The Myth of Dan (The River Man)

categories: Cocktail Hour


Drawing by Gary Hovland

So I am currently running around New England trying to make sure My Green Manifesto doesn’t die a quiet death.  So far it seems to be going pretty well, but who the hell knows?  I’m at a Starbucks in Watertown, about to drive up to Maine to have the first face to face Bill and Dave meeting since we started Cocktail Hour.   (The guy near me just said into his phone: “I’m in a cafe so I can’t hear so well.”  A cafe!)

Since I’m rushing around (and, honestly, feeling lazy) today I’m just going to post the first 2 pages of the new book.  (If you like it, maybe buy a copy for your uncle.)  Here goes:

           We are paddling our rock-battered canoe down a particularly stunning section of the river, a twisting stretch of steep granite walls and overhanging trees, as we travel toward the hidden city at river’s end.  Over the past hours we have heard coyotes howl and watched deer wade, observed a beautiful sharp-shinned hawk swooping up into the canopy, delighted in swallows cutting above the water in front of us and kingfishers ratcheting past, and toasted with beers to congratulate ourselves after an exhilarating ride through the rapids.  If I squint I can imagine myself on a great and wild river, the Amazon or Congo or, at least, the Colorado, and can imagine the man behind me, who steers the canoe, as an epic adventurer, Teddy Roosevelt, say, hurtling down The River of Doubt.

            The truth is slightly less glamorous.  The truth is this isn’t the Amazon but the Charles–a name that conjures up images less adventurous and wild than fancy and effete, not to mention domesticated and decidedly English— and that the hidden city that lies in front of us is known, in the native tongue, as Bawh-ston. What’s more the dwellings we will soon pass will not be primitive huts but Super Stop ‘N Shops and the homo sapiens we’ll encounter downriver will not be headhunters but Harvard students, and, if I am perfectly honest, the fearless leader in the stern isn’t Teddy R. but a state worker named Dan Driscoll who I once played some Ultimate Frisbee with, and who we referred to, in those days, as “Danimal.” 

            We like to strip down myths, we modern folk, and it’s easy enough, I suppose, to quickly strip our journey of all its mythic qualities: to see it as a pretty modest trip on a small river with a modest enough guy.  But if our adventure has not exactly been a life-or-death journey into a vast untamed wilderness, the truth is I have been consistently surprised over the last couple of days, not just by the wildness of the hidden river but by Driscoll himself.  The man’s considerable energy, which I had only previously witnessed when he chased down Frisbees like a border collie, is equally apparent when he talks about his efforts to revitalize the river.  

            “I started back around 1990 when I was working as a planner for the state,” he tells me as we paddle.  “Someone in the office said ‘Why don’t you take a look at the Charles?’  I think they were just trying to give the new kid something to do.  Little did they know.  I looked over the maps and saw possibilities.  I began to plan and scheme.   When I first started talking about connecting the river paths, everyone looked at me like I was crazy.  I said, ‘Let’s have these green paths that run through the urban areas.  Let’s re-plant native plants to bring animals back.  Let’s reconnect people to nature.’  Pretty soon I was known as this raging ecological planner.  But the funny thing is, lo and behold, they eventually listened.  Next thing I knew I was ‘The River Man.’”   

            What Dan Driscoll did over the next seventeen years was this: he threw himself into re-claiming the junkyards and car parks and industrial wastelands that had sprung up along the Charles, shepherding in a green resurgence on the riverbanks by taking back land that had once belonged to the state but that had gradually been illegally encroached upon by businesses and neighbors.  His quixotic goal was to sell the idea of the Charles—so famously polluted that it had been the inspiration for the Standells’ song, “Dirty Water”–as a nature preserve while wrangling, talking, and legislating land away from encroaching factory owners, homeowners, and even a local Mafioso in his attempt to restore native plants and trees to create a green corridor through the heart of Boston.

Dan’s was an odd quest, no doubt about it, but in this age of environmental losses and hand-wringing, perhaps the oddest thing about it was this:

It was successful.


* * *


Dan Driscoll is a man of modest height and proportions, fit and compact, thanks in part due to his daily bike commute in and out ofBoston. Since our Frisbee days his hair has gone white, but his intense blue eyes still shine out a slightly cracked blue. There is something of the true believer to Dan, as maybe there has to be in anyone who will take on the sort of fight he has. On the other hand that intensity is leavened by a certain regular guy-ness and sense of humor.          

As he paddles he describes what he calls his “radical idea” that being environmental isn’t about education or politics. It’s about what Thoreau called “contact.” About falling in love with something—a place, an animal– and then fighting for it.

“When I grew up inNewtonwe always had our butts dragged out toLincolnto learn about ‘nature.’ Now a kid inNewtoncan just walk out his backdoor and down to the river. The way I look at it if I build these paths and one kid walks down here and has contact with nature, then maybe that will do something. Maybe he’ll be inspired to fight for the place. Maybe he’ll be the next John Muir.”

He pauses to correct himself, seeming to realize he has slightly overstated.

“Or at least maybe he’ll be less of a dick.”

  1. maryann writes:

    So encouraging for tis embattled eco-warrior

  2. Jennifer Puleston Clement sent me here…..I assume to turn my blog green. I am naturally green but my blog is pure rant.

    I enjoyed a visit here. And I like the idea of loving something and fighting for it. Maybe it will inspire a rant….as soon as the weather in Virginia improves.


  3. Jennifer Clement writes:

    liked very much; hope you don’t mind my sharing it.