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  • Writer's pictureRachel Clark

Seeing the Snake River Across Time: Dennis Dehart’s Wawawai Photographs

There are no unsacred places;

there are only sacred places

and desecrated places.

- Wendell Berry

The first time I saw Dennis Dehart’s Wawawai photographs, I was thrown back in time.

If you’ve been to a place and later see its magic in a photograph, the mind reels up memories of lived experience. In this case, the last time I’d been to this site was to celebrate my son’s 17th birthday and his impending independence. I’d stood back and watched him fly his drone, filming this place – lofty and high above the valley and reservoir – and sensing his flight from home, soon to come. Everything awash in the distinctive light of this place. Light caught so beautifully in these photographs.

Dehart’s photographs gave me several gifts and this was the first one: Recalling a significant rite of passage for mother and son.

Then as I peered at his photographs, something arose that darkened this light another rite of passage, though one of great and unnatural loss, recently inflicted upon Earth’s living rivers by colonization. As I let my soul walk into these photographs, and what they meant, the ecologist inside me was saddened. Having spent years studying the impacts of human culture on the natural world, the photographs told me rivers of stories of what the Snake has lost, how it has changed, and what it has seen from the time of its freedom, until now.

Dam upon dam, lake upon lake. Binding the beating heart of a river thousands of years in the making. Overnight. This one site, only one of a long series of suffocations.

But seeing the old photographs, the juxtaposition of then and now, I could see, too, across time. To the muddy, flooded banks of the Snake’s unbound floodplain; to a healthy, dancing ecosystem

burgeoning with a bounty of life.

This, another gift of his photos: a reminder of the unbound heart of a river.

And, along with it, a reminder of recklessness – the fraying of life’s web – for an erroneous narrative that has too often removed harmony from human progress.

The real gift of these photographs is the way they limn what’s possible by marking what’s past.

Beholding them I recall standing beneath the boundless blue Idaho sky, the basalt cliffs and canyon holding the beat in my chest. I see the dams blocking the wild heart of this one, singular river: The dams no match for the river’s dark, hidden glory of life, waiting patiently to fly.

These photos are a portal: they show us the radiance of what’s possible from now, into the future, by looking into the dark light of the past.

Rachel Clark is a contributing writer at EcoArts on the Palouse.

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