These days, Charles Bowden is known as a grizzled, pistol-packing scout of the Southwest’s dark side, a man who chronicles the lives and deaths of the border’s most infamous drug runners. A quarter century ago, however, Bowden wrote an unpretentious book, Killing the Hidden Waters, that was equal parts ethnography, mysticism, hydrology and thermodynamics.
That book is back, with a new
introduction by Bowden, and it deserves a wide reading.
Hidden Waters dives into the world of the
Sonoran Desert’s Papago Indians, premier desert dwellers who
built their society on ak chin agriculture, planting seeds in
floodplains to take advantage of the rare flood, which provided
just enough water to coax a crop from the desert. Communal sharing
was, for centuries, the only thing that smoothed out the feasts and
famines and staved off disaster.
But in the 1930s, the
Anglos who moved into the desert brought along a little device
called the centrifugal pump, which suddenly put the Sonoran
Desert’s groundwater within reach. That, argues Bowden,
changed the Papago world.
"Floodwater farming, once the
psychic key to sharing, is almost gone," he writes. "Water
shortages were the glue that had held their societies together. The
well undercut the reason for the group."
It might not
seem like such a bad thing to have your society fall apart, if
drought was the thing that held it together. But a sudden
dependence on desert groundwater transformed the Papago from a
culture that lived in balance with water to one that mines water
faster than it can be replenished.
"I still believe that
in the end," writes Bowden in the new introduction, "resource
problems are cultural, and the only real answers must come from
within cultures, not simply from finding more resources. Giving
some new source of water to a city in the American West, for
example, is akin to sending a case of whisky to an alcoholic."
Killing the Hidden Waters By Charles Bowden 206 pages,
softcover, $17.95. University of Texas Press, 2004.
Hidden Waters resurfaces
You can buy this book and help High Country News, too.
BookSense.com is an on-line family of independent booksellers in communities near you. When you use the link below to buy a book through BookSense.com, you'll not only support local booksellers, you'll also help us: Five-and-a-half percent of each purchase goes to High Country News.