June 2020 Update #6 Foreword
This will be the sixth update on my journey writing Torrents As Yet Unknown: Exploring Earth’s Great River Gorges – now a journey in strange times.
Shortly after my “western swing” research described in the last update, Torrents received a huge boost and vote of confidence. Sir Chris Bonington generously offered to write a foreword! Association with his lifetime of mountaineering achievements and many books will be powerful marketing, but, even more, I can’t wait to see what he makes of my gallery of expeditions and river rats.
In the moment:
The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book. –Samuel Johnson, lexicographer (1709-1784)
A peaceful winter in the Blue Ridge followed by the enforced isolation of the COVID pandemic has allowed a turn inward, to catching up on the stalagmites of books accumulating on my office floor, all promising new insights to enrich Torrents and clamoring for attention.
To date the list of source materials I’ve read/watched/listened to includes 54 books, films, articles, etc., and I have a huge backlog yet to go. Right now I’m working on Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind. Recent pleasures were David Roberts’ Limits of the Known, Geoff Powter’s Strange and Dangerous Dreams: The Fine Line between Adventure and Madness, and John McPhee’s Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process (I would most certainly have flunked his course at Princeton).
This lock down has also been good discipline for the hard part – actual writing. I now have a gratifying six chapters, of ten, in draft.
McPhee notes, encouragingly: First drafts are slow and develop clumsily because every sentence affects not only those before it but also those that follow. The first draft of my book on California geology took two gloomy years; the second, third, and forth drafts took about six months altogether. That four-to-one ratio in writing time – first draft versus the other drafts combined – has for me been consistent in projects of any length, even if the first draft takes only a few days or weeks. There are psychological differences from phase to phase, and the first is the phase of the pit and the pendulum. After that, it seems as if a different person is taking over. Dread largely disappears. Problems become less threatening, more interesting. Experience is more helpful, as if an amateur is being replaced by a professional. Days go by quickly and not a few could be called pleasant, I’ll admit.
For myself, however, I expect McPhee’s 4:1 ratio to be only the tip of an iceberg. When he produces a “final” draft, be it a book or an essay for the New Yorker, I’m sure it is a polished draft indeed, ready to sail right through the editorial, publication, and marketing phases. On my previous writing projects, it has consistently seemed that when at last I finish what I feel is my final draft – the very best I can do, ready to go out in public – I am in reality at the 50% mark. Yet to come are to-ing & fro-ing with the actual editors, perhaps additional research to please merciless fact checkers, dithering with illustrations, assembly of front & back material, etc.
And then, for books, there is marketing. For McPhee, I’m sure an ego-stroking, publisher-financed round of talks and book-signings. For the rest of us, cringe-worthy self-promotion, begging for reviews, self-funded rounds of bookstores, perhaps in this case river festivals, etc. So, 80% of 60% of 50% is 24%, and the party never ends.
The source material in Czech and interviews in the Czech Republic and Slovakia for my chapter on the first major hardboat expedition to the Himalayas, in 1973 on Everest, were hard enough, but I got by with help from good friends. I’m just launching into probably an even-bigger challenge. Not only is Tiger Leaping Gorge on the Yangtze River one of the most hellacious stretches of whitewater in the world, but it’s in China – and Chinese. We’ll see how that turns out. I’ve pasted below a teaser from my book proposal.
Meanwhile I’ve been staying sane by socially distancing in my little open canoe on the local Maury River. With well over 60 years of paddling on my knees and shoulders now, I call my newly discovered branch of the sport “creaking.”
Chapter 8: Tiger Leaping: The Deadly Race for the Yangtze
To enter the canyon is to commit to running it, to do or die. Shanghai never seemed so far away.
— Richard Bangs
Along with its annual floods and tons of sediment, the Yangtze River carries the soul of the ancient Chinese nation: its rice growing agriculture; its inland commerce; the merging currents of Buddha, Confucius, and Lao-Tsu; the still vivid epic of Mao’s Long March. Fifteen hundred miles downstream from its source in Tibet lies Tiger Leaping Gorge. For twelve miles sheer walls constrict, and thousands of cubic feet of water per second flow as from the nozzle of a fire hose. By legend a tiger fleeing hunters leapt to safety across the raging water.
By the mid-1980’s, as other great mountains were climbed and rivers run around the world, the Chinese saw their forbidden treasures appreciating in the eyes of ambitious western (and Japanese) adventurers. The asking price for a permit to run the Yangtze was a million dollars. Oregon rafting outfitter Ken Warren won the prized permit in 1986, with a proposal that included lavish backing by ABC’s American Sportsman television program.
But powerful currents of independence and national pride were roiling China’s youth and intellectuals, including a fervid insistence that Chinese must claim this “first.” That they had neither traditions nor training in river running became irrelevant; this was a matter of national honor, and no price was too high to pay. Chinese rafters launched well in advance of Warren, vowing to beat the “foreign devils” down their national river. As the rapids became bigger, they experimented with lashing rafts together to create bigger – but less manageable – vessels, and then with completely enclosed capsules with breathing apparatus, which could no more be controlled than a barrel over Niagara. One of the capsules was thrashed for a half hour in a monstrous hole, then ejected in pieces. None of the three occupants were recovered. Undeterred, the Chinese raced downstream and threw their capsules, and themselves, into Tiger Leaping Gorge, forcing runs on twenty-one major drops – but at the cost of even more lives.
Meanwhile, their feared pursuers were in fact grinding to a deadly, ignominious halt 300 miles to the rear, plagued by slow progress, poor leadership, and finally the death of photographer Scott Shipee from altitude sickness. The lavish American expedition was abandoned. Overall that summer, a dozen lives were lost, 11 Chinese and one American. Whitewater had never seen this degree of jingoistic, suicidal competition.