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The Trout Pool Paradox: The American Lives of Three Rivers

"A weapons-grade indictment of river despoliation, and an astute analysis of the socioeconomic factors that affect it." — Kirkus Reviews

"Fishermen talk tirelessly, sometimes tiresomely, about 'reading the river.' But no one has ever done it with as much precision, dedication, insight, and sheer passion as George Black. This is one not to let get away." — Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature

"Black's open-minded approach to each subject makes for a comprehensive account of how water shapes our natural and man-made environments." — Publishers Weekly

About the Book

Less than two hours from New York City, two Connecticut rivers running in parallel valleys only a few miles apart have charted the course of American environmental, industrial, and social history, with strikingly different results. Both tributaries of the mighty Housatonic, the Shepaug and the Naugatuck have weathered development for nearly three centuries, but while the Naugatuck has suffered to the point of near-extinction, the Shepaug continues to flow seemingly untouched, offering some of the best fishing in the country. In The Trout Pool Paradox: The American Lives of Three Rivers (Houghton Mifflin, April), George Black tackles the complex story of how this situation came about, in the process presenting a graceful and riveting history of modern America.

Black's attempts to unravel the "trout pool paradox" — that the same fast, cold, clear water that provides the best fly fishing makes a river ideal for the development of environmentally harmful industry — lead him on a journey through the natural and human history of American rivers, from the first mills and settlements to the Industrial Revolution and the modern environmental movement and to the men and women who live on, fish, and work to protect the Housatonic and its tributaries today.

An avid fly fisherman, Black has fished the Shepaug watershed — "the Platonic ideal of a trout stream" — for over a decade. Fifteen miles away runs the Naugatuck, by contrast a "chemical sewer" known more for occasionally catching fire than for its fishing conditions. Puzzled about why these two sister rivers should exist under such dramatically different conditions, and theorizing that as a fisherman he had both motive and opportunity to pursue a greater intimacy with them, Black delved into the geological, biological, economic, and political factors affecting both rivers in an attempt to understand, as he writes, "what needs to be done if our rivers are to remain, or become once again, the kind of place where trout will want to live."

Using the rivers of northwestern Connecticut as a prism through which to view the lives of waterways throughout America, The Trout Pool Paradox explores the sometimes unforeseen ways in which we influence, and are influenced by, the natural world around us. With penetrating insight and the enthusiasm of an avid fly fisherman with an intimate knowledge of the rivers he portrays, Black uncovers the heart of these bustling ecosystems and the middle ground that must be found to save them.

About the Author

George Black has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and many other publications. The author of three books on foreign affairs, he lives in Manhattan with his family.

A Conversation with George Black

Q) What do you mean by "the trout pool paradox"?

A) I mean two things, actually. First of all, think of the images that are conjured up in most people's minds by the idea of the trout pool: unpolluted, free-flowing water tumbling over the rocks to form a waterfall with a deep pool below it, inhabited by brightly colored trout and silvery salmon, among the most beautiful creatures that exist anywhere. You find this image of the trout pool throughout American history — in the engravings of the colonial period, in Currier and Ives prints, and more recently in Hallmark greeting cards. The trout pool is the antithesis of the world that most of us have to live in every day — the world of factories and cities, automobiles and strip malls.

But here's the paradox. Exactly the same ingredients that formed the trout pool — the forests, the rocks, the fast-flowing water — are those that gave us the Industrial Revolution. We appropriated the trout streams to power mills and factories, we cut down the forest canopy for fuel and shelter, we broke the rocks apart for the valuable ores they contained. In the small corner of Connecticut that I'm writing about, the trout pool paradox has played itself out in a very exaggerated way. The wildest and most beautiful streams were precisely those that were used to generate the ugliest forms of industrial development and the worst kinds of environmental devastation. Few people remember any longer that the Housatonic Valley was the center of the U.S. iron and steel industry for a century before the Civil War.

Q) How does that paradox apply to the Shepaug and Naugatuck rivers?

A) Here's a river — the Housatonic — that has two main tributaries, the Naugatuck and the Shepaug, which flow parallel to each other just a few miles apart. The geology and topography of these two rivers are broadly similar — they're both very rocky and fast-flowing, flood-prone, without a great deal of good farmland. On both rivers there are all sorts of inviting places where you can build a mill and turn it into a factory town. The puzzle is that this is what happened to one of the rivers, but not the other. The Naugatuck became the world capital of the brass and rubber industries, and for a century it was a dead river. The Shepaug, on the other hand, managed to survive as a kind of rural idyll.

Socially and politically, the two valleys became polar opposites. The principal town on the Naugatuck is Waterbury, which was named by Money magazine a few years ago as the most unlivable city in America. The main town on the Shepaug is Washington, which has become a fantastically expensive weekend retreat for affluent New Yorkers. But it could so easily have been the other way around. Why did things turn out the way they did? That's the question I set out to answer in the book.

Q) And you tried to answer that question from the point of view of a fly fisherman?

A) Well, yes and no. This really isn't intended to be a fishing book, although I hope there's enough about fish and fishing in it for that particular audience to take a journey with me that they might not otherwise think of taking. I do plead guilty to being a fly-fishing addict, but to me the principal appeal of fishing has always been as a way to explore a landscape, to understand how it works. It seems to me that if you have a certain kind of intellectual curiosity, fly fishing gives you both the motive and the opportunity to explore and understand the whole range of factors that have shaped a particular river and the human society around it.

