The Organic Machine The Remaking of the Columbia River

Hill and Wang Critical Issues

Richard White

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

144 Pages



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The Hill and Wang Critical Issues Series: concise, affordable works on pivotal topics in American history, society, and politics.

In this pioneering study, White explores the relationship between the natural history of the Columbia River and the human history of the Pacific Northwest for both whites and Native Americans. He concentrates on what brings humans and the river together: not only the physical space of the region but also, and primarily, energy and work. For working with the river has been central to Pacific Northwesterners' competing ways of life. It is in this way that White comes to view the Columbia River as an organic machine—with conflicting human and natural claims—and to show that whatever separation exists between humans and nature exists to be crossed.


Praise for The Organic Machine

"Visionary . . . White has posed a brilliant new model for environmental history."—Howard R. Lamar, Yale University

"A crystalline gem of a book. White makes the transformation of the Columbia River basin into a compelling microhistory of the encounter between the forces of technology and nature in America."—Leo Marx, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"White has done something remarkable: he has shown us a way of thinking that connects our deep history to the present and sees our most essential human habits—work, in this case—as inseparable from the places we inhabit."—Elliott West, University of Arkansas

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

The Organic Machine
CHAPTER 1Knowing Nature through Labor: Energy, Salmon Society on the ColumbiaIThe world is in motion. Tectonic plates drift across a spinning planet. Mountains are lifted up and eroded to the sea. Glaciers advance and retreat. All natural features move, but few natural features move so obviously as rivers. Our metaphors for rivers are all metaphors of movement: they run and roll and flow.Like us, rivers work. They absorb and emit energy; they rearrange the world. The Columbia has been working for millennia. During the Miocene, volcanic eruptions deposited layers of basalt
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  • Richard White

  • Richard White, professor of History at the University of Washington in Seattle, is the author of The Middle Ground and It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own and the recipient of the Albert J. Beveridge and Western Heritage awards.