**** NOTE ****
“The Constant Presence of Water”
A review of
In Earshot of Water:
Notes from the Columbia Plateau.
By Paul Lindholdt.
Reviewed by Sam Edgin.
In Earshot of Water:
Notes from the Columbia Plateau.
Paperback: U. of Iowa Press, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
I sit here and I type away with my thoughts shifting every now and then towards the steady flow of Indiana’s White River, not four blocks east of my window. I fault Paul Lindholdt. His new book, In Earshot of Water: Notes From the Columbia Plateau revels in a constant presence of water, be it fresh, contaminated, frozen, still or flowing. Yet the book is not really about water. It is about conservation, about the last strongholds of American wilderness in the Pacific Northwest clinging dearly to the land they have held for centuries in the wake of industry, development,and technology. Sometimes it is even about the way they win. Lindholdt dances softly through his essays, often mirroring his considerations of the natural with events in his own life which bring him close to it. It is a subtly beautiful exploration into the relationship of humanity with ecology, all told in deeply personal prose, as if the reader were sitting beside Lindholdt’s sons for the campfire story times he mentions throughout the book.
In Earshot of Water is an arrangement of fourteen essays that explore the “wild nature” of the rural Pacific Northwest in which Paul Lindholdt lives. They follow each other in no particular order, one commenting on post-industrial clean up of ravaged wetlands and the lax government regulations that allowed such a thing, and the next reflecting on the travels and work on Theodore Winthrop, whose celebrations of the natural landscape he explores in the 1800’s were marred by his treatment of the Native Americans who guided him. Lindholdt uses a spectrum of approaches to study the struggles of the natural with the human and industrial. Sometimes looking at the wild through the lens of history, and other times through politics, sociology, science, or art. He uses multiple angles to approach this wilderness he finds so stunningly beautiful, effectively ensuring that most everyone will understand his love, at least in some measurable way.
Lindholdt is an English professor at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Washington. Lindholdt is strongly tied to the histories and futures of the natural areas that fill its pages, and the book jacket does little to hint at the way Lindholdt’s writing will introduce you to himself. These ties allow the reader to meet and get to know the man who is writing about them through the ways in which the paths of his life have crossed with nature. It is the odd jobs he has worked, the deaths he has endured, and the journeys he has had with family and friends that guide the reader through each struggling natural area. We meet his children, ride in the car with his wife, and mourn with his mother and siblings. Friends are the personal subject of some of the essays, and others mainly concern stories told to him by people who were once in his life. Lindholdt lends his heart to these essays, and not only his heart for the wilderness of his Pacific Northwest, but also for the people who have made a significant impact on his life.
That heart that he inserts so liberally into his writing is one of two reasons that make In Earshot of Water a notable read. The other is his prose, clear and approachable without sacrificing a certain descriptive eloquence that has become so difficult to find in most literature. These elements make this a book worth sharing, one that you would recommend to your friends and family after the first two chapters.
It is the heart, the emotion that is so palpable throughout the book that gives Lindholdt’s essays their weight. If the reader were not able to so acutely feel as Lindholdt feels as he paddles Puget Sound or waits on a beach, plastic glass of wine in hand, for the green flash as the last rays of the sun vanish, In Earshot of Water would be little more than tiresome ramblings about not wanting to shoot a bear or a nuthatch pecking on the side of the house. I imagine it would read somewhat like an environmental science textbook spliced together with a personal journal. This emotion is quite potent, enough so that it could make reading this book, which is relatively short at about 146 pages, take longer than expected. I often found myself closing the book and sitting back, dwelling on the impact of what I just read, only to pick the book up again and re-read that section. Lindholdt is truly a wordsmith, and his words convey his emotion excellently.
No part of In Earshot of Water would have the impact that it does without Lindholdt’s prose. His style begins to evoke comparisons to Hemingway and Thoreau, with his love for nature bleeding through each word, reminiscent of those great wilderness writers. Yet it is never too flowery or overblown. It is, possibly, best to classify it as descriptive prose. In Earshot of Water is as much an exercise in wordsmithing as it is a discussion of conservation and nature. The episodes and scenes described in its pages spring to life as his words dance before the reader’s eyes. The book is vibrant, painting pictures with words as colorful and detailed as any photograph.
As he ventures through each essay, occasionally he drops rhyming couplets into the end of a paragraph, meant to highlight whatever point he happens to be in the middle of making. It is a beautiful way to use the medium. Most places, taking that step would be only distracting and jarring. Here, Lindholdt somehow figures out how to use the distraction of suddenly rhyming sentences to his advantage.
Heaping praise aside, Paul Lindholdt takes his passions – for the wild, for family, for words – and blends them into a book that is a reflection on the beauty that exists within those passions. It is emotional, contemplative and at its very core a masterful experience in literature. It is worth reading just to see how Lindholdt ties different essays on nature and humanity together by tracing the underlying existence of water in each. It is a book that should be read in dual appreciation, for the nature and the humanity that he describes and for the way in which he describes it.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com