Chronicling a lost river: A review of Dry River

 

Dry River: Stories of Life, Death, and Redemption on the Santa Cruz
Ken Lamberton
288 pages, softcover: $24.95.
University of Arizona Press, 2011.

In the desert classic The Land of Little Rain (1903), Mary Austin described the Mojave as "a land of lost rivers, with little in it to love; yet a land that once visited must be come back to inevitably. If it were not so there would be little told of it." In Dry River, Ken Lamberton approaches his subject, Arizona's Santa Cruz River, with a similar clarity and a conviction that this river has stories to tell.

The Santa Cruz is often dry but subject to seasonal flash floods; treated wastewater keeps segments of it flowing year-round. "What does water mean to the Santa Cruz?" Lamberton asks. "It certainly doesn't define it, since over most of its course water is an abstraction, or at best only wishful thinking." To answer this question, he walks the Santa Cruz, "hiking through the river's natural and cultural history from its source to its cessation." It's rich material. The river's headwaters are southeast of Tucson, and on its 200-mile journey it flows south across the border, then north again. What it lacks in water it makes up for in stories: American and Mexican, urban, suburban and rural.

Native, too. Lamberton begins with a description of a Tohono O'odham blessing of a river-restoration project. The scene captures the goal of his book, to look for "redemption and hope" rather than simply bemoan a degraded landscape.

Some of Lamberton's tales seem more like vignettes than essential material, but at his best, he does justice to the river and its people. In this sense, Dry River continues the theme of his earlier works, including the award-winning Wilderness and Razor Wire: A Naturalist's Observations from Prison. Lamberton writes with scrupulous fairness, asking that readers accompany him patiently on his journey -- waiting for years, if necessary -- to witness the outcome of environmental repair efforts or his own striving for redemption.

In its scope, Dry River reminded me of the old "Rivers of America" book series. Beginning with Kennebec: Cradle of Americans in 1937 and ending with The American: River of El Dorado in 1974, those 65 volumes told the stories of rivers across the country. The Santa Cruz never made it into that series. Lamberton rectifies the omission in this literary act of river restoration.