3. I Finally Read a Book
I get up, have breakfast, wash the dishes, check my e-mail and the weather (“sunny with cloudy periods,” one of the two default forecasts, the other being “cloudy with sunny periods”), and go out to my shed. I read the manuscript of my latest novel for a while. I think I’m going to call it With and Without You, which is a ripoff of the title of a U2 song, with “or” changed to “and.” I know you can’t copyright titles. I already stole one from Bob Marley for another of my books: Is This Love? As I read the manuscript, I change a word here, cut half a sentence there. I’ve been working on this book for the past several years and I can tell I’m going to have to decide pretty soon that it’s finished. Not that I want to finish it – I’d much rather be writing a novel than not writing one – but just because I can tinker forever, it doesn’t mean I should.
Without really thinking, I pick up Rivers of Empire, by Donald Worster, and start at the introduction. Before I know it, I’m enjoying the book. This guy Worster can write. It’s the first thing I’ve read about water that doesn’t give me a bad feeling I’ve wandered into a place where I don’t belong. The introduction is called “Reflections in a Ditch,” which is a good sign right there. One of the things that got me into this whole thing is the memory of hand-made irrigation ditches, acequias, on tiny plots of land in northern New Mexico, and the way the land has been sculpted by people to make the best use of its little water. Or the fact that one of the principal streets in Santa Fe is called Acequia Madre, named after the “mother ditch” which still visibly runs beside it. Or so I think I remember – I’m not sure the ditch is really there – that’s another excuse to go and see. Worster’s intro is full of sensory details, and it’s just as full of ideas. Man! This seems like the ideal combo. For once I’m not thinking “I can’t write something like this” – though I couldn’t, in a million years; I’m just reading it.
I continue to read Worster while making a sandwich and eating lunch. I get mustard on pages 26 and 27, which are about Marx, Karl Wittfogel, alienation from nature, and the connection between irrigation and centralized power. And Wittfogel, it turns out, spent most of his life writing about China, and water thought in China goes back to Confucianism and Taoism. This is the first thing I’ve read about water that has come within a hundred miles of Taoism. Finally something I truly have an affinity for. Wu wei – “not-doing” – “those who are good at controlling water give it the best opportunity to flow away.” (46) Could it be possible to do research that way?
The kind of research I know about is the kind that goes into writing a novel. My imagination is already deep into a created world, and then I find myself needing some piece I can’t supply out of my own experience. I go looking for it and the imagination is like a magnet, it pulls the good stuff to me in an uncanny way. Usually, almost the first thing I find is the right thing. If I’m going to write this water book and have it be worth a damn, it’s going to have to work that way too. That’s not what I imagine scholarship to be, but maybe I need to think again if Worster, who obviously is a scholar and a half, is so sympathetic to wu wei.
I go back to the shed. Now Worster’s on to the Frankfurt School, which is one of those academic sacred cows I’ve always been intimidated by. People in what I suppose I must call “my field,” i.e. English, are supposed to act like the Frankfurt School was just down the street from where they grew up, but I managed to get out of grad school with a Ph.D. just before the Age of Theory really took hold and therefore I’ve always felt I was a step or two behind. Not to mention, anyway, I haven’t published a refereed journal article since 1982. Not exactly a coincidence, since I was writing novels when I should have been reading Horkheimer and Adorno. Anyway, Worster is a nice enough guy to include a little review session on what the Frankfurt School was and when he writes about what these guys thought, in understandable language, I’m surprised at how much I’m in tune with it. “The more devices we invent for dominating nature,” Horkheimer says, “the more must we serve them if we are to survive.” I think about how much time I’ve spent recently struggling with computers, setting up the e-mail the checking of which then becomes a chore. “Accepting the authority of engineers, scientists, economists, and bureaucrats along with the power of capital, the common people become a herd. They live as ‘docile masses governed by clocks.’ More and more of their needs are attended to by others, even their leisure time is organized for them.” True: if only Horkheimer had lived to see the internet. “Someone decides what they should want, what will keep them amused and uncomplaining, and what they must accept as reality.” Immediately I think yes, Google. “Instead of maturing into autonomous, rational individuals capable of deciding ultimate issues, as one side of the Enlightenment promised they would do in the modern age, they instead become lifelong wards of the corporation and the state. Sensing their own impotence in the midst of so much general power, they may feel anger welling up inside them; but they do not know whom or what to blame, so thoroughly have they absorbed and internalized the ruling ideas, so completely have they lost the capacity for critical thought. Genuine freedom is for the average citizen an unknown ideal. His spontaneity atrophies. The memory of alternatives dries up. The private interior is invaded by hucksters and planners. Material life alone flourishes . . .” (57-58)
Man! This is the real stuff. No wonder Josh likes this. “The memory of alternatives dries up.” I’ve got to think more about that, I feel somehow it must apply to this project I’m trying to pull off, but right now, even though I don’t want to be a docile mass governed by the clock, it’s time to go in the house and think about cooking dinner.
