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Discover Mid-America — June 2006

The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River by Richard White (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995); 144 pages, map, paperback, $11; 0809015838.

White’s book continues to broaden our view of nature

The Organic Machine is about the Columbia River. But in Richard White’s deft hands the Columbia becomes a metaphor for rivers in general, and a lesson in what we know of nature and how we know it. It is a very American book. And in country laced with rivers and streams, it is also a book useful to Midwesterners.

White traces human development of the Columbia from natives whose life came from the froth of salmon the river once contained to the cooling water intakes of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation upstream from the Grand Coulee Dam. In moving through time and transformation, White links the human with the natural, showing that while Americans believe they dominate nature, they are, in fact, a product of it and constantly changed in interactions with it.

White argues we know nature through work. It’s a simple, American notion we don’t often think about or understand, even as we bend nature to our will. Integral to this, a major theme in The Organic Machine revolves around the “nature” of a river. White maintains that regardless how manipulated, controlled or apprehended, a river maintains “its natural, its unmade qualities.” White calls this additional unmade quality “nature.”

Humans once knew this unmade quality by their labor — catching fish, traveling the river under human power and building alterations that would allow both. In knowing this quality, they also knew the unmade, or wild, quality within themselves that showed their connection to a larger whole — a biome or ecosystem.

To White, riverine systems show how physical nature is more than human perception and conception as some historians maintain. Some interventions (dams, logging) have greater impacts both in quality and kind across the system than others (recreational angling). Others (oil spills, organic compound pollution) have greater implications for biological and botanical life within the systems than others (irrigation).

Still, this unmade or wild quality endures — indeed, flows — around the physical obstacles humans put in the river’s way, altering the constellation of relationships that wrought the changes.

The Columbia stitches together what only seem to be distinct and sometime opposing forces, ones of nature and of humans. As a ribbon in the landscape, the river frames not only what it is, but also other forces and things not so easily be read through layers of human culture.

In this way, the Columbia reveals language, grammar and connotations of physical nature. Only with a willingness to see a river in three physical dimensions, as well as the dimensions of time, human emotion, culture and society, can we slice through a traditional historical narrative that manipulates and interprets the human/river relationship as one of human conflict against nature, or nature as merely a backdrop to human activity.

The Columbia and its human transformations also reveal how Americans feel themselves apart from nature but also how they are very much a part of it. In The Organic Machine, river and human make each other. Human and nature are not definably separate but one perplexing gray area. A levee and channeled river may not be natural, per se. But it is not artificial. An altered river may not be very wild. But at the same time, the river never stops being a part of nature. It always retains its unmade qualities.

While this book is about a mythical river imbued with conflict between environmentalists and government, anglers and commercial fishing companies, and power interests and irrigators, White draws attention to everyday surroundings in ways that should make us wonder about and appreciate them. In the Columbia, a grand river in extraordinary country, we find our own midwestern landscapes. In simple terms: If nature is knowable through labor then we know nature by planting the flower garden by the front steps.

This is particularly relevant to the midwestern rivers and streams, which flow through landscape few would call sublime or extraordinary. Such streams — from the muscled Missouri to the tiny, intermittent drainage flowing through a copse of woods in a cornfield are, in fact, the flower gardens at our front steps. We have altered them, built them, and used and overused them. But if we are paying attention, these watercourses become conduits through which we can know, first, their unmade qualities and, second, the unmade qualities of physical nature in the most ordinary landscapes.

Most of what we call nature of natural is built — parks, gardens and arboretums. We even build those bits of land left to grow on their own, such as wilderness areas, national forests and natural areas of local parks. We separate them off, build fences around them, and preserve them in conscious fashion. In short, we build them.

But somewhere in the rows of tomatoes and peonies, between the tulips and the beans, and in the river and stream, nature exists. We know it intuitively.

While The Organic Machine can change the way we understand our surroundings, it also gives, ten years after its first publication, a new spin on historical writing and the historical narrative. Although a scholarly book, The Organic Machine doesn’t read like it. White’s writing style and the lack of notes make the book a pleasant, intriguing and quick read.

Patrick Dobson is a Kansas City-based writer and Ph.D. candidate in history. He can be contacted at

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