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In ‘The River You Touch’ Dombrowski Explores the Wonders and Challenges of Life’s Waterways

The Whitefish Review is hosting a reading from Chris Dombrowski on Nov. 18

By Mike Kordenbrock
Book cover of “The River You Touch: Making a Life on Moving Water” by author Chris Dombrowski.

Over the roughly five years Chris Dombrowski spent writing his new memoir “The River You Touch: Making A Life on Moving Water” he relied in part on a series of journals that he kept over the course of 15 years.

Dombrowski, a writer and University of Montana professor who has published books of poetry and nonfiction and accrued decades of experience as a fishing guide, explained that years ago he let go of his journaling habit after realizing that he was listening to himself as he wrote, resulting in entries that prioritized compositional form over the kind of uninhibited expression he sees as one of the values of keeping a written record of thoughts and experiences.

Much time had passed since Dombrowski had reviewed some of the journals, but in going through their pages he came upon images, memories and ideas that have weathered the passage of time. Dombrowski compared them to what the author Dave Duncan calls “river teeth,” heavy knots of wood, once part of something larger, like a branch, that have formed in the face of the erosion that comes with prolonged exposure to water.

“Duncan calls those river teeth, and basically says that’s what happens in life. An event happens, right? Most of what happens around that event is lost to time, but something remains, and that thing is what he calls a river tooth,” Dombrowski said in a recent interview with the Beacon. “I found those over and over in my journals, and essentially would work to recreate through memoir the events that led up to those moments.”

Author Chris Dombrowski. Photo by Erik Petersen

What Dombrowski recreates and explores with “The River You Touch” is wide ranging at times, but the pieces are all connected in some way with Dombrowski’s exploration of wonder, and the things that challenge it, that progresses throughout the book. “The River You Touch” was originally envisioned as an essay collection, but Dombrowski came to favor a longform creative nonfiction approach after realizing that there were too many “connecting threads” for a book of essays.

“The thing that kept badgering me over and over was this persistent sense that I was losing faith in the world around me. I kept seeing reasons for that faith to be reignited in our children. That’s kind of how I began with that notion about the nature of wonder. I wanted to examine what is wonder, and also how do we as adults so readily lose it when it seems so easily attained by our children,” Dombrowski said. “If we lose that sense of being shocked, and brought to our knees with awe at the beauty of a place or of a wild creature, we would probably lose the impulse to fall in love with it, and if we lose that we definitely lose the impulse to protect it, and then we’re left with nothing.”

In the early pages of the book Dombrowski pauses on a guiding trip to listen to the sound of a river.

“While I’m stimulated to no apparent end by the sight of rivers, it is their audible reverberations that strike the deepest chord,” he writes. “This must be what a monk feels when he hears the temple bell ring, I thought this is the note the earth is ever sounding, calling me back to my wildest name.”

The book is subdivided into three parts, and in each part a portion of the narrative is devoted to the birth of each one of Dombrowski’s three children and the challenges and joys that he and his wife Mary have faced as parents. It’s not something that he planned going into writing the book, but it’s what took shape through the writing and revision process. He began to think of the three parts of the book as three distinct rivers reminiscent of the watershed around Missoula.

“In that sense, a river is a certain size until another tributary feeds it. And then it becomes bigger, has more complications, more and more volume, more energy.”

Remembrances of old friends, like the writer Jim Harrison, or the Missoula backcountry skier Chris Spurgeon who died in 2010 after he was caught in a June avalanche on Lolo Peak, share the book with descriptions of the hatching cycles of stoneflies, thoughts on the behavior of fish, the influence of prehistoric oceans and glaciers upon Montana’s geography, and the beauty and the violence of hunting.

Elsewhere Dombrowski explores the early days of his relationship with his wife Mary, their difficult but rewarding path to parenthood, and the anxieties of an artist trying to negotiate a relationship between commitment to their work and the financial realities of being a parent helping to support a family.

In one chapter, as Dombrowski contemplates taking an insurance sales job to improve his family’s financial situation, he drives through the town of Ovando and observes a Peruvian hairless dog wearing a crocheted pink sweater as it shivers in front of the post office. As the dog recedes in his rearview mirror, Dombrowski thinks of “how easily you can end up in with a life that doesn’t faintly resemble the one you envisioned for yourself.”

Portions of the book are also dedicated to the nature of rivers, ruminations on home, reflections on Montana’s violent colonial history, Copper King corruption, fears of environmental destruction and waste, the specter of mental health issues, family histories and relationships, and depictions of communities built around tables of carefully prepared elk, pheasant, trout, and venison.

“A book is a wind that blows through your life,” Dombrowski writes. “Sometimes that wind is powerful enough to dishevel everything it contacts. Sometimes it coasts through, altering very little. Sometimes you want to reexperience a once-felt gust or breeze but the variables have changed and thus the effect, though still elemental, is altogether different than expected.”

 The Whitefish Review is suggesting a $10 entry donation for Chris Dombrowski’s Nov. 18 reading at Casey’s in downtown Whitefish at 101 Central Ave. The event is scheduled to go from 6:30 p.m. until 9:30 p.m. “The River You Touch” was published by Milkweed Editions in October.

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