Work crews Thursday begin dismantling the two dams on the Elwha River, on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. By some measures, this is the largest dam-removal project ever — and, at 210 feet, one of the dams is certainly the tallest dam ever taken down. The process is an extremely tricky one — in terms of engineering, ecology and politics — but environmentalists hope this project heralds the beginning of the end of the age of big dams in the American West. Those who like big dams, for economic reasons, worry about the same thing.
In 1985, when I was in the midst of a 12-year struggle to write my first novel, I had the good fortune to be invited to the Edna St. Vincent Millay Colony in Austerlitz, N.Y., for a monthlong residency. There, in the colony's curved-roof barn, I happened to pick up a paperback copy of Robert Stone's 1981 novel, A Flag for Sunrise.