In The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River, Richard White examines the evolution of the Columbia River and how man transformed the river into a technological feat. Once a river teeming with life and wild salmon, the Columbia stood as a vital part of society and culture in the northwest. Original life along the Columbia River revolved around the seasonality of salmon runs, and salmon was embedding into the culture of these societies. While these Indian cultures used salmon runs to their advantage, they remained acutely aware that their society stood below the power of nature; that with a sudden drought or flood salmon populations would be impacted and thus so would their people. As Europeans from the east coast began to move out west, they devalued salmon by offering nonfood items in exchange for food during trade. This moment in history changed the course of the Columbia River, as its societal value was altered.

Westerners saw the Columbia River in a vastly different light and used technology to turn it into an “organic machine.” The river went from providing food to people to being used to expand societies and the economy. People’s relationship to the river began to change as technologies that used the rivers power and energy were built. As the government allowed for more and more dams to be constructed, salmon populations diminished, and human’s power over the river grew. Each year brought a new federally funded project to the river to help improve agriculture, or provide electricity. With each dam human’s power over nature was exerted, this is a common theme throughout history, but the example of the Columbia River fully encompasses what happens when humans act as though they are above nature.

The Columbia River still flows. It remains a river, but a different river. Each type of phytoplankton that grows comes from an excess of nutrients that enter the river by human means, each fish that swims was born in a hatchery and transported to the river in a truck, and the river itself flows over different areas of land than it once did. Yet it is still called a river. It is still considered nature. Just like the Columbia River, man has altered every piece of the earth that surrounds us. We have used technology to grow our societies, our culture, and our economy. And now look where we stand. Our relationship to the natural world is vastly different from the Indians that used to live along the Columbia. The entire globe is an organic machine, to be used by and for mankind.

Yet what I find most fascinating is the lengths to which humans have gone to keep salmon running in the Columbia River. Just like the Columbia is a different river than it once was, so are the salmon, and their cultural significance. At each phase of their life they are impacted in some way by humans, they are no longer a wild species, but a genetically manufactured one. It is not profitable to keep them in the river, humans go through great trouble to ensure a future generation, and if they were to go extinct in the Columbia River, it would be a direct result of the commodification of a natural ecosystem. This thought is terrifying as we look at the Columbia River as an example of what has happened to the entire world. What does it mean for humans to live in a virtual world? Because that is where we currently are. Humans will always live below natural forces, no matter the technology we build or the genetically modified animals and crops we produce. Hatchery produced salmon are genetically inferior to wild salmon, dams still stand at the whim of floods or droughts, and no matter how hard humans try nature will always be able to overcome our influence.

