In 2010 I applied to United World College. During the selection interview, the woman speaking with me asked how I would be an ambassador for the United States. What would I tell someone about the culture of the US? “Well,” I said, “I wouldn’t tell them about Wal-mart and corporate America, I’d tell them about the land.” To me, a Western kid, the landscape was home. My nationalism was entangled with my sense of place; it was a spiritual, conscious relationship with the vast expanse of high mountain desert—the plains specked with turquoise sage and chamisa, the redolent ponderosa forests, wildflowers and alpine meadows, and the cascading barrancas, fractal slot-canyons carved out of ancient sediment.
What I didn’t tell her about were the rivers. Why? It’s complicated, but in short I have always been afraid of water, particularly natural, wild, free water. It took me until I was 13 to swim in a lake. My family took a trip out to Lake Almanor in California, and the night after my first swim, I dreamt of massive, grotesque fish writhing toward me in the dark water. I remember that ferocious dream, but the most vivid memory of that trip is driving over the Hoover Dam, looking down hundreds of feet of concrete slab into dwindling Lake Mead, and over the other side at the Colorado flowing out toward the Sea of Cortez. How do you wrangle a river? You pour a big pile of stone in its way. I remember a sinking feeling in my stomach: why would we do that? Then we drove through Las Vegas… Oh.
I didn’t understand the powerful emotional response I had to being on that dam. It felt like betrayal. How could we treat such a beautiful, free river so badly? How could we jail it up behind a big wall? It went against my values, values that developed during my experiences exploring the Southwest—hiking Wheeler Peak in Taos, living for a week in the Pecos wilderness, watching the sun set red and purple over the hazy blue of the San Juan Mountains. My sense of place boiled up.
Now, in Maine, I’m a few blocks from the Atlantic, a twenty minute run to the nearest swimming hole, and a ten minute prep before getting in my kayak… it’s a long way from home. That old fear of water is transformed. I’m still uncomfortable with water, I still get nervous about it, but my that fear is now based out of respect and uncertainty. Water worked itself into my poetry—Waterfall: senescent in vapor/ death in dispersion/ coalescent aground/ revived in river. It found its way into my life at school—I joined a sea kayaking program, started playing water polo, and found myself regularly swimming in the sea and local ponds.
This past winter I lived and studied in Yucatán, Mexico. There I found a very unique water reality. There are no rivers in the Yucatán–, instead a complex system of groundwater that flows through a sponge-like network of limestone caverns. While there, I was invited to live in the home of an indigenous family, descendants of the Mayan civilizations that occupied that particular region of Mesoamerica. The family I lived with practices the traditional method of agriculture, called the Milpa. Similar to permaculture, the Milpa incorporates water catchment and other techniques to grow corn, beans, and squash all on one parcel fed by rainfall. In the yard of the house was a solár where there are fruit trees, herbs, chili, and animals. The Milpa relies entirely on yearly cycles of rain, and recently those rains have not been coming at the usual time of year. The climatic changes make farming very hard, and many people stop working on the land to migrate North and work for wages in the US.
My host father, Bernardo, is a local cultural and environmental activist in addition to being a farmer. My dad in New Mexico is a climate scientist, a physical oceanographer (the irony! an oceanographer in the desert, but I promise it’s true); he models ocean climate circulation using complex computer programs. I thought that my dad and Bernardo might have an interesting conversation, so I invited them to talk on Skype. My dad explained that the changing rainy season is partially due to unreliable circulation in the Pacific Ocean causing unstable climate in the region of the Gulf of Mexico. Bernardo explained to us how integral the water cycle is to the Milpa, and how Milperos (farmers) understand the normal dynamics of the weather systems in profound detail, but much of that knowledge doesn’t apply within our changing climate.
Bernardo’s depth of understanding from tradition and experience amazed me, but even more staggering was his dedication to maintaining the traditional ways and sensibilities, despite great adversity and poverty. The Mayan Milperos have a most intimate connection and understanding of their place. They can teach others so much about how to live in a reciprocal, sustainable relationship with the land, yet they are at the mercy of the elements, humanity, and the earth—how do we address this? If my experience in the Yucatan showed me anything, it is the profound interconnection we as humans have to one another through the places we inhabit. If there is any time for us to come together in local and global communities to carry on a discourse about our ways of life in relation to the environment, the time is now.
