Published in 1959, this nonfiction narrative tells the story of a November 1957 trip down a piece of the Brazos River in central Texas, just before several dams were built along the river to change its course and character forever. Hence, the title: Goodbye to a River.
Mr. Graves grew up along the Brazos, in Granbury, Texas or nearby as best I can tell, and his writing reflects his love for Texas, the Brazos, country living, and history. It’s also a nature-lover’s book and a chronicle of a lost way of life, the Texas of the 1800′s and early twentieth century. I enjoyed the book immensely, even though it wasn’t exactly about MY part of Texas, too far east for that. It was, nevertheless, about the kind of people that I knew when I was a kid of a girl growing up in West Texas among the fishermen and ranchers and hunters and wannabes. My daddy hunted deer during deer season and fed them out of season (I never really understood that). He also went fishin’, but he never paddled a canoe down the river.
The book and the journey it tells of are a taste of Texas and solitude and reminiscence and homely encounters with classic Texan characters, alive and dead.
“We don’t know much about solitude these days, nor do we want to. A crowded world thinks that aloneness is always loneliness, and that to seek it is perversion. Maybe so. Man is a colonial creature and owes most of his good fortune to his ability to stand his fellows’ feet on his corns and the musk of their armpits in his nostrils. Company comforts him; those around him share his dreams and bear the slings and arrows with him.” (p.83-84)
“Mankind is one thing; a man’s self is another. What that self is tangles itself knottily with what his people were, and what they came out of. Mine came out of Texas, as did I. If those were louts they were my own louts.” (p.144)
“I used to be suspicious of the kind of writing where characters are smitten by correct quotations at appropriate moments. I still am, but not as much. Things do pop out clearly in your head, alone, when the upper layers of your mind are unmisted by talk with other men. Odd bits and scraps and thoughts and phrases from all your life and all your reading keep boiling up to view like grains of rice in a pot on the fire. Sometimes they even make sense . . .” (p.151)
“If it hadn’t been for Mexicans, the South Texas Anglos would never have learned how to cope right with longhorn cattle. If it hadn’t been for Texans, nobody else on the Great Plains would have learned how either.” (p.199)
“Neither a land nor a people ever starts over clean. Country is compact of all its past disasters and strokes of luck–of flood and drouth, of the caprices of glaciers and sea winds, of misuse and disuse and greed and ignorance and wisdom–and though you may doze away at the cedar and coax back the bluestem and mesquite grass and side-oats grama you’re not going to manhandle into anything entirely new. It’s limited by what it has been, by what’s happened to it. And a people . . is much the same in this as land. It inherits. Its progenitors stand behind its elbow.” (p.237)
The moral of the story, and I think it’s true, is that I carry Texas and Texans and the Texas landscape in my bones. Even though I’ve never once paddled a canoe down a Texas river or lived rough in a campsite beside the river or caught or shot my own dinner and cooked it up, I am still somehow the inheritor of something that my ancestors, many of whom did all those things and more besides, passed down to me. I’m a city girl, but the Texas wildness and independence and what sometimes turns into a lack of respect for authority and a heedless devil-may-care attitude–all that lives in me, and more besides. I am a daughter of Texas, and Goodbye to a River was a wonderful tribute to some of the places and stories that make Texas great.
If you love the essays and the localism of Wendell Berry, and especially if you have some connection to Texas, I think you would enjoy Goodbye to a River.