The Hudson River Valley is breathtaking in many places, and one thing she’s not is a virgin. From roadways originally designed for horse and foot traffic to the oily gravel of a small city’s waterfront, the layers of time and experience run deep hereabouts. Our river has taken a hearty share of star turns on the stage of American history, and seen all manner of greatness and treachery.
But who is she, really? Anyone seeking to understand this sophisticated, complex beauty needs to read Jessica DuLong’s My River Chronicles—and I speak as a lifelong Hudson Valley resident whose comprehension and love of her home were significantly deepened by this book.
The river reached out and pulled DuLong from a Manhattan dot-com job to the engine room of fireboat John J. Harvey. Her longing to take part in something hands-on and tangible is probably present, either consciously or as a psychic toothache of sorts, in every human being whose work world is ruled by technology. Too few, perhaps, heed that yen to get their hands dirty and their backs tired, but DuLong runs with that yearning, all the way to what feels less like a radical change of career than a blossoming of her true self.
Like the Hudson herself, DuLong is a woman of parts. She’s a thoughtful student of history, identifying and tracing a narrative less overworked than, say, military history: a people’s history of trade and communal existence from Manhattan to Albany and back. She’s a college-educated mechanic’s daughter who wound up in an almost overwhelmingly male universe, without ever slipping into an adversarial stance toward its male inhabitants. (The ones who don’t get it manage to make fools of themselves, but her actual colleagues are happy to have her pick up her share of the load, which she does with spirit.) She’s an astute observer of quirks, human or mechanical, and a lot of fun to go boating with; her prose is warm, direct, and drily hilarious.
One of DuLong’s early fireboat experiences happened to be September 11, 2001, when the retired John J. Harvey was called upon to serve the rescuers. With the ability to pump water straight out of the river, the decades-old technology proved functional when newer systems failed—an interesting analogy to the quaint notion that a healthy economy requires the making of actual, useful products.
But DuLong is far from some curmudgeonly Luddite yearning for yesteryear, even if she has a healthy loathing for planned obsolescence. She speaks eloquently for the honor of making and building and producing things, seeing the rough poetry inherent in river towns where bricks and blocks of river ice fed families for generations, and the sprouting shoots of hope in an engineering camp for girls, a repurposed brickyard, and the reality that a single tugboat with barges can move as much stuff downriver as 900 trucks. Not least, in the thrilled face of a child with a hand on the tiller.
Anyone who’s ever been around boats or historic preservation knows that a passion for either is endlessly expensive, time-consuming, and so vulnerable to the workings of Murphy’s Law that only the most committed souls keep at it. This book includes a great deal of subtle wisdom about why people do, and why it really does matter. Purchasing My River Chronicles through the John J. Harvey Restoration Project’s website, www.fireboat.org, helps to support the 1931 boat’s restoration.
- Simon and Schuster, 2009, $26