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 martyrdom.
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.
Just 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.
Jesse Wolf Hardin facilitates wilderness quests and wild foods workshops at The Earthen Spirituality Project & Sweet Medicine Women’s Center in Reserve, New Mexico. firstname.lastname@example.org.