Leave A Comment, Written on March 22nd, 2017 , Uncategorized


By Gloria Steinem, Ms. Magazine, October 1978


A white minority of the world has spent centuries conning us into thinking that a white skin makes people superior—even though the only thing it really does is make them more subject to ultraviolet rays and to wrinkles. Male human beings have built whole cultures around the idea that penis-envy is “natural” to women—though having such an unprotected organ might be said to make men vulnerable, and the power to give birth makes womb-envy at least as logical. In short, the characteristics of the powerful, whatever they may be, are thought to be better than the characteristics of the powerless—and logic has nothing to do with it. What would happen, for instance, if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not? The answer is clear—menstruation would become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event: Men would brag about how long and how much. Boys would mark the onset of menses, that longed-for proof of manhood, with religious ritual and stag parties. Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea to help stamp out monthly discomforts. Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free. (Of course, some men would still pay for the prestige of commercial brands such as John Wayne Tampons, Muhammad Ali’s Rope-a-dope Pads, Joe Namath Jock Shields—“For Those Light Bachelor Days,” and Robert “Baretta” Blake Maxi-Pads.) Military men, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation (“menstruation”) as proof that only men could serve in the Army (“you have to give blood to take blood”), occupy political office (“can women be aggressive without that steadfast cycle governed by the planet Mars?”), be priest and ministers (“how could a woman give her blood for our sins?”) or rabbis (“without the monthly loss of impurities, women remain unclean”). Male radicals, left-wing politicians, mystics, however, would insist that women are equal, just different, and that any woman could enter their ranks if she were willing to self-inflict a major wound every month (“you MUST give blood for the revolution”), recognize the preeminence of menstrual issues, or subordinate her selfness to all men in their Cycle of Enlightenment. Street guys would brag (“I’m a three pad man”) or answer praise from a buddy (“Man, you lookin‘ good!”) by giving fives and saying, “Yeah, man, I’m on the rag!” TV shows would treat the subject at length. (“Happy Days”: Richie and Potsie try to convince Fonzie that he is still “The Fonz,” though he has missed two periods in a row.) So would newspapers. (SHARK SCARE THREATENS MENSTRUATING MEN. JUDGE CITES MONTHLY STRESS IN PARDONING RAPIST.) And movies. (Newman and Redford in “Blood Brothers”!) Men would convince women that intercourse was more pleasurable at “that time of the month.” Lesbians would be said to fear blood and therefore life itself—though probably only because they needed a good menstruating man. Of course, male intellectuals would offer the most moral and logical arguments. How could a woman master any discipline that demanded a sense of time, space, mathematics, or measurement, for instance, without that in-built gift for measuring the cycles of the moon and planets—and thus for measuring anything at all? In the rarefied fields of philosophy and religion, could women compensate for missing the rhythm of the universe? Or for their lack of symbolic death-and-resurrection every month? Liberal males in every field would try to be kind: the fact that “these people” have no gift for measuring life or connecting to the universe, the liberals would explain, should be punishment enough. And how would women be trained to react? One can imagine traditional women agreeing to all arguments with a staunch and smiling masochism. (“The ERA would force housewives to wound themselves every month”: Phyllis Schlafly. “Your husband’s blood is as sacred as that of Jesus – and so sexy, too!” Marabel Morgan.) Reformers and Queen Bees would try to imitate men, and pretend to have a monthly cycle. All feminists would explain endlessly that men, too, needed to be liberated from the false idea of Martian aggressiveness, just as women needed to escape the bonds of menses envy. Radical feminists would add that the oppression of the nonmenstrual was the pattern for all other oppressions (“Vampires were our first freedom fighters!”) Cultural feminists would develop a bloodless imagery in art and literature. Socialist feminists would insist that only under capitalism would men be able to monopolize menstrual blood . . . . In fact, if men could menstruate, the power justifications could probably go on forever. If we let them.


Leave A Comment, Written on March 22nd, 2017 , Uncategorized

Richard White explores an interesting point of view in The Organic Machine. It is quite similar to my devils’-advocate argument earlier in the semester, that humans are just as much a part of nature as, well, nature itself. The Columbia River acts like a machine just as much as steam turbines and hydroelectric dams and whatnot. And no matter what we do to it, it does not lose its immense destructive power, as demonstrated during the flood of 1948.

However, as a physicist, I must bring up an important physical concept, that matter and energy can be neither created nor destroyed – in other words, you cannot get something from nothing, or turn something into nothing. Orders of magnitude do matter – when you take natural resources from nature in small amounts such that it has ample time to replace what you take, as the Native Americans did when fishing, it does not appear that you are burdening nature. But when you start to fish in large quantities comparable to the total populations of fish, they start losing the ability to sustain their populations. A small waterwheel on the side of the river does not have much of an effect on the river’s overall flow, but large dams used to generate hydroelectricity can impede the movement of salmon or even slow down the mass flow rate of the water by some amount. When the danger of the dams was realized, we turned to nuclear power – but that, too, had its problems, as the river’s water was used to dissipate the heat generated when producing plutonium, and the slight increase in water temperature resulted in further loss of fish. It seems that we cannot fulfill the needs of a society as large as ours without somehow compromising the system from which we take to fulfill said needs.

This being said, the goal of a sustainable society in its current numbers may be theoretically impossible. We have far exceeded the Earth’s carrying capacity, and no matter how efficient new technologies become, we will still probably be draining our resources faster than they can be replenished, even with alternative renewable energies. Whatever the source, be it a solar panel or a wind turbine or a nuclear fuel cell, you need to mine the raw materials, use energy to transport and process them, and deal with the waste at the end of the unit’s life cycle.