In looking at the Shepaug and the Naugatuck, you can't ascribe their radically different evolution to any single cause. The key lies in understanding how the currents of natural history and social history are intertwined — how each influences the other in infinitely complex and dynamic ways. A massive historical phenomenon like the Industrial Revolution — or deindustrialization, for that matter — doesn't just march uniformly through a region like New England, one river valley after the next. There are broad vectors of social change, of course, but even the most powerful of these may be redirected by local realities. Sometimes the course of events is altered as the result of a single devastating natural event, such as the hurricanes and hundred-year floods that hit Connecticut in August 1955. Sometimes it's simply an accident of timing.

In the Housatonic Valley, you can often see how the course of history has turned on the whim of a powerful individual. For instance, the nineteenth-century iron baron Alexander Lyman Holley is said to have decided to halt the spread of industry in his hometown of Salisbury because he didn't want to foul his own backyard. At the same time, the leaders of the Waterbury brass industry were able to devastate the Naugatuck Valley because there was no effective check on their power.

It will take decades, and hundreds of millions of dollars, for a river like the Naugatuck to recover from the kind of assault it suffered from heavy industry. But what's encouraging to me is the number of people who seem eager to take up the challenge. The scale of local activism in the Housatonic Valley shows how far we've come in the last thirty-five years, since the birth of the modern environmental movement. Most of the individuals I profile in the book — scientists, environmental advocates, historians, teachers, anglers — operate on two basic convictions. One is a belief in the principle of accountability: that we can no longer afford to let government or the private sector make decisions without informed public scrutiny. The second idea is that the decisions we make about our rivers have to be based on sound science, freely available to those who have a stake in the outcome — in other words, to all of us.

Q) That implies that The Trout Pool Paradox is intended to be something more than a work of local history. What do you see as the larger significance of the stories you tell in the book?

A) I always saw The Trout Pool Paradox as a way of thinking about four hundred years of American history. You could tell a similar story, I suppose, by looking at any continuously settled portion of the country — certainly of New England. But I'd make the case that this one little corner of Connecticut has an unusual amount to tell us about the development of modern American society. To a large extent that's a function of geography. Since the 1700s, three sets of powerful social forces have intersected in the Housatonic Valley: the innovative scientific and practical thinkers who came here from Yale, the literary and theological ideas emanating from Boston, and the social and mercantile elites of New York. I don't think it's stretching a point to say that the origins of the American Industrial Revolution can be traced directly to the Housatonic Valley, indeed, to a particular trout pool on the Naugatuck River, where an associate of Thomas Jefferson's created the country's first true factory city and in the process converted Jefferson to the idea of an industrial rather than an agrarian future.

You can also take this history as a window into human interaction with the rest of the "natural" world, and how this relationship has evolved over the same period. Again, part of the story comes from looking directly at the work of all the scientists and naturalists who have passed through the Housatonic Valley — people like Louis Agassiz, who confirmed the theory of glaciation through the study of Connecticut rocks. The colonists started off with a biblically determined view that human beings were here with a mandate to "subdue the earth." After that, we spent two hundred years trashing the natural environment in the name of economic growth while at the same time developing an idealized view of the "wilderness" we had left behind. And now we have the chance to develop a postindustrial world based on a more farsighted understanding of our relationship to the natural world.

Q) The second part of the book looks very closely at the natural life of these three rivers — especially the fish and the insects. You seem quite skeptical here about the extent to which our attempts to rectify our past environmental mistakes are still bogged down in the idealized notion of "nature" or "wilderness."

A) It's important to say right away that we've traveled light-years from where we were in terms of general awareness of what it takes to sustain a healthy ecosystem. The last thirty or forty years have been absolutely revolutionary, starting with the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in the early 1960s. But, yes, I do think we are still hampered by a tendency to think of nature as something "out there," separate from us. I find that I'm very wary of the rhetoric of "escape to the wilderness," in particular, with the accompanying idea that wilderness is something pure and untouched by humans. The reality is that every square inch of the country — especially in a small, heavily populated state like Connecticut — has been directly shaped by its encounters with human beings. It's good to recognize that organic relationship, I think, not least because it lays the basis for a more thoughtful and deeply rooted kind of environmental activism.

Q) The final part of the book describes the very bitter lawsuit between the towns of Washington and Waterbury over rights to the flow of the Shepaug River. Why did you see this as such a significant case?

A) For a number of different reasons, most obviously because of the legal precedent that the case would set. Everyone knew that the outcome of the Shepaug fight would have repercussions for dozens of other impaired rivers, not just in Connecticut but in other states, too. At the same time, both sides were prepared to spend huge amounts of money on litigation, so there was an unusual opportunity to witness what Ed Matthews, the leader of the Shepaug advocates, called "a fully fought case."

Here you had two communities, two competing political cultures, basically at war with each other over the meaning of running water. As a writer, I found that a compelling idea. And I found each community, each set of personalities, very compelling in its own way. The more I tried to understand their motives and the depth of their feelings, the more I realized how fundamentally the culture of each town had been shaped by the river that runs through it. Again, I thought this was not just a local story; it ought to resonate more broadly with anyone who has thought about what we do to rivers and what rivers do to us. And that, I suspect, means most people. Even the judge seemed to be grappling with enormous questions that went way beyond the confines of this particular case. I was very struck by something she said on the final day of the trial, when she asked how you could ever quantify all the things that constitute "riverness." I suppose that's the underlying question I was trying to get at in writing The Trout Pool Paradox.

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