Sunday, July 8, 2007


Rivers from time out of mind have been conduits for human culture, whether they are navigated in pursuit of new places and better lives, or to transport beliefs or products. Rivers inspire art, poetry, declarations of love, the daredevil impulse, and contemplation for contemplation’s sake. Just as all rivers lead to the sea, one book leads to another, and all lead to the collective stories of humankind. Rivers are the subject of many a book, from novels to photo-essays to Akiko Busch’s just published Nine Ways to Cross a River.

Busch has the gift of seeing the world new. In previous works she has offered fresh perspectives on our relationship with our belongings and the design of our homes. Now turns her discerning attention to nature, reveals herself as a passionate swimmer, and chronicles her intimate involvement with rivers. Busch inadvertently launched a riverine quest when she swam the river she loves best, the Hudson, in August 2001. Somehow the tragic events that followed made it seem “essential to mark each summer after that with a river crossing.” Not that Busch is interested in athletic feats. No, her river adventures are immersions both literally and imaginatively as she lingers to speak with people who live along the shores of the Delaware, Connecticut, Susquehanna, the Monongahela, the Mississippi, and other rivers, and ponders the lore, spirit, and history of each waterway, including such crucial aspects as the river’s “industrial archaeology” and “timeline of toxicity.” Busch profiles various river keepers, including the Hudson River’s guardian “trickster” Pete Seeger, whose success in guiding the reclamation and restoration of the mighty Hudson proves that “the damage arrives collectively, so too does recovery.”

Writing with a swimmer’s economy, propulsion, and buoyancy as she describes the exhilaration of swimming, and the distinct energy and moods of each river, Busch muses over the profound metaphors associated with rivers, and all the life lessons rivers embody, creating a beautiful, quietly enlightening book of reflections.

As someone who grew up along the Hudson River, I especially enjoyed Akiko Busch’s response to the river and its valley. Here’s an excerpt from her description of one swim across the ever-changing Hudson River:

“The river was choppy that afternoon. Visibility was low. The natural turbidity of the river, a product of its aquatic life, made it difficult to see anything underwater, and when I lifted my head out of the water, the waves and whitecaps obscured the view of the shoreline as well. If this river were a book, it was dense, obscure, difficult to read. Some rivers have a brilliant clarity; they are translucent, quick, clear about themselves and where they are going and where they are taking you. Others, like the Hudson, have a thickness and opacity, as though there is too much type on the page to take it all in. The pages are long and packed with intricate information, and even at the end of the page, you may not be quite sure of what you’ve read. Its narrative begins as a pond on the side of Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks, and the clear mountain stream running from it ends up as a tidal channel in the Atlantic Ocean. Its character, never fixed, is transformed during its passage from freshwater to saline, from a thin, winding stream to a broad straight channel. It has a tide and a current, and it flows both ways; sometimes it flows both ways at once.” Akiko Busch. Nine Ways to Cross a River.
Gorgeous in concept and realization. And don’t I relate to this mutable river.