In late September or early October, the first snow falls in the mountains of Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico. At first, the snow melts before the next storm hits. Eventually though, snowfall exceeds melt. As the weeks go by, storm after storm hits the mountains. The snow stacks up to 10, 20, even 30 feet in places. A tremendous amount of water is stored on top of the mountains! When spring arrives, days warm above freezing and the snow starts to melt. For several weeks, new snow more than makes up for the melt. But as spring progresses and temperatures warm, melting wins out. What once formed a white layer for as far as the eye could see begins running downhill. The melt water flows in sheets over land, then it comes together to form small rills. Rills merge and form riverlets. The riverlets flow downhill, all the while slowly eroding canyons and valleys into the mountainsides. Riverlets join riverlets to form streams. Streams join streams to form rivers. And eventually, all the water from the watershed merges together and flows to the sea in one, single mighty river. It is a gathering of waters.
At least that is the way it is supposed to work. In the desert southwest of the United States, water is scarce and water use is heavy. Some of our rivers no longer reach the sea. The Colorado River has been the poster child of overuse. It has been decades since water regularly flowed all the way to the Gulf of California. An interesting experiment was started this spring to re-establish flow to the Gulf through controlled release of water from the giant reservoirs on the river. We will see how that works out over the next several years. The Rio Grande, which starts in southern Colorado and flows through New Mexico on its way to the Gulf of Mexico like the Colorado River, at times goes dry before it reaches its destination.
Last year, a group of people in New Mexico decided to restore the flow of the Rio Grande. They wanted to see that at least some water in the river made it to the Gulf. A canteen was carried to the headwaters of the Rio Grande and partially filled. Then the canteen was carried downstream. At each confluence with another stream, the original group of people met other people who had a small amount of water of that stream’s headwater. The waters were mixed in the canteen. All the way down the river, people brought water from tributaries to the canteen. Eventually, the canteen was carried to the mouth of the Rio Grande where the contents were poured into the Gulf of Mexico. The gathering of the waters of the Rio Grande was complete.
Sharon and I had the opportunity to visit the desert southwest and the Rio Grande basin this past April. As it turned out, I had business with the American Water Works Association which required me to be in Denver from March 30 through April 2. And what the heck, if you are going to drive 800 miles you might as well stay a while. By chance, there was a workshop titled “A Gathering of Waters: Human Relationship with Water” scheduled for the following weekend at the Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico. This workshop was a follow-up to the original gathering from last year. Sharon and I had been looking for the right chance to visit the Ghost Ranch for a couple of years. And this was the perfect opportunity. I could juxtapose the highly technical aspects of my AWWA committee work with the more spiritual side of water.
Abiquiu is famous for being the New Mexico home of artist Georgia O’Keefe and the subject of many of her paintings. The Ghost Ranch is a 23,000-acre retreat owned by the Presbyterian Church; it sits adjacent to O’Keefe’s home. Ghost Ranch offers spiritual retreats and workshops on a variety of topics through the spring, summer and fall. Our workshop started Friday evening right after dinner.
The terrain around the Ghost Ranch is high desert. It is the kind of country where Wile E. Coyote chased Road Runner through hundreds of cartoons. We arrived shortly before noon on Friday. Since we couldn’t check in until 3 p.m., we took a hike out to Chimney Rock. Chimney Rock is one of dozens of hoodoos, large columnar rocks at the edge of the mesas, in the ranch. It was cool and breezy; the temperature was in the 40’s. We climbed up toward the Mesa. The climb warmed us quickly. No one else was on the trail. The vista just kept getting bigger and bigger, with seemingly dozens if not hundreds of square miles of nothing. At lunchtime, we found a big rock to shelter us from the wind and settled in. The sun kept us warm. We made little burritos out of tortilla, avocados and tomatoes. Shortly after lunch, we topped out on the Mesa and walked over to Chimney Rock. I snapped a few photos and Sharon sketched a gnarly old juniper tree. Then we wandered back down to the ranch and checked in.
Accommodations at the Ghost Ranch are, well, rustic, but entirely appropriate for the setting. Our neighbors were also settling in. She was a retired Episcopal priest and an artist. He was retired engineer. We were friends right off the bat.
Our workshop started Friday evening with a reproduction of the “Gathering.” We had all been told in emails to bring water from our home. Unfortunately, the email didn’t arrive until Monday prior to the Gathering and we were already on the road. Fortunately, Sharon had a bottle of Beaver Water District water in the car. We put that bottle aside and filled another bottle with Denver water for drinking. During the introductory session of the Gathering, each of us, in turn, presented our water by describing its origin and something interesting about its watershed. Then we poured our water into a communal urn. In addition to my water from the White River, there was water from Minnesota, Illinois, Colorado, California, New Mexico and Queensland, Australia. Artist Basia Irland brought a bottle of pee that she said represented the way we treat water. (Visit basiairland.com for more about her work.) Fortunately, she graciously declined to pour her bottle into the communal urn, which would be used later in the workshop.
