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Abby Phillips Metzger on Rivers, Loss, and Mystery

October 31, 2013

We're pleased to welcome Abby Phillips Metzger, the author of the just-released Meander Scars: Reflections on Healing the Willamette River, as a guest to our blog today.

For the Sake of Mystery

Abby Phillips Metzger

When I was doing research for Meander Scars, I came across some astonishing facts about the Willamette River—ninety channel miles between Eugene and Albany gone, tens of thousands of snags blasted or removed from the channel, and thousands of cubic yards of gravel dredged and dumped each year. The consequences of these actions have created a simplified river system with far fWillametteewer off-channel habitats, which many species depend on to survive and thrive.

The facts are astonishing indeed. But one thing that struck me more powerfully than the data was public testimony from a 1971 proposal to install a dam within the Marys River drainage, a watershed within the 12,000-square-mile Willamette Basin. Both sides argued well, with supporters citing increased irrigation for agriculture and improved flood control, and opponents stating concerns for salmon and habitat loss.

One citizen’s poetic plea to leave the river alone stuck with me. He said that damming the Marys would take away the “mystery behind the bend.” In this old, forgotten report from a public hearing, I found a beautifully evoked description that spoke of a deeper loss from messing with our rivers, akin to what Robert Michael Pyle calls the extinction of experience. With diminished wildness comes diminished wonder, intrigue, and opportunities to explore what’s behind the next bend. The disappearance of ninety channel miles is a tremendous blow to an ecological system, and it is also a tragic loss of mystery.

And what a thing to lose. Mystery is perhaps one of the more provocative forces in human Meanderhistory, luring us to explore all crevices of the globe. It drives our science and our stories, our fables and our myths. In the words of theorist Paul Ricouer and a former English professor of mine, mystery gives rise to story, gives rise to thought. That is, all our rational pursuits first began as attempts to understand and unravel the world’s great mysteries.

Whether or not you believe this to be true, it’s an interesting way to frame ecological loss on the Willamette River. What will happen to our stories of the river with fewer enigmas to inspire them? And, following Ricouer’s logic, what will happen to our intellectual contributions to the natural world without the rich stories to nurture them?

The days of blasting snags from the channel and filling in sloughs are behind us, but the threat of losing the mystery behind the bend is still there, just in a different form—urbanization, climate change, population growth, to name a few. Fortunately, the Willamette contains a lot of mystery still, even though it has been armored with riprap, dredged, diked, dammed, and developed. As someone who likes to paddle the river, I can tell you that you might see a green heron hunched on a log, clouds of swallows swarming the frayed air, a slinky mink running in the soft mud, or the giant knotted trunks of cottonwoods much older than you.

The mystery behind the bend is there. It calls forth, asking us to be present and attuned. Becoming aware of the river’s remaining complexity might be one way to combat the forces that threaten to take it away.

So go beyond the next bend, and then the next. Let the unknown take you to some place new. Set adrift. Get lost in the current, and then tell me what you see.

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AbbyAbby Phillips Metzger grew up near the Willamette River in Corvallis, and still lives there. She earned her Honors English degree and master’s in environmental science from Oregon State University. In addition to her current job as a writer and research communicator at OSU, she has worked in journalism, book publishing, and environmental education. She worked as an outreach coordinator for Honoring Our Rivers, a student anthology of art and literature celebrating Oregon watersheds. She also facilitates nature interpretation for children and adults during raft trips down the Willamette. Meander Scars is her first book.

 

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