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Richard White’s “The Organic Machine” Essay

In a close examination of the history and development of the Columbia River, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River connects the elements of natural and artificial energy in order to reveal both the beauty and the danger of the Columbia today. In his book, Richard White does a brilliant job of uniting humans and human ingenuity with the growth of the Columbia River and its region. His argument that human history cannot be known without natural history and vice versa is clearly and poignantly developed through his writing, and his work does an excellent job of linking relationships between man, the river, and salmon. The title itself is an oxymoron that displays White’s idea that the Columbia River has been capitalized and made into a profitable venture for man, whereas its natural aspects have been underappreciated, forgotten, and overlooked.

In this riveting study, White carefully outlines the history of the river beginning with its discovery in the early nineteenth century. The one characteristic most commonly noted in all early accounts was that of the river’s extreme power and force, and is detailed by account after account of failed attempts to sail the river. With attempts to travel along the river came the increased encounters with various tribes of the Pacific Northwest. White writes that passage along the river was “not just physical; it was social and political” (14). It was factors like this that forced racial interaction, growth, and the spread of ideas to the region.

Originally, the most beneficial aspect of the river was salmon, which were abundant in many areas of the river. The salmon itself is a bundle of energy through it ability to store fat only to be burned as energy as it swims upstream to spawn. White, in his study, reveals how salmon went from being a sacred and ritualistic acquisition for the indigenous people of the region to a capitalistic commodity primarily for profit. The dams built along the river also help provide insight into the interwoven relationships of man and nature. In a very Emersonian way, humans mixed the powers of man (machine)¬†with the powers of organic nature to harness energy for society. White offers a history of the plans and implementation of the construction the Grand Coulee Dam along the river, and details how man’s work was necessary in harnessing nature’s work to provide energy for all.

Overall, White’s simple and straightforward writing style allows for quite an easy and interesting read. His immense research of historical journals, magazines, and government documents helps establish his credibility as a knowledgeable historian who has carefully done his homework. The successfulness of White’s argument is seen through his detailed account of the mechanization of the Columbia River. Through a careful study of the complex structure and evolution of the river, the river can be safely title and “organic machine.”

Man saw the Columbia as a “prime mover of kilowatts,” and then exploited it as a mechanical entity instead of a natural phenomenon. Environmentalists, historians, and engineers would all find something in this work that would interest them. This “organic machine”, through human intervention, has created a socially, economically, and physically connected network of human societies and natural phenomena bound together by the work of both human and nature. Although the natural aspects of the river have been forgotten, White reveals how man could not fully understand nature without developing it, and how nature also shapes and determines the destiny of man.

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