The past five years away from home proved incredibly transformative. My values, aspirations, and consciousness grew and developed tremendously. Last summer I decided to go home in order to reinvigorate my ties with the western lands and communities. I applied for an internship at a letterpress print shop that publishes books and poetry by local writers. A student of literature, my objective was to reinterpret the role of the arid landscape in shaping my life’s path and to look to those who study its beauty and depth for guidance. What to make of the hoodoo rocks and red canyons, blue mountains, and muddy-whitewater rivers?
I wanted to draw, write, and talk about the place with those who ruminate over its cultural and terrestrial complexity, beauty, and depth. The literary community was a perfect entry, full of people who live creative, holistic livelihoods on the land. I was told numerous times to read Edward Abbey, and so the first week I went looking at the local bookstore. I asked the clerk to show me the Abbey section. She smiled big and said, “I think there’s someone you ought to meet.” She brought me over to a little sitting area where there sat a bearded man with gleaming blue eyes. “Jack,” he said, stretching out his hand in salutation. I noticed that he was dressed to run a river. “Galen,” I said, and we were off.
We talked about school, and I explained to him that my major is Human Ecology, the study of interconnectivity and the relationships that humans have with our environments. He laughed huge with approval. He asked if I knew anything about the environmental movement. “Just a little bit,” I said, only what I’d picked up through studying literature, poetry, theater, and social justice. I told him I wanted to learn more. With a great deal of humility, Jack told me that his best friend to ever walk the earth was none other than Ed Abbey.
What did I just walk into?
Jack recommended that I read Abbey’s book Desert Solitaire first. I did, and I also read Jack’s memoir Adventures with Ed. At the end of summer, I wrote Jack to have a last meeting. There he gave me two very important gifts. The first was a map of the western United States drawn by John Wesley Powell when he was the head of the US Geologic Survey. The map shows a grouping of western states arranged not by straight lines across the desert, but by carefully conceived boundaries encompassing watershed regions. The organic shapes of the watersheds represent bundles of local resources to be governed consciously and respectfully to create “a great body of commonwealths” where water would not have to be transported from one region to another. The second gift Jack gave me was a book, Thinking Llike a Watershed, which he and his daughter Celestia wrote together. The book is an anthology of essays and interviews with Southwesterners addressing Powell’s idea, indigenous notions of water, and the importance of rivers in the arid West.
Just like that, it clicked. My love of that landscape, blue sky to sandy-wash, is only possible because of a few rivers that water every living thing in that great dry expanse. The water isn’t just life-blood, it is what carved the beautiful features of the land. Humbly, I ask, in a world of climate instability, pollution, and massive human population, how does our sense of place affect the way we use our most essential natural resource, freshwater?
I am not specialized in environmental law, riparian ecology, or hydropolitics. I am a writer, a storyteller, an explorer, and a reverent student of the landscape—places and their people.
In this project I will explore three rivers in three distinct regions of the world: the arctic north, high mountains to a tropical lowland delta, and far southern desert, dry as bone. In all of these places, fresh, moving water is invaluable. Rivers not only provide food, drinking water, transport, and energy, but are a scaffold that supports immense and diverse ecologies. Today the global demand for fresh water is high, and in order to steward the rivers that provide us nourishment, place, and beauty, we must have respect for one another, our fellow creatures, and the water itself. Across the three unique geographies, I seek to understand the people’s senses of place and how their values affect the state of the waters.
A sense of place is a construct, an amalgam of memory, experience, language, and knowledge that synergizes into a way of being. We humans foster these connections every day—on a farm, in a busy downtown intersection, or on the bank of a wild river. The sense of place is an important factor in how we construct value systems: someone who grew up in the countryside will have a different relationship with the environment than somebody who grew up in a city and has never been outside its limits.
Values vary with socioeconomics, history, politics, occupation, religion. We are in the Anthropocene, and humanity is a major force that defines the landscape. In this context our value systems, particularly the ones concerned with ecology and the natural environment, are supremely important. Our everyday actions have consequences that might jeopardize those values; my flying to school from New Mexico to Maine contributes to melting polar ice and a rising sea that could flood many people’s homes. If you dam the river here, what will happen to people in the floodplain? Downstream? Along the seacoast? In a globalized world, it’s easy to disconnect from what is local, but we must remember that the globe is a puzzle of localities. With such great collective power we create injustice, pollution, and dramatic environmental change. How do humans reckon with such responsibility?
