- In Earshot of Water: Notes from the Columbia Plateau
Paul Lindholdt’s latest book is an engaging collection of first-person, literary nonfiction essays focused on the rural Pacific Northwest, primarily the Columbia Plateau bioregion, which includes slices of northern Idaho and much of Washington state east of the Cascades. The author’s deep knowledge of the Plateau and its surrounding regions is reflected in his fluency with local flora and fauna, landforms, and waterways. The essays describe the satisfaction of living a life where the non-built environment plays a significant role, but these celebratory place-based accounts are often weighed against the region’s history of environmental abuse. From the demise of wild salmon due to the damming of the Columbia River watershed, including the “tourniquet” of Grand Coulee Dam, which is like most other dams that act “as tombstones to the largest rivers in the American West,” to tragic stories of people “leaded” by smelter fallout from an Idaho silver mine to the severe air pollution resulting from wheat field stubble burning, Lindholdt condemns corporations and government entities that sacrificed the health of individuals, communities, and ecosystems for the sake of short-term profit (86, 84, 110). [End Page 310]
Perhaps the most memorable essay in this regard is “In the Shadow of the Government’s Blind Eye,” an account of environmental apocalypse at the former Western Processing Company site, which is now one of the largest Superfund sites in the Pacific Northwest. As a young, blue-collar worker in 1974, the author risked his health disposing of industrial wastes from clients such as Boeing. He describes emptying—by hand—55-gallon drums of “heavy metals suspended in acids” and other toxic liquids into storage ponds (28). Clad in little more than rainslickers and boots, he and coworkers pump “chemical slurries straight to the dirt”; later he watches flames flicker out of the contaminated ground (31). Reading this, one wonders how frequently a similar story has played out across the West. In addition to the single-source water pollution from this site, the pall cast by other toxic by-products of industrial civilization spread far across the region—and across the nation—as such hazardous wastes were “recycled” as fertilizer, sold, and used in agriculture (33). Many Washington farm communities, for instance, fell victim to this practice when they unwittingly spread these contaminants onto their fields, resulting in sickly animals and poor crop yields.
Readers hoping to find the romantic landscapes of an unspoiled West or idealized traditional Western culture are going to be disappointed. This collection offers instead a clear-eyed view of the region’s people and places, including critiques of such sacred cows as the rodeo circuit, which the author and his son see as a dubious form of entertainment, based as it is on the exertions of animals who have been “ridden, roped, panting, jerked, and spurred” for the benefit of audiences eating barbequed meat under hot western skies (134). For those who relish such honesty, the author’s keen ear for local speech contributes to the emerging portrait of place, with its prevailing conservative orthodoxy. One feels the tight cinch of convention when neighbors spread rumors that a local woman who left her husband took “‘her feminism down a recreational path’ by falling ‘in love with another woman. She had gone lesbian’—as if to say she had gone feral” (72).
Sometimes personal matters become fodder for community gossip; other times they affect one’s sense of place as profoundly as the landscape and the culture. One example is “The Way to Open,” a chapter on rafting the Main Salmon River in Idaho. As part of a Forest Service–sponsored working trip to reduce the spread of spotted knapweed, an invasive species that poisons the soil around it, killing off native vegetation and preventing the growth of new plants, the author shares painful memories about his son’s drowning on Puget Sound, a reminder that the world has its own inexplicable agenda, an agenda that...