October 15, 2015

Weaving Watershed

Weaving Watershed
By Kacie Smith
October 15, 2015

Imagine an October afternoon in the Gila Wilderness – more than three million acres of land in southern New Mexico without roads. It was there, just yards away from the Gila River, that I saw an endangered Monarch butterfly flit above a yellow chamisa plant. Nearby, a small puddle between juniper and cottonwood trees provided a drink for two California Sisters and a smaller butterfly with blue wings. As I watched colorful wings pass, local ecologist Carol Fugagli explained that the butterflies will soon be “hill-topping,” meaning they will congregate at the mountaintops to find a mate. The autumn sun was as crystalline as ever: illuminating the butterflies and pulling us toward the cool, clear waters of the river.

I am travelling with Land Arts of the American West, an Art and Ecology program run out of the University of New Mexico. Since August, we have been camping together, researching, and making art in the desert. We are now collaborating at the Gila River. The valley, surrounded by jagged peaks, is home to many fragrances, songs, fish, birds, mammals, ranchers, craftspeople, and histories. It is the last undammed river in the state, but its freedom is threatened.

Carol was introduced to us by Orien MacDonald, a local resident with many trades: basket-maker, blacksmith, musician, and teacher to name a few. In the nineties, Orien’s father Steve and Carol’s husband Mike blocked an previous dam from being built and founded the Upper Gila Wilderness Alliance (http://www.ugwa.org), which has taken on the responsibility to “promote the long-term health” of the watershed and its “communities of life.”

While camping with us, Orien pointed out materials we could use to make natural cordage, wooden spoons, and woven baskets. He shared stories of exploring these paths since his childhood. He has spent enough time here to have stumbled upon ancestral ruins, spied the shyest of frogs, and crafted the perfect backpack for hauling razor sharp sotol fronds. Deeply rooted in this place, Orien’s artistic passion and lifestyle celebrates the wildness of the valley.

The Gila River has proven its force, resilience and need for freedom time and time again. The Wilderness recently endured a major fire in 2011 and significant flood in 2013 – the affects of which would be argument for improved conservation efforts. However, last year, the Interstate Stream Commission approved a diversion plan, which is now being considered by the Department of the Interior. Undoubtedly destructive and expensive, the proposal created a huge controversy in the valley. According to the Gila Conservation Coalition (http://www.gilaconservation.org), the plan is “infeasible” and “may fail” due to long term drought.

Carol taught us about the Gila’s unique riparian ecology and how a proposed diversion would affect the plant and animal species’ habitat. Circled in our camp chairs, we were delighted to see her copy of a Gila butterfly guide. Beautifully illustrated, Carol mentioned it was made by local residents and is now out of print. Proudly on the page sat the California Sister, Sara Orangetip, Goatweed Leafwing and many more. The guide is not only a wonderful resource, but represents the culmination of many hours of observation and attentiveness.

In preparation for this trip, we met with journalist John Fleck. The current situation in the Gila reminds me of John’s talk about water in the West: of John Wesley Powell’s warning about living in arid lands and the centrality of “collective action.” Fleck sited the irrigation systems of the Hohokam and the Mormons as examples of the governance necessary to survive in the desert. Today, as environmental concerns increase, how communities share their water is of utmost importance. There are multiple constituents and complex politics surrounding the river diversion proposal and its influence on recreation and economy. Folks like Carol and Orien living in close proximity to the river are acutely aware of the effects these developments may have. They practice living traditions and skills that we hope will not be lost. We had read in the Atlas of the Upper Gila Watershed that long ago people gathered plants for food and fiber, yet this week we have lived those experiences with them.

With Orien, we created an olla from coyote willow, which regenerates densely with the floods. Along the riverbanks, we collected the longest shoots for weaving. Taking turns, we rhythmically built up the basket, mimicking the gourd-shaped pottery of the Mimbres people who once inhabited this place. Into the river we take our olla, where it bobs and turns, hardly holding water. It will be planted on the bank by the river, one of the very spots which would be underwater should the diversions be built. If not, it may sprout.

In just a few days here, the Gila Wilderness has revealed to us many treasures and moments of awe. When we meandered along and across the Gila River with Carol, she cheerfully identified birds by their song and mountain lion by its tracks. With Orien, we tasted the sweet mesquite pods and acorns. We found an ancient obsidian scraper, rose calcite, and alligator juniper trees. I saw cochineal bugs between the tines of the cholla cactus, which I plucked out with tweezers to make red dye. Near our cook tent, a skunk visits nightly. On the way to one of the natural hot springs, I saw a rattlesnake and a hefty javelina. It’s difficult to imagine the destruction that pipes and dams would bring to the entire watershed.

Back in camp, I opened the butterfly guide to the California sister, a graceful black butterfly with orange and white markings. I painted its likeness in my notebook as a reminder of this place, its vibrancy, and its community of stewards. My hope is that years from now, this glorious place retains the wildness and wonder that supports the hill-topping butterflies and that our buried olla has grown into a thicket of willows.

See Upper Gila Watershed Alliance Newsletter, Carapace for more information about the Gila River Diversion http://www.ugwa.org/Carapace/ugwa_carapace_winter_15.pdf


  1. thanks Kacie for documenting - you join Carol, John, more, - as needed patient observers to an important ecosystem for now and for the future.

  2. Beautiful account.

    Today at The New York Times Food for Tomorrow Conference, we saw a map of some of the western states showing all the dams that interrupt their rivers and streams, which relates directly to the sustainability of fish as well.