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The Doubt Remains

Simmons Buntin reviews A Doubtful River by Robert Dawson, Peter Goin, and Mary Webb

The Doubtful RiverPlaces live and die by the rivers on which they are built. Rivers are the lifeblood, symbolically and often literally, of nearly every major city in the world, especially in earlier ages when rivers were the main mode of transport, the main source of food, and of course the main supply of fresh water. So it should come as no surprise that communities that are an integral part of the river and the river system are good stewards of the river. They have to be, to ensure the vitality of their most precious natural resource and to protect their own future. Right?

Unfortunately, no. And the sad part about this truth is just how well-known the stewards' lack of stewardship of the world's rivers has been. Rivers have been significantly degraded by just those most defendant upon them.

A Doubtful River documents the geographic and historical journey of one such river—the Truckee River, which runs from Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the California-Nevada border through Reno and into Pyramid Lake and just beyond.

The design, feel, and approach of A Doubtful River are all handsome, a perfect fit for the University of Nevada Press's Environmental Arts and Humanities Series. Even more handsome, and at times simply striking, are the large and abundant photographs by Robert Dawson and Peter Goin, both highly acclaimed photographers and photography instructors. The photographs of the place, people, and history of the Truckee River are wrapped in a series of essays by Mary Webb, a teacher of writing at the nearby University of Nevada at Reno.

Just as there is a hierarchy in the book's chapters—winding like the shallow river itself from the geographical inception of the Truckee in the snowy Sierra Nevada to its last drops that sometimes make it to Pyramid Lake and the Lahontan Valley Wetlands—there is a hierarchy in the book's content. The photographs take priority, the essays come second. In fact, it was some time after Robert Dawson and Peter Goin began their photographic project about the Truckee and Pyramid Lake in 1988 that essayist Mary Webb contributed her essays, which range from personal histories of native and non-native residents to journalistic analysis of the complex water use challenges facing the region.

Because of Webb's essays and the integrity of the photographs, A Doubtful River—despite its initial appearances—is not a coffee table book. And yet, because of the style of the essays, it is not a comprehensive academic analysis or history of the Truckee, either. So what is it? Miles Barite, author and independent curator, says it best: "In the tradition of the legendary geographical surveys of the 1870s, Robert Dawson, Peter Goin, and Mary Webb have created a documentary project, which once again calls our attention to the fragile relationship between man and nature, and the need for proper intervention." [Emphasis added.]

A Doubtful River is a documentary project that has resulted in a beautiful and quite readable book that is of interest to a great many us and and that should be required reading for the residents of Reno and the surrounding region. Once again, we are presented with a sort of living history of what was once a naturally flowing and sacred river that has had its course changed both physically and spiritually, and relatively recently at that. And it points to the need for proper intervention.

Yet it is on this last point that A Doubtful River runs dry, for Webb's essays do not actually address what proper intervention might be. The book does not consider or report on what the next steps for proper intervention are, or even might be.

"Go out and listen; only then can we understand ourselves and the limits of our own backyards, wherever they may be," she concludes in the last sentence of the last essay, "Listening: Lessons of the Truckee River." But I found the lessons lacking, and the prescriptions for ailing the river absent.

I don't want to end this review on that note, however, because despite this shortfall, A Doubtful River is both a valuable resource and a beautiful production. Webb's essays are poignant and well-written, at times playful and at other times critical. Dawson's and Goin's photographs are, without exception, superb, defining place and the precise moments of time. While doubt about the Truckee's future remains, the craftsmanship of A Doubtful River is without doubt.


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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A Doubtful River

by Robert Dawson, Peter Goin, and Mary Webb

   University of Nevada
   November 2000
   ISBN 0874173493



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