3 for the River: Place (2024)

3 for the River: Place (1)

This is the sixth in a series of twelve monthly posts in which I’ll reread my three favourite riverine travelogues – R. M. Patterson’s Dangerous River (1953), Jonathan Raban’s Old Glory (1981), and Tim Butcher’s Blood River (2007) – and compare them. Today, I’ll focus on their sense of place.

These books are about rivers, with a deep immersion in everything that defines a river – currents, rapids, boils, channels, banks, islands, sand bars, fish, animals, insects, woods, rocks, sounds, smells, weather, cities, towns, wharves, bridges, boats, pollution, on and on. Here, for example, is one of Dangerous River’s first descriptions of the Nahanni:

Patches of blue sky were appearing. Then the sun broke through, the mist rolled away from the river and at noon we started. The canoes were hitched together as before, since the first eight miles of the Nahanni, where it winds like a serpent in two tremendous oxbows at the foot of the Butte, is all quiet water. A couple of hours later, the first swirl of fast water hit us, and Faille pulled into a shelving bank of gravel. As we unhitched we looked at the prospect ahead: the wooded banks and quiet, sheltered water had given place to a wide-open flood-plain strewn with sand bars, shingle islands, wooded islands, huge driftpiles and queer, dead-looking forests of snags where uprooted trees had lodged and settled on the river bottom and now, swept clean by ice and floods of all their branches, projected bleakly from the water, their broken tops pointing downriver. Through this desolation rushed the Nahanni in, perhaps, two main channels and a maze of smaller ones. From a wooded bank nearby came the thudding lash of “sweepers” – trees that have been undercut by the floods into the river, but which still cling with their roots to the bank, lashing and beating at the water that drives through their branches. From all sides in this wasteland of the river came the noise of rushing water – it was the foot of the Splits.

Note the specificity – “two tremendous oxbows,” “at the foot of the Butte,” “quiet water,” “fast water,” “shelving bank of gravel,” “flood-plain,” “sand bars,” “shingle islands,” “wooded islands,” “huge driftpiles,” “queer, dead-looking forests of snags,” “the thudding lash of ‘sweepers,’ ” “the noise of rushing water,” “it was the foot of the Splits.” Line after line of sensory detail and precise notation – this is how Patterson evokes the Nahanni.

Another example – this from Raban’s Old Glory:

Here the river really did mean business. The St. Paul shore was solidly blocked in with cranes, derricks, huge steel drums, gantries, chutes, silos and brick warehouses. I tried counting cargoes ... scrap iron, salt, molasses, coal, phosphates, sand and gravel, grain. This was harvest time, and there was so much grain that it colored the river itself. Near the elevators, the surface of the water was dusted a pale ochre by the husks of soya, barley, wheat and corn. Closed chutes like elephant trunks fed the moored barges in a continuous stream: twelve or fifteen hundred tons to one barge ... nine to fifteen barges to a tow ... and still there were whole fleets of empty barges, tied up off the channel, waiting to be filled.

That “Near the elevators, the surface of the water was dusted a pale ochre by the husks of soya, barley, wheat and corn” is excellent. Raban is a superb, subtle describer.

And here, from Butcher’s Blood River, is a wonderful evocation of the color and temperature of the Congo:

The daylight hours passed very slowly on my pirogue. The paddlers chatted and sung in Swahili. The sun was as strong as I have ever known. We were just a short distance from the Equator and the storm had washed the sky clean of any screening clouds. While the crew were impervious to the sun’s force, it had me cringing in a puddle of shade under my wide-brimmed hat, pathetically splashing my face and arms with river water the same colour and warmth as tea, praying for the evening shadows to reach us.

How do you evoke place? Be specific. Generic doesn’t cut it. Deal in particulars. That’s one lesson these three great travelogues teach. Another is that a river is not only about landscape. It’s also about people. That’s the subject of my next post in this series.

3 for the River: Place (2024)
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