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Headwaters: A Journey of Alabama Rivers

By: John C. Hall and Beth Maynor Young
Reviewed by: Britt Blake
The University of Alabama Press, 2009
$39.95, Hardcover

While I was growing up in Montevallo, my father often mused that if I took the inclination, I could launch my canoe in Shoal Creek across the street from our house and paddle all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Headwaters: A Journey on Alabama Rivers, with text by John C. Hall and photographs by Beth Maynor Young, offers a much easier tour of the state’s diverse water system–from rain dripping from beech leaves into the soil in mountainous northern Alabama to the "Great River’s" arrival at Mobile Bay.

Headwaters begins with an overview of the geological composition of the state that provides a better understanding of how our water system works. Hall then explores characteristics and ecosystems of four regions of the state: Headwaters, the Alabama Uplands, the Fall Line, and the Coastal Plain.

Instead of a long, linear text, Hall provides a collection of short narratives that invite the reader to flip to any page and learn something new–from how larval mussels grow in fish gills to how cypress trees need a good drought.

Headwaters focuses on conservation, and the reader is reminded that aquatic plants and animals are interdependent. Hall makes the point that maintaining a healthy water system is vital for survival of every living thing–including us. He cites examples of how conservation efforts are healing our water sources (such as the dismantling of the Marvel Slab on the Cahaba River) as well as examples of how some areas suffer as a result of poorly planned development.

Renowned conservation photographer Beth Maynor Young provides stunning pictures that perfectly complement Hall’s writing. Large, vibrant photos are found on almost every page, tempting the reader to flip ahead to see the lush scenery that awaits. It is difficult to distinguish whether Headwaters is a book of text with photos, or a book of photos with text; it’s both. The photos alone are worth the price of the book, but joining them with Hall’s informative text creates a unique, collectible book.

Headwaters explores rivers from a grand scale down to the subtle enjoyment of a canoe trip: "Below Schultz Creek, it’s hard to say when you first become aware of the noise of the rapids. When you finally bring it into consciousness, you realize you have been hearing it for some time.”

And that’s how our water system is. Without noticing, most Alabamians cross a bridge over a stream, creek, or river almost every day. Alabama’s water system is all around us, yet we rarely really see it. Headwaters: A Journey on Alabama Rivers takes us there. Hall’s writing is timely and interesting while Young’s superb photography deems the book worthy of display. June 2009

Birmingham resident Britt Blake is an experienced backpacker and canoer.

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