A review of Richard White's "The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River"

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The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River. By Richard White. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995, ix, 130 pp. Paperback, $12.00, ISBN 0-8090-1583-8).

In a close examination of the history and development of the Columbia River, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River connects the elements of natural and artificial energy in order to reveal both the beauty and the danger of the Columbia today. In his book, Richard White does a brilliant job of uniting humans and human ingenuity with the growth of the Columbia River and its region. His argument that human history cannot be known without natural history and vice versa is clearly and poignantly developed through his writing, and his work does an excellent job of linking relationships between man, the river, and salmon. The title itself is an oxymoron that displays White's idea that the Columbia River has been capitalized and made into a profitable venture for man, whereas its natural aspects have been underappreciated, forgotten, and overlooked.

In this riveting study, White carefully outlines the history of the river beginning with its discovery in the early nineteenth century. The one characteristic most commonly noted in all early accounts was that of the river's extreme power and force, and is detailed by account after account of failed attempts to sail the river. With attempts to travel along the river came the increased encounters with various tribes of the Pacific Northwest. White writes that passage along the river was "not just physical; it was social and political" (14). It was factors like this that forced racial interaction, growth, and the spread of ideas to the region.

Originally, the most beneficial aspect of the river was salmon, which were abundant in many areas of the river. The salmon itself is a bundle...