Stehekin writer Ana Maria Spagna’s new book, “Reclaimers,” tells the story of people who reclaim land sacred to them, to “take nature back, make it right, and make it useful.” Spagna reads Friday, Sept. 25, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
Ana Maria Spagna, author of five nonfiction books, lives in Stehekin in Chelan County. She worked seasonally for many years on trail crews in national parks and forests, recounting some of her jobs in “Now Go Home — Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw” (2004). Her 2011 book, “Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness,” described journeys around the American West that always brought her back to the small North Cascades town she calls home.
Both these books paved the way for “Reclaimers,” (University of Washington Press, 204 pp., $28.95), in which she again explores her abiding interest in human connections to place and what binds us to the land and each other. This time, she spent three years nursing an ancient Buick far and wide to tape interviews and conduct research, wanting “to tell stories about people who try, in plain and practical ways, to take nature back, make it right, and make it useful.”
She eventually focused on California’s Timbisha Shoshone, who reclaimed ancestral land from the National Park Service at Furnace Creek in Death Valley; the Mountain Maidu of the northern Sierra, who worked to reclaim a sacred valley from a multinational utility company; and the Friends of the White Salmon River, who successfully brought about removal of the Condit Dam from a tributary of the Columbia River in Southcentral Washington.
Ana Maria Spagna
The author of “Reclaimers” will appear at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 25, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave.; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
In each setting, Spagna became friends with many people, both bureaucrats and reclaimers. She would learn, for example, from a Chelan County Public Utility District employee who wasn’t the “slick PR guy” she’d expected at Rocky Reach Dam, that there are ways to make dams work for people as well as fish. She forged special relationships with women in both California Indian tribes and the White Salmon group, “elders you might say, who stayed at their quests for decades.”
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The book unfolds chronologically beginning in March 2011 and jumps from place to place: Death Valley several times, Rocky Reach Dam, Stehekin, a Whidbey Island writers’ program, several more sites in California and Washington.
She likes and often uses a “ramble and return” structure, which details travels from home and back. Effective in essays, it isn’t the easiest narrative to follow in book length, layering stories, one repeatedly interrupting another and featuring a sometimes bewildering number of players.
But Spagna’s enthusiasm for their dedication and causes is irresistible. Such struggles are the real deal, after all, and what reader wouldn’t cheer on these tenacious underdogs trying to remedy past damage? We’re blessed with opportunities to make a difference, the writing shows.
This writer’s evident love of place drives the prose right alongside her compelling David and Goliath battles of individuals versus big business as usual. In autumn 2012, for instance, Spagna joined a Forest Service crew surveying stream redds (gravel nests) of endangered bull trout. Clambering over mossy old-growth cedars, the team reached the “coldest, cleanest water” this species requires to reproduce. “The rocks on the bottom ranged in earth tones from rust to orange, with quartz veins glittering white. Where the rocks were polished clean — no dirt, no algae — that’s where we looked.”
And a spawning pair appeared, “like a prayer,” making the day’s work worth it.
The lessons of her journeys, those readers can glean from these pages, are “Do what you can. Hope without hope. Expect the unexpected.”