by Genevieve Williams
Learn about the history of Seattle’s Duwamish river, which helped inspire Genevieve Williams’ latest story for Asimov’s, “Woman of the River.” Read it in our January/February issue, on sale now!
Four years ago at a bardic contest, my friend Jim wrote a poem about the river. What river? Any river, and all rivers, though references to a heron on the shore and the life cycle of salmon situate the poem in the Pacific Northwest where we both live. “A river is a verb,” the poem concludes, with certain implications for life, the flow of time, and grammar.
For me, the river of Jim’s poem was the Duwamish, which takes its name from the people who historically—and also today—live within its watershed, and from whose chief at the time of white settlement the city of Seattle takes its name. The river used to wind back and forth across the wide valley between West Seattle, where I live, and Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. Colonization, industrialization, and World War II turned it into a straight and narrow waterway, while two of its three tributaries disappeared; one redirected, the other vanished due to the creation of the Lake Washington Ship Canal, halfway across town. Despite all this, it’s still an active salmon run.
When I moved to West Seattle in the late nineties, I knew none of this. Like many newcomers, I didn’t even know that Seattle had a river; despite which, without the river, Seattle as we know it would not exist. The first I knew of the river and its history came in the form of a mailed bulletin from the Environmental Protection Agency, alerting area residents that two proposals had been advanced to clean up industrial pollution. This included PCBs released into the soil and water during Boeing’s wartime manufacturing for World War II. The river, in a city that prides itself on its environmentalism, is one of the most polluted Superfund sites in the United States. As portals into Seattle history go, it’s a rather ignominious one.
“Map of Seattle showing the former course of the Duwamish River, 1908. Source: US Geological Survey.”
Some years later I came across a map of Seattle from 1908 in the collection of the library where I work. That further fed my curiosity about the Duwamish River and its history; the obviously artificial, hard-angled channel on Google Maps was here represented by broad, curving meanders that shaped the settlements around them, rather than vice versa. Mid-pandemic, B.J. Cummings, a founder of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition to which I had by then devoted quite a few volunteer hours—mostly removing blackberries and ivy, and planting trees in the forest upslope from the river—published the book The River That Made Seattle. Reading it filled in the gaps between the two images for me. The book details not only what has happened to the Duwamish River since the Collins and Denny Parties arrived in 1851, but the ongoing community-led efforts to guide the river toward a healthier future.
Disconnection looms large in the last 150 years-plus of the Duwamish River’s history—disconnection from its environment, from its surrounding communities, even from parts of itself. When I began developing an idea for a story set on the river, I was reminded of John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer,” a longtime staple of American high school English classes. What I’d always liked about that story—what, for me, edged it just slightly into the speculative realm—was the passage of time within it, such that the healthy and robust Neddy Merrill sets out on a midsummer afternoon, only to arrive at home on an autumn night as an old man, despite only having perceived a few short hours as having passed. Not that Cheever intended the reader to conclude that literal time travel has taken place; there’s a lot more going on in “The Swimmer,” and if you haven’t read it, I’ll leave you to discover those layers and complexities for yourself.
But the other thing that particularly strikes me about “The Swimmer,” supporting its theme of disconnection, is the suggestion that a real river once flowed through what is now Neddy’s suburban neighborhood. Much as Longfellow Creek, a stream in West Seattle that feeds the Duwamish River, runs underneath streets, housing developments, and a shopping center for one third of its length, and enters the river via a drainage pipe. (Despite this, salmon began returning to the creek as soon as barriers and pollution were removed—a hopeful sign for a species widely threatened by both.) In “The Swimmer,” the river has fragmented into dozens of swimming pools, each isolated from one another. Instead, the closest thing that Neddy encounters to an actual river is a multi-lane roadway speeding with traffic, which he struggles to cross with as much difficulty as one might swim the Mississippi. Neddy’s too well off to live in the kind of housing development given a milquetoast name for the landscape it replaced, but the implication is there.
The Duwamish River has likewise been disconnected—but the disconnection is not complete, and is to some degree repairable. Not by returning it to how it was almost two hundred years ago—or at least, that wasn’t the story I chose to tell. Even now, the river is a multi-modal place, from shoreline parks to salmon fishing to recreational boating to commercial shipping traffic. The Duwamish Longhouse overlooks the one stretch of the river left mostly unaltered by decades of industrial transformation; the area is now a wildlife refuge. The river’s future envisioned in my story is drawn from futures envisioned for it today by the communities who live and work along it, though the reality will in all likelihood look somewhat different. Restoration in this context is not about winding back time to a pre-colonial past, but about what reciprocity for an extractive way of life that currently fails to account for its own externalities might look like.
“Woman of the River” is a story that, like “The Swimmer”, moves forward in time, compassing multiple generations in a single journey—much as the life cycle of the salmon does. The life cycle of the salmon is at the heart of my friend’s poem, and an indicator of the health of the ecosystem in which they and we reside. Late in “Woman of the River” there’s a moment where one of the characters, riding downstream in her family’s boat, could reach out and touch one of the salmon, there are so many of them. Whatever the Duwamish River’s future looks like, I hope that’s part of it.