Zak Podmore’s mother died of cancer in 2014, and she appears in nearly every essay in Confluence: Navigating the Personal & Political on Rivers of the New West. Still, Podmore’s new book is not a memoir—a tribute, yes, he says—but rather a rumination on rivers, canyons, mesas, sediment and how wilderness shaped his mom alongside the acknowledgment, woven throughout, that each is inextricable from larger issues of justice and the body politic.
Podmore’s parents were public school teachers with long summer vacations that allowed the family to take multi-day river trips every year. As such, rivers have long been central for Podmore as they are in the book.
“Those experiences have shaped every part of my life since, and when I lost [my mother] to cancer, I returned to the river to try and heal. She's a big part of the book because as I was doing the reporting that turned into the essays in Confluence, her death was weighing on me and shaping the way I saw the world… I wanted it to be a tribute to her, but I also wanted to spend the vast majority of the book focused outward on rivers, people and ecology,” Podmore says.
Interspersed in Confluence are also the arguments of philosophers—Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Immanuel Kant and Vine Deloria Jr., a member of the Standing Rock Sioux—helping both Podmore and his readers unpack thoughts on nature and civilization. There are discussions of exploited rivers and rock, evocative essays originally penned for magazines buttressing lovely prose interludes, which Podmore included to give the reader breathing room between heavy topics. At their best, Podmore’s essays resemble Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau with an extra dose of social, racial and political analysis.
Confluence begins with what Podmore considers his most autobiographical essay in the bunch, a 2017 piece titled “Home Sometime Tomorrow.” In it, the author turns both inward and outward as he explores the notion of home alongside uranium mining in the Four Corners region, circling in a memory of a protest near the Ute Mountain Ute village of White Mesa.
It’s the piece in which we’re most cognizant of Podmore, a young white man contending with issues that reach deep into history and far beyond him: forced relocations, contaminated drinking water left by the only operational uranium mill in the United States in Blanding, Utah. We watch Ute Councilwoman Prisllena Rabbit confront a Mormon mill worker. Later, Podmore recounts his first memory: dust and his mother’s warm hand leading him around a roaring rapid. Dust can carry deadly pollutants, Podmore notes as the text jumps to county commissioners defending uranium mining despite documented leukemia, cancer, birth defects. He moves to rivers next, disputed and sacred waterways that also carried his parents on countless floats down the Dolores, Colorado and San Juan.
The further into Confluence one reads, the more landscape and story shroud the “I.” On occasion we follow Podmore in the role of first person naturalist; Podmore contending with his mortality on a treacherous trail, Podmore slipping beneath gargling river rapids in his kayak. At other moments he flits around, ghost-like and nearly unseen among towering canyon walls or artificial border strongholds. Spooled throughout is the notion that place is important outside his own body.
“In order to write this book, I had to do it from a first-person perspective, but I got pretty sick of myself in the process,” Podmore says. “I'm grateful to be reporting full-time for The Salt Lake Tribune now where I'm not even allowed to say ‘I.’”
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The common denominator in the collection is always wilderness, but again and again, Podmore reveals himself as a master of connecting, confluence like, disparate spaces and ideas.
“I have a hard time seeing ‘nature’ as something distinct from the rest of the world,” he says. “Like our rivers, which flow from national parks through faucets and cities, the natural landscape does not start at the city limits sign. As Indigenous cultures have known for thousands of years, people are defined by place, so for me, writing about places often means writing about the people who live nearby or who are being most directly affected by a policy.”
Enter immigration, indigenous rights and climate change. In “Delta,” Podmore chronicles one of the many trips he’s taken from the Green River in Wyoming, which feeds into the Colorado and all the way across the United States/Mexico border. Before concrete channels routed it to farmland and water treaties gave Mexico the short end of the stick, Podmore writes, the Colorado flowed into the Gulf of Mexico, its fresh water supporting hundreds of species. The essay “The Rio,” too, contends with water: The water that women and children drink at an immigrant detention center in Dilley, Texas, the water in the Rio Grande, which families cross to reach the US—sometimes dying in the process.
“You're out there in a remote, beautiful canyon floating down the border, but you also know that many people who cross from one side of the river to the other risk being separated from their children and suffering any number of human rights abuses. I experienced no shortage of cognitive dissonance out there, which is why the essay keeps jumping between my time on the river and the brutal stories of asylum seekers in a family detention center in Dilley, Texas,” he says of the latter essay.
Nature writing can easily bring authors into cliché pitfalls, providing little more than fluffy descriptions thrown at readers, but Podmore’s observations always land. His verbiage conjures movement and life within landscape and most of, if not all, his descriptions are so succulent we anxiously await how he might next describe a body of water or a canyon layer. And yet, Podmore says, writing landscape was harder than making philosophical arguments or reporting on conservation issues.
“I had to rework drafts dozens of times before I thought my language was even beginning to do justice to the places I was writing about. Of course, the landscape is always far richer than any art it inspires, but I got to a place where I'd pick something small--like the sunlight hitting the muddy water of a flash flood--and try to describe that scene as vividly and accurately as possible,” he says.
Zak Podmore will read from his book and sign copies at Mountain Sports, 24 N. San Francisco St., Saturday, Nov. 16, at 5 p.m. Visit www.zakpodmore.com for more information.