Sunday, September 14, 2008

Rock Me on the Water: A Book Review

Renny Russell, Rock Me On the Water: A Life on the Loose (Questa, NM: Animist Press, 2007), 242 pages, lots of photos and illustrations.

I have found me a new coffee table book! Unlike many such books I own, this one I devoured the words long before I tired looking at the photographs. Rock Me on the Water is a beautiful book and an uplifting story. The book centers around a solo trip down the Green River in Utah, tracing the route the author and his brother took in 1965. At that time, Renny was 18 and an art student. His brother was 21 and had just graduated from Berkeley. The two young brothers had also just contracted with the Sierra Club to publish On The Loose, a book of quotes, thoughts and poetry illustrated with their photographs. They were celebrating the upcoming publication with this trip. The river was at flood stage. While running Steer Rapids, their rubber boat folded back over, dumping them and their gear into the water. Renny survived. The last he saw of Terry was when he helped him grab hold of a duffle bag for flotation.

Forty years later, Renny, who is now a seasoned boat builder and river guide, comes back to this section of the Green for the first time since that fateful trip, ready to face the ghosts of the past. It’s a solo journey in a boat he built and named Seedskeedee (The native name for the Green, a word that means prairie hen). While describing his trip down the Green, Renny shares with us the story of two brothers who grow up longing to be in the wilderness. He also tells of his own journey after the death of Terry, as he dealt with his loss. “My life has been a search for the knowledge and secrets,” he writes, “that have offered hope and strength after the flood.” (188) As he and his brother had done in their earlier book, Renny raises our awareness of the environmental challenges facing the human race.

I purchased my copy of On the Loose at a Sierra Club meeting back in the late 70s, when I was a college student in North Carolina. I was taken with the hand-scrolled calligraphy and the very intimate photographs. Renny admits that their film had mostly been processed in drug stores and that Ansel Adams didn’t think the Sierra Club should print the book. But David Brower, the club president at the time, insisted the voices from these two brothers should be heard. In time, the book sold over a million copies. Many people, like me, fell in love with it. At some point my copy got stowed away, but a few years ago, after having left the West for the Upper Midwest, I found myself going back to it time and time again. When I first purchased On the Loose, I had never been to the West Coast. When I look back at that book, along with Rock Me on the Water, I see many places with which I’m familiar: I’ve hiked the John Muir Trail, backpacked along the ocean at Point Reyes, hiked in many of the same canyons on the Colorado Plateau, and explored some of the same places in Idaho. Now, having read Renny’s story, I’m ready to build a river boat and head west.

This is a wonderful book that I’ll enjoy for decades. Now, having visited Renny’s website, I wished I had ordered my copy from him and received a signed edition! I recommend this book for several reasons. The photographs and illustrations are wonderful, the story is moving, but most importantly, you’ll discover how one person found hope and overcame tragedy. I’m also indebted to the author for sharing with us the full story of On the Loose.
For other book reviews by Sage, click here.


  1. How are you? Thanks for sharing these books with us. Very inspiring.

  2. Only you Sage would say a book makes you want to build a river boat and head west. We'll be reading about your real life adventures within five years :)

    Thanks for the feedback on my poem. I haven't written poetry since I was a tech writer, and now find it the easiest way to get out some stories as I would sound too preachy--I am highly moralistic and dislike that--but do plan on making that poem into a prose work as I don't like the characters and want to flesh them out

  3. Hhhmmm, if I show you more pictures of Oregon, would you build me a wooden kayak, or canoe?

    In all seriousness, I would flood the whole town with my tears if I were to read this book.

  4. Cyclopseven, thanks.

    Pia, it doesn't take much for me to get the itch to head westward

    Mother Hen, I'm not that great of a craftsman... Ed Abbey is the one you need to talk to about building a wooden kayak

  5. That does sound like a good book. Much better than that Craig Childs one. Did I ever tell you that I attempted to finally sit and read the Secret Knowledge of Water? I couldn't make it all the way through to the end.

  6. How sad, but how wonderful that such a beautiful book could come out of it, in a sense.

    I'd love to see it, must look around for it.

  7. Not a well thought out plan on my part but I immediately went to add this book to my virtual booklist only to remember that I deleted it. I have the initial post backed up but will have to recreate the additions since from scratch. I'll have to add this to my soon in the near future new virtual bookshelf.

  8. This one's definitely on the wish list. Query whether I can be patient until Christmas as my wife hates it when I buy myself stuff and leave nothing for her.


  9. Yeah, I spied the top Of the meanest sycamore tree in the county the other day. Well, if you do build a boat, take you some coffee.

  10. Jay, it is a graceful book, beautiful language and photos

    Murf, unlike Craig, this one has a lot of photos and instead of only being about our human relationship wtih the environment, Russell writes about families relating as he relates to the world around him

    Leila, I hope you can find the book in South Africa

    Ed, I thought of you while reading this book, I think you'll enjoy it (I wish he'd written more about the boat building process, but that wasn't really this story, but he does show some photos and it looks like he's a master craftsman

    Sherman, On Renny Russell's website, there is a slipcase version of the book available for $150, that'd make a nice Christmas present! I may have to drop some hints about getting at least a cloth version for Christmas..

  11. I did earn my Girl Scout canoeing badge! Sure it was 35 years ago . . .

    Sounds like a cool book!

  12. Your reading is very eclectic. You write so well about those too.

    BTW, I finally am getting into the reading mode again after two months. I am also reading short stories online.

  13. I had to do some birthday shopping and needed an extra couple bucks to get free shipping. So since I would save five bucks in the process, I have a copy on its way right now.

  14. I love books on overcoming tragedy/adversity, and this one, with its pictures and adventure story, sounds like a good read.

    Thanks for another wonderful review, Sage.

  15. This sounds like such a lovely book and something I would truly enjoy.

    I've been reading your blog off and on since I discovered it many months ago via Semicolon's Sat. Review of books.