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Improvising in Time with Nature

Todd Ziebarth reviews Kathleen Dean Moore's Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water

Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water, by  Kathleen Dean MooreA couple of summers ago, some friends and I ventured to the Weminuche Wilderness Area in southwestern Colorado, near the town of Creede. Five days and four nights in the backcountry awaited us, and, as we were to soon realize, so did the Rio Grande River. After we repacked and reshuffled our bulging gear, we were ready to begin hiking. But first we had to cross the river.

As we stood on the muddy banks of the Rio Grande and plotted our slippery route across the river, the sun clarified the hazards that lay between us and the rising slopes of the trail on the other side. As Kathleen Dean Moore states in her enjoyable and sometimes stirring book Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water—and as I realized at that moment on the edge of the Rio Grande—solidity is only a function of time.

Kathleen Dean Moore came of age in Cleveland, Ohio, and spent the better part of these years walking around and, more often than not, through rivers. For the last twenty plus years, Moore has lived in Oregon, and with her husband and two children as companions, has continued to perfect the art of poking around the wilderness, usually in close proximity to a flowing reflection of the landscape.

According to Moore, water is an agent of distortion and change. In Riverwalking, the author grapples with the distortions and changes in her own life within the context of rivers and the landscape that surrounds them. This collection of twenty essays deals with matters as varied as the death of her father, the acceptance of the growing independence of her children, and the deepening layers of her marriage, all within the framework of moving water, even though she realizes that "answers come from rivers only reluctantly."

Moore is a philosophy professor at Oregon State University, where her husband teaches biology. Her professional training is at times obvious in her approach, such as when she explains the logic of the sand dunes:

"The dunes are a landscape of assumptions and evidence and inference," she writes. "The sand dunes are a given, but only in this way. They are speculations—tentative, subject to change. In the dunes, visitors have to accept what is given and then see where that takes them, see what follows from that, step by step. Nothing about the dunes can be taken for granted."

As Moore shares the "small revelations" within nature, and relates them as broader (or possibly smaller) reflections of her own life, she is clear and concise in her writing style, and sometimes vivid in her descriptions. When speaking of the continual discovery that "nothing is essentially anything," she states that "this discovery comes with a lurch, thick in your stomach, like the feeling you get when you miss a step on the stairs." As her family begins to set camp near the Smohalla River (in the sun), she observes that "against gray rock, the heap of equipment shone bright as peeled crayons." Near nightfall on the dunes near Bear Creek, "the sun dropped fast to the edge of the sea where it exploded bright as a struck match, catching the clouds on fire and burning the waves as black as soot."

Moore also impresses the reader with her knowledge of the whos and whats of the natural landscape. In a chapter on the Aguajita Wash, she intermittently presents a list of the species that her family observes during their trip to the Sonoran Desert, which includes pallid bats, scarlet gilia and manzanita bushes. As she describes the mating patterns of the newts in Klickitat Creek, she paints a picture alive with honey mushrooms, red-capped lichens and skunk cabbages. This subtle littering of the landscape informs the reader, and at the same time provides a living context for her observations.

Moore possesses a philosopher's rigor, a keenly observant mind and the ability to articulate vivid descriptions that resonate with the reader. These attributes lead to a solid collection of essays.

Riverwalking is a refreshing reminder, like crossing the Rio Grande and emerging to the warmth of the trail's dirt and the sky's sun. Moore reminds us to be open to the landscape, to lose ourselves in the wilderness, to seek out storms. In doing so, maybe we can occasionally realize that the complex interactions within nature and the daily dilemmas of civilized life are overflowing with ambiguities, and that such ambiguities swell with possibilities. She stirs up the mud in the rivers of nature and her life, and presents us with "small, individually wrapped observations" that are sure to sometimes unsettle and more often than not reward those willing to enter her streams of thought.


Todd Ziebarth is a policy analyst at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He is also a founding editor of Terrain.org. In addition to his regular Terrain.org column, Ziebarth sometimes reviews books and CDs for the journal. He has a master's degree in public administration and a master's degree in urban and regional planning.
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Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water
by Kathleen Dean Moore

Harcourt Brace & Company
ISBN 0-15-6000461-5





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