In the Watershed: A Journey Down the Maumee River by Ryan Schnurr

Belt Publishing, 2017



Coursing northeastward 136 miles from eastern Indiana to Toledo, where the river meets Lake Erie, the Maumee River Basin is the largest watershed in the Great Lakes region. Murky and prone to algae blooms, the river is infamous for pollution. At its headwaters, a confluence of two rivers in Fort Wayne, children are warned against swimming: “You might come out with a third arm.”

Murkier still is the history that attends this river. Few people, I should think, have heard of Little Turtle, a significant Native American chief whose grave is tucked between backyards in Fort Wayne, and whose tribe, the Miami, once centered their lives around the river named for them.

In the Watershed: A Journey Down the Maumee River is author Ryan Schnurr’s attempt to clear the water a little, to explore it, and to show and explain the implications of what he finds. Approaching such material as material—that is, in an overly academic or otherwise sterile mannerwould have stunted such an undertaking. Fortunately, this project was born of a deeply personal conviction, one made clear to us from the start: Schnurr, a Fort Wayne native who currently lives within a stone’s throw of the river, is guided by obsession rather than intellect:

The river [seeped] into my everyday life. I started to dream about it, and it surfaced more and more often in casual conversations, and at dinner with friends. I was learning a great deal about the Maumee, its history, watershed, pollution, and sources of pollution. But there was one thing glaringly absent from my research: the river itself. I began to have a recurring thoughta curiosity, reallywhich devolved into an undertaking: what if I walked the river from one end to the other?

And so he does.

What emerges thereafter is familiar: a form borrowed from documentaries and travelogues whereby scenes of the journey downriver are intercut with historical and ecological information. If this perhaps is the obvious choice, it serves the project well: Schnurr recognizes how data—what Richard Wilbur calls “Those long numbers that rocket the mind”—are a frail means of persuasion. For full effect, they rely on physical experience, which the author renders with cinematic precision. Here the Maumee “unfolds itself in dozens of meandering curves coiled tightly, one after another, like a stretched-out spring.” Here it is “expansive and single-minded . . . a broad, deep body of water moving deliberately and relatively efficiently.” Our guide shows the ways in which the river has continued to evolve, defining and redefining its course (not to mention local cultures) well after the last glaciers receded from this part of the country. The various landscapes Schnurr encounters—cornfields, dense woods, rural towns, meadows—are vividly cast.    

More important than Schnurr’s gift for description (a necessity in all writing, of course, but in nature writing especially) is his eye for what others might disregard. Resting his feet on a rock, straying from the river for lunch, discovering a deserted campground—such small moments add to the experience. For its imagery and quiet humor, I am drawn in particular to this brief passage recounting a meal in Defiance, Ohio:

Between the doors stretched a wood counter. On the right side of the counter, three servers leaned with their backs to me, under a sign that read: “Waitresses Only.” So I ordered on the left—two chili dogs and a root beer that came out in a glass mug with about an inch and a half of froth—under a sign that read: “Place Carry Out Orders Here.” Then I sat down by a row of windows across the room from a counter.      

To another sensibility, one which fails to realize how a journey that lacks the mundane is no journey at all, this would hardly register as worthwhile.

This quality extends to the book’s larger concerns. I used the word “persuasion” earlier because In the Watershed partly is an argument on behalf of the disregarded. There are pitiful passages, for example, on Chief Little Turtle that interrogate and correct the ways in which history has caricatured him. There are other passages on the Great Black Swamp, an ecosystem that thrived for millennia within the Maumee River Basin until settlers, daunted by its ruggedness yet emboldened by its potential as a commercial and agricultural resource, drained it. (In a hauntingly understated moment, Schnurr identifies the trees he finds around him and comes up with a handful of names. On the following page, we are told what would have grown there two hundred years ago. Over thirty varieties are listed.)

I imagine most will read this slim book (150 pages including notes and acknowledgements) in one sitting. Indeed, this is best. In the Watershed is many thingsan adventure, a love song, a regional history, a plea to reconsider our environmentbut above all it is an impulse carried to completion. An experience. As such, the achievement here is difficult to articulate. It seems to resonate with an early passage Schnurr alludes to at the end, watching the Maumee flow seamlessly beneath him into Lake Erie. This early passage, for what it’s worth, begins: “As far as I’m concerned, water is sacred.” And ends: “The last thing I saw before I fell asleep was the river.”