Song of the River
By CB Bryan
Can you hear that? There is a slight and soft rushing, pushing its way over all other sounds – birds, rustling, voices from camp – all become background. Every evening I walk from our warm cook tent to my own tent, just south of the group’s and under a cottonwood tree. As I walk I sing to myself, alerting the nearby nocturnal animals of my incoming presence. As I sing, a new sound slowly infiltrates my song and the gentle call of the nearby river takes over to offer another voice as I pass through a tall thicket of coyote willow, some dried sunflowers and poison ivy. This song of the river is a force, which awakens me from sleep and calls me to its waters.
This is the Gila River, with headwaters located in southern New Mexico, which flow in to Arizona then out into the Gulf of Mexico. The headwaters are a special place, the last undammed section of river in the state. This will soon change if a proposed diversion project is executed. This is reason I am writing to you. The Gila River is threatened. Nothing is set in stone, but we feel that we have an obligation to protect and inspire conservation for the cycles of life that we have not known yet.
We are – the Land Arts of the American West, a group based out of the University of New Mexico’s art and ecology program. We have traveled from Albuquerque to sites in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. The Gila River valley has been our home for the past five days as we’ve worked collaboratively with local individuals to immerse ourselves in the art of basketry, natural material gathering and the ecology of the area.
We tromped in the waters off of Turkey Creek trail, finding pools of fish under insect casings with geologic crust that spans all of our lifetimes combined. Led by new friends from the area, Carol Fugagli and Orien McDonald, we became intimate with the footsteps of many – both human and nonhuman – which have called this area home. Through Carol and Orien we came to know the Gila as “not just an entity [but] a living organism” and because of that, we found that it needs room just as all rivers and things need room –“ to swell and move, recede and channelize,”(Carol Fugagli 2015) to breathe. By diverting and damming a river you constrain this breath, loosing some of the things that we have found so special within the wilderness.
Humans have built canals and dams to “straighten” the flows of rivers and harness a their natural energy, their breath. In the city where I grew up, Albuquerque, the local river has been under outside stress since the 1930’s when human intervention brought “order” by preventing floods, building supermarkets and housing developments over bends and historic currents. My childhood home was built on the floodplain of the Rio Grande river, old and unused – if the Rio flooded and moved as it would – my history, my home would be no more. The control of the river has caused some major issues such as species endangerment, native plant loss and invasive species influx. These issues may prevail but they still do not stop the song of the river. The tiny feet that run across its banks every summer or the myriad of hands that are involved to monitor and conserve the Rio’s life force during the fall and spring.
You might be wondering, “Why might I care about this?” How best to take further steps to investigate this matter, or matters like it across the world. In many ways this is a local issue, but in many more it is a global one. The “why should you care” could maybe be something about us not just being individualized egoists but parts of a larger whole or maybe something about “everything being connected.” All of that seems too cliché or too silly. I want to give heartache to everyone, a love for a mountain or a little stream behind the house you grew up in. I know in my own heart that everyone has a memory attached to a place and a love that grows out of that recollection. We have spent the last five days in this place, which may or may not already be known and experienced to some. But I can assure you that now it is, for all thirteen of us have dunked our heads in the waters and woven ourselves into the thickets of willow and the pathways of this Turkey creek wilderness. The “why you should care” should be based on your own memories of love. Every place has a song – the Gila River has its own that has been kicking around in my head during our time here. I’m sure there is a song somewhere in yours.
I cannot seem to write enough words or descriptions to share how I see this river, or any river for that matter. My desire to protect the Gila River comes from my own love for another river and I think that we can each find a place within ourselves to call to for inspiration. If you do not know the Gila then at least know your own local beauty and think about what life would be like without it.