The distant fourth and final part of the Waterlines class featured the work of Eric Wagner and Tom Reese for their book Once and Future River: Reclaiming the Duwamish. I unfortunately was out of town for work during this session, so don’t have the specifics on their actual presentation but wanted to close the loop on the class and explore this last resource through looking at the book itself (although they may have talked about something totally different).
The Duwamish is a fitting addition to the discussions of Geology, Archaeology, and the Ship Canal previously discussed, as it is the one and only river in the City of Seattle. It, much like the Duwamish people, also best signifies the history of manipulation, exploitation and degradation, and the current challenges to restore both culture and ecology along this urban waterway. It’s also in sharp juxtaposition to the current boom, as summaried by Duamish Tribal member and director of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, James Rasmussen: “We need to always remember that the wealth of Seattle was created on the backs of the Duwamish River and the Duwamish People.”
Wagner discusses this evolution of the Duwamish River and people along with the greater City of Seattle through multiple essays. They cover the inevitable growth leading the dispossession of the lands, the straightening and polluting of the river, the erasure of ecology and culture. It uncovers the long truth for Seattle about conquering nature, as has been discussed in the previous Waterlines lectures, here with Wagner mentioning it in the context of the Duwamish, “…to conquer something at least implies a respect for it… The Duwamish River cannot claim such dignity.”
Now not even a river (classified a “waterway”) and a toxic Superfund site, the idea of restoration is difficult to imagine. There is lots of hope and much work outlined in the book on the potential, in the words of William Jordan, to “heal the scars or erase the signs of disturbance.”
There are a few maps early in the text, showing the 1856 Map of the region prior to the mass of European settlement, next to the 1958 Map, which shows development and channelization and virtual obfuscation of the natural systems. As Wagner mentions, in the concept of restoration “In seeking such a reversal restoration becomes a question of time, and therefore a historical exercise as much as it is a moral or a spiritual one. What point in a river’s past should we aim for? When was it the best version of itself? What processes from that period can we bring back now?”
A theme of the book then is put at the beginning of the introduction:
“We strive for a past we have never known, having only read about it, or seen in in faded pictures, or heard of it in stories about an old, shadowed river that once ran so full of life and magic that it filled the people who lived on it with awe, terror, and love. When we arrived at that place — if we are capable of reaching it, if we can recognize it should we get there — we will have found a way of seeing something that has until now been ignored, dismissed, and very nearly lost: a river from end to beginning.”
Subsequent chapters cover the history of the River through a Salish parable called the “Epic of the Winds”, and the importance of this place in the life cycle for Chinook Salmon; land erasure and land making, the industrial heritage, large scale camouflage to win World War II (seen below, the ‘streetscape of a village draped on top of Boeing Plant 2 along the Duwamish, the facility constructing B-17 Bombers, to throw off potential attacks.
image via Boeing
This patriotic and economic value of the altered Duwamish in Plant 2, Terminal and hundreds of other comes with a legacy of toxicity the persists and will continue for millenia. In further essays we learn about poet Richard Hugo‘s regionalist riffs on the Duwmaish, and learn about John Beal‘s tireless work to save Hamm Creek, and modern day restoration efforts including hatcheries. Will the River rebound? How long will it take? Who knows, but as Wagner mentions:
“…the Duwamish River has always been a place to test the surprising range of the possible. Settlers looked at acres of mud flats and forest and saw a city. City engineers looked at a floodplain and saw a waterway. Businessepeople looked at a waterway and saw a waste management system. Now, we look at a Superfund site and see a healthy river filled with fish that are safe to seat. All those earlier versions came to pass. Why should this latest not as well.”
While the first half is well illustrated with Tom Reese’s photos, the second part of the book is exclusively devoted to the photographs, capturing the range of themes, including the river itself, as well as the degradation and activities around its restoration. Bolstering the text, this beautiful, damaged place offers sorrow as well as hope. As Reese mentions in the Coda, “The Duwamish also informs our subconscious desire for connection and our intensifying undercurrent of worry. it can transport us to places within and beyond our own lives, reminding us what is precious, asking for our devotion.”
Some of the photos from the book are peppered through this post are also on his website, so peruse on over there to catch more imagery, or just buy the book because it’s a great addition and has even more images that you’ll come back to more than once.
An extended video probably will help fill in some of the blanks also – from about a year ago at Town Hall “…featuring Tom Reese and Eric Wagner, co-authors of “Once and Future River: Reclaiming the Duwamish”; James Rasmussen, Director of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition; and Lynda Mapes, Seattle Times Environmental Reporter”
Header image Copyright Tom Reese – “Last natural bend in lower Duwamish at Kellogg Island” – all other images, unless noted, are by Reese as well.