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The enduring mysteries of the wild river

'Our knowledge of natural systems is deeper and richer than at any time in human history, yet it is still so awash with mysteries that our actions run ahead of our understanding of their consequences'

This is an excerpt adapted with permission of the publisher from the book Restigouche: The Long Run of the Wild River by Philip Lee, published June 16, 2020 by Goose Lane Editions.

For me, the Restigouche has always been an expression of nature’s fragile grace flowing through a world that affords little value to wild rivers and the lands that sustain them. In each new season I watched assaults on natural systems spread through the valley. Some I have seen with my own eyes: the logging trucks rumbling down from the hills 24 hours a day; the cuts growing larger and creeping ever closer to the river; feeder brooks that once flowed through the summer now dry and choked with sediment washed down from nearby logging and more distant industrial enterprises. The hills have been sprayed from the air with pesticides and herbicides, and the old mixed forests transformed into new monoculture tree plantations. Through it all, the salmon still return to spawn in the river, although they are now engaged in a grim survival game, both in their home waters and in warming and rising seas.

Restigouche: The Long Run of the Wild River

Philip Lee, author of Restigouche: The Long Run of the Wild River.

We recognize that the river and all the life systems that it supports are not what they once were, even in my lifetime. But how did this happen? This is a complex and challenging question, but one surely worth exploring, for it goes to the heart of understanding how we might preserve the natural systems that support life on Earth. We know the river is thousands of years old. We know that on this river, the greatest changes in natural systems came during the past 150 years, accelerating during the last 50. We know that the changes to the Earth’s climate that began a century before that now threaten the river’s systems in ways we never imagined possible.

There are many things we don’t know about the history of the river and the great mysteries of nature, but there are many things we do know to be true. The enduring mysteries don’t cancel out the facts, although we often interchange the words we believe and know, as if they carry the same meaning and weight in the life of a wild river.

Only now we are beginning to recognize with some alarm that perhaps all the world was not ours for the taking, and many things have been done that should not have been done.

Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution humans have accepted that disruptions in natural systems are the price of progress, preordained and unstoppable. The one thing each new generation could count on was that their world would not be the place of their mothers and fathers. The all-consuming idea that we could impose our will and reason on nature, that everything new was superior to a distant past, has been so compelling that we are still seized by it today. Only now we are beginning to recognize with some alarm that perhaps all the world was not ours for the taking, and many things have been done that should not have been done.

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Our knowledge of natural systems is deeper and richer than at any time in human history, yet it is still so awash with mysteries that our actions run ahead of our understanding of their consequences. Our imperfect knowledge is used to dismiss both those who call for caution when we seek to disturb the natural order and Indigenous communities who suggest their ancient and traditional knowledge of the ways of lands and waters and the lives they sustain might well provide a foundation for modern systems of understanding. Instead the debate has been and continues to be confined in a strongbox of utility, calculating the greatest good for the greatest number, measuring what we save and what we can afford to lose. The case for disruption of natural systems is supported by measures of economic necessity and acceptable risk, and the inevitable imperfections and lack of definitive evidence in the Indigenous and conservationist appeals are used to dismiss their warnings and concerns as sentimental and idealistic. What’s good for the wild river is rarely factored into the equation, as if its waters are disconnected from us, as if we ourselves are not children of nature.

Mist rises over the Restigouche River, a 200-kilometre long waterway running between northwestern New Brunswick and southeastern Quebec.

The arguments for resource extraction and destruction of natural systems are supported by reports that predict the numbers of direct and indirect jobs that will be created and tax revenues that may be collected. To counter this argument, conservationists commission reports about the economic value of the sport fishing and tourism industries in a river valley. Or they argue that preserving wild spaces will help us to better understand the effects of changes in climate in our communities, or that wild spaces contribute to human health and general pleasure. Or more abstractly, they assign spiritual value to wild spaces, making vague references to their sacred contributions to the human psychological condition.

How different the conversation would be if we were to begin by stating that we hold this truth to be self-evident: that a wild river supports a grand tapestry of life, and since the moment of its creation, and in every movement since, it is in itself beautiful and complete.

When I worked in the newspaper business, a great editor and friend taught me how a true story well told becomes a parable. He was a libertarian editor in the old school who saw his newspapers as daily journals of moral conduct. When something is broken, it is the work of the moralist, the storyteller, to place a finger on it and then ask who’s responsible for fixing it. I’ve carried his lessons with me throughout my life, for once a person adopts the habits of the moralist, it’s hard to let them go. This compulsion, I admit, tends to drive those I love most to distraction. We now have a house rule that I’m not to engage in this kind of talk at least until the morning coffee has been poured, and talking back to radio newscasts in the kitchen is strictly forbidden. I’ve learned to honour the contract, but the questions still run hard through each passing season.

How did it come to be that all the great political movements of the industrial age have proven themselves incapable of pursuing their ends without destroying the life sustaining systems of the Earth itself? What marked the turning point when we set out to become alienated from that upon which we depend for life itself? Was it when Henry the Navigator sent his sailing ships out from the beaches of southern Portugal to explore what lay beyond the seas, or when Copernicus and Galileo championed the heliocentrism that helped to launch a scientific revolution, or when the steam engine and railway lines released us from the constraints of time and place?

Restigouche River

The author paddling a stretch of the Restigouche River.

What has allowed us to treat our wild rivers and the lands that sustain them so carelessly? In T.S. Eliot’s poem, we lost sight of the river gods, seeing them first as a frontier, “useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce,” then as a problem for builders of bridges. But when that problem was solved, the rivers were all but forgotten. By the time the first railway lines and bridges were being built in the wilderness of the Restigouche valley, the Industrial Revolution had been fouling European rivers for a century. In the opening passages of Bleak House, Charles Dickens wrote of the Thames that flowed through London, where the fog rolled “defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city.” New York City was using the Hudson River as an open sewer and garbage dump, and the Chicago River was so polluted that engineers had reversed its flow into the Mississippi River and away from the city’s source of drinking water in Lake Michigan. Rivers such as the Thames and Hudson have gone through extensive rehabilitation since then, but they are nothing like what they were in their pre-industrial state. Rivers are remarkably resilient, but they do not wash away our sins.

The more I thought about the wild river the more I began to consider a new kind of inquiry. I began to wonder if, in all our evaluations of what’s worth saving and what we can afford to lose, we were even measuring the right things. Could a truer measure of what’s worth saving be found in the story of the life of one wild river?

I set out to test this proposition by travelling into the headwaters of the Restigouche River and over the course of one season following its lines and stories to the head of tide. When I set out, I had no idea what I might find. When I returned, I lay awake long into the winter nights, trying to unweave and unwind all that I had seen and learned. At the end of my exploring I didn’t have all the answers and still wondered what the future might hold. What I did know was, like the man who washed his eyes in the Pool of Siloam, I had come back seeing.

Philip Lee teaches journalism at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. He began his career as an investigative reporter and newspaper…

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