A few words with David James Duncan, whose "The River Why" is being staged by Book-It in Seattle.
Just in time for Book-It Repertory Theatre’s 20th anniversary season, the company has adapted David James Duncan’s 1983 “The River Why” for the stage. A coming-of-age story about a young fisherman, Gus Orviston, who leaves Portland to pursue an ideal life in the foothills of the Oregon Coast Range, Duncan’s novel concerns its hero’s growing awareness of the negative impact humans are having on a river Gus has come to love. Book-It’s Myra Platt wrote the adaptation and directed “The River Why.”
A native of Portland, Duncan lives with his family in southwestern Montana, where he works with the American Rivers Association toward removing four dams on the Snake River. He is also the author of “The Brothers K,” “River Teeth” and “My Story As Told By Water.” He cheerfully agreed to be interviewed, but requested it be conducted via e-mail.
Q: Let me start by asking about the adaptation of “The River Why” at Book-It. Were you involved in the process at all? A: Myra Platt and I have chatted a few times, in a casual way. I warned her, for instance, that I was 26 when I started “River Why,” that the last novel I read before launching “Why” was Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” and that she would need to guard against my narrator’s love for Dickensian word-drunkenness (not to mention the other kind). Young Gus never gives you one example of anything if he can think of four. Be it fish, drinks, or similes, more is better! Whereas on stage, of course, less is more.
We also talked about how props can be better sometimes when they’re merely suggestive. A stick with yarn on the end could be a fly rod for instance, and nobody need lose an eyeball to a hook. The river they have created will be a great example of this kind of metaphoric substitution, but I don’t want to give it away.
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Q: What is it like to know your work and original vision is re-created in the minds and hands of other artists?
A: If the proper permissions have been granted and you trust the re-creators, it feels like a pure gift. Book-It’s list of authors and accolades speaks for itself. Writers are used to being re-created, and need it. My books are inert as cordwood till a reader’s imagination ignites one and an old flame jumps to life. I get to come see a play ignited by others, with my blessing, and I look entirely forward to it. As with a symphony, the pressure is on the performers and “conductor.” For me it’s all a Hereafter in the Here. I get to sit and grin — at the triumphs and the failures — like Mozart or some other happy dead guy. It ain’t that way here in my study all day every day
Q: You’ve said that discussions about environmental policies typically don’t capture what is truly important about our relationship to nature.
A: The earth is as alive as we are, and as holy as all the angels and saints combined. It is the Mother of all saints and heroes. It gave us Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, MLK Jr., Muhammad and the Dalai Lama. Politics and “policy” do nothing but erode our Mother’s life in a so-called “spirit of compromise” that is in truth the death of Spirit. The principles that will save Earth’s life are the same principles that save the living souls of humans: ineluctable spiritual principles. The Inexorable Law of Karma for instance. You can remove a mountaintop for coal if you’ve got the power, says U.S. law. But according to Karmic Law, there will be consequences for your naked, trembling soul in the hereafter.
Ecosystems are holy. The word “environmental” is a deadly compromise itself. It’s a policy word that lives only in the head, and barely there. Say it aloud. Environmental. Hear the nasal, technoid ring? The lack of depth and power prevents the heart from rallying round Mother Earth with love and passion. Virtually all policy discussion, at the governmental level, is conducted by technoids with greed in their hearts and tin ears in their heads. If the Bible began, “In the beginning, God created the environment” instead of “the heavens and the earth,” that book would be consigned to the same recycling bin as your last piece of mail from an environmental organization.
In Christian tradition, all creatures are defined as divine gifts “blessed” and seen as “very good” by God on the first page of the Bible. Every policy decision should be grounded in the spiritual and biological truth that we are second-guessing the wisdom of God and screwing up or killing the very gifts God gave us. Our current policy is grounded in rhetorical posturing and spiritual nothingness.
Q: When did your passion for and activism around rivers begin?
A: The first day I laid eyes on a living river.
Q: Talk about your efforts to remove dams from the Snake River.
A: The four lower Snake River dams are emblematic of a biocidal Cold War arrogance. They were commissioned by the 1955 Congress. They are eradicating wild salmon, salmon-dependent species, and salmon-celebrating cultural traditions from 5,500 miles of pristine Idaho, Oregon and Washington streams, from hard-strapped Pacific Coast towns, and from the troubled waters of Seattle’s own Puget Sound. They are helping to drive your orcas to extinction.
I will never “remove a dam” as your question puts it. But I will never stop telling the truth about these dams, as I see it. The dams’ latest purblind defenders include (Sen. Patty) Murray, (Secretary of Commerce Gary) Locke, (NOAA Administrator Jane) Lubchenko, and the techno-utopians at Google, among others. I live in the Columbia/Snake headwaters and even now, as they are being denuded by federal policy, those waters comfort me.
A salmon river is a prayer wheel. Even now, after flowing defiled to the oceans, every river’s waters are purified when they rise as vapor, return to the mountains as life-giving rain and snow, and renew the prayer. The great embodiment of this cyclic blessing is the wild salmon. The BPA and NOAA are committing a kind of deicide in their refusal to unmake the dams. But there remains, even now, a fire in water that creates not heat, but life. As the poet Jack Gilbert said, “We hunger for a sacrament that is both spirit and flesh. And neither.” A salmon, for me, still best serves as that sacrament. For the joy these creatures keep giving me even as I mourn them, I plan to keep giving thanks.
Tom Keogh: email@example.com