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Ripple Effects 

Book review: Confluence: A River, the Environment, Politics & the Fate of All Humanity by Nathaniel Tripp

I wish I could say something thrilling, something to guarantee big sales, about Confluence, Nathaniel Tripp's collection of essays focusing on the Connecticut River, beyond the fact that it carries a foreword by Howard Dean. That's hard to do, however, because, let's face it, the ruminations, descriptions and reflections of a member of the Connecticut River Joint Commission won't easily bump Ed Klein's repulsive "biography" of Hillary Clinton off the bestseller lists, and only the name of Dean, sitting prominently on the dust jacket, will, I fear, help Confluence find the audience it deserves.

As everyone knows, Howard Dean is the man of the hour, no matter which part of the political spectrum you might be on. Dean wears so much pancake makeup now for his TV appearances that you could scoop it off with your fingers, take a shower and still have plenty left over for Halloween. That's something Dean and Tripp might be laughing about if they "and [their] extended families" are still canoeing together and camping out "on a sandbar in the upper reaches of the Connecticut River."

Who knows? Maybe they are, but things have changed in every sense, for both Dean and the river. "The first time we paddled fifty miles in one weekend," Dean explains, "I was still governor of Vermont and was accompanied everywhere by a state trooper." Now he's accompanied everywhere by CNN: "During the sailing times, with a stiff wind and a strong chop, [Tripp], my brother Bill, and I told our kids about our childhood," about their own earlier excursions with their fathers, and about "cousins and girlfriends, who, we found out later, spent much of the time plotting to somehow get a helicopter and make an early escape."

Split infinitives! What next? A speech saying all Republicans are white and Christian?

Well, let's forget about that. Dean's foreword to Confluence is both sweet and to the point, and a great gift to Tripp, a journalist and filmmaker whose 1997 book Father, Soldier, Son describes his experiences as a platoon commander in Vietnam. Now married to fellow Vermont author Reeve Lindbergh, Tripp has spent at least the last dozen years getting "an education about rivers beyond any he could have imagined." He worked fervently, often feverishly, "with scientists, bureaucrats, politicians, lobbyists, property holders and advocacy groups to balance federal, state, corporate, and individual interests" in the use, misuse and ultimate preservation of the Connecticut. The river is New England's largest, running 410 miles from its pristine origins just north of the Canadian border to its fouled, belching exit in Long Island Sound. Which is also, incidentally, where most of the Connecticut's leisure canoeists come from, including Dean.

If there's an overarching theme to Tripp's book, it's precisely that: The rich "canoe," and the sad fact that the Connecticut can no longer look after itself.

Tripp writes beautifully in his opening chapter:

The 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 ... 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.

"Mange" isn't the worst of it. Something like 1000 dams now block the natural flow of the Connecticut, and evidently what's done will only be undone when the human race ceases to exist -- just as the traditional way of life of the people who do, or did, make their living by and from the river went belly up long ago.

Farms along the Connecticut, in particular, have dwindled to practically nothing. Enormous pressures have all taken their toll on the watershed: Big Industry, especially hydropower, with its focus on "spot markets" and surges in demand; Big Money, which would like to see the Connecticut turned into a kind of theme park for weekend fishermen; and Big Environmentalism, whose intentions are always the best, but whose efforts at conservation and "elitist reputation" are frequently at odds with the needs and desires of the local population.

Tripp adds:

The forest resource is declining, and men are being replaced by machines. Ownership of the forests themselves and the mills that processed their product have passed into fewer and more remote hands, gone overseas or gone entirely ... Tourists come to see the moose. They slowly drive the back roads in air-conditioned comfort, cocooned in steel and safety glass.

There is, finally, a significant difference -- in fact, a huge disconnect -- between approaches to the river and its use advocated by the citizens and lobbyists of northern and southern New England. It's something Tripp hadn't counted on when he started his work. In the post-Reagan era of "deregulation," and with the rise of the "property rights" movement, environmentalism gets a bad rap. Tripp attributes this trend cogently and, I think, correctly to a larger "effort to discredit almost everything associated with the 1960s."

Grim news, for sure, but it's not all grim. Along with failures there are successes in Tripp's account -- minor victories, heroic measures and persons, revitalized species, broader education and even a few farms still operating as they used to.

For an outsider, a flatlander, a person who has been removed from the travails of rural life by half a dozen generations, the rural character is likely to be the object of derision, of jokes. Since the coming of the industrial age, the stereotype of hicks, rednecks, and trailer trash has come to be applied with increasing frequency. The media, and television especially, will make rural life seem romantic while selling margarine made in factories, but for the most part in today's largely rootless and suburban society it seems to require a degree of ignorance, if not insanity, for rural people to work so hard for so little material gain. Farming often appears to mean little more than endless hours of grueling work ... The fact that so many still want to do it shows it must mean much more.

Tripp charts the course of the Connecticut's existence -- historical, industrial, environmental and current -- in chapters that correspond roughly to sections of the water, which allows him to range as freely as the river used to. But it's done at the cost of a single narrative thread, a line as clear and strong as the Connecticut's own, and this is a serious flaw in the structure of the book. In his various discussions, Tripp is literally all over the map. Like many specialists, he makes the mistake of assuming the general reader can keep accurate track of his twists and turns. And terms: Even the word "watershed," used repeatedly, is never precisely defined.

Confluence also has a little too much "maleness" for my taste -- a little too much father-son activity and filial bonding, more than a whiff of Iron John and that peculiar combination of acute sensitivity and white American chest-thumping that mainly suggests its practitioners have a lot of time and money on their hands. Maybe it's a personal thing, but I was really glad when Tripp, describing a still-functioning farm family in the Northeast Kingdom, pauses to mention that the son of the house "and his fiancee are just in their early twenties, but it turns out she's a whiz at milking, and that can make all the difference. A good milker, someone who has a natural way with cows, can be what makes a farm succeed, and is getting harder and harder to find."

Too true. I'd have liked a little more about this and a little less about masculine spirituality. Still, Tripp performs a big service with this book and, as I said, I hope its sales flow like the Connecticut.

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