I took a short walk out through the desert before breakfast Saturday morning. There is something about the desert southwest that brings out the spiritual side of people. Maybe it is the inherent natural beauty of the desert region. I also find the natural beauty of the Ozark Mountains unsurpassed, but my spiritual experience differs from the mountains to the desert. It’s hard to explain. Maybe it’s the fact that a person is never far from death in the desert. Maybe it’s the solitude and silence. Or perhaps there really is something spiritual going on. Regardless, I’ve concluded that the desert southwest experience is unique unto itself. I suggest you visit there, if you haven’t already, and make up your own mind.
But back to my story … . After my walk, we all met for breakfast in the dining hall. Then we wandered over to the meeting room. Not surprisingly since we were in New Mexico, most of the presentations centered on the value of water in a water scarce region. Of particular interest to me were the presentations by Dr. Sue Jackson from Griffith University in Queensland and Dr. Jose Rivera from the University of New Mexico. Dr. Jackson’s presentation was on the significance of water to the indigenous people of Australia. Dr. Rivera gave a discussion of New Mexico’s Asequias. Asequias are hand dug canals that carry water from snow pack in the mountains to irrigated crops. Everybody that belonged to an Asequia was entitled to use water in proportion to the amount of land that they cultivated. The one requirement was that to use the water, you had to participate in the annual cleanout of the Asequia — no work, no water. Asequias distributed water equably to farmers in New Mexico for centuries. It was a sustainable system governed by local citizens. Other presentations included the use of art to spread the message of water, water ethics, and the discontinuities and outright contradictions of New Mexico water law. That evening we watched the video “Watershed,” produced by the Redford Center. (Watch the movie at redfordcenter.org.)
Sunday started with another hike. This time Sharon accompanied me and we walked out into a box canyon. The canyon sat between two mesas. Nearly shear walls rose on each side. There was a small arroyo down the middle of the canyon. This arroyo was the source of water for the Ghost Ranch. If you followed the canyon all the way to the end, the two mesas merged to form the “box.” We hiked all the way to the end of the box canyon a couple of years ago, but this time we stopped at the first creek crossing and turned back. Back at the ranch, we gathered for another great breakfast and then headed back out to the box canyon to build a medicine water wheel.
The medicine wheel is sacred in Native American culture. The wheels have been used for millennia in traditional ceremonies. The wheel, according to Wikipedia, represents the never-ending cycle of life. That is entirely appropriate since about everything in our ecosystem follows a cycle of some sort. The term “medicine” does not refer to medicine you get from the local pharmacy. The term refers to the vital force of nature and to the personal power within each and every one of us. My understanding of the function of the wheel then is that it focuses the force of nature onto its surrounding area, but only if we use our personal power to activate the wheel.
The medicine water wheel is a relatively new phenomenon. The history that we were given was that prior to World War II, medicine men of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest disappeared into the mountains each spring and conducted ceremonies at the headwaters of important water sources. Those ceremonies helped to protect the flow and quality of the vital waters in the valleys below. After the war, the tradition was lost. Concurrently, the quantity and quality of waters in the regional streams began to degrade. During the 1960s, elders of the northwestern Native Americans instituted the medicine water wheel ceremony to reconnect mankind to the natural cycle of water. The wheel is an appropriate symbol as water moves in a great cycle around the earth, the hydrologic cycle.
According to Marshall Jack (goldeneagleceremonies.com), the purpose of the medicine water wheel is to “energize, celebrate and honor water.” The medicine water wheel is also a place to “deepen our relationship with the spirit of water.” Golden Eagle Ceremonies has initiated a project to “create a web of 172,000 Water Wheels linked together across the planet that serves to renew our sacred relationship with water.” Our medicine water wheel at the Ghost Ranch completed 1/172,000th of the vision. Unfortunately, I had to get back to Northwest Arkansas so I didn’t get to stick around for the dedication ceremony. Next time I will plan better.
I personally cannot say what is sacred and what is not. My background is Judeo-Christian strongly influenced by Greco-Roman logic and reductionist science. However, even in my Judeo-Christian heritage, water is frequently used in Christian sacraments and symbolism. I venture out into speculation here, but my opinion is that the biggest challenge we face as water resource managers today is to get people to think about and value water. With that said, one might determine that anything that helps us renew our sacred relationship with water — even a medicine water wheel ceremony — has got to be a good thing.