The Organic Machine

One of my goals for writing Okanagan Okanogan was to collect material and photographs to support a project reimagining the landscape of the Greater Okanagan as a series of organic and physical devices for capturing, storing, moving, and transforming water and energy. My dream is to provide a model free of heavy technological intervention and all of its costs. I would love for us, the residents of this area, to develop an industrial aesthetic that worked with the land’s natural processes. Of course, I was delighted when I came across a book on a similar topic, about another river I love deeply, the Columbia, into which the Okanagan flows.

A Historian Goes Dam Hopping

The book’s thesis is that the Columbia River has been re-engineered. White suggests that when the WWII-era nuclear physicist Niels Bohr warned against building an atomic bomb because it would turn the entire United States into a factory, he would have been accurate if he had said it would have turned the entire Columbia River watershed into one. The river system is, White suggests, an organic machine, with every one of its processes regulated and harnessed to the production of power and plutonium. Sadly, he doesn’t get down to what, exactly, an organic machine is — or what differentiates it from a mechanized organism or a messily-controlled organic process. Instead, he points out that the river can’t fully be controlled. Most true. He doesn’t, however, add that his concept may be partly at fault. And that’s the problem with arguing a point by the repetition of a single idea over and over again, without support material. Too bad. The book showed great promise.

Here’s what Book Addiction has to say about it. I think it would be fair to say that Richard there was underwhelmed. So was I. The book does put into perspective the politics of the Interior, both north and south of the US-Canadian border, and it provides a convenient and concise portrait of the tribulations of juvenile salmon caught within the poorly-understand mechanisms of the re-engineered Columbia. On the other hand, it gives little attention to any part of this so-called machine, other than the dam system: not to the reclamation of the Columbia Basin, in which vast areas of desert have been irrigated, to produce fruit, vegetables, and cattle; not to the arrested social development of Washington, British Columbia, and Oregon, that have resulted from the damming of this great river; and not to a coherent portrait of land use policy in Washington. These are part of the story, too, and would be awfully useful as we work to build a new century with new technologies and new aesthetics on the shoulders of men such as himself who have documented the last.

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