- Wide Rivers Crossed: The South Platte and the Illinois of the American Prairie by Ellen Wohl
Ellen Wohl’s latest book, her eighth, is an engaging natural science story that includes insightful human dimensions. To achieve her stated purpose of telling the story of rivers from their own perspective, she weaves together the strands of geology, geomorphology, hydrology, geography, ecology, archaeology, and human history. Thus, this work is neither an environmental history, nor is it an account—such as Paul Horgan’s Great River approach to the Rio Grande—rooted in human history. Rather, Wohl provides an explanation of two important regions of the Great Plains using a natural science–based interpretation of their master streams.
The book devotes one major section to the South Platte River as a representative example of streams in the shortgrass prairie, and the other major section to the Illinois River as one stream in the tallgrass prairie. Within each of these sections, Wohl addresses four questions: what do we know about the rivers from natural science, what do we know about their interactions with society, how have these rivers changed over recent centuries, and what does the future likely hold for them? Throughout the narrative she emphasizes the connections between nature and society, constantly occupying difficult intellectual terrain between and on the edges of major fields of knowledge. Each paragraph is referenced with meticulous footnotes for those readers who want to follow her path through the scholarly thicket of publications that support her work.
Wide Rivers Crossed is truly modern in the sense that the physical product is in the form of innovative publishing. The font is small, maximizing the amount of print per page, and there is little white space. The book is rich in photographs that have reproduced remarkably well; historical images, aerial photographs, and ground-based images are effective in defining the changes along the rivers. The work also offers enough maps to satisfy any geographer. Diagrams add to geological and ecological interpretations, and data are represented in many easy-to-read graphs. The figures maintain a crisp, consistent, simplified style throughout that materially contributes to the success of the book.
A book such as this one that explores the connections among branches of knowledge may not satisfy every [End Page 86] reader. Specialists in hydrology, for example, might want more on the connections among precipitation, surface water, and groundwater, while some historians may quibble that there is not enough attention paid to the diverse Native American tribes and their relationship to these rivers. Climatologists might desire more attention to the difference between shorter-term climate variability and longer-term climate change. In the end, however, anyone who loves the Great Plains and who revels in the prairie under the big sky will appreciate this unique contribution from a gifted author who gives us a view from the rivers.
University of South Carolina