Love that dirty water?

With the spirit of Thoreau hovering, a canoe trip down the Charles River inspires a meditation on how we’ve hurt the environment and ourselves - and what we can do about it

(Peter Arkle for The Boston Globe)
By Rick Bass
Globe Correspondent / July 31, 2011

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“My Green Manifesto’’ is more paradox than contradiction, and lovely, for that. David Gess- ner, in time-honored environmental-lit style, travels with his friend Dan Driscoll in a canoe on the Charles River through the heart of Boston on the Fourth of July weekend. He is wrestling with the demons of our time: overcrowding, overconsumption, and questions about the meaning of life - a puzzling over an estrangement in the world as well as the paralyzing effects of fear and despair. For all this, it’s a slim and wonderfully readable book.

Readers of Edward Abbey’s river essays or, for that matter, Thoreau’s “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,’’ or John Graves’ 1960 masterpiece, “Goodbye to a River,’’ will be reminded of the tradition in which Gessner works, and of Thoreau particularly. The artistic territory’s proximity to “Walden,’’ with its theme of independent thinking, cannot be escaped, despite Gessner’s best attempts. “While vowing to stop quoting him [Thoreau] was easy,’’ Gessner writes, “actually stopping has been close to impossible. Either it is because I am a kind of Thoreau addict, or because the man keeps pointing back to what I see as the true root of living a wild life.’’

Driscoll, an environmental planner, is a hero to Gessner - a do-er, not just a dreamer -a middle-aged hippie and friend from college days who has worked within the system of city planning to help secure millions of dollars for restoring the polluted Charles. Gessner and Driscoll drift, largely unseen by their fellow humans, drinking and smoking, and the success of Driscoll’s venture in reclaiming the Charles dovetails with Gessner’s internalized philosophical grapplings. (Again, a deep grounding in environmental writing serves Gessner well; the pleasing mix of respect yet humor with which Gessner addresses Driscoll is reminiscent of John McPhee’s captivating profile of Sierra Club founder David Brower in “Encounters With The Archdruid.’’)

And Gessner is clearly grappling, intimating that even the most impassioned spirit can fall victim to chronic stress and despair, desperate for the small true warmth of honest, earned hope. This kind of hope is a space that grows smaller each day - more than 70 years ago the American ecologist Aldo Leopold informed us that to possess an environmental awareness is to understand that we live in a world of wounds - and Gessner’s attempts to define the role of the new environmental warrior, both in terms of idealism and political practicality, are heartfelt and informed.

“[A]ctually getting something done in the world always trumps theory,’’ he writes. “. . . I like this picture of the new environmentalist - eco-fighter as hustler - that is emerging. Not some guy wearing a bearskin and speaking in hushed tones but someone common-sensical, smart, hard-headed . . . This new picture is that of a man or woman who knows how to get things done, who understands the value of momentum, of focus on a particular project. Not a shrill or dry or particularly flowery environmentalism . . . Someone willing to get in [a] fight and ‘Sue the bastards.’ Someone willing to stick their nose in there and feel what it’s like to get bruised. And someone willing to stay locked in that fight for years, even if it costs them emotional as well as actual capital.’’

Gessner is keenly aware of the hybrid quality of his book - indeed, the hybrid quality of our lives, navigating the territory between wildness and wilderness, and the restoration of a polluted river - or, for that matter, a soul - from despoliation, corruption, failure, rot, toxicity. It is no surprise that his philosophy and affinity yaws between hope and despair, as he counsels against apathy and numbness while at the same time skewering one of the most common side effects afflicting modern environmentalists: a brutal humorlessness, which is ultimately as debilitating to the cause as are the physical wounds we have inflicted on the earth - the extraction of oil sand in Alberta via an open pit mine the size of Florida, ruptured pipelines in the Yellowstone River, the BP Gulf oil spill, as well as global warming, species extinction, yadda yadda. . .

Gessner relates his experiences in the big country out West, as well as exposures to the more compressed (but no less satisfying or meaningful to him) nature in the East; and while he does not wax oversentimental about either, he does point out that more than ever we all need all the nurturing that we can get from even the slightest exposure to wildness, which, Gessner points out, is not necessarily the same thing as wilderness. Wilderness he might define as big raw country; wildness can be composed of more of a psychological quality, possessing elements of nonconformity, and the not-easily governed. Both are critical to the care and feeding of Gessner’s soul.

Finding one’s fight - any fight, of any size, as long as it’s heartfelt - is critical in Gessner’s engagingly meandering manifesto. Quoting James Baldwin’s essay, “Notes of a Native Son,’’ Gessner embraces the paradox of holding two ideas that seem initially to exist in impossible opposition. “The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are . . . But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength.’’

“My Green Manifesto’’ is an interesting document of our time. It is brave enough and intelligent enough to embrace technology as well as art, pure ideology as well as compromise, hope as well as despair, depression and paralysis as well as valor and joy.

Rick Bass is the author of 26 books, including, most recently, a novel, “Nashville Chrome,’’ which is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He can be reached at

MY GREEN MANIFESTO: Down the Charles River in Pursuit of a New Environmentalism
By David Gessner
Milkweed 224 pp., paperback, $15