Saturday, July 29, 2017

a new understanding of water

“How could a place defined by the absence of water be defined by the presence of it?” --Craig Childs, the Secret Knowledge of water.

When I chose to move to Arizona, I gave little thought to fact that I was moving to the desert or how radically different this would be to any other climate in which I have lived. In the last nine months, I have become so much more aware of water: when and how I drink it, when and how and how much falls from the sky, how it defines the landscape and living creature’s relationship to it. I'm including a few quotes from a book "The Secret Knowledge of Water" by Craig Childs which express much more eloquently than I could some essential concepts around water in the desert. 

Each time I go into town for groceries, I also load up the back of my car with empty gallon water jugs, which I fill with tapwater in Flagstaff and bring back. This is a choice I make because the water that comes out of my tap comes from local groundwater that naturally contains arsenic, at slightly above EPA recommended levels. I then watch the water jugs empty themselves, about one per day, for my cooking and drinking water, until I get a chance to replenish them.

And this is only at home – when I go hiking or backpacking in this area, planning water sources is much more critically important. In the desert, there are a few types water sources: springs, streams/rivers, and potholes: natural depression in rock which fill with water and, depending on the size, remain filled for a matter of days or up to weeks to months if they are large enough. 

Pothole water in the Grand Canyon
Spring in the Grand Canyon
All of these but the largest of rivers and potholes are seasonal, and can be found completely dry in the summertime, making careful research, planning, and budgeting of water essential. I recently went on an overnight backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon where none of these water sources would be available, so we each carried 11-12 liters of water (around 25 lbs). That is a heavy load!

Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon -- always has water, but hope it to be clear like this not muddy after a rain!
Much more dramatic than my own personal relationship with water, is the way in which water defines the natural environment here. Surely the natural springs on the mesas at Hopi played a role in their settlement here over one thousand years ago. In some of the villages, you can still see the natural potholes dug deeper by ancestral Hopi to store water on top of the mesas. And to this day, the Hopi perform ceremonies and dances to bring the rain their crops need to survive and thrive. When the rains come, they seem to be another entity altogether from the rain I am used to anywhere else. The open landscape allows you to see for miles in any direction, and see storm clouds dumping rain and lightning in a patchwork of places with some areas left bone-dry in between.

It's raining on the buttes in the distance, but not on the road i'm walking

Which brings me to the flipside of water in the desert: its momentary abrupt abundance and resulting floods. In the space of a few minutes, flash floods can turn a dry rock channel into a living, seething, roaring river with water and rock defining one another: “the shape of the canyon is the shape of moving water, and the shape of water, like the canyon, will amend to the slightest bias. While resisting and accommodating each other, water and canyon both become patterns of the same intelligence.” --Craig Childs, the Secret Knowledge of Water.

Dark Canyon in Utah, carved by water
Closer to home is the sandier version of canyons: the numerous ‘washes’ that meander across the Hopi and Navajo reservations. They appear as dry creek bottoms, lined with cottonwood trees, and fill with water only for short bursts of time, but enough to define their physical paths and resulting ecosystem. Paved roads have bridges with signs marking the wash as if it were stream or river (which is sometimes); unpaved roads simply go through the washes, sometimes heralded by a “do not enter when flooded” sign.  Families that live off of some of these dirt roads not infrequently find themselves trapped, unable to venture out from their homes to town, work, or appointments at the health center due to mud or a flood.

Mud cracks as it dries the day after a rain

To say that the desert has no water is a tantalizing misstatement. It is believable. But to look over this raven land and know the truth – that there is immeasurable water tucked and hidden and cared for by bowls of rock, by sudden storms, by artwork chiseled hundreds and thousands of years ago – is by far a greater pleasure and mystery than to think of it as dry and senseless as wadded newspaper. It is not only drought that makes this a desert; it is all the water that cannot be seen.” --Craig Childs, the Secret Knowledge of Water. 


John Mosman said...

Kendra, a wonderful and informative post. We are so used to just having water available all the time. 25 pounds of water to carry, wow!

Len Mormino said...

thanks so much for this reminder Kendra. My family would need MAJOR lifestyle changes in that environment to survive. Appreciate your sharing always. Len

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