Going back to the humans-as-part-of-nature concept – I feel like an exception to this, if one exists, is the obtaining of radioisotopes for energy use. The reason for this is because radioisotopes naturally exist in such tiny quantities, as they are unstable and start to decay as soon as they come into being. Every element in existence came from nuclear fusion within a star – they all start with hydrogen, atomic number 1, fusing into helium, and subsequently creating larger and larger atomic nuclei. By the time you reach atomic number, say, 283, the abundance of nuclei with that number becomes a function of probability of formation as well as stability of the nucleus. The nucleus consists of protons and neutrons, and thus has an overall positive charge – when too many positive charges are present, they push away from each other; when these repulsive forces overcome the nuclear forces holding the nucleus together, then you get alpha decay. In essence, the universe simply does not want such materials to exist. By creating them, we literally push against the laws of physics.

Leave A Comment, Written on March 22nd, 2017 , Uncategorized

Richard White’s book The Organic Machine was a fascinating reminder of the interconnectedness of ideas, powers and the environment. In his introduction he states that human and natural history are so intertwined one cannot be understood without the other. He states that energy (power) is the connection between nature and humans. In fact, it is what makes the distinction between the two almost impossible. In his discussion of the Columbia River he states, “preserving salmon was, however, as much a social and cultural matter as a biological or economic one” (43). Social, cultural, economic, and biological factors contain just as much power as what we consider to be the physical power of the river itself (the energy it can produce). I am always amazed in discovering anew that when we complicate our understanding of something, it can become clearer. In our effort to simplify subjects we obscure parts of the puzzle, which makes it inevitably impossible to solve. Understanding the river means understanding the human place as a part of the river. Within this complication, I found his constant reminder of the impact of race and most powerful.

We can see the Colombia River as an evolving “organic machine” through its relationship with humans. White guides the readers through its uses of fishing for Native Americans, the explorers trying to sail upstream, its industrial uses for fisheries, damns and nuclear power. However, while we see these uses of the machine change, we see human relationship to each other somewhat consistent. Native Americans often blamed women for bad salmon years and, “rituals restricted the movements and actions of women far more than those of men” (20). Menstruating women were seen as particularly taboo. The relationship between Native Americans and white settlers was one of subjugation as well. As the machine changed White notes that, “in this new world of work race divided space” (38) and, “gender and class also subdivided the river” (39). Just as humans always used the river, those with the power to use it always rationalized that power.

In reading White’s recount of these types power dynamics within the Colombia River, I was reminded of Gloria Steinem’s essay “If Men Could Menstruate.” She imagines a world in which men had their period and women did not. In this world she says, “Menstruation would become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event.” She continues saying it would be, “proof that only men could serve in the Army (“you have to give blood to take blood”)… [Be] rabbis (“without the monthly loss of impurities, women remain unclean”)” and so on. However, in society women’s menstrual cycles are often given as a reason of emotional instability, weakness and impurity. Women are ashamed of their periods and try to hide it, or are seen as dangerous to society (think back to Native American women who were blamed for poor fishing). Steinman teaches us that it is possible to rethink the power structures that have been influencing history and “organic machines.” Steinem states, “In short, the characteristics of the powerful, whatever they may be, are thought to be better than the characteristics of the powerless—and logic has nothing to do with it.”

To acknowledge this sentiment as true is to help deconstruct the power justification itself. I would argue that what happened to the Colombia River is not desirable to humans or to nature, and it is time we try to find a way to utilize our “organic machines” in a way that is less harmful and more sustaining. In order to find these types of solutions there needs to be more perspectives when we make the blue print. Acknowledging that power justifications are often baseless will help to bring more people to the drawing board.

Leave A Comment, Written on March 22nd, 2017 , Uncategorized

Wesley Lickus

Human Place in Nature

Professor Beevers

22 March 2017

Week 9 Response

The way humans think about and interact with nature has changed remarkably through history. The Organic Machine by Richard White is a testimony to these fluctuations, and their influence on the human society. To those of us with a strong environmental ethic White will challenge those views, and to those of us with little regard for the nonhuman world White will inspire reflection into this often stagnant ethos. White discusses topics such as tragedy of the commons and radicalization during his telling of The Organic Machine. 

White successfully helps the reader develop an ethic and respect towards the Colombia river. The historical recount is directed at helping the reader understand why the river is not the same as it was when first explored, for example why 60 pound salmon simply no longer exist. White also gives descriptions of fish drowning in netting to portray a gloomy perspective, but he also departs from the often inexplicable respect and ethic towards the nonhuman world that many people have and cannot explain. For example, someone who fights the implementation of dams in river ecosystems and power production strategies may never look to the positive aspects of dams in the lifecycle of salmon. White’s writing encourages the reader to “look for the natural in the dams and the unnatural in the salmon”. Reminding us, furthermore, to blur the lines we think of as separating right and wrong.

