Painting the Rivers: Travel Books about the Yangtze, Nile and Indus

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Painting the Rivers: Travel Books about the Yangtze, Nile and Indus

IN MY TWENTIES, WHEN I WASN'T STUDYING for a degree, I wandered: sometimes on foot, sometimes by bicycle, most memorably along rivers. I explored the Seine, the Loire, the Rhône, the Ardèche and the Dordogne in France; the Rhine, the Moselle, the Danube and the Ems in Germany; the Arno, the Adige and the Tiber in Italy; die Alpheus and the Eurotas in Greece. Each one of these names, as I write them now, brings back days of enchantment - friends and lovers and moments of solitude - and explains in part why the title of my first book of poems was The River Painter. My travels in France were usually on bicycle, and those rivers come back as a kind of skeletomuscular memory: each time I approached a town there was the exhilarating, sometimes fearful, swoop down into a river valley, and the leave-taking was an arduous ascent. Human culture clusters along rivers, as William H. McNeill makes clear in his wonderful history of the Neolithic era (Part I of The Rise of the West) , where the first chapters explore Mesopotamia, Egypt and the civilization of the Indus. (All three river valleys were linked moreover by sea routes.) The less scholarly and more speculative book Guns, Germs, and Steel by J^red Diamond traces the diffusion of cultural innovation across Eurasia, which often follows the river valleys that flow from the heart of the supercontinent. They are watered by the glaciers frozen above the great train wreck of mountain ranges that crash together between Kashgar and Samarkand, the Himalayas, Tian Shan, Karakoram, Kunlun and Hindu Kush. But climate change now threatens that meta-river system, which waters almost two-thirds of the world's population living in Eurasia.

Rivers must be managed. A river overflows its banks in flood, and almost everywhere rivers of all sizes experience bankfull stage about once a year (or once in two years) ; floodplains are inherent to rivers. Every river snakes and migrates slowly across its valley floor, inconvenient properties explained by hydrodynamics. The archaic civilizations McNeill discusses arose because human beings developed technologies (like canalization) to moderate these fluvial quirks. Today the ever greater technological interventions (like dams) that national governments take to stave off the increasingly dangerous prospect of drought (as we face the possibility that those glaciers on the roof of the world may disappear) themselves threaten the health and existence of rivers. They also threaten to engender war and lesser forms of civil discord, like the current fight between the upstream and downstream states over the low levels of the Mississippi. The dispute among China, India and Pakistan over water rights could easily become deadly, if large populations lose access to potable water.

The book River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze1 is a memoir written from 1996 to 1998 by Peter Hessler, who was sent to the city of Fuling in Sichuan Province to teach English as a Peace Corps volunteer. Fuling, a city of 200,000 people, sits at the confluence of the Wu River and the Yangtze, with Raise the Flag Mountain on the other side of the Wu, its upper slopes covered by peach and orange groves. The city's steep streets often turned into stone stairways, since it was built on the banks of two rivers. Much of the local industry had been moved there from Shanghai in the 1950s and 1960s, when Mao was worried about a perceived American nuclear threat; the farms in the surrounding countryside raised pigs and silkworms, and cultivated rice, wheat and rapeseed. The students were bright, excited by the prospect of Gaige Kaifang ("Reform and Opening"), and down to earth; though many of their parents and grandparents had suffered during World War II, the founding of the People's Republic of China, and then the Cultural Revolution, the students themselves were relatively well off, settled, and optimistic.

Hessler writes movingly about his struggle to understand Chinese culture, his fellow townsmen, and his students, and his surprise at what he learned from seeing himself, and Western literature and politics, reflected back in Sichuanese eyes, far from the cosmopolitan urban centers of China. …