August 15, 2010


Tim Palmer talks about his photography, his passion for rivers, why they are so important, the issues they face, and more....

Q. Given the economic, social, and environmental crises that California now faces, why do you believe that rivers are so important?

A: Everything that lives needs water, and rivers are the water supply of the world. Beyond that, problems of water supply, water quality, and flooding induced by climate change are among the most serious of the crises that we face—or will shortly face—and each of these problems relates directly to rivers. And beyond all of that, rivers are much more than our sources of water; they are essential to our fisheries, centerpieces to our communities, necessary for recreation, and among the most beautiful natural features of our state.

Q. To pursue that just a bit further, I get the notion here that you believe rivers are—if you pardon the expression—the center of the universe. Obviously you think they are more than just water running downhill. Am I correct?

A: Yes. Rivers symbolize life as well as support it directly. They are our lifelines, both figuratively and literally.

Q. Rivers of California puts these waterways up front-and-center as a highlight of the landscape. Yet a lot of people would think of something else—say, beaches, the city f San Francisco, Central Valley farmland, or the redwoods—when they think of California. Have our rivers been a “poor cousin,” so to speak, when people think about our state?

A. Perhaps so. It’s important to realize that the other landscapes you mention are closely linked to rivers. For example, much of the sand on those beaches wouldn’t be there if it hadn’t been washed downstream by rivers. San Francisco gets its drinking water from the Tuolumne River. Valuable farmland exists not only because of water delivered by rivers but also because of soil that was transported by rivers ages ago. And the redwoods grow best on the floodplains of our big northern rivers flowing out to sea along the North Coast. Rivers are central to our landscape and our existence in many ways, and my book seeks to celebrate that fact and to make our dependence on rivers—healthy rivers—better known.

Q. But your book is mainly about beauty, isn’t it?

A. The pictures are, yes. That’s because the rivers are incomparably beautiful. We may know that we need rivers. But I focus on the beauty because I think this is one of the big reasons that people love rivers. Let me also say that, though beautiful photos are the main attraction in this book, the text discusses how rivers work, some interesting details of their natural history and their problems in some depth. It’s important to know about rivers and their issues, yet I don’t think many people want a book that puts the problems in their face constantly.

Q. And you certainly don’t. The cover photo here is absolutely amazing: it shows a stream of whitewater ending with a big wave, like at the ocean, and then a distant landscape of pine trees and rocky cliffs far below. It’s not the kind of photo I would expect on a cover. What’s really happening there, and how did you get that shot?

A. The picture you’re talking about is the top of Glen Aulin Falls on the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park. I took the photo right there at the brink of the falls, in very high water when all that snowmelt was just blasting downstream. The river mounded up in that wave and perched there before it plunged to the base of the waterfall. I managed to balance myself on a rock just off the shoreline and capture the scene as the sun backlit that big wave. It was a real thrill just being there, and also getting the photo. I wish everyone could see it for real.

Q. I was fascinated by the opening scene of your text—when you leapt off a rock and into the American River. You could have started the book in many ways; why this?

A. I like the idea and the reality of total immersion. What better way to begin a discussion of California rivers than to jump in and see what happens.

Q. In your introduction, you talk about searching out the beginnings of rivers, and also going to their ends at the ocean, and then about following the route of the water the entire way, from top to bottom. How did you actually go about exploring these places, and how did you choose where to go among tens of thousands of stream miles in California?

A. I’ve been exploring, photographing, and writing about California rivers for several decades. So I knew a lot of great places to go. I also systematically selected the most important streams. I canoed or rafted on the best rivers for paddling and rowing. I particularly liked doing long river trips that enabled me to see as much of the river as possible. And sometimes I felt inexplicably drawn to places where I ended up getting great photos through no conceivable credit to myself. Mainly, I recognized that to get good pictures you have to do three things: be there, be there, and be there.

Q. You were obviously OUT THERE in all kinds of places and situations, sometimes in extremely remote areas. I mean, just thumbing through this book I can tell that you were all over the map, in all times of the year. Was your life ever in danger while working on this book?

A. Yes, driving through Anaheim on my way to the Santa Ana River! No, seriously, I’ve had some close calls on rivers but not while working on this book. I think maybe the worst situation was when I skied into the headwaters of the Mokelumne in March, and my stove quit running the first night at camp. The river turned out to be all frozen. Eating snow is not a good solution. There was no wood for burning. You can dehydrate and die from stove failure when you’re winter camping. But I made it out okay. Actually, the closest I came to getting knocked off was along the Smith River, when I was biking back to my van after canoeing for a day. A log truck almost ran me over.

Q. When people think about rivers and recreation, I think that some of us immediately picture dangerous whitewater—maybe we just see those images too much in ads and movies. Yet your pictures show all kinds of rivers. How did you find such variety?

A. Simple; just go everywhere and keep your eyes open! No, really, I worked hard at the variety you see in this book. I sought out rivers of every type, in every region of the state—rainforest to desert. I climbed up nearly vertical waterfalls and I floated for days on water as flat as glass. I went out in all seasons, and, as far as I’m concerned, the worse the weather, the better. I like the stormy look along with the California sunshine. I like really rugged and wild mountain canyons, and I like quiet streams through farm country as well.

Q. Speak of sunshine, the light in these photos is extraordinary—the golds, the blues, the silvers, the shadows, the colors that have no names. Did you doctor these up—“color correction,” as they say—on your computer after you took the pictures?

A. Absolutely not. I still shoot film. And I do not alter a thing after I take the photos. What I saw is what you get. That doesn’t mean that I’m not out there looking for the most beautiful scene I can find—I am. And I do most of my shooting early or late in the day when the sun is low, the colors warm, the shadows long, the impressions vivid, sharp, and alive.

