Wednesday, February 2, 2022

The Secret Knowledge of Water, by Craig Childs

The Secret Knowledge of Water is Craig Childs’ love letter to the desert, to its hidden pools, nocturnal streams, and floods. In a land of scarcity, water seems more abundant, more alive, more alluring, than in wet places. Childs journeys out into desert areas armed with detailed maps, but he is seeking to be surprised, to discover pools described by John Wesley Powell in 1870, to sojourn in the lands of the Tohono O'Odham, native people who live in and with the desert. 

The book is divided into three sections, each with its own aspect of water. We begin with Ephemeral Water, in which he seeks the water hiding out in water pockets, rock crevices, and underground until heat and parch evaporate its remnants. The next section is Water That Moves, which relates the stories of streams, creeks, narrow canyons where water can hide from the relentless sun. And finally, perhaps most beloved to him, is Fierce Water, about floods. 

The tagline of the book is “There are two easy ways to die in the desert: thirst and drowning.” He doesn’t seem much at risk of dying of thirst, despite wandering for weeks in places with no likely water sources. Even when he finds some tiny water pocket with a brackish gallon in it, he leaves it untouched though he is thirsty – it’s a religious kind of response. But floods fascinate him, and by the end of the book we concur in his assessment that floods are as much part of the desert as aridity. 

He writes, “[Water] is not a true element; its atomic structure can be easily broken into Hs and Os, a fact that startled many at the time of its discovery. It behaves so curiously, however, able to move unlike anything else we know of, that it is still unscientifically considered to be an element.” He describes the fish that survive inhospitable conditions, and notes the interference of humans – “There have been cases of native desert fishes being actively poisoned out of waterways to make way for non-native sport fish.” He commiserates with a biologist who has spent decades in a losing battle to preserve these unique species. 

From a cafĂ© in Kanab, Utah, he watches a thunderstorm, its flash flood arriving to the nods of locals and consternation of tourists. “The water in the street suddenly turned from clear to deep red, the red of the Vermilion Cliffs that surround Kanab, flowing instantly with the viscosity of milk and not water. Objects began to show. Rocks. Uprooted plants... The narrow downstream box of Kanab Canyon was going to be a violent place in about two hours. Anyone hiking down there, or lounging on a boulder in blatant sunlight, was probably expecting the next noteworthy event to be nightfall.” 

Childs writes beautifully about everything he sees – the shapes water has left on rocks; the birds, fish, trees, insects; the sight of a far-off thunderstorm; the ragged forms of desert mountains – and about his own yen to experience water directly. Often he strips naked to explore some narrow side canyon or bask beside a huge pool in the middle of rocks, that shouldn’t even be there. As the American Southwest descends into long-term drought, it’s worth your while to learn more about water. This book is a great place to start.

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