Rio Grande

Great River
roiling through history

timescales –
geologic
ecologic
human

I try to imagine
Rio Grande,
Rio Bravo del Norte,
back 10 million years

9.99 million without people
give or take

my view is
narrow
as human memory, yet
broad
as a desert river

this place is so complicated
so many cultures colliding
striving for existence
like strata in an Abiquiu cliff wall
black, yellow, red, white, green

in the culture collision
everyone needs
water
and people are so good
at finding water
that we’ve made the river dry
threaten the landscape –
we’ve nearly stolen the blood
from the red earth

river engineering
oil & gas
big agriculture
capitalism
& a frenzy of growth
endangers
the water
the land

the struggle for life
for a living river
for environmental justice
has never been stronger
has never been more
vital

and so we fight

__

After some time without an entry, I want to update you all on developments in my life.

The Rio Grande is one of the most endangered rivers in the United States. It runs nearly 2,000 miles from southern Colorado through the heart of New Mexico and becomes the US-Mexico border from El Paso, Texas to the Gulf. Home to diverse peoples and ecologies, the Rio Grande is integral to the regional environment. As with many desert rivers, it is over-appropriated and over-engineered. Water conservation and changes in management are essential if we want a prosperous future here.

In 2015-16, I lived in and studied the communities around the Rio Chama, a major tributary of the Rio Grande. That experience opened my eyes to the challenges of managing water in the arid Southwest. Here, water’s scarcity adds amplitude to its cultural and communal importance and makes its management contentious and complex.

Six weeks ago I accepted a job as a campaigner for the Rio Grande with WildEarth Guardians and the Wild Rivers Program. Guardians is an environmental nonprofit based in my hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico that works for environmental justice throughout the American West.

The guardians are a cohort of advocates, attorneys, and environmentalists who protect wildlife, wildlands, and wild rivers – they also fight to end fossil fuel use and promote a clean energy future. Guardians’ effective strategies led to many successes over the past 30 years including the listing of over 800 species under the Endangered Species Act and critical milestones in getting instream flows for the Rio Grande.

The Wild Rivers Program is directed by Jen Pelz, an experienced water attorney and advocate. Under her leadership, the program aims to protect endangered rivers and ensure that these rivers can continue to act as the ecological foundation that they are in an era of humanity’s excesses. My focus will be on the Rio Grande as we work to promote water conservation and to modernize the policies that govern the river so that the Great River will remain so.

With eagerness for the hard work ahead, I begin the job tomorrow. Cheers to a new year and new beginnings. I will write again soon with more details, but now you know where to find me.

Please visit the Guardians website at wildearthguardians.org, follow on Twitter @wildearthguard and feel free to email me at ghecht@wildearthguardians.org

Homecoming

 

Middle America

A river’s leisure

My mother’s home

Where the corn

And black eyed susans

Ear and eye forever

And Chicago

Steals the show

Glimmering

On Lake Michigan night

 

New England

Maine land

Where my ancestors

Early for Europeans

Set foot on

Rocky coast

That watershed moment

Where the fingers

Of the sea

Are laced upon land

Pondering the tide

Where I learned

To be a grown person

To plant seeds

To read forests

That a small farm

Is as rich with lessons

As a hall of brick and ivy

 

Driving

With my second half

In a fishhook

Of the American West

The vastness

The rocky spine

Of Colorado Plateau

The shark tooth Tetons

Afire above Aspen

Populus Tremuloides

Bursting gold

Rustling

FullSizeRender

The once Oregon Territory

We followed the Snake River

Then the Columbia

Such a work of earth

And fire in the gorge

Tea with my grandma

Gardener’s dream

 

To the California coast

Lost among

Sequoia

Jack pine

Poison oak

Douglas fir

Lone Pine

Snyder’s words

Sinkyone

Joni Mitchell

Internet

Airshow

Music

Hardly strictly

Nothing

Brother

 

 

My brother lives in Berkeley

He is a painter

We worked on his bicycle

And drank watermelon juice

Such nectar

FullSizeRender 7

Drove south

Chased by fire

Through Pacific night

Through Salinas

Listening to Steinbeck

Passed LA

At midnight

Into the desert

 

Phoenix sun

Is reborn a day

And grandparents

Illuminate

The good of life

Without ignoring

The bad

 

We ate sushi in Scottsdale

And then gelato

 

