The Peripatetic Reviewer
BY EDWARD WEEKS
As EVERYONE who is interested in water knows, it is the devil and all to keep a good river alive. In the case of the more famous streams in the northeastern United States, the Penobscot, the Merrimack, the Hudson, and the Schuylkill, to name but four, the devil which exterminated the Atlantic salmon and sea trout, and indeed almost all underwater life, was industry — pulp mills, mines, and factories whose industrial waste, when thrown into the streams, generated acids too powerful for the water to break up and too lethal for the fish or algae. The Bangor pool of the Penobscot, vast and turbulent with its white water, once held more salmon than any other pool on the Atlantic seaboard, and its first fish of the spring was traditionally sent to the White House. Today the pulp mills have deadened it as thoroughly as if they had used hand grenades.
Conservationists in Maine, after years of struggle, have succeeded in depolluting the Narraguagus, the Dennys, and the Machias, and salmon in moderate numbers have returned to their headwaters; but industrial interests with influence in the state legislature are making sure that the example does not spread. Efforts to clean up the Aroostock have been defeated year after year. Only the enlightened mill owner, like the late Laurence F. Whittemore, formerly head of the Brown Paper Company, has the conscience to install a system which will eliminate the poisonous waste. By a chemical process costing money, the Brown Company at Berlin, New Hampshire, restricted the flow of lignin (which produces sulphuric acid), and the waters of the Androscoggin below the mill once more became a breeding place for rainbows and squarctails.
Generally speaking, we in the United States have looked to Canada to protect the fish, which we have been too irresponsible to bother about, and over many decades the Ministry of Lands & Mines in the Dominion had maintained a fair balance among the many interests involved — the lumbermen, the miners, the trawlers, the owners of set nets, and the anglers. But with the discovery of the huge mineral deposits in Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes, things began to change. At the prospect of prosperity long denied, the Maritimes, which have known poverty, gave the metallurgists every break. Roads to make the mines more accessible were bulldozed through the forests and, if necessary, right beside the stream. Dams to supply electric power were built, and, as in the case of the Tobique, they threatened to extinguish the salmon run. Prospectors with their French Canadian crews were given the right of way on every river. The river I most love, the Northwest Miramichi, has — or had —in its upper water an exceptionally deep and beautiful pool, at a curve in the river known as Black Pool, because of the shade cast over it by a giant, century-old pine. Prospectors camped at the point, and wanting a quick way to cross the stream, simply felled the tree to provide their footbridge; the chunks of it which protruded were sawed off and dumped into the pool. The metallurgists in charge of the party and the French Canadians saw nothing but efficiency in this desecration.
Because there never had been much mining in the Maritimes, laws to control the miners and the disposal of the mine waste are obsolete. Now the Northwest Miramichi has been for the past seven years a special subject of study by Canadian biologists. Fish boxes have been carefully maintained at the entrance and at the exit of the river just before the salmon go to their spawning beds. Year after year the fish have been counted and tagged, and valuable information has been secured about their return and about their destination while they were at sea. But it never occurred to these biologists that they should be on their guard against water poisoning emanating from a mine.
Someone at the Heath Steele Mine passed the order to pump out the water which had long been accumulating in the disused corridors. The mine is located on a brook, a tributary to the river, and what was simpler than to pump the dregs, heavily impregnated from long standing over zinc and copper, into the brook; so the green poison swept eight miles across country and down into the Northwest. The first run of salmon, nearly a thousand, had been counted through the lower trap and were on their way upstream; then, for some reason, they turned back, and some of them sought their way into the trap again. To those concerned, the reason eventually became clear. A pen of live fish were placed in the green water at the joining of the brook and the river and perished in short order. A second pen, placed in the clean water just twelve feet above the poisoned inflow, lived and were unaffected. When at last an injunction was served on the mine, it was found that by the expenditure of a moderate sum, the pumped-out poison could be confined to a deep, protected pit close to the mine instead of being released in the brook and swamp. That this carelessness seriously endangered the reproductive power of the river is now as clear to any official as it was to the biologists who investigated it. When will we learn what we ought to know about our natural resources?
THE SEARCH FOR WATER
The jacket of SENATOR ROBERT S. KERR’S new book, LAND, WOOD AND WATER (Fleet, $4.95), is a painting of a prairie schooner anchored by a diminutive water hole in the blazing sunlight of a summer drought. The picture is symbolic not only of man’s dependence upon water in the dry plains of Oklahoma but even more of the need of every American for a national policy which will protect our most precious resource. Bob Kerr’s father was a pioneer in the old Indian territory, and Bob as a youngster heard again and again the slogan “Land, Wood and Water,” which defined his father’s objectives as he chopped a farm out of the wilderness. In the 1930s Bob witnessed the tragedies of the Dust Bowl, and in 1943, as the governor of Oklahoma, he had to contend with the Arkansas River, as it swept in a roaring flood across valuable farmland. Experience has taught him that “Water is the key of our present civilization.”
The senator tells us that we use five gallons daily to wash, shave, and brush our teeth; a bath takes twenty-five gallons; each flush of the toilet requires four. As for the thirst of American industry: a ton of steel requires 70,000 gallons; a ton of rayon requires 200,000 gallons; a ton of synthetic rubber, 600,000 gallons. In the face of these dizzying statistics, one begins to realize why forty million Americans today are teetering on the edge of a serious water shortage; why the water level in Arizona dropped fifty-five feet in six years in one dry area; why water has been rationed by city ordinance in Oklahoma City.
For its conservation and for its urgency, Land, Wood and Water is the most important alert and survey we have had from any public figure. There is harangue and deep earnestness in the argument, because the senator knows the apathy of those Americans who do not realize that we are gambling with time. Everything in Senator Kerr’s experience tells him that we must have a national water policy for all American river basins. In his freshman year in the Senate, he directed the establishment of the Arkansas-White and Red River Inter-Agency, a study committee which made an inventory of the basic resources of all the states involved and went on to farsighted recommendations aimed at the needs that would develop by the year 2000. This was a pilot test, with its integrated plan for reservoirs, for the irrigation of the six million acres of new land, for the drainage of wet acres for farming, for the storage of municipal and industrial water supplies, and for the production of additional hydroelectric power. We need such planning if we are to avoid the fate of Egypt.
Deft and precise, the possessor of what he called “a small talent,” which he cultivated with style and diffidence, Max Beerbohm was one of the wittiest and nicest men in the long span of English letters. He was worshiped from afar, rarely answered his mail, was not accessible to strangers; and one of the few who broke through his reserve at the close of his career was S. N. BEHRMAN. Behrman came to Rapallo at Max’s invitation. They delighted each other, and as the pilgrimage continued, Max conferred upon his American admirer the reminiscences which first appeared in the New Yorker and now form part of a short book entitled PORTRAIT OF MAX (Random House, $3.95). Part of the fun is in watching the admirer draw out the aged invalid and tempt him to talk about the United States or about his vendetta with Bernard Shaw (“G.B.S. had been talking rot for fifty years”), or to explain, as in his friendship with Sir William Rothenstein, why he always “preferred the society of painters to that of writers.” This book is a labor of love, and the labor in it which I suspect Max himself might not have relished are those repetitions (“don’t you know?”) which were inherent in the task. What Behrman has recaptured are Max’s gifts of parody, mimicry, critical appreciation, and laughter.