The Best Book Excerpt Ever: Brian Doyle Writes A River

A while back I read a book called “Mink River,” by the late Brian Doyle. It was the first of two of Doyle’s books that I have read — the other was called “Martin Marten” — and between them they contain possibly the best individual passages of writing I have ever encountered. In his stories, animals and humans and plants have relationships that feel intricate and real. I often can’t tell if I he’s just expressing some core worldview that I share, or if his sheer eloquence has convinced me to see the world the way he does: erasing the line between the natural and “man-made” worlds, effortlessly evoking the way that historical events — from great wars and famine to the gentle words of a grandmother — can reverberate through history. 

“Mink River” is the story of a family — half descended from Irish refugees of the Great Famine, half from local indigenous people — and assorted townsfolk in a village where the fictional Mink River meets the Pacific Ocean. It also involves a talking crow named Moses. Below, I’m going to quote my favourite passage in full because I have read it aloud to several people already and I want to read it to everyone I know. We’re also about to give the book back to the people who lent it to us (thanks Connie and Walt!), so I’d like to record this passage here so I don’t forget. In it, Doyle writes from the perspective of a river. If that sounds ambitious and weird, I can assure that he well and truly pulls it off. I suggest you read it aloud too, preferably with at least one of the people you love nearby. Do it around a campfire with a river or creek or stream moving in the night nearby. 

Okay, just so we’re clear, what follows comes straight from the pages of Brian Doyle’s “Mink River.” I highly recommend you order yourself a copy of this and the rest of his back catalogue (especially “Martin Marten”) here

***

The river thinks too, you know. Did you think that rivers did not think? The Mink is thinking. Salmon and steelhead and cutthroat trout, it thinks. Fir needles. Salmonberries dropping suddenly and being snapped up by trout who think them orange insects. Alder and spruce roots drinking me always their eager thin little rude roots poking at me. Rocks and pebbles and grains of stone and splinters of stone and huge stones and slabs and beaver and mink and crawdads and feces from the effluent treatment plant upriver. Rain and mist and fog and gale and drizzle and howl and owl. Asters and arrow-grass. Finger creeks feeder creeks streams ditches seeps and springs. Rowboats and rafts. Canoes and chicory. Men and women and children. Dead and alive. Willows and beer bottles and blackberry and ducklings and wood sorrel and rubber boots and foxglove and buttercup and rushes and slugs and snails and velvetgrass and wild cucumber and orbweaver spiders and that woman singing with her feet in me singing. Baneberry and beargrass. Thrush and hemlock and coffee grounds. Thimbleberry and heron. Smelt and moss and water ouzels and bears and bear scat. Bramble and bracken. Elk drinking me cougar drinking me. Ground-cedar and ground-ivy and ground-pine and groundsel. Sometimes a lost loon. Cinquefoil and eelgrass. Vultures and voles. Water striders mosquitos mosquito-hawks. Dock and dewberry. Moths and mergansers. Huckleberry and snowberry. Hawks and osprey. Water wheels and beaver dams. Deer and lupine. Red currant. Trees and logs and trunks and branches and bark and duff. I eat everything. Elderberry and evening primrose. Bulrush and burdock. I know them all. They yearn for me. Caddis fly and coralroot. I do not begin nor do I cease. Foamflower fleeceflower fireweed. I always am always will be. Lily and lotus. Swell and surge and ripple and roar and roil and boil. I go to the Mother. Madrone and mistmaiden. The Mother takes me in. Nettle and ninebark. Pelt and peppergrass. She waits for me. Pine-sap and poppy. I bring her all small waters. Raspberry and rockcress. I draw them I lure them I accept them. Salal and satin-flower. She is all waters. Tansy and trillium. She drinks me. Velvetgrass and vernalgrass. I begin as a sheen on leaves high in the hills, a wet idea, a motion, a dream, a rune, and then I am a ripple, and I gather the small waters to me, the little wet children, the rills of the hills, and we are me and run to Her muscling through wood and stone cutting through everything singing and shouting roiling and rippling there She is waiting and whispering her salty arms always opening always open always o.


Thinking…
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