, and beyond it, the mud-red river roils. Near the bow, her friend and former college roommate sits on a cooler. They’re raft guides out for a week in Utah canyons with no clients, and they’re nearing the crux of the trip: a feature know to river runners, in both fondness and fear, as Satan’s Gut. Directly downstream, the Gut heaves in a gnashing pit of foam large enough to swallow a Winnebago . . . .

As the current gathers speed, the world tilts. The first waves at the top of the rapid crash over the gray tube and the raft fills like a bathtub. The woman in the front of the raft stands knee-deep on the floor and bails with a five-gallon bucket twice before sitting back down and grabbing onto a strap.

Bracing her feet against a box, my mother pulls back on the Douglas fir oars to they bend against the water. Deep in the woodgrains, fibers creak and snap. But the raft’s course can’t be altered. The front tubes cross the upstream edge of the hole and the boat tips smoothly into its mashing heart. A white wall of water rolls across the bow and smacks my mother square in her lifejacket. The boat, more ballast than flotation, barely slows as the oars are ripped from her hands.

The raft continues downstream. My mother does not.

 

No matter if it’s a river down which boats are paddled or essays brought together in a book, whether enumerating tributaries or formatting an essay collection, counting individual parts can only take you so far. Confluence, the title lifelong river enthusiast Zak Podmore has given this ensemble drawn from his magazine journalism, allows half a dozen variously formatted articles and major themes to flow together into a volume that sweeps together gravity, hydraulic physics, riparian ecology, and the practical and ethical exploitation of vital resources.

Confluence is a title any alert author might dream of justifying with a book. Initially, Podmore means it to refer to one of the salient features of western rivers: the often-elusive places where these polymorphous drainages connect to each other. It’s a characteristic of rivers like the Colorado, the Little Colorado, the San Juan, the Dolores, and the Elwha (all of which figure in Podmore’s river-running adventures) that they stitch together states that feature square borders utterly unlike rivers — borders that owe everything to far distant mapmakers, politicians, and economic interests and almost nothing to local needs or history. So it is that Podmore, whose sharp eye for the beauty of the places he paddles through is matched by an ability to describe them in language both poetically evocative and scientifically accurate, is inevitably drawn beyond their banks and into the lives lived there.

Podmore’s memoir follows a centrifugal, expanding path, and so his confluences begin with his family connection to river rafting — specifically his mother’s early lesson that one can be more alive on a wild river than anywhere else. In those post-WWII days, uranium ore and empty places to test the weapons it fueled were what mattered to the nation’s dominant concerns, and so the Podmores’ story, like so many that emerged from the Southwest, begins in tragedy. But that side isn’t the one that dominates him, and it may well be his mother’s vitality that accompanies and carries him through some of the past and present injustices that still stalk the West.

By turns precise and poetic, Confluence ranges from the Colorado Delta in Mexico to the rain forest of Washington State. As he travels down rivers fed by numerous tributaries, Podmore also presents himself as a kind of literary confluence, his sources labeled appropriately. He brings in philosophers, historians, scientists, and social activists whose influence he cites with confidence. His ‘slender volume’ thus takes on the gravity of a much larger book. Used as a guide not just to the Western rivers system, but to a library of essential texts, it becomes one of the most important volumes everyone who dwells in the West should have on their shelves.

Confluence
Zak Podmore
Torrey House Press
154 pp.
$18.95

 

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