A tale set in China offers enduring lessons from our struggle to tame harsh surroundings.
The first sentence of the short but engaging novel A Single Pebble, by John Hersey, reads, “I became an engineer.”
Published in 1957, it is the story of an American engineer who travels up the Yangtze River in search of an appropriate site for the construction of a dam that would harness the waters that on occasion could inundate communities downriver. The dam would also deepen and calm the turbulent waters at rapids and so make river travel less arduous and more safe.
The nameless protagonist takes a British gunboat from Shanghai to Ichang, above which the river flows through the famed Three Gorges. At Ichang, the engineer transfers to a traditional junk, which he was told would be less likely than a steamboat to be set upon by bandits and revolutionaries and whose slower pace would give him more time to study the river and its context.
The hundred-foot-long junk is peopled by about four dozen Chinese, including the owner and his wife, the cook, and a crew of trackers, who when disposed along the length of a large bamboo rope provide the power to pull the boat upriver. This ancient means of propulsion is the focus of much of the book’s action and symbolism.
The head tracker is a man called Old Pebble, who proves to be enigmatic to the young engineer. Old Pebble is as wedded to tradition as the engineer is committed to change. The older man sees little reason to do things differently than they have always been done on the river, and the one time he does seek a new way through the rapids he risks the junk and the lives of all on it.
A single pebble can at the same time be at the mercy of the river and affect the course of a journey along it. When the junk reaches a particularly treacherous stretch, where the nearly vertical sides of the gorge rise straight out of the water and thus provide no natural foothold, the trackers crouch along a narrow pathway that centuries earlier was hand-chiseled out of the rock.
As the head tracker leads his crew along this slot, he fixes on a series of square holes in the cliff face across the river. The engineer reflects on having been told that these recesses were formed by hand long ago by soldiers who were trying to reach the enemy camped strategically on the mountaintop, from where it controlled access up and down the river.
As each recess had been completed, a square timber was inserted into it, thus providing a cantilever beam on which a soldier could stand to carve out the next hole. Like that of the tracker path across the river, the construction of this zigzag stairway was an exercise in patience and persistence. In looking across at it, Old Pebble loses his footing and falls off the pathway. Since his dead weight threatens to keep the other trackers from holding their own positions and that of the junk against the current, he is cut free to be swept downriver like a single pebble. It was this river that the engineer wished to tame with a modern dam.
I first read this novel when I was preparing to travel to China to visit the construction site of the Three Gorges Dam. Although labor-saving machinery was being used to place the concrete there, the process fundamentally was one of a step at a time, of patience and resolve, of tradition influencing change. Great projects of all kinds stand as monuments to the engineering process—and as symbols of both its humble past and audacious future.
Henry Petroski, the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil
Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University, is the
author of The Toothpick: Technology and Culture, which has just
been published by Alfred A. Knopf.