“To irrigate our souls”: Some thoughts on a Southwestern “hydrosophy” and the Colorado River

In my previous post, I offered some thoughts about how, in our quest for a perma-circular economy and society, we could learn – or re-learn – from the great cycles of the Earth’s biosphere. In this post, I want to dwell on one of those cycles: the water cycle and, more specifically, the “water wisdom” we might gain from flowing water, in the form of rivers and streams – a wisdom I will call “hydrosophy.” While I live and work in a country blessed with beautiful watercourses and majestic watersheds circumscribed in part by formidable mountains, I couldn’t have written this post if my partner and I hadn’t traveled in the Southwestern United States this past summer and the one before. So I will begin from over there even though, as I am writing, it’s so far away from here… and I’ll end up suggesting that, perhaps, the Southwest’s most iconic river, the Colorado, might be the right place to start on our hydrosophical journey.

The American Southwest: An emotional geography of entanglement

My heart and intellect have become inhabited by the American Southwest. I do not mean this in a pretentious way. As far as I can see there is no past-life mysticism involved. Simply, the radical affects that bind any human being – any thinking, feeling, human animal – to landscapes have, in my case, been stirred to their depths by the wondrously diverse semi-arid and arid bio-geographies of Southern California, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. (I have not yet had the good fortune of seeing Utah or Colorado. My desire to do so very soon is intense.)


A semi-arid Southwestern landscape

I am a long, long stretch from being an “expert” of any sort on the Southwest; sometimes it makes me ache to realize how those fierce landscapes tug at my soul and how little time I am able to devote to experiencing them firsthand. And yet, they somehow inhabit me to an extent that makes me – how, I cannot say, it is mysterious – an inhabitant of them, intensely partaking in them from a distance, like the entangled atoms of quantum physics.

Perhaps this image is more apt and less flippant than it seems: somehow, inexplicably, my own body, mind and soul are entangled with the sagebrush chaparral, the rolling semi-dry hills down from Mulholland Drive, the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the smelting-hot Central Valley, the beauty of Ácoma and Taos Pueblos, the Sonoran Desert cacti, the expanses of red rock formations between Winslow and the Grand Canyon, the warehouses and factories of the Inland Empire, the Phoenix sunset from Dobbins Lookout, the dry creek in Topanga where coyotes roam, the earth-colored ruins at Chaco Canyon and the secretive settlements in Navajo and Hopi country…


The sunset from Dobbins Lookout in Phoenix, AZ

I want to start from this emotional geography of entangled distance and not deny its strangeness—because it is what it is. The sweet ache around my chest and solar plexus that comes from memories, thoughts or images of these landscapes is – literally – my way of inhabiting the Southwest. Please don’t ask me to specify; I truly couldn’t tell you much more for now. I am still exploring this myself, trying to understand how sitting in a university office overlooking a quiet meadow in western Switzerland somehow poses no obstacle to resonating with a land thousands of miles further to the west.

Intimacy and closeness appear to not depend entirely on physical distance. Perhaps this is a common experience in the traveler who has fallen in love with the spaces she has been gifted with. Entangled geographical resonance is, possibly, what makes our travels a hidden water table to be tapped during the whole year, if we have managed to go beyond consumptive tourism and to truly make the distant landscape our home within the local everyday.

Water and the Southwestern “growth machine”

The allusion to water is, of course, not fortuitous. A caveat, if need be: I do know life in the Southwest is not merely about water; I realize the Southwest’s magnificence cannot be simply reduced to issues of water supply and water management. There is the desert and there is the spirit of the desert, there are 10,000 years of human inhabitation. And yet – basic ecological wisdom has it that any animal population, whether human or not, will only be as large as the water supply it can have access to locally. Water that isn’t already in local streams, rivers, lakes and aquifers is “made local” by being transported through pipes or in bottles. Nonhuman animals cannot do this. Only we humans have developed the technological ability to create artificial watersheds made of open-air aqueducts, large-diameter pipelines and long-distance bottle transportation networks (which, in turn, require bottling as well as drilling and pumping facilities in the distant places our water, when “made local,” will have been extracted from and transported out of). In large metropolitan areas like Los Angeles or Phoenix, technological watersheds by far exceed natural ones. Without them, only much smaller human local populations could be – and have been – supported.


