Dams for the Breaching

The Dalles Dam, Columbia River. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

The Lockdown has sparked a renaissance in correspondence. I’ve been exchanging postcards with my mother and letters with my youngest nephew. Emails have gotten longer, more interesting, more personal, more fun. I’m not on FaceBook or any other social media, but I have received greetings and reports from high school teachers and childhood friends.

Running parallel to these communications has been the traffic in musical missives and other offerings: links to solo performances recorded at home as well as collaborations pieced together from sheltering musicians. Houses and apartments have become ad hoc studios. Virtual symphonies played by dispersed musicians have been assembled by expert editors. Epic fund-raising extravaganzas have been mounted, from Lady Gaga’s tedious celebrity revue to the ad hoc bravura of the Metropolitan Opera gala. The results of all this can be entertaining and uplifting even in the visually and aurally arid format of YouTube.

Soon after the college students were sent home from Ithaca, New York in the middle of March, I recorded a lo-fi bagatelle on the campus’s Baroque organ using my secondhand iPhone. The piece riffs on Cornell’s Alma Mater, a tune taken from the famous nineteenth-century ballad Annie Lisle. The melody was adopted for the same purposes by dozens of high schools and universities across the country.

What I came up with begins with a mockingly prayerful bit of faux renaissance polyphony, then nods to one of Charles Ives’ campy Variations on “America” before making an excursion into light operatic fare (or maybe it’s fairground music) and closing with a glib homage to Charles-Marie Widor’s famous Toccata. I perched the phone on a music stand next to the console, which means that there is much clacking to be heard from the long wooden rods and rollers inside the organ case that transfer the movement of the fingers and feet from the keys to the pipes. This contraption counts as the most sophisticated form of remote control devised before the harnessing of electricity. The mechanical noise is part of the charm of playing old organs, the clatter strangely amplified by the iPhone’s internal mic. But from this vantage point you get to see—and hear—the action.

The opening line of the Cornell alma mater places the university in the landscape: “High Above Cayuga’s Waters”—that is, the lake extending forty miles to the north. Some PR folks put my organistic romp on the Cornell FaceBook page, but I also sent the video link to family and friends.

My father returned the favor with an audio recording of him singing Woody Guthrie’s “Roll On, Columbia” to his own guitar accompaniment. The song is a staple of his repertoire, and one he often sang to my brother, sisters, and me as we lay in our beds as small children. I haven’t listened to him do it in probably forty years. It was the first time my daughters, also retreated home during Corona Time, had heard him sing. A man of science, with a quiver full of advanced degrees, and still active as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Washington, he is of the generation inspired by the likes of Pete Seeger to pick up the guitar and learn folk songs.

Up to his retirement in 2006, my father spent his entire professional career with the EPA, serving as a scientist in the agency from its founding in 1970—indeed, even before its founding, as he was hired in the 1960s by the EPA’s predecessor, the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration. Over his last decade at EPA, he worked on a major study of the Columbia River that concluded that its dams’ impact on water quality, especially temperature, violated the terms of the Clean Water Act. His team recommended the breaching of several dams. For all the data collected and the elaborate mathematical models he developed, my father would be the first to admit that you didn’t need all the science to argue for an unobstructed river. One hardly requires the metrics of TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load —a term I learned from him and a crucial provision of the Clean Water Act) to see that the fish were mostly gone. The study’s proposals for starting on the long path to restoring the Columbia’s health have not been adopted. These days we are told constantly to listen to the science, yet those dams defied the findings of environmental research.

We children were excited back in the early days of the EPA when our father was called from Washington State to Washington, DC to receive a silver medal for his scientific work. On his return we opened the velour case and admired the large, heavy coin on its green and blue ribbon. It was as big as a Morgan Silver Dollar, but thicker and engraved with the agency seal of the flower, its face made up of sky and water. There was also a black-and-white photo showing our father receiving the medal and shaking hands with the EPA’s first Director, William Ruckelshaus. This must have been a short time before Ruckelshaus became interim FBI director in 1973. Ruckelshaus returned to head EPA for a stint during the Reagan years, and I think my father may have gotten another medal, perhaps even a gold one, during that time, too, though I was off to college by then.

As a kid canoeing with my dad on Washington’s rivers, especially on the Skagit, and in the Puget Sound, I would often be quizzed by him on the names of the succession of dams on the Columbia (Bonneville, The Dalles, John Day … all the way to Grand Coulee), with those on the Snake thrown in for the bonus round (Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Lower Granite …).  As a kid I did not think of that game as the litany of shame that it is. Even though I’d visited some of these dams with my father, the names sounded mythic, like monuments from antiquity—which is indeed what they were and are. At a time when statues are pulled from their plinths and many historic names now sound criminal, it is a devastating irony that there is such a thing as Chief Joseph Dam. Built after World War II, it has no fish ladder and therefore wiped out the migration of salmon— the fish sacred to the Nez Perce people whom Joseph led—to the Upper Columbia.

It never struck me that the dam-naming game was a form of indoctrination, and if that is what it was, I don’t think that program was a conscious one. The game was simply a diverting exercise in geography. I don’t remember my father condemning those structures overtly. But I vividly remember him hymning them with Guthrie’s famous words.

As a kid I did not have a sense of the complexity of federal government, its internal friction, the clackings of its own engines and conflicts. I did not know then that the Broker State selects its winners according to dark systems of patronage and influence and self-interest. I think I early on understood that the Army Corps of Engineers—what my dad called “the corps”—were the bad guys. Armies were bad things after all, and this particular outfit made not just dams but hideous things like the John Wayne marina on the Olympic Peninsula at a place called Sequim with its round bulkhead that fittingly enough looked like a circling of wagons in the water. My dad had unsuccessfully fought that project: the corps had won.

Born in 1936, my father was a child of the Depression, a refugee from the Plains to the War Economy on the militarizing coasts. His parents and grandparents left North Dakota for jobs, eventually, at the Pacific Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington. He and his sisters were the first generation of that family to get college degrees. While an undergraduate and graduate student at MIT, that bastion of Cold War science (but also Noam Chomsky!), he learned protest songs and ballads of the oppressed on his guitar.

Listening to him sing in Corona Time, I asked myself How could a man fight the dams and sing about them, too? The answer, I believe, lies in the power of music to submerge such paradoxes—to transcend tragedy, even if songs mistakenly extol bad things. Yet these conflicts remain below the surface. Like so many Americans, he lives and sings the contradictions of this country. The dams aren’t going, and it wouldn’t help if Woody’s song went unsung.

For all its frivolity, my fantasy alma mater reflects the same tensions. Cornell, too, was built up by the Cold War, and thrives on monies from the military-industrial complex. Troubling truths can be heard high above Cayuga’s Waters and deep within them, too—if you listen.


Retired environmentalist David Hupp, who lives on the Columbia, responded to last week’s column with “some promising news: The Dalles Dam, the one that flooded the biggest American Indian trading center in the West, Celilo, constantly leaks. Two friends worked in operating that dam and they tell me this, and that it is getting worse, giving the Corps fits.”

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com