D  e  s  e  r  t     E  x  p  o  s  u  r  e  April 2005

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On the River

Living on what passes for a river in New Mexico, you learn: The river soothes our souls and fuels our hungers. It cleanses, redeems and unites.

By Jesse Wolf Hardin

From the time I was little I knew I had to live close to the water. Not the majestic ocean, mind you—too salty to drink, too turgid to see into the depths for what might eat a swimming, wondering boy. Nor would the most beautiful or serene lake do, its stillness an indictment of my youthful restless nature. I knew somehow that it would have to be a river next to which I'd make my lifetime

The Rio Frisco.

home. Its song would be the sound of "a different drummer" that I marched to, rocked-out to, samba'd to. It would be the soundtrack of my life, its murmurings inundating my dreams. Its drone would be my comforting lullaby, even as its splashes and gurgles kept a part of me forever awake.

Because of the way it snakes back and forth between the walls of the canyon, a visitor has to wade the same river seven times to get here. Think: Steve Young's "Seven Bridges Road." The seven voyages of Sinbad. The seven sacred gates leading to paradise. And seven potentially jeep-swallowing crossings. Lucky seven, indeed. At its highest our river functions as a moat, effectively keeping the 21st century out (I like to picture it stocked with alligators, specially bred to feed on trespassing 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's still easy to get one's new Jeep stuck.

Introducing the Rio Frisco, the St. Francis, patron river of the Gila's animals. For eons the Frisco was the lifeblood of the four-leggeds and green-growing beings, and it was long the spiritual fountain of the native pit-house dwellers whom anthropologists call the Mo-go-yon. Then came the hungry immigrant Texas cattle, onto a landscape where the most grass for grazing is centralized along the delicate river banks. Elder cottonwoods lost to the occasional flood were no longer being replaced, as the sprouts of alamo and willow alike were consumed. This was followed in time by the idea of a river reborn, and then the opportunity and determination to act on it.

These days a few ranchers have joined conservationists in fencing off stretches of the river to give it a chance to regrow its native cottonwood forest. We may have been the first residents on this watercourse in a thousand years to commit to regrowing and restoring the riparian Frisco, and our 26 years of affection and tending show. Now the San Francisco River Association and other local groups are sidestepping government involvement and doing the hands-on work of restructuring and replanting. Meanwhile, the Catron County Commission is seeking to stop those agencies wanting to divert even more of the water long depended upon for irrigating farmers' fields as well as sustaining the entire ecosystem. The St. Francis, the "sweet medicine" river, is on the mend—while at the same time healing those who come open to her gifts.

We're quick to tell flatlanders we live on a river. No one really lives "on" a river, of course, unless they're on a houseboat on the constipated Colorado, or a converted shrimper anchored in Orbison's blue bayou. More specifically we live in intimate proximity to a river, akin to a river—far enough to keep the foundation of the cabin dry, close enough that our lives become dependent on and sculpted by its flux and flow. In its waters we witness the rise and fall of dream and fortune, and the passage of our lives. We discover ourselves in its reflection, our moods ranging from tickle and trickle to murky depression, from shallow to deep, alert or asleep. Like the river, we can be shrunken and tentative, hiding and sliding between meager bastions of rock, our temperatures determined by the heat and cold of they and that which surrounds us, lacking enough elemental confidence to float a fish. Or we can be full of ourselves, spilling out over our edges, exceeding the capacity of our containers, expanding beyond our imagined limitations as we seek to penetrate and inundate the universe.

The Frisco is a wild river, make no mistake. Wild as the geese that never land, and those watchful heron that do. Wild as the winds that hump the ever-blushing cliffs, as the thorny rose or the undisciplined twists of wild grape vine. Not "wild" as in "dangerous and unpredictable," but as in "willful" and "willed": internally directed and unapologetically purposeful. Untamed, but not without compassion or reason. Water with a message. Water with a mission.

And it's a mountain river.

Rivers and mountains, mountains and rivers! Even the words seem meant to be together, curled up back to belly on the lap of the tongue. Like a couple who have been married for a long, long time, its gets hard to talk about one and not the other. "Where would she be without him?" someone might ask. "He's not happy unless she is," you must agree. They start each day with a wet kiss, finish each other's sentences, and never sleep alone. If one were to die, the other would surely perish soon after. Not just of need, but of a terrible loneliness.

