Susquehanna book is full of goodies


Having once mooched meals off author Susan Stranahan for most of a weeklong canoe trip, I know her camp kitchen to be superbly organized and stocked with a generous range of goodies.

And so it is with her just-published book, "Susquehanna -- River of Dreams," an eminently readable, nicely researched tour de force that goes on my must-read list for anyone interested in knowing the Chesapeake Bay.

Never mind that the book's subject is a river almost wholly contained in Pennsylvania and New York, beginning a few blocks from Cooperstown's Baseball Hall of Fame, 448 miles and six days travel for a drop of rain flowing down to Havre de Grace.

For the Susquehanna is both creator and lifeblood -- not to mention major polluter -- of our Chesapeake. The bay channels plied by oceangoing ships are the old, drowned river valleys carved by the Susquehanna.

Half of all the bay's fresh water comes down the river, longest and largest in flow of all East Coast waterways; and no amount of bay restoration in Maryland and Virginia can hope to reclaim water quality without a Herculean effort upstream.

In fleshing her tale, Ms. Stranahan starts with a chapter on geology and builds on the very bones of the ancient river. It's a bold move by the author because 30 pages on geology is a dose for most readers, me included. But here it works, helped by the fact that the river may just have some of the most interesting geology in the world.

Across its 27,000-square-mile watershed are some of Earth's most gnarled, tortured and mysterious rocks, formed when Africa's West Coast slammed into the side of North America 300 million years back. There are spectacular gorges, strata that resemble "a television set with a malfunctioning vertical hold," and 100-foot-deep potholes gouged somehow from the hard rock of the river's bed.

How the fundamental shape of the river shapes human history to this day is a recurring theme of Stranahan's. The river bed is boulder-studded and astoundingly shallow, a perfect complement to a bay whose million-foot length and widths of up to 100,000 feet belie its average depth of only 22 feet.

We now accept the Susquehanna as the nation's longest nonnavigable river. But for centuries, starting with John Smith, who sought passage there to the South Seas -- he got about two miles and quit -- the broad river seemed destined to take people and commerce into a heartland rich in furs and timber, coal and productive soils.

Stranahan gives us a lively chronicle of attempts at canal-building to bypass the shallows, efforts that nearly bankrupted Pennsylvania. Had they succeeded, a major civilization might have taken root along the Susquehanna -- including the capital of the United States, at Columbia on the river below Harrisburg.

People who did settle near the river were in for a shock. Again, geology was the problem. A combination of steep stream valleys and a shallow basin made the Susquehanna extremely "flashy" -- prone to sudden flooding.

The saddest chapter in the book is about logging during the 18th and 19th centuries. In that era, the river fulfilled dreams for a few. Great fortunes were made, and Williamsport, on the Susquehanna's West Branch, at one point had more millionaires per capita than anyplace in the country.

But whole mountain ranges were cropped of virgin white pine, trees that soared 10 stories and reached nearly 4 feet in diameter. Later the loggers came back for the hemlocks, which were even larger, felling these giants merely for the bark for tanning, leaving the wood to rot.

The mood brightens when Stranahan takes us on her travels with modern-day forest rangers. We see vast acreages where the hardwoods that replaced the ancient pines are now themselves maturing, and native elk are coming back.

It is a strength of her account that Stranahan, a veteran writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, lets the story unfold through the conversations and historical writings of people whose lives intertwine with the river. Discussions of water pollution, for example, can be technical and depressing; but not when launched from the island hangout of a bunch of confessed "river rats" who have seen the Susquehanna's ups and downs for more than 60 years.

Though logging left visible horrors, acid drainage from coal mining dealt the river its severest blow. Enough mine waste flushed down the river to support a sizable industry that mined millions of tons of coal from the river bed through the 1950s. Long stretches of the West Branch above Williamsport are still acid dead, and may remain so for decades. As recently as the 1960s, Stranahan says, Pennsylvania courts stood on the following precedent, set in an 1880s case when a couple sued a coal company for horribly polluting their creek:

"The trifling inconvenience of particular persons must sometimes give way to the necessities of a great community," (i.e. Big Coal), the court ruled.

With fascinating details, Stranahan sketches the eternal quest of agriculture along the river to find more and better soil additives, first importing gypsum stone, then the feces of South American sea birds, even buffalo bones from the American West.

The land blossomed, but at a price. Of today's farmers, who work nearly 40 percent of the Susquehanna basin, Stranahan writes, "Nowhere . . .is there a better example of the conflicts that arise from being a citizen of an ecosystem." (The italics are mine.)

She refers to the hard realization that Pennsylvania's farms, which include some of the world's most productive, are releasing manure and fertilizers that kill the waters of a distant bay, the Chesapeake.

In her footnotes, she tells how archaeologists lament that modern fertilizers in ground water dissolve all but the teeth of Indian skeletons. This leads to the book's final chapter, about environmentalists and others with the grandest dreams of all: to link Chesapeake restoration efforts throughout the entire, 64,000-square-mile watershed; and to convince the watershed's 15 million residents to think of themselves not just as Pennsylvanians, Marylanders, Virginians -- but as citizens of an ecosystem.

The old dreams of a route to Asia, of timber and coal, of great cities carved from the interior, have faded away. In their place are agendas of clean water and planting trees, of controlling development and restoring historic fish migrations all the way from the bay to Cooperstown.

Every day, the author concludes, the ranks of those with such hopes are growing: "And the dreams they dream for this majestic river are no longer selfish ones."

"Susquehanna -- River of Dreams." $25.95. Johns Hopkins University Press in Baltimore.

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