A life on the loose
Renny Russell releases highly anticipated ‘Rock Me on the Water’

SideStory: On the loose in Durango

by Joe Foster

‘Rock Me on the Water: ’ by Renny Russell. Animist Press 2007. 254 pages

I hesitate to write a review of a beautiful book while constantly referring to another, previous, beautiful book. In this specific case, though, there is a tragedy that hangs over both, tying them together through the decades that separate them. Suffice it to say, both works stand strongly on their own, but neither is even remotely complete without the other. Some back story is necessary for those of you who don’t know: back in the ’60s, two brothers, Terry and Renny Russell handed a manuscript of photographs, calligraphic poems, quotes and musings to David Brower of the Sierra Club. He was astounded and immediately wanted to publish it. To celebrate, or simply because they hadn’t been there before, the brothers took a trip down the Green River through Desolation and Grey canyons in an old army raft. The boat flipped, throwing both young men to the rapids. Terry, the older of the two, never made it to shore. Renny washed up on the beach and looked for his brother for days before climbing out of the canyon and walking 70 desolate and isolated miles to the nearest town for help. Terry’s body was found days later.

The book was On the Loose, a cult phenomenon that helped spawn a back-to-nature movement. As co-author of the Sierra Club’s most successful book, Renny says in Rock Me on the Water, “I’ve borne the challenge of celebrating it without (Terry) and defining myself beyond it … I sometimes feel myself trapped inside its pages.” Renny was forced to experience the success of the very thing that was most important to him and to his brother, and to watch it not only move people to experience an immersion in wilderness as demonstrated by On the Loose, but to witness the places they both loved become inundated by these same people they had inspired so much, effectively changing those places forever.

Terry was, in a sense, the golden boy. A brilliant, creative and adventurous young man, he graduated from Berkeley, fluent in multiple languages, just before the accident that took his life. One gets the sense while reading Rock Me on the Water that Renny lived in Terry’s shadow for much of his young life, but that he was never really bothered by it. Rock Me on the Water: A Life on the Loose is Renny’s exploration of this relationship and the effect their co-authored book had on his own life. In a painfully rendered act of bravery, Renny revisits the Green River, floating the same waters that took his brother and changed the course of his life. With humor, wonder, a blistering self-analysis, and the same sense of adventure that spawned On the Loose, Renny’s book is a chronicle of confusion, bewilderment and a life spent reflecting on painful loss.

The book itself is visually stunning, with Russell’s artwork peppered throughout, a common theme painfully evident in each piece; a wave, a boat, a series of butterflies. In the spirit of On the Loose, photographs dominate every page, the words serving more as a guide, or even a counterpoint to the images. The most painful, for me, is the very first: an image of Terry standing in a cave; looking out through sunshine, he seems to glow. Or the photo of a very young Terry asleep on a riverbank, exhausted from play. Or the many pictures of the two brothers as children, laughing over a book, or costumed and goofy, or standing in wide-mouthed awe.

Renny also uses the book as a way to tell the story of a place, or the many places, that nurtured him and his brother and their love for freedom, clean air and far-flung, trail-less treks. Through Renny’s eyes, you meet crusty old artifact thieves, desert rats, canyon explorers, river rats, artists, loners, codgers, coots and a very loving and open mother who gave all of this to them. From the Tetons to the Sierra Nevadas to the desert of the Colorado Plateau, the Russells had the West, the epic grand West, as their back yard and proving ground. Renny laments what has been lost by showing how things used to be.

Rock Me on the Water is, at its core, a letter to that which was lost, whether a life, a land or a dear friend. Through brutally honest self-reflection and a critical eye directed at what life has become, Russell guides us down the Green in his self-made dory, the boat becoming as much a character in the story as anything else. His expertise as a guide is shown as our emotions dip and crest through pain and sorrow to humor, wonder and – eventually, hopefully – redemption. Rock Me on the Water is a gorgeous examination of a life in the West, and no collection could possibly be complete in its absence. •

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