The Provo River has been entangled in my life from the beginning. I was born a few hundred yards from its shady cottonwood-lined flow. I met my wife during a student ward party at the Canyon Glen Park on the banks of the Provo. I know it better than any river. When I was an undergraduate at BYU, before my 9:00am class, I would wake up early, and drive up Provo Canyon past Sundance to the waters fresh from the Deer Creek Dam and get in an hour or so of fly-fishing in the cool Earth-shadow of the canyon still blocking the rising sun. A friend and I were planning to go backpacking along the Mackenzie River in the Yukon Territories. To prepare for charging bears, after class we would drive up to where Mt. Timpanogos Park now sits, and with a stick, prop an old car tire high up on a hill. I, with my .41 magnum and he with his .357, would shoot out the stick supporting the tire’s weight, and as the wheel bounced and rolled down toward us at high speed, we would test our quick-draw skills and accuracy at the simulated brown bear charging down at us. The river entered my life again when I went crazy because of a Southeast Asian brain infection. In this demon-infested world, my only moment of comfort came when they trucked the MRI machine up to the Deer Creek Dam and floated it down the river back to the hospital. Out of a little window in the medical device, I could watch the other MRI machines and random innertubers float down the river (I was quite delusional). Since coming to BYU eleven years ago, I have run up and down the Provo River trail three times a week, usually from the mouth of the canyon to Nunn’s Park or the Falls. I love this river.
The river again just entered my life in a new way. George Handley has recently published a new book, Home Waters. Because I love the river around which the book orbits, I approached this book with a little fear. The subject is precious to me. It was important the book get the river right. It does. Masterfully.
George Handley is a Humanities professor at Brigham Young University, who specializes in literature and the environment. He has written some of our most important texts on LDS perspectives on the environment. He is arguably Mormonism’s leading voice in recognizing the LDS people’s explicit responsibility to actively care for God’s creation. I expected this to be the subject of this book, and it is, but the book is more. It recognizes that our relationship with nature is complex and is based in historical contingency and interactions among different people and entangled ecological forces that trace out complex movements across a varied landscape. Both geographically and metaphorically.
The book is divided into four sections, each represented by a season and a section of the Provo River drainage. In each, Handley tells stories about his interaction with people, nature, and with the river. He provides narratives about the early human engagement of the native peoples, the explorers, and the pioneers. Most important he tells his own stories about his explorations of the river. These stories are informative and stunningly well written. It would be an excellent book even if it were just these stories. But the book is more than a book about the Provo River. Throughout the book Handley tries to make sense of the inner landscape, and he interweaves these stories into a context of how nature dwells in us and informs and contextualizes our inner landscape with the outer. In this book the two landscapes meet swirling in full complexity.
In the narrative that Handley unfolds, there are deep and intricate weavings darting in and out of our view. Language, place, family, remembering/forgetting, and spirituality appear to be the threads that form the main patterns of the book, and they are handled with depth and skill. Like the fly fisherman that George is, they play out with great storytelling skill and a flowing artful grace.
The book is gorgeously written. Here is an example. In this piece he is walking a line with a group of people searching for a lost child in the Uinta’s. He is exploring the question of what it might mean that, despite many prayers for boy, he has not been found:
“Nature’s peace? Perhaps. If the beauty of the world offers such peace, it is only acceptable when it comes to the afflicted as revelation, and that is not mine to receive, which is why I won’t insist on knowing why God would not grant that family the chance to find the boy’s body. I don’t like to think about nature’s end any more than the end of man, but as I walked in straight lines I thought that maybe trust is possible, trust in some promise that will catch and connect us all after all this waiting, changing, losing, and searching. The sorrows of the body are what remind us that we are individual and idiosyncratic. But I think it is when we are surfeited by the body’s ecstatic joys in the vast physical universe, our capacity for sorrow signifies something much more, that we are human and alive, with no end of the companions. We are impatient with history, it is true. But it isn’t the history we have lived in the land that should define us, anyway. The past that should define us is the history that the land hides, that we keep searching for the desperate and abiding human love. These are nature’s recompenses.” P. 65
Like a dark darting shadow in a streambed glimpsed only from the side, his brother’s suicide appears and disappears from time to time throughout the book. It has affected his life in numerous ways. It is a horrific event of shock and dismay that haunts his memory, his dreams, and his waking reality. Its complexity confuses and disorients him. The event is portrayed in full at the end of the section called ‘Winter.’ The event is never allowed to stand as a metaphor for anything: nature’s cruelty, or humans damaging the environment, or the river’s channelization. Unlike, Terry Tempest Williams work Refuge in which her mother’s cancer stands as a metaphor for the destruction of the Great Salt Lake bird refuge, this tragedy is described because of the complexity and confusion that it has caused to enter into Handley’s life. He does not ‘use’ it in the book for some literary purpose. Rather it’s there for us, as it is for George. A reality that has ripped and rippled through his history and touched much of who he is and what he has become. This part of the text is without a doubt some of the most affecting and personal sections of the book.
So what is this book? It is nature writing at its best. It is a call for his people to wake up and embrace the stewardship required of them. It is a personal recounting of inner and outer ecology and all the complexity that that implies. It is a call to faith. A call to nature. And it is some stunningly good reading.
In short, this is a powerful work not only of LDS literature, but of the literature of the American West, written by one of its premiere voices. Handley has brought the Provo River into my life in new ways. It’s changed my relationship to something I know well and it changed me. Read this book. It will change you.
It also has made me determined to buy new fly fishing equipment (mine was stolen many years ago) and start again stalking the trout of the Provo.