To begin exploring this gargantuan question, I intend to live and voyage around three watersheds, living with locals and looking at freshwater as a commons—a necessity that unifies people. How do people treat the water? Are they conscious of their neighbors? Is there an effort to steward the waters? I will not try to ask people what is your sense of place and how does that affect the river, for that question will not make sense to everyone. Rather, I will participate in the day-to-day lives of the people I encounter, helping them in any way that I can. I will chart these experiences with a form called poetic cartography—a web of poetry, drawings, photographs, and film that will allow me to process and reflect on the ideas of the people, the sensations of the places, and the complex dynamics of the natural world of which we humans are an integral part.
Torne River – August 1-October 15 – Sweden, Finland
The Torne River (Torneälven) is one of the last dam-free rivers in Europe. It runs between Sweden and Finland, and in 2009 the countries developed a bilateral policy to manage the Torne. The agreement is concerned with the health of the ecology, land, water, and both nations. I will visit a Sami community, Jokkmokk, to learn about the way that people indigenous to the area interact with the landscape. I will visit agricultural lands. I will go to Stockholm for the World Water Week from August 28 to September 2, a place to meet kindred spirits and learn about work being done with water all over the globe. While living up North, I will ask: why manage the river jointly? Is the bilateral agreement honored? Are other rivers here treated with such respect? How will Finland and Sweden adapt to significant climatic changes? Are the Sami people included in the political discourse?
Ganges and Yamuna Rivers – October 15-April 15 – Nepal, India
Flowing from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges River and its main tributary, the Yamuna, are recognized as supreme goddesses in Hinduism. Because of the enormous expanse of physical and cultural geography, I will spend the most time along the Ganges focused on spirituality in relation to ecologic health and economic development. I will start in Dharamshala, home of the Dali Lama and many displaced Tibetan Buddhists. What does it mean to be displaced? How does displacement affect one’s relationship with the land? How is the landscape reflected in Buddhism? To further these questions, I will visit Nepal whose three main river systems, the Koshi, Gandaki, and Karnali, all flow into the Ganges. Next I will travel to Varanasi to learn about Hindu spiritual connections to the Ganges and the environmental state of the river. Much of the Ganges is polluted with sewage and industrial waste far beyond what is legally acceptable in the US, and yet Hindus believe that it purifies all who bathe in its waters and that the remains of the deceased must be committed to the river in order to reach heaven. Along the way I will ask: what is the meaning of this river? Who are the goddesses Ganga and Yamuna? For what industry is the river used? Why is sewage dumped in such volume into the water? What do you experience in its waters? Who takes care of the river? In April, at the end of my journey in India, I will attend Kumbh Mela, a pilgrimage of millions of people who travel to the confluence of the Yamuna and Ganges to be purified by the water.
Loa River – April 15-July 31 – Chile
The Loa River is the life force in the second driest place on Earth after Antarctica, the Atacama Desert. Fed by snowfall from nearby volcanoes, the Loa supports a number of small, isolated towns that are home to the Atacameño people, descendents of cultures such as the Tiwanaku, who managed to survive for thousands of years with a flow that is a crystal sliver in the desolate landscape. The Atacameño peoples have a deep respect for the river, and in the traditional way of life the river is treated as a commons because it is the only freshwater source. To survive, the people had to share and be sparing. In the last decades, mining has played an increasingly prominent role in the region, shifting the culture from subsistence farming to a market economy. With the changing climate, the potential for drought and further desertification in the Atacama is high. I will ask: what are the traditional ways of conserving water? How does one farm in the desert? How is it to work in a mine? Having done a Spanish immersion program in Mexico, Chile offers an opportunity to have a deeper connection with the people through a shared language. I want to live for a significant time in the communities of Chiu Chiu and Lasana. Perhaps this will allow me to return to New Mexico with new ways of thinking about how to use water in an arid place.
Watersheds are vast, and though the structure of the project allows time to settle into some places, I will have to work to immerse myself everywhere. To deeply connect with the people and explore the landscape, I know I must be flexible, generous, and unassuming with my own time. As for language, the Torne and the Ganga present the greatest challenges. I am dedicated to learning the fundamentals of the common languages before I travel, and in some places I will encounter English speakers, but I understand that I will have to be resourceful in order to communicate, even hiring an interpreter at some stages. I am a resilient and adaptive traveler, and I am eager to create a reciprocal relationship with those who host and help me along my path. This project is about human connection, connection to one another and to place. My primary role is to interact wholeheartedly with the people and places I encounter in order to learn and to carry that wisdom with me so that one day I may pay it forward.