Last week's posts, from Tuesday onward, were all connected to the theme of water in one way or another: Mr. Punch by the seaside; a riverside walk with Ursula Le Guin; the folklore of wells and springs; and the lush green riverbank of Wind in the Willows. We started this week with water music, and I'd like to carry on by recommending some favourite books containing water in its various forms -- beginning with one from the deserts of the American south-west, where water is scarce, precious, and sacred.
The Secret Knowledge of Water by Craig Child was one of handful of books that sat permanently on my desk when I lived in Arizona: books that served as talismans of all that I loved best about life in the Sonoran desert, and that I would carry with me when I crossed the sea to the wet, green hills of Dartmoor. Child's book begins in the vast wilderness of the Cabeza Prieta on the Arizona-Mexico border -- a place I also had the great good fortune to spend time in over the years -- and then moves through a wide variety of desert terrains in northern and southern Arizona, Mexico, and Utah. What I love about the book is not only the author's deep knowledge of and passion for the land, but the way he writes about it in prose that is as poetic as it is instructive. For example, Childs begins his text with this arresting passage:
"My mother was born beside a spring in the high desert, just north of where West Texas and Mexico meet along the River Grande. Born three months premature, she was kept alive in an incubator heated with household lightbulbs. And eyedropper was used for feeding. The water from the spring bathed her and filled her body, tightening each of her cells. It filled the hollow of her bones. Years later, as the water passed from mother to child like fine hair or blue eyes, I grew up thinking that water and the desert were the same.
"Beyond the spring grew piñon and juniper trees, their wood grossly twisted from years of drought, while here, where my mother was born, cress and moss grew from the spring. A weeping willow, imported from an unfamiliar place, dusted the surface with seeds. I traveled there once, walking up and pushing away the downy willow seeds with the edge of my hand. I dipped two film canisters below the surface. I capped these, and walked back to my truck, and drove away before a stranger could appear from a nearby house to run me off the property.
"I figured the water might come in handy someday. If my mother ever grew ill and her death were near, I would bring this water to her. The spring had kept many people alive before her. It was an essential stopover for Spanish explorers in the 17th and 18th centuries and for whomever traveled the desert for the previous millennia. I would slip its water between her lips, tilting her head up with my palms. Her body might recognize it, the way salmon make sudden turns to follow obscure creeks, the way dragonflies work back to the one water hole held between desert mesas.
"An early memory of the low Sonoran Desert where I was born is of my mother walking me out on a trail. I remember three things, each a snapshot without motion or sound. The first is lush, green cottonwood trees billowing like clouds against the stark backdrop of cliffs and boulders. The second is tadpoles worrying the mud in a water hole just about dry. Each tadpole, like the eye of a raven, waited black and moist against the sun. The third is water streaming over carved rock into a pool clear as window glass. These three images are what defined the desert for me. At an early age it was obvious that water was the element of consequence, the root of everything."
Later in the book, Childs describes the miracle of water in a dry terrain like this:
"Parched land wrinkles to the horizon and in one place, a rock outcrop, a seep emits a drop every minute, a light tap on the rocks below. The drop is sacred. Doled in such apothecary increments, this scarce water is almost deafening, surrounded by total silence, by hot sand fine as confectioners' sugar. It is a single word, a mantra.
"In places it gathers speed, finding pathways, turning from seeps to springs to streams to rivers. To be near such moving water in the desert is like being a vacant concert hall with a solo cellist, like standing on tundra with a grizzly bear. You must listen. You must make eye contact. The water cannot be resisted. Drops become elaborate cadence. The flow becomes song. It burbles from the ground, tumbling down hallways of isolated canyons. Life bends into preposterous shapes to fit inside, plying the narrow thread between drought and flood. Orders are given: you must live a certain way, and do it swiftly, elegantly, because this is a desert, this water is only here, and then a hundred miles of nothing.
"In the Kama Sutra, erotic sounds are said to come in seven categories: the Himkāra, a light, nasal sound; the Stanita, described as a "roll of thunder"; the hissing Kūjita; the weeping Rudita; the Sūtkrita, which is a gentle sigh; the painful cry of Dutkrita; and finally the Phutkrita, a violent burst of breath. I have heard all of these in water, and then a hundred others, none of which have been offered titles besides plunk, plash, swish, or splash. I have heard the Phutkrita in the snapping of a tree limb during the sudden upwelling of a flood, and the Sūtkrita sigh as that same water slowly spun itself into a downstream eddy. Horse trainers have so many names for horse breeds and colors, and Arctic dwellers have entire dialects for the nature of snow, yet few names have been given specifically to the sound of water. It may be that water is too commonplace. Since it must pass your lips every day, and you wash your hands with it as a habit, it might seem too pedestrian for study. If this is true, if water is so prosaic, come to the desert and listen to moving water. I have been held for days in a single place not because I needed the water, but because I had to listen."
This is a writer after my own heart. I, too, have sat beside water in the desert, unable to tear myself away. Needing to listen. To hear its stories. Like my life depended on it.
The art today is by my friend Stu Jenks, a Virginia-born photographer who has spent many years in southern Arizona. We've known each other for a long time now, ever since we had neighbouring studio spaces in the old Toole Shed art building in downtown Tucson; and to my mind, there's no one who captures the elusive magic of the desert better.
Words: The passages above are from The Secret Knowledge of Water: Discovering the Essence of the American Desert by Craig Childs (Little, Brown & Co, 2000); all rights reserved by the author.
Pictures: The photographs above are by Stu Jenks; all rights reserved by the artist. Titles can be found in the picture caption. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)