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July 2011 cover image Every Drop Counts

Texas Reader: Goodbye to a River

History and landscape intertwine in classic river narrative.

By Louie Bond

A canoe trip down the Brazos River with John Graves recalls a stolen afternoon in a graying shed, rubbing small, grimy hands over careworn tools as Grandpa spins tales of Indian summers and the big one that got away. Perhaps it is this deep-rooted nostalgia that compels us to reach to our bookshelves for Goodbye to a River again and again.

Fifty years after the book's release, and three decades after my first read, Graves' odyssey still resonates. As the book falls open to a random passage, the author's simple words evoke summer afternoons so still and slow that your heart seeks and finds a harmony with the pulse of nature that envelops you. Graves' hand-gathered and hair-raising historical recollections begin to weave into that captivating narrative, and his underlying message appears.

"We will be nearly finished, I think, when we stop understanding the old pull toward green things and living things, toward dirt and rain and heat and what they spawn," he writes as he and his dachshund pup navigate a stretch of the Brazos from Possum Kingdom to Glen Rose for nearly a month in the fall of 1957. Graves worried about the impact of dams planned along the route, and his fear of the river's demise inspired him to make the river itself the main character of his first (and ultimately most respected) book.

We are privileged to sit a spell with Graves, silent companions like that dachshund pup, and we see through his eyes the "tawny, weather-stained gash" of canyons and the "ingrained gray of great sandstone boulders tumbled along the shore." With him, we skin the squirrel and hungrily sample the stew as we listen to him pine for those wild creatures he knows will vanish. "We don't deserve the eagles," he writes. "They will go."

A simple feat, really, paddling that lonely swath of the Rio de los Brazos de Dios ("arms of God"). It's in the telling of the tale that Graves performs the herculean feat of reminding us who we are, why we're here and why it all matters.

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