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Yangtze Remembered: The River Beneath the Lake

The Yangtze River has inspired poets, writers and artists for centuries, and I, too, was amazed by its power and changing moods. The transformation of the region between 2001 and 2003 astonished me. I saw dense cities dismantled brick by brick while new ones sprang up on the hillsides high above the river. Tunnels were blasted out of the mountains, modern roads were constructed, and enormous suspension bridges were built to span the Yangtze. Yet in the middle of all this change, some families continued farm, cook, fish, and dig for coal as they had for centuries. Others carried their mattresses and all their worldly belongings to barges that would take them to their new homes hundreds of miles away. Since foreign journalists had been given only restricted access to the river, I knew that many of my photographs were to become the last visual record of river life.

When I returned in fall 2003 for my final trip, the river that had once been a great highway had been transformed into a silent lake, and much of the human activity had shifted to the hills above. When the drama of the Three Gorges Dam is over, and the reservoir reaches its full height in 2009, only time and hindsight will reveal whether it will be known as a tragedy, a comedy of errors, or a triumph of technology.

Linda Butler