We lived below a mountain in a small village in New Mexico on what was once river bottom. The river had long ago become shallow, tame, lowered into the high banks that we would carefully walk down to dip our feet or stand above to watch it wind around the base of the mountain. What was once river bottom was where our house sat and the land was packed with rounded river stones. Cottonwood trees which had fallen as they tend to do, had drifted north and caught on the rocks or tree roots along the banks.
Opposite our house, next to the road leading to the village, were high mesas of sandstone and granite, embedded high up with layers of river rock and huge boulders. Hundreds of years of monsoon rains had eroded the soil into deep chasms littered with the huge rocks that had tumbled into their depths from the force of water. Soil had been eroded from the cliff faces to expose the underlying boulders, too small a word to describe their size. They hung precariously and always seemed on the verge of falling onto the road. Once, after a good rain, a man working on our house caught sight of one sliding a few feet down the slope to rest against a juniper where it stayed for the rest of our years there. There was talk of engineering a barrier to hold back a particularly threatening boulder looming over the highway but nothing came of it. I kept a pair of binoculars on the windowsill to keep an eye on things in general and that rock in particular.
Our meek and burbling river, which shrank to almost a rivulet in dry summers, started in the Sangre de Christo mountains to our south. It gently meandered its way to the Rio Grande about a mile north of us, with diversions along the way to fill the irrigation ditches and passed under a road and highway on its journey to the big river. Every July we waited for the monsoons to come and make the river look like a river again.
One day, after a steady downpour which tapered to a fine rain, I turned to the window in my studio to see that the river had become a muddy maelstrom and had risen to the top of the banks. Outside, the odor of mud was the first thing that hit me, as if I had fallen face first into a black swamp of decaying organic matter. The author, Craig Childs, has written about this phenomenon so beautifully in his book “The Secret Knowledge of Water”: “…a raging dun-colored water that smells of all the villages and lives upstream that have been consumed.” (p. 173).
I ran to our bridge, a solid wood and iron masterpiece that was our only way out from the property, watching as gas cans, beer cans, drink bottles, plastic jugs, tires, sheet metal roofing and fence posts were carried along in the brown insistence of water. Enormous tree branches and trunks were like twigs tossed up and down in the turbulence. A cottonwood trunk, about 15 feet long, heaved under our bridge missing the cross planks by a foot. I could hear the clacking sounds of boulders like giant dice being rolled under the water. Within twenty-four hours the river had gentled enough for us to survey the damage and the changes the water had brought with it. Once familiar boulders were gone or re-positioned downstream. New sandbars had appeared. A big cottonwood log which had been tangled in the roots of another tree for years had been torn away. Corrugated metal roofing and cans had to be cleared from the river and sandbars. On a sandy bank I found a pair of eyeglasses.
After a deluge, cars would be backed up on the road leading into town, waiting for the water to cease flooding the arroyo and the metal culverts and flowing over the small bridge that spanned the arroyo. They also had to wait for the road graders to push the mud and rocks back to the edges of the mountains and mesas.
A young man, a father, would not wait and pulled around the line of cars to cross the bridge. He and his passenger were instantly swept over the guardrails and into the arroyo. He did not survive the water and mud that tipped the small car and buried him. When the engineers rebuilt the culverts and bridge after this incident, they worked carefully around the small cross and plastic flowers – a descanso – marking the site of his death. For days afterward, we would see the half-buried car lying on its side in the rock and sand below when we drove past.
If there is such a being as God, we are told he is willing to forgive us if we ask. People who love us will forgive us many times over the course of our lives and we take it as a gift. We even must forgive ourselves for our hurtful ways which is a more difficult gift to accept. Water, with all its unpredictable power, does not forgive the choices of the uninformed or impulsive to test its power against themselves. It has no regard for the innocent and undeserving or the foolish who underestimate it.
Water changes the land, changes what is familiar to us. It diminishes the mountains through erosion, carves new channels, deepens old ones, rearranges landmarks, opens sinkholes and washes away cliffs. The boulders of ancient riverbeds and the chasms in mountains are manifestations of water. The descansos on the side of the roads and the arroyos, which will fill and flood again, are the memory of people whom the water changed forever.
NB: I owe a great deal to Craig Childs, an explorer and scholar of the Southwest and its history. You can check out his books, writing and photographs on his website: http://www.houseofrain.com.