by Henry W. Clune
News came, at the end of February, 1988, that American Rivers, the "principal river-saving organization in the country," has put our Genesee River on its endangered list because of the aesthetic and environment threat of two proposed dam projects.
The announcement came as the Syracuse University Press was reissuing The Genesee by Henry W. Clune, on the silver anniversary of its publication in the Rivers of America series. Clune's joins volumes by Walter D. Edmonds and others in a new series of New York Classics. There's more than one way to "save" a river and Clune's book does it with elan in a literary way.
A love letter to the river and its people, the book is, by turns, forceful, amusing and amused. It is rich in contemporary and historical experience reported by an author whose 60 years of "Seen and Heard" columns in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle developed a large and loyal readership and whose novels and memoirs honed skills that give The Genesee its special flavor.
But above all it's the work of a native son. As Clune observes early in the book, "I had lived for a total of sixty years never farther than three-quarters of a mile from the channel of the Genesee;…I had paddled a canoe on its waters and swum in them in the summer; skated on its ice, picked chestnuts along its banks, more or less found my wife [a championship swimmer on an exhibition tour] in it…"
Clune introduces us to the river on one of its springtime rampages, a time during which it remains seductive even while flooding out its loyalists. The Iroquois, who named so many sites in the Genesee basin, called it "the beautiful valley." The Senecas, aggressive keepers of the western door of the Longhouse of the Five Nations, found their own heartland in the rich soil and abundant forests of the valley long before French missionaries and soldiers "discovered" it in the seventeenth century.
French, British, and American incursions are the subjects of exciting and revealing tales of the Marquis de Denonville, the Jesuit Rene Fremin, the Indian captive Mary Jemison ("the white woman of the Genesee"), Ebenezer ("Indian") Allan, Moses Van Campen, Horatio Jones, and many others whose lives were intimately entwined with the Genesee. Historical facts about these and other colorful lives are insinuated into the leisurely yet forceful narrative as subtly as the Honeoye, Canaseraga, Oatka, and two Black Creeks contribute run-off from the river's basin.
As the Genesee is added to a national list of endangered rivers, it is reassuring to have Clune's splendid evocation of its geography and its people once more conveniently available. Watch for it.
© 1992, Robert G. Koch