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Undoing the Elwha

Screen shot 2016-06-15 at 9.56.28 AM

Photo courtesy of USGS.

“The largest dam removal project in United States history.”

This is our undoing: we take a machine we’ve made and maneuver it behind a container
we’ve made – the face we’ve put on nature — this force that controls the force of the river —
this source of power — and we bang at it with a blunt edge till the top few rows break.
Then a wetness marks the concrete. And we begin to admit our mistake.

Born dark,
they turn silver
and ride
the bouldered current down
till they reach
the dark
of the sea,
where they appear
to disappear,
to cease.

The idea is to heal. We close the hurt of the old channel, divert the flow to a new channel,
then remove a section of the old, and divert the flow back. Slowly, it lowers the lake’s level.
Why did we ever dam the river? For civilization. For light. Because it was doing no good. Now we plan /
to create a plan to re-define those definitions. We chip away at our own creation. We un-dam.

The young swerve
through the dark sea
abstract
– only guessed at —
until they feel
the need to return.
Then, they flush pink
and, hump-backed,
surge towards
the concrete.

The lake reveals what it once denied. Mud flats dotted with tree stumps lumbered
a hundred years ago. A sunken boat. A plow. And millions of years older than that, a boulder
the native tribe believes is where the world begins. And what do we believe? That we can know enough /
to build the future. It’s in our nature to alter nature: as close as we get to love.

decades,
these dreams
(hundred pound shadows)
fought their way
upriver,
till they came to what
couldn’t exist
and slammed against it.
And slammed
against it.

A timed explosion. At the scale of the mountains, trivial. At the scale of the dam, fatal. Tiny
men in tiny hard-hats cheer how much we’ve lost. Where there were dynamos, now debris;
it pulses with the built-up silt and, sliding towards the sea, stains the unleashed river red.
We declare the Elwha free. We declare a new beginning: water returned to its ancient bed.

And how do they know
when they’ve made it
home?
The smell? The taste? The chill?
Females deposit
reddish eggs;
males spill
their white seed.
Is this what we mean
by starting over?

If each generation nurtures a vision, ours is the Long Return. But how do we, then, sustain a balance /
we’ve never really known? Students kneel on re-claimed soil and sow a landscape of native plants:
setting roots in random rows, shaping the earth to catch rain, hoping in a world we’ve mostly failed /
that the scent will carry downriver, extend across the dark ocean, and act as a kind of trail.

Done,
the old mistakes decay.
The broken machines
lose power,
their final hour
with one eye
turned up
to the sun.
Done, they feed
seedlings.

More articles by:

Daniel Wolff‘s new book of poems is The Names of Birds.

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