In the fight to preserve nature, environmentalists often think they know nature best, for they feel they are the ones who leave nature untouched and pristine. The truth that White makes clear to all of us is that all humans are connected to the environment, and more specifically regarding his argument to the Colombia river, through simply turning a light switch on or feeling the warmth of sunshine. It is most interesting to read about the fact that the hardworking gillnetters through their close interactions with the river knew it’s ecosystem best. However, it was these fishermen who infect depleted the population to an extreme and terminate low. Despite their lifelong interactions with the environment, their need for work and a flurry of demand for canned salmon erased any concern from these people or even the owners of canning institutions.

The impact humans are able to have on populations we use for our own benefit was tested on a remarkable species. Though the Salmon still swims in smaller numbers and still stands to represent numerous native people of the region, it is a character in a tragedy on the Colombia. This tragedy stems from human nature, out of greed that we face when trying to survive in a modern world. A modern world that requires a modern lifestyle with a supporting income, clothes to wear, and an environmental footprint no matter how small we attempt to make it. The unfortunate fact of the Colombia salmon fishery is that the very people who needed this work, destroyed their livelihoods with each fish they caught. The fishermen that knew those waters better than any other person could not grip the simple fact that the species could not continue to sustain itself with their level of fishing. This burden goes back further to the American people who developed the taste for and therefor economic market for canned salmon. Irony presents itself to the fact that because of their thoughtless fish harvests, the fishing industry had little to no influence regarding the construction of dams on inhabited waterways and the potential impact on aquatic species.

We now understand how to more efficiently conserve the numbers of wild caught salmon, and other aquatic species such as Atlantic cod or Maine Lobsters. We also understand that while dams in their own existence are a barrier to the nonhuman world existing as completely nonhuman, they can in fact pose benefit to some species; a fact stressing the importance to an open mind while discussing the human role in and interactions with the nonhuman world. But not all dams are constructed with salmon in mind, very few in fact, and they do inflict large amounts of harm on fish. The Organic Machine in final, presents a story that everyone who has a personal ethic or opinion towards the environment should read. It is a book that will make even the most dedicated environmentalist think in unexplored perspectives rather than simply preaching to the choir.

Leave A Comment, Written on March 22nd, 2017 , Uncategorized

Krysti Oschal

The Organic Machine by Richard White describes the changes occurring in and around the Columbia River over time. The book goes into great detail about the pre-industrial uses of the river by the Native Americans and early European settlers. It also describes the processes and effects of damming and other industrial uses of the Columbia River. Throughout the book, White implicitly makes his views on federal and state regulations impacting the river known by describing almost all as ineffectual and inefficient.  It can be inferred from his writing that he has a reverence for nature and nostalgia for a pre-industrialized era based on his descriptions of the Native Americans’ relationship with the river. With regard to Native American craftsmanship, White writes that “[i]n the Indians cedar canoes, efficiency and art met and became one” (8).  Despite all of these descriptions, White never suggests solutions or changes that should be made to the process of crafting federal and state regulations. Instead White leaves solutions to the reader’s interpretation.

Towards the end of the book, White devoted a few pages to the creation of nuclear power, including the production of plutonium for atomic weapons, and the subsequent effects such production had on the Columbia River and people. The location for the “Manhattan Project” was a site near the Columbia River. White is critical of the location for the Project and deemed the river as an “atomic” space created by the government after the Project’s creation. His discussion of the Manhattan Project seems out of place in relation to the rest of the book when his lengthy descriptions of the short-comings of government policies and regulations are taken into account. The Manhattan Project was an efficient and effective government-funded endeavor that helped the United States win WWII. White is critical of the government’s lack of transparency in communicating the potential risks of the Project to the people living nearby. In fairness, the Manhattan Project was extraordinary, groundbreaking, classified, critical to the US war effort, and the magnitude and severity of the associated risks were not fully known at that time.