Parker Dam on the Colorado River

An aqueduct is basically an artificially engineered riverbed. Take the Colorado River Aqueduct, which diverts water from the Parker Dam on the California-Arizona border towards Los Angeles. What’s the connection between this aqueduct and the Southwest’s history of colonization, settlement and growth? Without doubt, it is feats of engineering such as those that made Southern California’s population growth possible on the edge of one of North America’s most arid desert regions. Is the Southwest as a “growth machine” sustainable? Does it matter? I think it does. Could its tens of millions of inhabitants today do the same as the few tens of thousands of Natives from Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon eight centuries ago, and simply adjust to deteriorating conditions by “living and leaving,” to borrow anthropologist Donna Glowacki’s expression? [1] I don’t think they could. In the face of resource depletion and climate change, overconsuming modern Southwesterners are no longer able to mobilize the nomadic instincts that seem to have led the Ancient Ones to leave their “great houses” behind like empty shells shed at the end of a life cycle. Instead, they display a two-century history of looking for new ways to remain in place and keep growing their cities and their economies – and that means, among other things, building a pharaonic network of artificial watersheds by damming and diverting increasing percentages of rivers and occasionally drying up entire local watersheds in the distance.


An acequia in Santa Fe, NM

It’s true that this is perhaps nothing totally new. Hohokam ancestors and Pima contemporaries, after all, managed elaborate networks of irrigation canals tapping into major rivers such as the Salt or the Gila. And yet – this was in many ways entirely different. The ancients and their Spanish colonizers bequeathed to the Southwest one of its most enduring water-sharing and water management institutions, the acequia, which provides a time-tested arrangement for moderating rather than expanding water use. [2]

The Native tribes lived in a world and with a worldview almost entirely different from that brought over by their Anglo-European colonizers: it was a world of quasi-stationary population and economy, with trade but more or less constant and limited amounts of it, and a world view that included no plans – contrary to what came to be in L.A., Las Vegas or Phoenix – for fully riding out the “urban growth machine” (as coined by Harvey Molotch in the mid-1970s [3]) and its multiple rebound effects on resource use.


Anasazi ruins at Chimney Rock, CO

Sure enough, the “great houses” of the Anasazi became empty ruins because their civilization collapsed – and scholars like David E. Stuart have attempted to draw lessons from this collapse for today’s Southwest and, further, for the United States as a whole. [4] These lessons are important, no doubt, and I intend to dwell on them extensively. Still, we are facing a dramatically different scale today. As Stuart notes, the Anasazi more or less disbanded and reshuffled into new entities, for better or for worse; there was suffering involved, and even death.

But today’s Southwestern population has nowhere to go. If, as the earlier melting or receding of Rocky Mountain icepacks and glaciers subject to global warming makes entirely plausible, rivers really should run down and dry (in a magnified version of the Colorado River Delta disaster in Mexico), and if no amount of additional diversion aqueducts made it possible to maintain the expected urban growth rates in Southern California, Arizona and New Mexico and even their currently attained levels of wealth, then what? In a “Letter to the Editor” of the New York Times published on January 7, 2014, Stan Becker of Johns Hopkins University asked, “Is it not appropriate to openly ask two questions: What is a sustainable population in the Southwest, considering its water resources, and what policies could eventually limit population growth there?” Indeed.

Hydrosophy and the irrigation of the soul

Any population can only be as large as the water supply it accesses – let us never forget this. None of our forebears have ever forgotten it, which is why flowing water, just like sunlight and air, was deeply sacred to many ancient cultures. Along with this demographically driven sacralization there developed genuine spiritualities of water, or at least genuine forms of “water wisdom” that can’t be merely reduced to immediate need management.


