A Story of Six Rivers

Richard Oram enjoys an exploration of the complex – and ever-changing – relationships between humans and rivers

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Reviewed by: Richard Oram
Author: Peter Coates
Publisher: Reaktion Books
Price (RRP): £25

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Histories of rivers, as Peter Coates explains, are not a recent phenomenon; past generations have spilled much ink in describing them, exploring the roles of rivers in the rise and fall of civilisations, and writing about personal interactions with the world’s myriad watercourses. Most such histories, however, tend to be discussions of cultural achievements and events in the lands bordering the rivers, or technical accounts of human efforts to gain mastery over the unpredictable force that was the uncontained river.

Anthropomorphism has seen authors turn their subject into thinking, feeling entities through whom they can give voice to their own musings on human-natural interaction. More recently, the paeans of praise of earlier histories were all too often replaced by litanies of lamentation for rivers ‘lost’, ‘destroyed’ or ‘killed’ by the humans who had once been so dependent upon them. Coates has stepped back from both and offers something new in their place: an environmental history perspective that consistently underscores the continuous fusion of history, culture and ecology, and emphasises that what all too often has been labelled ‘destruction’ is just one of many processes of perpetual change.

To do so, he has selected two North American and four European rivers; some well-known, others obscure, even in their own regions. The selections are not obvious, and their choice is complex and occasionally personal. Somehow, however, it works, and although in places the narrative meanders and loses its obvious course, it always regains its flow and its pace.

The rivers are vastly different in character, condition and scale. One – the Los Angeles river – was once seen as so altered by human action that it was relabelled a ‘flood control channel’. Another, the Danube, flows through or forms the frontier between multiple countries, and is an example of how river control in one state can impact negatively downstream unless interstate solutions are sought. Three – the Spree, Mersey and Los Angeles – offer case studies of the revival of rivers once deemed ‘dead’, but regaining identity and with it a healthy ecology.

This exploration underscores the complex interrelationship of each river with the human populations who live alongside. This is well illustrated by the Po, a river channelised for centuries to water rich agricultural lands and loved for the unique regional gastronomy that it creates, but feared for the increased propensity for catastrophic floods that channelisation threatens.

This example stresses the human-river connectivity central to Coates’s discussion. Both bring life and death to the other; humans all but destroyed the Spree, Mersey and LA, but it was also humans’ inseparable bond with ‘their’ rivers that reversed seemingly terminal ecological collapse. Among the all-too-common dystopian visions of humanity’s relationship with the rest of nature, Coates delivers an altogether more positive and hopeful message.

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Richard Oram, University of Stirling