The next morning, after hanging up a load of laundry, I return to my shed and keep reading Worster. Almost at once I come upon something that makes me stop and think: it’s about the law of water rights. Originally, in England under common law, no one could own the water in a river. Those who lived along its banks had the right to make use of it “for ‘natural’ purposes,” but “The river, it was then believed, belonged to no one in particular, belonged to everybody in general, belonged to God, belonged to itself.” (88) As opposed to the law that arose in the American West, the doctrine of prior appropriation: whoever started digging his irrigation ditch first owned the water. Finders keepers.
The memory of an alternative, I think. That’s what this history is. The memory of a time when the river belonged to itself.
At lunch I tell Vaughn that she should read this book, she’d learn a lot from it. She’s a professor at Simmons too, of photography (yes, predictably, we met at work). “Are you kidding?” she says. “I don’t read books like that. I want to learn it from you.”
“Come on, am I supposed to be writing a Cliff Note?”
“Yes. Not just a Cliff Note, an entertaining Cliff Note. It needs to read like a novel. Then I’ll read it.”
“But that’s why you’d like this book, it has a compelling narrative.”
“The settlement of the West.”
“Yeah? Who’s the protagonist?” Vaughn always gets the jump on me by asking questions I can’t answer. I used to think I was pretty smart, before I married her. As usual, I’m stumped. Yeah, who is the protagonist of Worster’s book? That’s a damn good question.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I think maybe the protagonist is an idea. But I don’t know what it is yet.”
“Well, go back to your shed and figure it out.”
I go back to my shed and read for a couple of hours more. Vague thoughts keep circulating in the back of my mind. The memory of alternatives . . . wu wei . . . the river owns itself . . . I notice I keep running across references to “saving society” or “saving democracy.” But it’s confusing – in fact, the history Worster is writing seems to be that people use the notion of “saving democracy” to ju stify pretty much anything they want to do. The way he paints it, the idea of democracy is a convenient Trojan horse for rampant capitalism and the total domination of nature. Hmm, okay, so maybe democracy of a certain kind really is the protagonist here. But that kind is not “technological democracy,” as Worster calls it (134). It’s obvious his sympathies lie with the underdog; technology, or utilitarian rationalism (along with capitalism), is the overdog. Wherever the author’s sympathies lie, my novelist brain reasons, look there and you’ll find the protagonist. Define the underdog and it’ll answer Vaughn’s question.
What’s the opposite of technological?
I vaguely remember a relevant but not terribly remarkable sentence, look for it, and find that I underlined it. Hurray, I must have been thinking. It’s about water rights again: “He [anyone living on the banks of a river] could not, however, insist that the stream flow undisturbed by his porch, affording an amenity to enjoy, nor could he protect it as the handiwork of God.” (108) Certain words stick out: “undisturbed,” “enjoy,” “handiwork of God.” There is very much a whiff of the underdog about “undisturbed,” isn’t there? Thinking about “handiwork of God” gets kind of interesting, too. Most of the time when somebody, from the Mormons in 1847 on down, wants to set up some massive irrigation project – which, Worster argues, is the essential history of the West – they justify it by saying that it’s God’s plan to bring forth the maximum bounty from the earth. So they want to play God with God’s handiwork. Then God is the underdog to man . . . so far. I’ve read up to about 1930. I remember a TV commercial from my youth that ended with the line, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature,” delivered by Big Mama herself, who looked plenty mad. Or the saying “Mother Nature always bats last.” I can’t help thinking in terms of story line: is that how this book is going to turn out?
Anyway, if I think about it like that, the protagonist is a river that wants to be left undisturbed.
Which is a pretty unexpected answer. There definitely is no sentence in the book saying that. Is this really nothing but what I want it to say? Well, that’s Vaughn’s problem. If she wants me to read the book for her, she’ll have to accept my version of it.
More hours of reading. I follow Worster through the tumult of the 30’s and early 40’s in the Imperial Valley of Southern California, the politics of the Bureau of Reclamation, the Central Valley Project that brought water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta down into the southern two-thirds of the Central Valley (whose pumps were recently turned off by a judge’s order, as pointed out in one of my clippings). I’m still holding onto the protagonist question with part of my brain. It becomes clearer and clearer who or what the antagonist is: total domination of nature through technical expertise and instrumental rationality, concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few. Social regimentation. The acceptance of efficiency, maximization of profit, and unlimited expansion as unquestionable goals, ultimate values. The protagonist, then, would be nature; life organized on a small, local scale hospitable to the individual; loose and egalitarian social arrangements. Active, critical reflection on why we’re here and why we do what we do. Letting things and people alone. Being satisfied with enough. Simplicity. The river undisturbed. Water finding its own course.
I like this alternative vision a lot, but I have a bad feeling this may be because it’s naïve and romantic at bottom, just like my own protagonists can be, and not only that, they sort of cling to being that way. I don’t want to do the same. Worster’s critique is devastating, but that doesn’t make his vision one that can be realized. Oh dear oh dear. I’m not happy to be thinking this. This is the first thing I’ve read that didn’t make me feel I was in danger of being plunged into despair. I don’t want to go back there.
On the other hand, maybe “naïve and romantic” is just the internalized voice of instrumental rationalism, in which case, away with that voice and may it be cast into a soulless hell of its own making.
High drama on the philosophical front! I had no idea trying to write about water would get me involved in this. I like it a hundred times better than reading about aquifer depletion. But now it’s a quarter to six, and family is coming over for dinner.