Q. “Alive,” yes. The photos don’t just sit there. They have a decidedly active feel to them. How do you get that?

A. Thank you. I want to show not just what nature is, but what nature does. Rather than setting-up still-life photos, elegant as they might be, I try to capture what is happening out there in the natural world: the movement of clouds, the wind in the trees, the warming intensity of the sun just after it pops up on the eastern horizon, and, of course, always the flow of water—fast, slow, bubbling, reflecting, whatever. 

Q. Some people are writers and some are photographers, but it’s usually one or the other. How do you manage to do both, and how do you compare these two art forms?

A. It’s difficult to do both, mainly because it takes so much time. And while the two practices are extremely different, and the alternate skills call on people with contrasting talents, I find the challenge of the mix to be wonderful. The writer in me wants to explain; the photographer in me wants to show. I love to do both.

Q. On the back jacket here, Tom Knudson of the Sacramento Bee says that you look at California’s rivers with “an artist’s eye.” What, specifically, do you look for when you are out with your camera?

A. I look for what pleases me and brings me joy. I look for motion and for scenes that show the magnificent workings of nature. I look for gorgeous light. I look for variety, and for images that tell us how important these places are.

 Q. If you were to recommend one—or, okay, maybe two or three—places to go to see a California river, where would they be?

A. That’s your hardest question! How about 20 or 30? I’m tempted to name a river such as the Tuolumne in its Grand Canyon, or the Kings, with its incomparable back country. Or that jewel of the north—the Smith. But I’m going to say, “Go to the river near you.”  Rivers are all around us—well, less so in the South, but even there, we have rivers. Seek out the stream nearby and find the beauty it has to offer. If it’s not beautiful anymore, then maybe the problems will inspire you to get involved in a restoration effort—a lot of people find meaningful ways to relate to their place and community by getting involved with their home river.

Q. You identify the problems of pollution, flooding, water shortages, and the sometimes the total disappearance of fish and wildlife. Given the other difficulties we face—including massive state budget deficits—how can we possibly deal with these problems?

A. Lots of ways. First, we should quit spending money on making matters worse. Building new dams would likely do that. It’s far cheaper to start using water more efficiently, and to retire some limited amounts of farmland that are causing severe pollution problems and should never have been farmed in the first place. No doubt, some of the solutions will involve spending more money. But I’d argue that most of the time, spending money for conservation will be cheaper than the consequences of not spending it. For example, we need to reestablish open space on floodplains because those lowlands will continue to be chronically flooded. Solving the problem this way will avoid huge expenses of flood damage that will otherwise happen over and over again. We need to invest what’s required to save our salmon—this is a fishery worth billions, but we’ve squandered it and pushed those fish to the brink of extinction. If we save them, they’ll pay us back.

Q. One of the big political issues this year is a vote on the November ballot for an $11 billion water bond. Will this help or hurt our rivers?

A. Overall it will hurt them. It relies on the approach of the past by including too much money that will be wasted on new dams and trying to build our way out of the problem. Instead, we need to embrace efficiency. We need to learn to live within natural limits that are becoming more and more evident, rather than pretend that we can buy, build, and engineer our way out of the mess we’ve created for ourselves.

Q. But we can’t do that forever. At some point, we’re going to need more water, aren’t we?

A. If you accept unlimited growth for the unlimited future, yes. But unlimited growth ultimately means unlimited destruction of the things that growth consumes. Cutting our per capita water use in half is an ambitious but reachable goal, but in only forty years, at recent rates of growth, the population will double, putting us right back in the same spot—not enough water. That’s why anyone who really cares about the future of this state has to be concerned about population growth, and this issue affects far more than just water supply. The sooner we can flatten out that growth curve, the better.

Q. Some people would say that climate change is the crux issue of our time, and that if we don’t solve that problem, we’re doomed, so to speak. Do you agree, and how do you see rivers in that equation?

A. I do agree. Global warming will mean that the new droughts are going to dry us up, and the new floods are going to kill us. We need to slow the process of climate change by reducing fossil fuel consumption, by rebuilding communities so that we don’t need to drive so much, and by halting deforestation. But many of the problems are now inevitable, and their effects on rivers will be profound. For that reason, we have to do what river conservationists have sought to do for decades: protect riparian corridors that shade and cool the water, avoid taking too much water out of rivers for other uses, plan for larger floods by protecting open space on the floodplains, link natural areas together with corridors that connect them along rivers and enable fish and wildlife to migrate. Forward thinking people have been working on all this for years, but now we have to do it all more, faster, better.

Q. Were any particular people influential to you while working on this book or coming up with the idea for it?

A. Of course. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Jerry Meral, who illuminated for me and for countless others the problems affecting the waters of California. My friend Mark Dubois is an extraordinary river guide and advocate who inspired me to work hard and play hard and to believe that each of us can make a difference. Malcolm Margolin is a publisher who saw the light and the beauty in this book and pulled it into his extraordinary publishing program at Heyday Books.

Q. What’s your next book about?

A. A related topic, as you might have guessed. I’m now working on a book about California’s vanishing glaciers. I’m photographing these amazing natural features because they are not going to exist much longer. I keep thinking that, if enough people realize what’s being lost, maybe we can turn the corner someday. And if enough people see how beautiful California’s wildness still is, they’ll love it, and they’ll be more willing to let it be.

Q. And meanwhile, are you still enjoying rivers?

A. Always. In spite of the difficulties of our time, I take great pleasure and hope from these remaining natural places. I want my book to inspire other people to do that as well.