White does not acknowledge or even suggest that the Manhattan Project was a unique situation, and downplays the critical nature of the Project. White writes mockingly “Secrecy was essential. Plutonium guarded American freedom.” White points out in hindsight the damage done to the Columbia River and the negative, although not entirely discernable, health effects on Americans. He does not mention the benefits of the Project, or its trade-offs—therefore giving the reader an incomplete picture of the situation. White takes an extreme and provocative approach when he writes that deaths of Americans as a result of nuclear production were planned by the US government (88). The US government took on the feat of developing nuclear technology with the hopes of saving American lives. White does not give a figure on how many Americans died as a result of the Manhattan Project, nor does he cite relevant literature about the thousands of American, and Japanese, lives that were saved because the bomb effectively ended WWII. He states that the Project cleanup fees may exceed $50 billion dollars (88). However, consider that the cost of the United States staying in the pacific theater longer and allowing the USSR to gain greater influence in post-war Europe as result is a much greater cost than the potential $50 billion dollar clean up fee. The American way of life and our values are worth more than a dollar amount economists may try to place on it. White’s discussion of the Manhattan Project is another example of how extreme advocacy for the environment alienates people who might otherwise would be sympathetic to the cause. He does not present complete information and does not discuss the trade-offs of the Project in a pragmatic way.

White’s criticisms of a variety of government policies and regulations undermine many of the actions environmentalist call for today. Many environmentalists call for greater federal regulation of industries and natural resources as a means of preserving the environment. White’s examples show that far-reaching regulations made thousands of miles away in Washington D.C do not make circumstances better. For example, the call for electricity production at levels far higher than the demand caused unnecessary damage to the Columbia River and salmon populations. If the markets were left to work on their own those electricity producing dams would never have been built. The decline in salmon populations led to hardships for fisherman and regulations that further complicated the situation. If the goal is to protect the Columbia River for intrinsic value and for the local communities, then allow the local communities, not Washington, to determine what is in their own best interests.

Leave A Comment, Written on March 22nd, 2017 , Uncategorized

Jack Marcus

By this point of the course, I had believed that I had a good idea of what “nature” is and of the complex history surrounding nature, environmentalism, and the rise of humanity.  Since reading Whites book The Organic Machine, I realize I have only  scratched the surface of one perspective of the grand narrative that is our planet.  Whites perspective, looking at understanding the relationship between what most would consider two parallel stories; that of the natural world and that of human development, using the idea of labor as a mechanism to bridge the gap and intertwine these stories into a stunningly more complex yet simplistic history of the Columbia River. 

One issue that White I think nails on the head is the hypocrisy of environmentalists.  For a group considered to be progressive and openminded, environmentalists seems to always believe they know what is right and think somehow they have divine mandate to regulate others on how one should engage with the natural world.  White refers to this as “stressing the eye over the hand”.  Engagement with the natural world, its all its multiple ways is part of the human condition and is indeed the essence of fostering a positive relationship with the natural world.  White reminds us that there is no absolutes, and that even two things are seemingly separate as natural history and human history are in fact in some cases synonymous.  In the case of environmentalism, one must always push for introspection, as with any grand movement the chances of hypocrisy are strong.  However the Organic Machine does not intend to vilify environmentalism, rather to redefine what it means to interact with nature and instead of looking at our shared history with nature as a failed and abusive one, we can re align ourselves to see how the natural world has shaped us and we have in turn shaped it, in a very natural way. 

His discussion of energy, especially as the tangible thing of the river helps to bring understanding into his argument that labor and work have historically tied us to the land.  This is especially interesting, and by citing labor as a positive force one must then examine what catalyst sent our collective narrative spiraling into two different despondent directions.

There was a change, at some point, where the pride of labor and work was diminished and the pride of non-labor accepted.  Perhaps the industrial revolution set this trend, but the greater feats of technology and human constructed environments may be more closer to blame.  The natural exchange of energy and labor between humans and nature is the force that binds both together.  From Native Americans to logging and industry highlights this connection and symbiotic relationship.  While it would be easy to cite certain malpractices and degradation,  White makes a point to highlight that even nature in its purest form is a dynamic system that is ever in motion. 