The Grand Canyon

A stop too much for

Words

FullSizeRender 2

Colorado River

Fertile ground

For the revelation

That made this life

The best landscape painter

In all the Southwest

The mud rapid runner

I just wanted

To wash my face

 

Then home

It still feels like home

Santa Fe

Where parents

Bring musicians

Where clay and chords

Entwine harmonious

And early morning

Smells of piñon pitch

Juniper smoke

Green chile roasting

Aspen leaves

Chamisa brush

I had a fragrant childhood

FullSizeRender 8

The Press

Taught me freedom

Bluesky

Taught me infinity

Red earth

Taught me time

 

Nothing in land

Everything inland

Even outland

Is homeground

And I am homecoming

 

Welcome Home

Walking on the green grass

A buzz overhead

A plane flying by

With a large banner.

I read it:

$3000 Dollar Breast Implants

But no phone number

What if I want breast implants?

I remember another sign

That I saw in the morning:

Welcome to the United States

Welcome Home.

Meat

I walk to the corral

Outside Antonio

Clears gravel and sand

From an area the size

Of a sheep

And digs a small hole

On one side

 
I follow him through

The pallet gate

And stand by

While he finds

The one
Roughly he grabs it

Holding its forelegs

Walks it to the gate

Through and onto the ground
Tells me to tie the legs

And I fumble

He gets tense, tenser

I continue to fumble,

Bastante, says he,

Enough
I hold the legs together

Tight
Antonio draws the knife

Clean over the neck

Again and again
Fire ignites in the legs

I can’t hold on

And the movement is wild

Spastic
We step back

And the small hole

Becomes a red puddle

And the bloods seeps in sand

Like water to the aquifer
I feel so grateful

For the life of this sheep

For the meals it gives us

For the cycles that brought

Us to this moment of siege

The taking of life
Then it is still

And we put the fluffy

Thing in the wheel barrow

To bring it over to

The butcher table

And the sweet birds

Sing the funeral song

As the day begins

Atacama — El Río Loa

La tierra del sol y cobre–
Once a storm of sandstone 

Had a seabed churning

Waving at the heavens
Now it is

Lost of its sea
As though

San Pedro, San Pablo

Miño, Láscar

The volcanoes

Burst at once

Melted the ocean

And left 

La tierra del sol y cobre
Left the marbled earth

To bake in the southern sun

A crucible of copper

And quebradas

Canyons

Carved of wind 

And water

The little that remains
One morning, still sleepy eyed, gravity decides to abandon you. Thinking that you are just drifting back into a dream, you leave your chair at the breakfast table, rise above the toast and jam, boiled eggs and coffee, reach out to get one last sip of java as a bit sloshes out and stains your nice shirt. Now you know you’re awake. You feel anxious to be late for work, to be wearing slippers rather than shoes as you float out the window into public airspace, there is a bit of toothpaste on your face, as you rise, and rise, and rise straight up, above the neighborhood, watching all the other people down there doing people things, bringing their kids to school, walking the dog. What will I tell my boss? Did I leave the damn stove on? 
But as you witness the slow unfolding of earth below, the patches of green, the blue of the sea, the curve of the horizon against the forbidding black of space, you forget those worries, and you see this planet in all its humble and thrilling form with the clouds rolling over you like a swimming pool of egyptian cotton, and speaking of Egypt, there it is, the brown and brown and brown of earth, the little pyramids and the stretch of green, that long thread of life we call the Nile. And then around you go, past India where you smell the sweet spice of Madras and the indian ocean and the climbers on Mt Everest up north look like little lego people, and the Earth is spinning and you feel dizzy, and over the Pacific Ocean, what if I fall in there?? And then South America, and over the red flowing sediment of the desert an earsplitting roar comes out of nowhere, and a jet airplane rushes by. In the intense adrenaline of that moment, time slows to a crawl, and as the turbulence around the Boeing 737 shakes your very bones, you see me and my curly hair and wide eyes, ogling out the window at the desert below, and you think, what on earth has this kid on such a sugar rush about this barren land that looks like the coffee stain on my shirt?
Well, here I am, alive in the desert. And I want to tell you why I am so excited about it. 


