The following contribution is from Doreen Pfost, author of This River Beneath the Sky: A Year on the Platte (Nebraska, 2016).
What the Platte River Taught Me
When I see Fourth of July fireworks, I think of the Platte River. I was not always this way.
I grew up in a military family, and Fourth of July fireworks on Fort Custer Air Force Base stand out in my memory as the high point of each summer. I remember the surge of patriotism I felt, and the visceral thrill, as red, white, and blue fire blossomed in the sky, then vanished, and then burst forth again.
And I remember the change that started on July Fourth six years ago, when I was driving east on I-80, heading home to Kearney after several long, exhausting days in the Rocky Mountains. I was twenty or thirty miles from home when erratic flashes began to appear in the night sky ahead of me. As the miles passed, colors became visible in the flashes, and then bright eruptions. Kearney’s fireworks display seemed to be heralding my return. I might have felt elated by the exuberant welcome, but instead I was weary and disillusioned.
For the most part, my westward trip had achieved its purpose. I had driven to the mountains because it seemed to me that before daring to write a book about the Platte River—even a short stretch of the river—I should acquaint myself with the whole works, from the headwaters to the mouth. I had already slogged in rubber boots around the Platte’s confluence with the Missouri River in eastern Nebraska and watched least terns sail above the mingling waters. Next I needed to see the great dams in Wyoming: Pathfinder, Glendo, Grayrocks. I had to see the South Platte coursing through Denver.
But in truth, I had sought something more from my trip. I had imagined that in the mountains I might find a pristine version of the ragged, almost-tapped-out Platte River that I was trying to love. The central Platte was spectacular in the spring when migrating sandhill cranes, geese, and ducks poured into the river valley, saturating my senses. But for most of the year, I found it hard to overlook the fact that human activity, from hydropower, to irrigation, to municipal wells and wastewater, had altered the historic Platte in almost every way.
Surely in the mountains it was different. I envisioned sparkling waters tumbling freely and swiftly from snow-capped peaks down to green valleys strewn with wildflowers. This seemed essential to the book I thought I should write. In the opening chapter of Thomas J. Lyon’s This Incomparable Lande: a Book of American Nature Writing, I had read Lyon’s assertion: “First and most fundamentally, the literature of nature has three main dimensions to it: natural history information, personal responses to nature, and philosophical interpretation of nature.” If I hoped to write of my response to nature, didn’t I need to find it in its purest form? Purer than what I could find amid the farm lands of central Nebraska?
The snow-capped peaks I found. The valleys and wildflowers, too. But the free-flowing water was just an illusion. Almost as soon as they became rivers, the waters of the North Platte and South Platte had been captured by dams large and small for stock ponds, fishing holes, lakes, and municipal water storage.
The mountain valleys and canyons were spectacularly beautiful, I reflected as I drove east, but was there no place left on earth where we had not made nature the handmaiden of humanity?
A few nights later, still pondering my disappointment, I took an evening walk on the old rail bed that crosses the Platte River near Kearney. From its accustomed spot in a hedgerow came a quail’s hesitant call: “Bob…white.” I paused at a solitary cottonwood tree north of the trestle bridge and watched a dickcissel singing incessantly, “Twiddle-ip, cheep cheep. Twiddle-ip, cheep cheep.” At the bridge I crossed a small channel, then a low island, and stopped at the larger channel, its meager irrigation-season flows boosted slightly by recent rains. I propped my elbows on the railing and watched barn swallows and cliff swallows shuttle to and fro, snapping at insects above the water. The birds—their songs, their behavior—were all familiar after my countless visits to this spot.
Indeed, I had learned a great deal since informing my advisor at the University of Nebraska-Kearney that, for a master’s thesis in creative writing, I would compose a series of essays about the Platte River, focusing on the seasons when the sandhill cranes were absent—the seasons in which the river faded from public view. I had little experience as a naturalist and even less as a nature writer; I may have glossed over these details in pitching the idea to my graduate committee.
And perhaps that didn’t matter, I thought, as I watched a pair of chimney swifts fly above the treetops on narrow, jittery wings. As long as I paid attention, the river itself usually showed me what I needed to learn: Why are there so many channels and how can they all be one river? What are these mammal tracks? How long does the spiderwort keep blooming?
Soon, I trusted, the river would tell me what I must write.
Now, in darkness, I turned and started north on the long bridge. I told myself not to feel frustrated by all the changes humans had wrought on the Platte. After all, I had not set out to write about an idealized, untrammeled river, but about the one that really existed…
But wait: Oh. Below the bridge, the half-acre island between the channels had suddenly come alive with hundreds—no, thousands—of leaping, winking sparks. Fireflies! They swirled and twinkled over the entire island. Here were nature’s fireworks—singular, beautiful, ephemeral. In the same way that we had celebrated our country the Fourth, it seemed the river was celebrating life itself.
The fireflies served humanity not at all. They served life. The same, I thought, could be said of the swallows, and of the dickcissel that was still singing. Altered or not, nature was all around me, above the water’s surface and below, insisting on staying alive. All I had to do was look. The river would point the way.
Lyon, Thomas J., ed. and hist. This Incomperable Lande: A Book of American Nature Writing.
New York: Penguin. 1991.