Optimistic doubt

The book A Doubtful River portrays the Truckee River as a vital vein of life through photographs and creative essays

I grew up in a house in front of Washoe Lake. My family lived at the north end, with nothing between us and the water except a road, sagebrush as tall as a second-grade me, and forts I had built with my best friend. The lake had sandy beaches wrapping around its southern rim, but our end was more of a wetland. It was swamp-like and always seemed a little dangerous. There were things in the water … spiders, birds, tadpoles and other critters we didn’t have names for.

I still visit my parents’ house with frequency. The marshy area has since dried up, and I often walk my parents’ dogs out onto the weed-filled, reed-filled dry lakebed that my dad and I once traversed in a boat. A few mornings ago, I saw a coyote on one of my morning jaunts and immediately got a sense of the chain of life, something that was suggested by the transformation from tadpoles to coyotes.

It was probably because I had recently read a book about a river and its wildlife that my brain was inclined to see grandeur in something as seemingly simple as a dried-up bog.

The book is called A Doutbul River and is a collection of essays by Mary Webb, with photographs by Peter Goin (who, like Webb, is a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno) and Robert Dawson, an instructor of photography at Stanford University. The book about the Truckee River grew out of a project documenting the the first federal irrigation dam in the United States.

“Originally, the idea was born out of a photographic project I started called the ‘Water in the West Project,’ “ Dawson says. “It looked at water as a fundamental issue throughout the American West. I decided it would be interesting to look at one entire watershed, and the Truckee River looked like a good one. I was especially interested in the clash of cultures over the use of the Truckee River by the city of Reno, the ranchers of Western Nevada and the Paiutes of Pyramid Lake.”

Dawson and Goin started documenting the river and the drought in the late ‘80s, and Webb joined the venture two years later. Webb, who teaches technical writing courses, talked with people along the Truckee River, from Tahoe to Pyramid Lake to the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge. She wrote a series of essays drawn from these conversations.

“I did all the writing,” Webb says. “All the revision, all the crying, all the staring at blank screens. I drew upon a lot of sources that were technical, like climate data, and I became sort of fanatic about recording rainfall and lack of rainfall. But the essays really grew out of my perceptions and my point of view and the composites.”

It was the intention of each author to stay true to his or her own insights into the changing landscape. The authors wanted to show parallel points of view without subverting one another’s opinions.

“The text and the photographs,” Goin says, “exist together in the same way that the communities have to exist together.”

Ultimately, the story is about a river that is precarious and yet a means to life in an arid country. The book is an artistic project, complete with intriguing stories and beautiful pictures of very minimal landscapes.

Goin says the title of the book comes from John Audobon, who referred to Nevada as a doubtful country.

"There’s this little river we ignore," Goin says, "yet we are all so dependent on it. It is a doubtful river, but it is the story of this river that is a sustaining vein of life. That’s the optimism behind the story."