An environmental tour de force, unblemished by Bambi


I have been a fly fisherman much of my life, often spending 40 or more days a year with a rod in my hand, on trout streams all over the United States, in Canada, England and Ireland. I know the lives and habits of wild trout, and of other aquatic life. I have read dozens and dozens of books on the fancy. Some have been elaborately, sometimes brilliantly, technical; others achieve extraordinary literary artistry. I know of none that as successfully conflates both those feats as The Stream, by Brian Clarke (Overlook, 240 pages, $23.95).

I found neither a false note nor a technical flaw in this novel of environmental drama -- nor did I detect a single blot of insiderism. Like Norman Maclean's immortal A River Runs Through It, it is a book that demands no special affection or knowledge of trout to be compellingly enchanting.

It begins, "The law of continuing, the law that governed all things, had long since made the plan." Clarke then describes the fertilizing of a single trout egg, commencing a saga of nature that includes minuscule events in the lives of insects and fish, animals and birds, trees and bushes, the rising and falling of water in springs and streams and rivers. That constitutes one of the two main elements of the narrative. The other is a human story, launched when environmental activists in this part of rural England learn of a major government-backed industrial development plan.

Clarke writes on fishing and the environment for The Times, in London. He has written previous nonfiction books on fly-fishing and has accumulated a large number of British awards for his work. This is his first novel. He writes with enormous technical authority, without ever sounding technocratic.

In the book, the development plan goes from an abstract idea to the completion of a series of factories and other commercial enterprises. The whole thing is told in short chapters, two to six pages long, each more or less a single anecdote.

The story spans four years and eight months. In that time, insects, animals, birds, fish develop in their own intricate ways -- at first in virtually pristine naturalness -- under "the law of continuing." Then, as land is cleared, bulldozed, poisoned and plant growth destroyed, their natural cycles are tainted and ultimately destroyed. The details are precise and yet describe the processes enchantingly, romantically -- and ultimately tragically. There is no question which side Clarke favors, but he powerfully achieves balance -- without ever falling into the traps of polemicism or sentimentality. No Bambis here.

Jo Hamilton, for example, is head of the main activist group. In her living room, she argues that ostensibly responsible humans are doing nothing while others gradually destroy the planet. Her husband, Jim, leans solidly toward development. " 'Problem is,' he said, 'human beings are not standing on the sidelines, refereeing anything -- we're a part of nature ourselves. We're the human animal, doing what the human animal does. Badgers dig holes, bats hang upside down, man changes things. That's the way we are. We do it because we can. We do it to improve things for ourselves.' "

The cast includes businessmen and bureaucrats, activists and farmers, villagers and a member of the national cabinet, but the central character is the stream itself, a small, spring-fed tree of creeks that ultimately run into a major river and finally the ocean.

The book is written almost in poetry, sing-song. It resonates with the rhythms of natural processes, marked by repetitions of phrase, especially phrases describing specific, signature fish and animals -- "the trout with the scar" (which the reader knows was inflicted by a kingfisher attack), a singular otter, a predatory mink, a particular mayfly. Clarke writes with almost infinite sensory detail -- colors, patterns, the motion of water and air, the characteristics of animals, birds and people.

His language is clear and lovely: "Upstream, the sky was as clear and blue as it had been all winter. Overhead, two ostrich plumes of cloud, high and thin, were reaching forward. There were more high clouds behind them, flat and white. Downstream, the clouds were low and bruised. Rain was hanging under them like torn rags."

The "law of continuing" -- the force of nature, the momentum of species -- is the propellant of both life and story. The construction project is its antithesis. By the midpoint of the book, the confrontation has become severe, the project has gone through political processes and the courts. The developers are winning. The protesters are failing. The lines are firmly drawn.

"At the very moment the teams from Cogent Electronics and the Ministry started to discuss delivery dates for the products the Government had agreed to buy and the mayfly in its burrow near the island was casting its skin for the last time before hatching and Jo Hamilton was clicking on the megaphone to start speaking, it happened. One minute there was the sudden roar of engines from heavy earth-moving equipment to the left, then there was some shouting and part of the crowd surged forward, then the police vans were coming up the track from the Stinston road with wire mesh over their windscreens."

A man in his late 20s, holding a small boy by the hand, stood firm in front of one of the machines. He shifted when it shifted, finally blocking it, but not without the crowd gasping with a sense of mortal fear. There were five arrests, and a lot of fuss.

He was quoted in the national press and on television and radio: "I just wanted to do something. I wanted to make a statement. I wanted my son to be a part of it. It's not just my world they're destroying here; it's his as well."

Step-by-step, machine by machine, plan by plan, what Americans call an industrial park is completed, with factories that demand huge quantities of water. Farms are redesigned, replanted to be more productive, denuding the earth and stream banks of undergrowth and trees, pouring insecticides and chemical fertilizers into the ground and the water. The living things in and near the stream get sick and then begin to die.

Slowly and inevitably, the living things succumb to pollution, exhaustion of water and other depredations. And thus the book ends -- agonizingly. And yet somehow very, very beautifully.

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