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The Magpie River in eastern Quebec is also known in Innu as (among other names) the Mutehekau Shipu – meaning ‘the river where the water passes between square rocky cliffs.’ROBERT MACFARLANE

Robert Macfarlane’s books include Underland: A Deep Time Journey and the forthcoming Is a River Alive? He is the inaugural winner of the Weston International Award, a prize recognizing career achievement in non-fiction, which is administered by the Writers’ Trust of Canada.

Rivers run through people as surely as they run through places. Earlier this month I travelled to eastern Quebec in order to follow the course of a river known in English as the Magpie, and in Innu as (among other names) the Mutehekau Shipu – meaning “the river where the water passes between square rocky cliffs.” Over 10 days we paddled, swam and portaged around 140 kilometres, from the northern tip of the vast lake which feeds the river’s lower half, down to its silver-green sea-mouth on the Côte-Nord of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Along the way, we camped by rapids which gauzed water and sun into day-long rainbows, suffered the sanguineous attentions of blackflies, and always, always listened to the sleepless river’s songs and stories. It was among the most challenging, intense and surprising journeys I have ever made – and I know now that this river will flow through my imagination for years to come.

I was drawn to the Mutehekau Shipu because in February, 2021, it became the first Canadian river to be recognized as a “legal person” and “living entity,” and as the bearer of fundamental rights – including the right to flow, the right to be free from pollution, and even the right to take legal action. These groundbreaking recognitions were declared in a beautiful joint resolution issued by the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit (through whose homeland, Nitassinan, the river flows) and the Minganie Regional Council Municipality. In Ekuanitshit itself, before and after the river journey, I spent time with the poet and community leader Rita Mestokosho. Rita writes in Innu and French – and her work is astonishing. I urge you to seek out her latest collection, Atiku utei/Le Coeur du Caribou, through the poems of which rivers course and forests grow.

My journey along the Mutehekau Shipu, and the interviews I carried out in the area, constituted the last sustained period of fieldwork for a book called Is A River Alive?, which I’ve been writing for two years now – and the research for which has taken me also to Ecuador and southern India, as well as along the broken rivers of my own country, England. The book concerns the lives and deaths of rivers, and the revolutionary global Rights of Nature movement, which argues for the need to recognize the legal personhood and fundamental rights of rivers, forests, mountains and even oceans.

I suppose one would describe Is A River Alive? as a work of “non-fiction,” but I have never really understood the use of this term, which grates on my ear. Why do we define this form of literature negatively, reductively, for what it is not?

To me as a reader, “non-fiction” is possibility, multiplicity, versatility, invention. It can be subtle as water and sharp as obsidian. “Non-fiction” opens a space in which the obdurate responsibilities of fact can keep company with the shimmer of prose-poetry, and where historical stories might braid with the bright specificities of human and other-than-human encounters. “Non-fiction” can possess plot, characters, dialogue, tempo and suspense, just as the novel does. It can span the immensities of geological time, or engrave upon the “two inches wide of Ivory” to which Jane Austen compared her novels’ gauge.

In German, the term for “non-fiction” is differently bad: the curt, barked Sachbuch (”fact-book”). To me the term conjures an image of both reader and writer struggling under the weight of data-filled sacks. But facts are found and fashioned in many forms. In their books, for instance, Bruce Chatwin and W.G. Sebald both set facts vibrating with such intensity that it is hard to discern them either as mirages or as fixities because – in a sort of literary wave-particle quantum duality – they are always, somehow, both and either.

As a writer, my own journey into non-fiction began in Canada. Though it was more than a quarter-century ago, I still clearly remember the hour my life changed. I was 21 years old and in downtown Vancouver, prior to hiking the West Coast Trail. A man rollerbladed past me, wearing only swimming trunks, sunglasses and a live python coiled around his neck; I knew I wasn’t in Cambridge any more. I pushed open the door to a bookstore, MacLeod’s, and found there a book called Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. I’d heard of neither book nor author, but for some reason – perhaps the glittering iceberg on the cover? – I bought it, and read it on the trail. This was the book that made me a writer. Its combination of natural science, anthropology, reportage, travelogue and lyrical prose-poetry seemed lawless and thrilling. Its gyres from the phenomenal to the philosophical showed me that metaphysics arose from primary encounter, as a river makes mist. And it taught me that while place-writing often begins in the aesthetic, it must always tend to the ethical.

An hour spent reading is an hour spent learning to write. Although Is A River Alive? will be my 10th book, I still have a “go-to” shelf of books close to my writing desk, which I reach for when in need of inspiration or guidance. On that shelf are books which exemplify the vitality and range of “non-fiction”: Among them is Arctic Dreams, of course; also Nan Shepherd’s slender praise-song to the Cairngorm hills of Scotland, The Living Mountain; Chatwin’s In Patagonia, which shattered the travelogue into 99 glittering mosaic pieces; Lauret Savoy’s Trace, about geology, memory and race; Robin Wall Kimmerer’s pioneering Braiding Sweetgrass, with its weave of botanical science and Indigenous ecological knowledge; and the essays of the young Indian naturalist and activist, Yuvan Aves.

All these exceptional books are born of first-hand experiences with people, landscapes and the living world. It’s long been my belief that putting oneself in the way of remarkable places and their inhabitants is the only means of making the books I wish to write. While descending the Mutehekau Shipu, and spending time with Rita, I reflected now and then on the future of “non-fiction” in the age of ChatGPT. I concluded that future to be robust. Can AI confect a Sachbuch? Sure – if that Sachbuch is a thrice-masticated pabulum of secondary sources, scoured of intricacy and contingency. Can AI try to “think like a mountain,” to borrow Aldo Leopold’s phrase? A rhetorical question. I want to read and write work that is not synthetic but synesthetic; that thrives on the volatilities of encounters, weather and time; that deep-maps the complex, shifting contours of its subjects across both time and space. The traditions of writing which inspire me and to which I wish to contribute, have always been at heart a human art.

In this year’s posthumously published The Syntax of the River, Barry Lopez spoke of what is missed when we imagine a river purely instrumentally: for its units of flow or its hydroelectric potential. “The river is not a thing,” he said, “it is an expression of biological life in dynamic relation with everything around it – the salmon within, the violet-green swallow swooping its surface, alder twigs floating its current, a mountain lion sipping its bank water, the configurations of basalt that break its flow and give it timbre and tone.” And, I would add, the people whose lives are continuous with the river’s own. This – a powerfully alive and enlivening presence – is the river I met a fortnight ago in eastern Quebec, and this is the river I hope will flow through the pages of the book I am writing. River as inspiration, yes, but also more than this – river as collaborator, river as co-author.

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The Magpie River / Mutehekau Shipu photographed by author Robert MacfarlaneROBERT MACFARLANE

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