Goodbye to a River
by John Graves
During the fall of 1957, Texas writer John Graves spent three weeks canoeing on the Brazos River - alone except for his dachshund puppy. The Fort Worth writer wanted to make one last trip on the wild and scenic river, which was to be changed forever after up to 13 dams created lakes. Graves later published Goodbye to a River, an account of his journey from Possum Kingdom Lake in Palo Pinto County to near Glen Rose in Somerville County.
On the 50th anniversary of Graves' trip, five UNT students and three faculty members recreated the 41-mile journey by canoe. The students - three from ENGL 3160, Introduction to Creative Non-Fiction, and two from BIOL 5040, Contemporary Topics in Environmental Science and Ecology - traveled Oct. 17-21. They were accompanied by Earl Zimmerman, UNT professor of biological sciences; Jim Kennedy, professor of biological sciences and instructor of BIOL 5040; and David Taylor, lecturer in the Department of English and instructor of ENGL 3160.
All of the students read Goodbye to a River before they began the trip, and kept personal journals with their impressions of the Brazos. The students also collected aquatic insects to gauge the health of the river and contrasted it with what Graves noted in his book.
"The idea behind the trip is for students to find a connection between their disciplines," Taylor says. "We could paddle the river just with a class of English majors, but we would find fewer connections to it because we wouldn't understand it in a scientific and ecological way."
Kennedy says he wanted his students involved in the trip because of the "historical aspect of conservation" in Graves' book, which includes numerous stories about the history and settlement of the area around the Brazos and of North Central Texas.
"It's an opportunity for ecology students to get a humanities perspective of the river," Kennedy says.
After returning to UNT, the students began creating a Power Point presentation to tell others about their journey. They are scheduled to give the presentation in February at Texas State University in San Marcos, which has chosen Goodbye to a River as its required summer reading for incoming freshmen. Taylor says he hopes the students will be invited to give other presentations, showing faculty members and students at other universities what can be accomplished with interdisciplinary class projects.
"One of the mandates of UNT's new academic plan is the creation of interdisciplinary classes and projects. This trip, collection and writing will be one of the best examples of an interdisciplinary project at UNT to date," he says.
Taylor says he first read Goodbye to a River, which Graves published in 1960, as a UNT student in the mid 1980s. At that time, he says, UNT's Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies was starting its master of arts in philosophy degree with a concentration in environmental ethics. The program was directed by former faculty member Max Oelschlaeger.
"He got me into reading about the environment and thinking about it, and I realized I could write about it," says Taylor, who is the editor of Pride of Place: A Contemporary Anthology of Texas Nature Writing. The book, published last year, includes 14 essays on Texas' various regions - all connected to each other by expressions of pride for the state.
Taylor says he was fortunate to have Graves, now in his 80s and living in Glen Rose, as a contributor to Pride of Place.
"He is one of Texas' best known writers and has written for ‘Texas Monthly,'" he says.
The success of Goodbye to a River, he says, is often cited as a major reason that most of the 13 proposed dams on the Brazos were never built. The ones that were built created Lake Whitney and Lake Granbury.
Senior English major Derek Bradford says that although he's been fascinated with nature writing and natural history writing since he was young, he had never read Goodbye to a River before this semester.
"I've enjoyed a lot of aspects of it. The narrative seems to take you on a slow and winding path, at a moderate pace, just like Graves' trip down the river," he says. "The book allows readers to observe Graves' surroundings with him, and the historical aspects give a way for readers to discern their own thoughts on what nature means to Graves as well as themselves."
Bradford says he had never experienced the Brazos before, or even canoed before, but he still wanted to go on the trip "to find out how I would relate myself to nature at this point in my life, and how I could take how it affects me and properly relate those ideas to my peers."
"The trip was as much of a physical challenge as it was a mental one," Bradford says.
UNT News Service Press Release
Nancy Kolsti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.