The Salt River

Hydrosophy – an awareness of water’s foundational importance for thinking about how to live our lives as ecologically situated beings – might well be one of the main building blocks of a genuine form of ecological wisdom in which the alarming implications of unchecked economic growth are taken squarely into account. In a nutshell: It is likely that if today’s Southwesterners wish to simultaneously remain in place, maintain a good per capita wealth level and significantly reduce their aggregate toll on the region’s – and other more distant regions’ – water resources, they will need to slow the growth of regional production and consumption, set out on a population de-growth path and look to more ancient ways of inhabiting the landscape for inspiration on how to fit within its natural, biogeographical boundaries and limits. Los Angeles, Las Vegas or Phoenix might need to trade the enduring, stunning beauty of their surrounding desert ecosystems for a reduced population and a reduced ecological footprint with reduced water consumption, including the abandonment of water diversion from distant watersheds. This may not be an exhilarating prospect for the remaining proponents of “boosterism” or of the “urban growth machine,” but it might be the only path to a truly sustainable mode of inhabitation in the future.


The Central Arizona Project aqueduct

The looming threat – we all know this – is that due to climate change and the consequent rise of what William deBuys has called “a great aridness,” [5] the headwaters of the Colorado River and the Rio Grande up in the Rockies might trickle down to a fraction of what they are today, requiring even harsher downward adaptations. To avert this, some radical measures would be called for to halt and even reverse global warming. The current US administration has its mind set on doing exactly the contrary. Once and if the flow rate of the entire Colorado River – and not just of its last downstream portions – grinds to a halt, no conventional responses will work; hydrosophical lifeways in a context of radical water scarcity might then be akin to the austere propositions of Stoic thinkers at the end of the Roman Empire: the acceptance of mortality and of the human world’s deep injustices – which, by that time, will not really be mendable anymore – will take center stage again, eclipsing the American Dream of endless growth and prosperity for a long, indeterminate time.


The Colorado River Delta in Mexico

Let us not let water scarcity become radical. Southwestern Americans must set out on a quest for hydrosophical lifeways before it is too late. If they desire these lifeways to be reasonably happy and serene, they might need to think very hard about what led modern North America into its contemporary impasse. The “conquest” of the Southwest and the water conflicts it generated almost from its inception between colonizers and natives might be the place to look for what went wrong – and for how it can be made right again. The very idea of progress, at least in its naïve, quasi-religious association with European-American “frontier” thinking, might need to be shaken off its pedestal. In the light of the necessities inherent in hydrosophical lifeways, progress might need to acquire an almost entirely new meaning in today’s arid Southwest – but by carrying out this deep cultural mutation, the inhabitants of the arid Southwest, both Native American and non-Native, could turn out to be true prophets of a new age of progress, in a very different direction from what a century and a half of “Manifest Destiny” has habituated them to look. And by doing this, they could become trailblazers for the rest of Western, and Westernized, humanity.


Colorado River Delta restoration by The Nature Conservancy

We urgently need a Southwestern hydrosophy, a new “water wisdom” for this most beautiful of regions. This is because no technical or political measures to conserve water will really find their way into Southwestern Americans’ hearts if the soul and mythical significance of flowing water do not open these hearts to concerns less immediate than growth, wealth, comfort or carefreeness.

None of these things are bad in and of themselves; they become a compounded curse when they serve to block out and deny the more profound truths of what it means for us humans to live as ecologically situated beings. Water is something we need – but not merely to water our lawns, fill our pools, run our showers or fill our drinking glasses. Water is something we need because we are earthlings and because earthlings dry up inside when their souls are not irrigated. Water expert and activist Brian Richter has spelled out this need very movingly:

We possess the means to wring every last drop from the planet’s rivers and lakes, or to suck its aquifers dry, but is that what we want to do? Or do we instead want to leave some water alone, enough to fuel the biological engines of our planet, or to serve as a hedge against dry times and an uncertain future, or simply to irrigate our souls with the intrinsic beauty of flowing water? Can a river still be a river when the water is all gone? [6]


A man standing on a river dock during sunset

“To irrigate our souls with the intrinsic beauty of flowing water”: yes, that’s it. Soul irrigation is one of the deeper needs of any ecologically situated human being. This is one of the main reasons why unchecked economic growth and the associated “resource” depletion and “sink” pollution, while seeming to make us richer, actually desiccates our souls. As we dam up rivers and divert them for profit, our deeper selves become as parched as the Colorado River delta, not even a trickle of “intrinsic beauty” reaching our souls’ thresholds. As we become richer, we become drier, we become cracked and shrivelled – and we fail to even see why we ought to share anything of the riches we have generated, even though rivers and streams share for the asking. We “draw” water somewhat like the vampire “draws” blood: by killing the very source. Water is not just a dammed resource. The most elementary wisdom would ask us to save our souls by saving their sources of irrigation.