Stretching west from the Andes, from southern Peru and southwestern Bolivia, through northern Chile and Argentina, along 600 miles of Southern Pacific coast is the Atacama. Marked by high peaks and volcanoes, enormous salt flats, canyons wandering through the sandstone, and hundreds of mines active and abandoned, the Atacama is often recognized as the driest place on earth. But for Antarctica, this is true, yet the Atacama has supported humans living here for 13,000 years or more. Atacameño peoples have made the oases of this desert home, cultivating the arid soil with water from the slightest of rivers, or vertientes and ojos de agua, desert springs falling from the cliffs or welling up out of nowhere. Civilizations like Tiahuanaco and the Incas traded and at times had sovereignty over communities in the desert, using the great wealth of mineral resources and access to the sea to their advantage. 
I was drawn here on my geopoetic quest by the lore of Río Loa, Chile’s longest river, which tumbles and winds its way from the fractured rise of Miño Volcano through 440km of desert until it meets the Pacific. The Río Loa and its tributaries are truly remarkable. Fed at once by snowmelt from the peaks, and by springs and geothermal upwellings, even geysers, the river, apart from its staggering canyons, is not what many people would recognize as a river. In the abundance of water of New England for example, Río Loa would be no more than a brook, but here, it is everything. 


When I flew into Calama, I was relieved to breathe the crisp desert air, air that reminded me so much of home in New Mexico. Outside, the sun was hot, and with this sensation, I felt the twisting of seasons having just entered austral autumn, coming from the northern winter. Not only that, it was my first time across the equator. 
Doña Virginia Panire, a friend of my professor from College of the Atlantic, Patricia Ayala Rocabado generously offered to pick me up at the airport. Doña Virginia came and met me, explaining that she had arranged for me to stay at her sister’s home in town. On the way, we stopped at El Parque Loa, Loa Park, and I got my first real glimpse of the river. The city has put up some small dams to create a swimming hole in the river, and there are places to walk and sit on either side. The flow is not very dramatic, but Doña Virginia told me that in February there was a lot of rain in the mountains and the river rose enormously. I learned that this is a feature of the “Bolivian Winter” when during El Niño years, the Andes receive lots of precipitation from the pacific.
 Doña Virginia started telling me about the region as we walked around, pointing out a replica of a church in Chiu Chiu, the oldest church in Chile, and some of the mountains and volcanoes around the area, San Pedro and San Pablo, and Paniri, a mountain with which Doña Virginia shares her family name. She explained to me that their family is rooted in Turi and Ayquina, villages to the east near Paniri, and that they only live in Calama so that their kids can attend school. 


From Parque Loa we drove to the house where Doña Irma, Virginia’s sister was waiting. She showed me my room, which is actually a studio for spinning and weaving wool. I felt so welcome and their warmth was remarkable, treating my as a friend before we all remembered each other’s names. 
Over the following days I learned that Doña Irma and her husband Don Rene have three boys, Matias, Juan, and Tomas, and Doña Virginia has one, David. All of the kids play music, Andean music with various groups here in Calama. I learned that Doña Irma is working with wool for a living, and Don Rene worked in the hospital for many years as a paramedic, and now he and Doña Irma run a hotel/restaurant in Ayquina on the weekends, and he does construction work and all kinds of things during the week.
On Thursday we went to the Calama shopping mall to see the opening of a product that Doña Irma worked on called Volvimos a Tejer, “Back to Knitting.” It is a bag that comes with three balls of yarn made from a sheep and alpaca wool blend, and knitting needles. It also has instructions about how to knit. Doña Irma and her friends spin the wool for the bags, and it is sold in big department stores called Paris all over Chile. The idea is that here working with wool is an extremely important part of life, and has been a livelihood for people in the region for centuries. Doña Irma wants to encourage young people to continue the practice and tradition and Paris wants to sell products made locally. 


Though it was commercial, it was good to see that this big business was supporting Doña Irma and the other women of the group. Doña Irma told me excitedly that she dreams of making a wool cooperative in Turi, the village where she grew up and where her mom still lives and keeps sheep, goats, and llamas.
On Friday, Don Rene and Matias and I drove out of Calama to Ayquina. There was a major dust storm with wind blowing east, bringing dust from the copper mines at Chuquicamata all across the desert. On the way to Ayquina we stopped at Laguna Inka Coya, a salty lake in the middle of the desert that confounds visitors and scientists alike. The formation is very deep, so deep that people are not sure of the source. It is coming from groundwater, and some people believe a legend that is is actually an “ojo del mar” an eye of the sea, and that the water is actually seawater. It is an anomaly in the desert where all other lakes only fill if there is rain, and otherwise remain as enormous salt flats in the desert. 