The archaic belief to return to a natural state is inundated with wishful thinking, and a simple misunderstanding of the natural processes of the earth, while also removing one of the most important factors from the equations: human beings.  The connecting concept of labor does more then just show the relationship and exchange between the two, it evokes a challenge and sense of accomplishment.  Maybe the biggest issue today is that people seem to seek out less work, and equate work with hardship versus a natural state needed for both physical and human development.  The natural world in turn is not a forgiving place, it is a place that requires labor in some way, whether that is working the river, or attempting to summit a mountain.  The give of ones labor is rewarded in nature in an equal exchange, yet in our constructed environment we want reward disproportionate to what we give.  Yet as White explains, labor and work are what connect us to the natural world, but more importantly are the platform in which one can rewrite the narrative of the planet, intertwine both human and natural things and begin to see humans not as an “other” but as one more part.  Further identification can be broken down into what is natural, as in working a river, versus a non natural human thing such as over consumption, excess and rampant materialism.

Leave A Comment, Written on March 22nd, 2017 , Uncategorized

This week for seminar we read The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River by Richard White. Unfortunately, this reading has by far been the most difficult for me to get into and get through. In the introduction, White states that the argument of his book “is that we cannot understand human history without a natural history and we cannot understand natural history without human history.” I completely agree with this. I am taking a class titled Ecological History of Africa right now and we are constantly revisiting this idea. African history and environmental history were originally seen as separate studies but beginning in the 1960’s these topics began to merge more so. It is not holistic and thorough to study them separately. This is the core concept of natural history; human’s relation with nature and natures relations with humans must be considered as intertwined and coinciding throughout history.


The Organic Machine takes this approach but in my opinion, even as a short book, it is still far too drawn out. There is almost too much detail and content that the story and progress of the book is slow moving and it takes away from his objectives. I feel as if I would have absorbed the central message more if it was a shorter, straight to the point, narrative of the History of the Columbia.


Additionally, Richard White states that, “This book which seeks to blur boundaries, emphasize impurity, and find, paradoxically, along those blurred and dirty boundaries ways to better live with our dilemmas.” White certainly and precisely emphasized human impurity; in several sections of the book this ideal is hammered in. Every few sentences or so I found myself saying “wow, humans are shitty, selfish, and lazy”.  We intervene more than is needed, we mechanize and try to overpower nature, push aside people that have less “power”, deplete species populations, act selfishly and lazily, and divide people by gender and class. We take cultural and social value away. We are constantly growing, progressing, and moving further towards capitalism, control, and economic benefits. So yes, humans are shitty, selfish, and lazy. Richard White never says this directly, it is more of a paradigmatic relationship with his story. It is not present but implied. This seems to be a questionable and debatable, yet reoccurring theme throughout many of our readings for this semester.


This book does not necessarily advance my understanding of natural history and what this means today, or even looking forward, but it further ads to my uncertainty of several questions we have brought up thus far. Are humans above nature or below it? In many ways in the history of the Columbia River Basin humans have been above the river, as we harnessed it into an object of energy and production. Yet, there are instances where the river still wins and in the end, I think the river will ultimately will win. When is it okay to manipulate nature for our own needs? How much technology is too much technology? Is this manipulation and technology “nature”. Although The Organic Machine was informational about the Columbia River itself, it did little to advance my knowledge of natural history in the sense that he appears to have set out to accomplish.

Leave A Comment, Written on March 22nd, 2017 , Uncategorized


The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River by Richard White (1996) details the history of the Columbia River, with a focus on the human relationship with nature. White has several theses including examining, “the river as an organic machine, as an energy system which, although modified by human interventions, maintains its natural, its ‘unmade’ qualities,” (1) and that “we cannot understand human history without natural history and we cannot understand natural history without human history,” (2) as well as his interest in energy, work, and power along the Columbia River. These points are sometimes lost within the history of the river and human development but it is because the history is so complex.

Taking from these theses, the most important lesson gleaned from this book is about the perception of human intervention with nature, specifically through dam development. In this course, we have debated if humans are part of or separate from nature. White asserts early on his opinion that in the time of early human interaction with the Columbia River, “the human and the natural were tightly linked, but one did not determine the other,” (22). Human impact on nature was limited by the work they could do just with their bodies. Once machines such as fish traps, steamboats, mills, trains, dams, nuclear reactors, etc., were created, the relationship of humans with nature changed greatly: “Machines could exert far greater force than human bodies alone could muster. Machines replaced bodies. Machines overcame nature,” (30).