The music that had varied from seductive tinkle to fulsome roar becomes a whisper where the mountains are no more. Once a river enters a valley it widens and seems to lose its intensity, as if away from its alpine lover it no longer has any reason to display its rage, nor to impress or to play. A force that once cut through rock, now gently soaks into its grassy sides. It seems to lose some of its interest, if not its way.

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. Any time 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 drybed that it's not safe to build a house near. We call our state's largest river the "Rio Grande," meaning grand—nobly huge—even though 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 creeks or "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 the edge of one of our cherished flows, a disapproving scowl on his twisted little 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 Rip Van Winkle's 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 pot shots at the tail lights of poor old Pete Daniel's mobile home as it bobbed on by. Anyone watching at that moment could be forgiven for thinking it was a river. One hell of a river.


Sadly, we know that even the biggest watercourses around here never make it to see the ocean. From the beginning there is competition for the resource, water lawyers screwing the locals for their water rights and selling them out of state at enormous profit. What's left is coveted by nesting waterfowl and feeding kingfishers, by the remaining native willows and giant cottonwoods and the invasive Asian tamarisk with its greedy roots and gorgeous purple plumes. The rivers are diverted by a thousand acequias into fields of cotton and chile, and sucked dry by desert sunshine. They get shallower and shallower after they leave New Mexico, until in every case there's nothing left. The subterranean aquifers that would normally replenish them are drained for the bluegrass sprinklers and built-in swimming pools of El Paso and Tucson. They fill the water coolers of underpaid Juarez workers making designer tennies for the discount chains up north. Follow any one downstream and you will eventually notice the smell of baking algae and dead fish, their hollow eyes looking incredulously for the world, and the water, that once sustained them. These are the places where hope itself seems to vanish in the sand.

Down hill is far too easy, of course, for certain hard-headed hikers and spiritual seekers. Intrepid seekers explore upstream to the source instead, and not just towards the headwaters but to the pinnacles of balance, the very source of peace. Towards the high peaks of the contemplative hermit, the mountain man, and the self-sacrificing Catholic penitante seeking his own personal cross of trial and redemption. Towards the abode of the ancient tribesman on a vision quest to find meaning and purpose, authentic self and the Great Spirit, the great mystery. And of the mountain goat, the watchful elk, the herb gathering bear. It is here that the rain first settles into channels, coupling with other rivulets, chasing and playing in moves that appear like falling, but may be the result of desire. Each intercourse results in something bigger, something more than the sum of its parts.

To truly enter the kingdom of the river we have to shed all our preconceptions, unhitch our insistent thoughts, strip down to skin, and really take the river in. Hence the spiritual dimension. The river soothes our souls, and fuels our hungers. It cleanses, redeems and unites. By approaching it consciously, we become participants in a sort of riparian Chautauqua, a riverine revival. We join with the crowds of buzzing bees and spinning dragonflies, attendant trees and rapt grass. We babble in the tongues of terns and frogs. We each come to be washed. No one comes to the river clean.


Our job as riverside residents is to learn to honor not only its incarnation and blessings, but also its spirit and needs. We do so by setting aside days of rest and reflection, for wordless communion and songs of praise. By planting seeds and taking comfort under the bushes that grow. We lay willow boughs at its feet, that they might propagate and prosper. We watch that no one poisons it with pollutants or other indignities, and do whatever we can to repair the damage that's been done before. To give our hearts and hours over to the care of damaged and dying waters.

The San Francisco winds through the high country, gathering stories as it goes—a natural and human history inextricably woven together through this common need, common home. Truth is, there's nowhere else for me, no longer anywhere else I can be. I've already spent far too much time traveling and giving talks about what it means to be a care-taker of home, while the place I loved was neglected and alone.

Sense of place is a product of intimacy as much as grace. If we claim to love all rivers equally, we spread our time among many, and may get to know none well. Likewise, none may claim us as their own. By focusing on only a few, we're brought deeper into the labyrinth of their whorls, welcomed as residents of their swirling worlds. Pledge to a single waterway and we become privy to its every secret, earn its unconditional trust. We occupy a common vessel, a common desire and form.


From the Amazon to the Tiger, 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. Here perhaps is the real meaning of the expression "going with the flow." Not directionless, but moving in the same direction as nature and evolution, in the direction of evolving spirit. 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.

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 heart the memories of all life's songs.


Jesse Wolf Hardin is an author of books and magazine articles on natural history and conservation, the history of the old West, social commentary, native spirituality and personal growth. He can be contacted at PO Box 820, Reserve, NM 87830, or mail@earthenspirituality.org.

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