“River Voices,” it seems to me, might well have been subtitled Perspectives from (rather than ‘on’) the Presumpscot. “On” implies a detached objectivity, but many of the essays in this collection arise passionately “from” the river itself. In 15 chapters, some 30 individuals (mostly writers, plus a number of artists, all with strong emotional ties to the river) describe or picture it in light of their own experiences. “(C)ollectively (they) contribute to a larger chorus of the river itself,” write the compilers William Plumley and Robert Sanford. The results are uneven.

Plumley is a marketing strategist for a digital marketing company in Westbrook. Sanford is a professor of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of Southern Maine and author of “Reading Rural Landscapes: A Field Guide to New England’s Past.” Both have been deeply involved with the Friends of the Presumpscot River, under whose aegis “River Voices” was conceived and written.

This dynamic grassroots group was founded in 1992 by citizens concerned about the environmental damage a proposed paper de-inking/recycling plant with a million-gallon-a-day wastewater treatment facility might do to the river. Its nearly 30-year history is energetically told first by Dusti Faucher, then by Sandra Cort, and it is an impressive one. Starting with “no expertise in participating in an intensive, highly legalistic federal process,” one campaign ended in a victory against Sappi (the successor to the S.D. Warren Paper Company, locally known in Westbrook as Mother Warren) before the U.S. Supreme Court. (That it was a 9-0 decision seems almost incredible today.)

Perhaps the price of gaining that expertise was the alphabet soup of acronyms that by the end of Cort’s chapter left me cross-eyed; as did sentences like, “All parties agreed to a process for the financing of mid-course channel-sculpting changes and post-testing changes and set up a detailed and comprehensive post-construction, post-surrender effectiveness-testing program.”

The Presumpscot itself may be small (25 miles long), but it is a fountain of opportunities for scientific, historical and literary exploration. “River Voices” starts with a useful primer on its geology by USM professor emeritus Irwin Novack. Then comes a fascinating “Ethnohistory of the Presumpscot Wabanakis” by Alvin Hamblin Morrison, another emeritus professor (anthropology, SUNY Fredonia), who was a researcher for two Indian land claims settlements.

At the time of the Revolutionary War, there were 300-plus “Quakers along the Presumpscot.” Contributor Wayne Cobb, who lives on what was once called Quaker Lane, tracks them down by focusing on the descendants of James Winslow (1687-1773). According to Osher Map Library director Libby Bischof, the “Golden Age of the Post Card” lasted from 1907 to 1915. Millions were printed, and the Presumpscot had its share, a handsome handful reproduced here. In condensing his book, “The Gunpowder Mills of Maine,” for this publication, USM chemistry professor emeritus Maurice Whitten leaves the reader missing the forest for the trees. Every explosion is documented, but I would like to know how a gunpowder mill actually worked. His list of archeological sites, however, will help the aficionado.

Another USM faculty member, Lisa Hibl, finds only a few poets recognizably inspired by the Presumpscot, and one of them, John Greenleaf Whittier in “The Funeral Tree of the Sokokis,” misidentifies it as the Saco. However, after a rather self-indulgent wander around Mill Brook, Hibl allows Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “To the River Charles” to stand in as a surrogate. It “trades on a signal feature of the river that we see writers probing along more local banks: the river-as-spiritual-guide and comforter.”

The oldest of the Presumpscot’s issues is the presence, then disappearance, of its diadromous fishes (salmon, shad, alewives, etc.) due to the dams that bar their migration. Biologists Ciaran Shaughnessy and Daniel Hall provide a comprehensive field guide to the fish that occur in the river as well as those that will hopefully return some day. Zip Kellogg, famous for paddling his canoe standing (in a tuxedo) in the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race, gives cheery advice on paddling the Presumpscot and some reasons why it can be as much fun as the Allagash.

“River Voices” has two notable omissions. A general map of the Presumpscot watershed should have been a sine qua non. More substantively, the history of lumbering and papermaking on the river deserves coordinated discussion as an historical thread, not just as a given in discussions about the effects of dams and mills. For all that, “River Voices” contains wonderful material for anyone who loves the Presumpscot. Every river should have a similar tome.

Thomas Urquhart’s new book, “Up for Grabs! Timber Pirates, Lumber Barons and the Battles Over Maine’s Public Lands,” will be published in early June.


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