With these machines, the meaning of “nature” changed because it now had a comparison for natural, non-natural. “From one perspective machines seemed unnatural, but from another they seemed but a new manifestation of natural forces…The mechanical was not the antithesis of nature, but its realization in a new form,” (30, 34). This unique perspective challenges what many of us believe about machines. I have never once thought of machines as natural, even if they are made from natural elements such as aluminum, work upon natural objects such as salmon, or are run by “natural” humans. White emphasizes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s unique view of nature, because it directly supports this idea that humans are not inherently dangerous to nature. “When humans acted on nature they did not defile it, they purified it,” (34). White (and Emerson) essentially argues that humans never had malintentions towards nature but were aiding nature in its full expression and use. This is reminiscent of Michael Pollan’s argument in The Botany of Desire: plants have used humans to evolve over time instead of the common perception that humans are destroying the natural abilities of plants through directed selection and genetic modification. Perhaps our entire perspective of nature is completely wrong!

With the development of machines and created meanings and values of the Columbia River Valley, humans have changed the Columbia River into an organic machine that functions for human use. Although it is a machine, “Nature still exists on the Columbia. It is not dead, only altered by our labor,” (59). This is a hopeful perspective on how we think about the death of nature. Humans can severely alter nature, essentially destroying an ecosystem as it was found, but nature will still survive, in some way or another. The Columbia River is still controlled by natural forces such as climate patterns; everything else is controlled by humans.

Leave A Comment, Written on March 21st, 2017 , Uncategorized

At its roots the Columbia River is a natural system, composed of water and sediments from the earth. It is teeming with macro-invertebrates, fish, plants and other organisms, and is powered by the sun and gravity. However in reflection of Richard White’s novel The Organic Machine, ever since man arrived to the Pacific Northwest, the Columbia has undergone an identity crisis. Imposing human ideologies upon its flowing waters, man has commoditized the river’s properties in order to suit society’s needs. Through the physical manipulation of the river’s shape, flow and biological content, man has also manipulated the river’s identity and assigned it a purpose.   However, through the scope of deep ecology, one may argue that the river does not have a utilitarian purpose, and continuously operates regardless of human need an influence.

After reading The Organic Machine, thus learning about the history of the Columbia and how man came to know and harness the river’s resources and power, I began to ponder the purpose of the Columbia. Man has used it for transportation, energy production, irrigation, recreation and as a source of food. But simultaneously, the Columbia has acted as a habitat, a cultural symbol and a means of passage for reproducing salmon. In an attempt to organize and domesticate the power and various elements of the river, we have provided specific designations, segmenting its body with dams, factories, hatcheries and power plants.

In thinking about the Columbia’s purpose, I also contemplated how society has progressively attempted to manage the river through use, analysis, engineering and rationalization.   This can be seen in the history of energy harvest from the Columbia. Initial use of the river’s kinetic energy could only be implemented at mills adjacent to the riverside. However, upon introduction of alternating current, electricity could be transported beyond the river’s banks to cities within the Willamette Valley. But in true human fashion, the Columbia’s energy provisions were not suited enough for the fluctuating electricity usage of cities and factories. Thus, dams were constructed so that engineers could control the flow and energy output of the river, further manipulating the once natural system into an organic machine.

As discussed by White, such management practices have consequentially altered the Columbia’s physical and biological makeup, morphing the original identity of the river and our relationship to it. While natural forces may inherently power the source and the flow of the water, we have so greatly altered the composition and essence of the river.

At what point should society draw the line and stop interfering with natural systems such as the Columbia River? By assigning anthropogenic identities to the river’s qualities, we have eroded away the natural value of the Columbia, as seen through the environmental lens of deep ecology. Through deep ecology, one may argue that humans have no greater right to use the Columbia than the salmon that once freely travelled up and down its currents. Yet, we have ignored the signs that the Columbia is out of balance and is not the same river that we once knew. Furthermore, we ignorantly assume that since we have manipulated the river, we are the ones in control. But as White points out, despite the millions of dollars spent on everything from dams to hatcheries, climate trends such as La Niña and El Niño still dictate flooding and droughts along the Columbia. Mother Nature still has the final say.

Leave A Comment, Written on March 14th, 2017 , Uncategorized

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ENST 406 Senior Seminar

Understanding the Human Place in Nature — Spring 2017