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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Writing the memory of rivers : story, ecology and politics in some contemporary river writing Dawson, Charles Robert Eliot


Despite watershed damage, pollution and the construction of various kinds of barrier, rivers continue to carry figurative freight in the late twentieth century. This dissertation reads a number of contemporary texts (personal essays, fiction and poetry) that focus on rivers and insist upon contextual, literary and ethical processes of river reflection. The Introduction sites such writing in cycles of recirculation involving author, watershed and community. Chapter One takes up these issues, looking at essays by Lance Kinseth, Scott Russell Sanders, Joan Didion, Edward Abbey (Down The River, 1982) and Kathleen Dean Moore (Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water, 1995), examining questions of memory, ecological change and the limits of language and observation, in order to demonstrate some links between subject and meandering form. Chapter Two records how, by troping the river as a site of revision and healing, Barry Lopez, David James Duncan and Richard Flanagan localise versions of philosopher Hans Jonas's "imperative of responsibility." In part, Duncan's The River Why (1982) and Flanagan's Death of a River Guide (1993) braid personal or regional neo-colonial memory to call Lopez's River Notes (1979) to account. Chapters Three and Four then read the psychic, political and ecological reach of the 'fallen river' through Ivan Illich's commentary on water. Analysis of further fiction by Duncan and Flanagan provides a context for a consideration of Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water (1993) and a discussion of literary representations of the effect of large dams on indigenous communities and the natural environment. By extension, Cormac McCarthy's Suttree (1979) and London psychogeographer Iain Sinclair's Downriver (1991) track two distinct urban riverscapes (by the Tennessee and Thames), figuring them, in Sinclair's words, as "ribbons of memory" in an age of amnesiac capital accumulation. Chapter Five marks ways in which globalisation, loss, memory, form and line transpire through poetry by Tim Bowling and Daphne Marlatt (Steveston, 1974/1984) at the Fraser River; it then re-reads Richard Hugo as a riverscape poet. Finally, a discussion of long poems by Jim Harrison, Don McKay, Gary Snyder and Liz Zetlin leads to a conclusion that emphasises exchange and possibility. The practice of reading written texts inherently invokes a challenge to 'read a river' more attentively. At the cultural (and thus ecological) watershed, memory constitutes a process of contemporary river reflection, which is distinguished by its sense of provisionality, loss and fragile continuity.

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