A river runs through it

Nature writing story in Australian Geographic, and swimming rivers with Akiko Busch

Hi! I’m Hannah James, journalist, writer and editor, and this is where I review nature books, and think about nature-related topics out loud. Thanks for reading!

What I’m writing

I wrote a story about Australian nature writing for the March-April issue of Australian Geographic magazine - the one with the cute Tassie devil on the front. (See the orange spot with ‘Nature writing in Australia’ on it? That’s my cover line, baby!)

I worked hard on this one and spoke to some fabulous authors (Inga Simpson, Mark Tredinnick, Tom Griffiths, TIM WINTON, hello!) who thoughtfully answered the somewhat naive question I started with: why hasn’t nature writing had the same renaissance in Australia as it has in other countries? The story isn’t online yet but the print issue is in the shops now, or online here.

Here’s the first spread, to whet your appetite:

If you read it, I’d love to know what you think of it! Agree? Disagree? Which authors did I miss? Let me know!

What I’m reading

Other than revelling in the very lovely art treatment of my own words in Australian Geographic? I’m reading about rivers in Akiko Busch’s Nine Ways to Cross a River.

If you think about nature writing as meaning-making about the natural world, then it’s almost embarrassing how freighted with meaning rivers are. Birth, death, time, change, ease, struggle, eternity: they encompass all of human life and thought.

When Akiko Busch, a design and nature writer who lives in the Hudson Valley in New York State, was closing in on the age of 50, she realised: “My life had become defined by a series of divides”. A good friend had died, her 12-year-old twin sons were moving away from her and into their own world, and that upcoming half-century mark was looming large. So, because “swimming has always been a way to take measure of experience” for her, she decided to “find a divide that could be crossed. And more and more I realised, I wanted to swim across the Hudson River.”

For Busch, this isn’t so much a feat of athletic endurance as an art project.

“I am a strong believer in symbolic sports; I find an appeal in metaphorical exercise. Swimming across the river was a symbolic way of breaching the divide; it was about nothing more and nothing less than the possibility of getting there, somewhere, from here.”

It becomes much more than that. She swims the Hudson - in itself, a fairly uneventful but pleasing experience - a few days before 9/11. Amid the shockwaves of that event, she decides to swim across a river every summer, “some small, personal trial by water that could secure safe passage into the coming year.”

The nine rivers of the book’s title become a window into natural history; into Native American, colonial and modern attitudes to rivers; and most of all into the toxic legacy, both environmental and social, of industrial pollution. And they are inevitably also a window into her own life:

“Maybe this is why we are so innately drawn to nature - because even in our most unconscious moments, all of its details, all of its minutiae, illuminate us to ourselves.”

Yet Busch is fairly light on personal revelations - hers are more universal insights (other than the delightful fact that during the Apollo moon landing she and her boyfriend at the time elected not to watch it on television like everybody else, but instead to lie in a field and talk about the difference between agnosticism and ignoticism. Perhaps this is all you need to know).

Where she does get detailed, though, are her descriptions of place. Each river has distinct characteristics - the murky Hudson has buried centuries of shipwrecks; the swift-flowing Mississippi, unusually for a river, is thought of as male (Old Man River); the silt-clogged Connecticut hides a 120-foot hole that plunges through 200 million years of geological history; and the deep-blue Current River, a “quiet ribbon of sparklingly clear, deep, cool water”, feels like silk on her skin. And at each crossing place she meets locals who both love and hate their rivers, and glimpses the communities that form - or don’t - around their banks. That specificity stops Busch from sinking under the weight of metaphor and meaning; that and her clean, clear, supple writing.

Reading is the best cheat I can think of. In return for a few hours of your time, you receive the accumulated wisdom of the writer’s years (sometimes decades) of deep engagement with a subject. The thoughtful and beautiful insights that jewel this book feel almost too lightly won for the reader, because they must have been hard won for Busch. But they aren’t a cheat; they’re a gift. And what can you do with gifts like these but accept them with grace?

Nine Ways to Cross a River was book 26 for 2021. I’ve also been reading:

  1. Kerry Greenwood, The Lady with the Gun Asks the Questions

  2. Daisy Buchanan, Insatiable

  3. Fenella Souter, How to Fake Being Tidy

  4. Nikki Gemmell, After

  5. Miranda Ward, Adrift: Field Notes from Almost Motherhood

  6. Pamela Frankau, A Wreath for the Enemy

Thanks again for reading! Feel free to hit reply to this email to have a chat (I always write back!), press the heart button if you liked this, or comment.

Also! Follow me on Instagram @hannahjameswords, on Twitter @hannahjamesword and check out my website at hannahjameswords.com.