The Colorado River and the mythic landscape

No amount of technical expertise can achieve this. Soul irrigation happens through mythic opening – with the word “myth” taking on the precise meaning given to it by the humanities: a foundational narrative that allows our souls to tap into life-giving and life-sustaining existential meaning. In their creation myths, Native American tribes such as the Hopi have explicitly linked river water, more specifically headwaters, with the advent of genuine “humanness.” Without mythic soul irrigation, humans “turn habitat into money,” as long-time chronicler of Southwestern watersheds Jack Loeffler describes it, and succumb to the temptation of short-sighted economics and – among other things – of unthinking water drawdown:

This mythic landscape [of the American Southwest] is tinted with hues that emanate from the living Earth long associated with local deities who have danced here since time out of mind. Today’s economically driven paradigm of turning habitat into money not only devastates geophysical and atmospheric environments, it also results in the “opaque-ing” of the lens of mythic perspective, thus thwarting our intuitions of an immanence in our planet. Cultures indigenous to the American Southwest have evolved in ways commensurate with both physical and spiritual survival in this most arid of North American habitats. Their partnership with homeland is characterized by recognition of our species as part of, rather than separate from, this landscape we co-inhabit with our fellow species. Myth and ritual continuously evolve within the context of homeland. According to their creation myth, the history of the Hopi people begins in this world with their emergence from an earlier world through the Sipapuni that is located near the Little Colorado River upstream from the confluence with the Colorado River. [7]


The Little Colorado River

We need institutions, of course. We need policies. We need rules and sanctions. We need incentives, economic and social. We obviously need governance mechanisms. But what Loeffler’s words bring to the fore is that we also need – with equal urgency – a mythic re-anchoring of our souls in an irrigated inner landscape of meaning, so that all these institutions, policies, rules, sanctions, incentives and governance mechanisms can be deeply welcomed – rather than merely accepted grudgingly – by human beings infused with a hydrosophical love for flowing water. The unique contribution of the environmental humanities to conservation ecology and to environmental policy lies in this realm. This is not an optional realm; it is equally as important as hydrology, law, geomorphology, economics and political science.


The Colorado River in Black Canyon, on the NV-AZ state line

In the American Southwest, the Colorado River watershed offers one of the – if not the – most wide-ranging and relevant “case study” in which to carry out this quest for a hydrosophical perspective. As I wrote earlier, Southwestern Americans must set out on a quest for hydrosophical lifeways. This will happen only if the soul and mythical depth of flowing water opens Southwestern Americans’ hearts to concerns less immediate than growth, wealth, comfort or carefreeness.

And by asking themselves how a renewed – and therefore perhaps very ancient – reverence for the Colorado River can help them become, once more, infused with a hydrosophical love for flowing water, Southwestern Americans can play a crucial role in the future of humanity as a whole. It is within this prophetic and mythical perspective – a perspective so urgently needed for sustainability – that we can and should approach the Colorado River watershed as a vast wisdom-bearing landscape, as a prodigious network of wisdom-bearing beings.

Can a river (or a forest) “think,” and can it “feel”? Is a river (or a mountain) a “person,” does it have “rights”? If so, what do these words mean? Can we avoid lapsing into a crudely anthropomorphic stance – as the current “nonhuman turn” in ecology suggests we must? But is anthropomorphism really completely avoidable? If the health of a river is ultimately a matter of human attribution and attitudes, could the Colorado River watershed at least be inhabited, or re-inhabited, by hydrosophically-minded human beings – that is to say, human beings who have a deep emotional and mythic investment in the river’s “thoughts” and “feelings,” in its “personality” and its “rights”?


