Richard White, The Organic Machine

It's been on my shelf for a while, and I've dipped happily into it more often than I thought possible with such a small volume, but Richard White's environmental history gem The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River had gone unread in toto until this hols. I'll be teaching it this semester, so it's long past time for me to have read it with the requisite care and attention, but my previous dipping had made me comfortable with that extent of knowledge.

And I remain so. White's book was mentioned in some essay or other in JA Wainwright's collection Every Grain of Sand: Canadian Perspectives on Ecology and Environment (another book I'm teaching this term) as a remarkable work, startlingly rich given its brevity, and indeed it is. His key insight is simply that the Columbia River has been the site of human effort since there were humans in the Pacific Northwest: local First Nations named every rock and fishing spot, and worked to improve and adapt the best fishing spots over time, and Europeans tried to get what they could from it (salmon, irrigation, hydroelectric power, etc) as soon as they arrived. It's been a form of technology for a long time, as long as you don't worry too much about the concept that technology is unnatural.

If you're still worried about a nature/culture divide, or still seeing one, you're not paying attention, is roughly White's point. Nature exists, obviously, but it's not entirely separate from human culture. And that's okay, honest. It doesn't mean nature doesn't have its own power or place in the world or however else you want to express it, just that humans are part of the same world as rivers and whatnot. I'd like to add "obviously," but a whole lot of ecocritical rhetoric tells me there's nothing obvious about this perspective....


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