I live on a remote tributary of the Gila River in a still-wild corner of Catron County, New Mexico. Well, not "on" the river, really; no one really lives on a river, unless they’re on a houseboat on the constipated Colorado, or a converted shrimper on Orbison’s bayou. More specifically, I live far enough from the river to keep the foundation of the cabin dry, but close enough that my life has become dependent on and sculpted by its flux and flow.
Because of the way the river snakes back and forth
between the walls of the canyon, a visitor has to wade across it
seven times to get here. At its highest it functions as a moat,
effectively keeping the 21st century out. (I like to picture it
stocked with alligators, specially bred to feed on real estate
agents, and yet tame enough for the local kids to ride.) Even when
it’s so low a sober man could jump over it, it still has the
effect of looking like your new Jeep might get stuck.
This river is the Rio Frisco, the St. Francis, patron river of the
Gila’s animals. Needless to say, becoming sainted is no
simple matter. It requires being originally blessed, then suffering
misunderstanding and repression, and it often ends in tragic
For eons, the Frisco was the lifeblood of the
four-leggeds and the green-growing beings, and it was long the
spiritual fountain of the native pit-house dwellers that
anthropologists call the Mo-go-yon. Then came over a century of
overgrazing by immigrant Texas cattle. Elder cottonwoods lost to
the occasional flood were no longer being replaced, as the sprouts
of alamo and willow alike were gobbled up by voracious cows. The
river no longer channelized, but wandered from one side of the
canyon to the other, as if trying to avoid its tormentors.
This was followed in time by the idea of a river reborn,
and then the opportunity and determination to act on it. I was
literally the first protector in a thousand years, followed by my
partners and associates. We fenced off parts of the river,
replanting and restoring its banks until at least one section of
the canyon was a riparian forest again. The St. Francis, the "sweet
medicine" river, healed.
At first glance, the St. Francis
might not look like much, but we don’t have a lot of water in
the Southwest, and that makes it all the more precious. The less
there is of it, the bigger it grows in our imaginations. When
you’ve got cottonmouth and an empty canteen, every rain catch
in the sandstone high country looks puddle-lickin’ good. Our
few lakes look like giant oceans of drinkable water, a gift from or
for the gods. Anytime a stream drops over a four-foot rock,
it’s a waterfall. Get your clothes off and get under it, if
you don’t believe me. A river is any moving body of liquid
big enough to lie down in, or any dry bed that it’s not safe
to build a house near.
We call our state’s largest
river the "Rio Grande," meaning nobly huge, even though it’s
shallow enough that the oft-maligned "wetback" never gets more than
his knees wet, and it would take hundreds of such rios to fill the
bed of a Missouri or Mississippi. Most of our rivers are of a size
they call "cricks" in other parts of the country, other than during
those spring runoffs or the rare fall cloudburst when they’ve
been known to give week-long workshops in humility.
ask the smug tourist who drives up to the edge of one of our
cherished flows, a disapproving scowl on his face. "Why,
that’s no river. Back where I come from, we’d call this
a ..." he might start, before his words, along with his shiny
little car, are washed downstream in front of a muddy wall of water
busting ass for Arizona.
It was 1983 when our own dear
Frisco rose from calf-deep to 30 feet high, scouring the canyon
walls and rolling giant boulders that rumbled like the thunderous
bowling lanes of cloud-wrapped Valhalla. The highlights included
waving off the National Guard helicopter that came to check on us,
and using an antique Winchester to take potshots at the tail lights
of poor old Pete Daniel’s mobile home as it bobbed by.
Anyone watching at that moment could be forgiven for
thinking it was a river. One hell of a river.
A river can
seem cruel at times, when it carves away at the land, or is the
cause of a careless child losing its life. Over the centuries,
entire towns have been leveled by their rushing waters. But we must
wonder if what appears to be a senseless tragedy may really be a
vital lesson, or part of a greater plan.
From the Amazon
to the Tigris, the frigid Yellowstone to the temperate Frisco,
river folk hold to some pretty similar ideas. Foremost is that
there is something like water, continuous and contiguous, that
we’re a lasting part of. We believe that like the river, we
are forever changing. And that yet somehow we stay, that something
of us will always remain. That we too are dissolved by the sun, and
then return like the rain.
A friend used to kid me that
in Navajo, sacred means "don’t fuck with it." There’s
more to it than that, of course. As any feral or aboriginal
river-lover will tell you, that which is sacred desires and
deserves our tending. Not only protecting, but nourishing,
restoring and celebrating.
The lesson may be that all
things natural have an intrinsic sacred value, but through ritual,
attention and intent we make them even more so. It’s often a
part of the belief systems of those peoples living closest to the
land — that the river knows when we’re singing to it,
and knows when we’ve stopped. And that it holds in its bowels
the memories of all life’s songs.