The Colorado River’s ‘Horseshoe Bend’ in Page, UT

If such human beings are to exist, a Southwestern hydrosophy emanating from the Colorado River watershed is called for. Like all other rivers, the Colorado will only be saved if, along with the creation of novel governance mechanisms and management principles, there emerges a sense of the sacred uniqueness of the River as a purveyor of wisdom (and not merely as an object of practical or prudential reason). Such sacredness is always – as argued in Loeffler’s passage – rooted in landscape and in “homeland.” The specific sacredness of the Colorado River is bound to be the sacredness of the Colorado as a river (and not a forest or a mountain) and of the Colorado (and not the Rio Grande or the Gila) as a river. Sacredness is not some abstract generality. Sacredness is inseparable from rootedness, from situatedness, from geomorphological and bioregional location – which is why the watershed (which includes the riverbed, the slopes leaning into it, but also the species inhabiting it and even, in certain Native American conceptions, the “volume” of atmosphere and troposphere above it) is an essential entity of existential meaning.

Somehow, Southwestern Americans might need to learn, or re-learn, to “think like a watershed,” to borrow the apt expression recently suggested by Jack and Celestia Loeffler. [8] And one major issue raised by that expression when it comes specifically to the Southwest is to integrate the “water wisdom” of the Native American tribes within the Colorado River watershed – of their contemporary members as well as their distant ancestors – and of the associated conceptions of Nature, multi-species community and sacredness, into this hydrosophical quest. [9]

It would be illegitimate and downright perilous to focus only on Anglo-European worldviews – which are largely responsible for the current situation of depletion and scarcity – when seeking hydrosophical lifeways. The interviews of tribal thinkers and practitioners gathered by the Loefflers show just how crucial Native American ecological knowledge is, today, for our collective future.

The all too numerous cases where Southwestern Native tribes were stripped of their ancestral water rights by incoming colonial interests [10] – many of whom eventually led into the situation of unsustainability we are grappling with now – demonstrate that there has, for a long time, been a contrary trend: more hydrosophical, and in particular less growth-oriented, lifeways such as those of Native inhabitants were seen as obstacles to projects that ultimately led to ecological imbalance, depletion and destruction.


[1] Donna M. Glowacki, Living and Leaving: A Social History of Regional Depopulation in Thirteenth-Century Mesa Verde, Tucson, AZ, University of Arizona Press, 2015.

[2] See, among others, José A. Rivera, Acequia Culture: Water, Land, and Community in the Southwest, Albuquerque, NM, University of New Mexico Press, 1998, and Juan Estevan Arellano, Enduring Acequias: Wisdom of the Land, Knowledge of the Water, Albuquerque, NM, University of New Mexico Press, 2014.

[3] Harvey L. Molotch, “The City as a Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place,” American Journal of Sociology 82: 309-330.

[4] David E. Stuart, Anasazi America: Seventeen Centuries on the Road from Center Place, second edition, Albuquerque, NM, University of New Mexico Press, 2014.

[5] William deBuys, A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, New York, NY, Oxford University Press, 2011.

[6] Brian Richter, Chasing Water: A Guide for Moving from Scarcity to Sustainability, Washington, D.C., Island Press, 2014, p. 6.

[7] Jack Loeffler, Healing the West: Voices of Culture and Habitat, Santa Fe, NM, Museum of New Mexico Press, 2008, p. 91.

[8] Jack Loeffler and Celestia Loeffler (eds), Thinking Like a Watershed: Voices from the West, Albuquerque, NM, University of New Mexico Press, 2015.

[9] See, among others, Gregory Cajete, Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education, Durango, CO, Kivaki Press, 1994 as well as Daniel Wildcat, Red Alert! Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge, Golden, CO, Fulcrum, 2009.

[10] See, for instance, Geoffrey O’Gara, What You See in Clean Water: Indians, Whites, and a Battle Over Water in the American West, New York, NY, 2000, as well as David H. DeJong, Stealing the Gila: The Pima Agricultural Economy and Water Deprivation, 1848-1921, Tucson, AZ, University of Arizona Press, 2009 and Forced to Abandon Our Fields: The 1914 Clay South Gila River Pima Interviews, Salt Lake City, UT, University of Utah Press, 2011.


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