Arriving in Ayquina I was surprised by the number of houses. There were hundreds of houses, but I was told that only seven houses are actually occupied. Why so many others? I asked. Don Rene and Matias went on to explain that Ayquina hosts an enormous festival every September for the Virgin of Guadaloupe, and 70,000 people come to Ayquina to celebrate. The rest of the year the town is like a ghost town, and because of a conflict with the government about money stemming from the celebration, the town remains a private entity, without services of the state like electricity. There is a generator for the village that runs for just two hours at night, so for the rest of the time, it is either solar power, personal generators, or no electricity. Because Don Rene and Doña Irma run a restaurant and hotel, they have a generator. 


Ayquina sits in an opening to a canyon of the Rio Salado (Salty River), and the resturant, El Valle, is the center of town, next to the church. The view out the front window is staggering–it looks right out over the canyon and the small parcels of corn and alfalfa growing with water from a vertiente that comes right out of the canyon cliffs. In the evening after we arrived and gathered firewood (pallets that Don Rene brings from Calama), we started up the woodfire oven as friends of Don Rene’s began to arrive. They were friends from his time at the hospital, and we all sat together sharing drinks and stories through the evening. 


The next morning as Don Rene was preparing to roast mutton over an open fire, I went off on an adventure up the canyon, walking through the river and thinking about the weeks and months to come. 


The canyon is about 200 feet deep, and after the arable land around the vertiente at Ayquina, the canyon starts to narrow, and the walls get steeper. There were animal tracks all over that I could follow, and along the sides of the river, a type of wide sedge was growing that reminded me of the type of plants in the intertidal wetlands in Maine, something that likes salt. Further up the canyon, the sheep tracks went up and there was a choke where some enormous boulders had fallen from the walls onto the river. I climbed around in these rocks the size of houses for a while, feeling the intense vulnerability of a human in such a place, so many stories of people heading into canyons and never coming back. 


Leaving the rocks, I went to the north side of the canyon where I could see some small constructions under an overhang. Climbing up, I followed a path that was fairly easy to make out over volcanic pumice stone. On the way I was stopped dead in my tracks by some petroglyphs carved into the canyon. I just stood there staring for awhile, wondering who carved this face and the llamas and the little people on the wall. Struck by the wonderful reality that someone hundreds or thousands of years past was communicating with me, telling me something, a small fragment of the past. 


Then I looked into the little constructions under the overhang. There wasn’t much there, but I couldn’t help but feel the thrill of this place, that humans could be here, live here, for so long. I continued out of the canyon where I had to jump a sheep fence where a sheep had been less successful than I. At the top I was struck by how different the world in the canyon was from up top. Up top it was windy, the plants were all diminutive, and the horizon felt so, so far away. 


Back in Ayquina after climbing out of the canyon, I got a ride to watch Matias play soccer with the Ayquina team against the neighboring village Chiu Chiu. They played on a pure dirt field, no grass. It was quite something to watch them play with the 20000 foot volcanoes in the background. I forgot my camera, so you’ll just have to imagine. After the game we returned for lunch, and we munched the amazing roasted mutton. 
In the evening, we went out to Turi, a village much smaller than Ayquina to celebrate mother’s day with Doña Virginia and Doña Irma’s mom Doña Maria. Turi isn’t directly on the river, rather it is watered by a vertiente, a spring that just bubbles up from the ground. It is quite near Volcan Paniri, where Doña Irma told me she has an apple orchard. Turi is also home to Pokara, an Incan ruin, one of the largest in Chile. I didn’t get the chance to explore it yet, but I will. Matias and I went outside at some point and the stars were booming across the sky. For the first time in my life I saw the Southern Cross and the deep blue of the Milky Way around it. 
I will post night sky photos soon, but not yet. 
On Sunday we prepared lunch and served it to people who had come to church in Ayquina. Doña Irma and Don Rene made chicken, pork ribs, and llama meat, soup, and salad. After cleaning up, we headed back to Calama. 
In the evening I sat looking at maps for hours. I found the headwaters of the Río Loa, on Volcan Miño pass through a canyon called Quebrada de Mal Paso, the canyon of bad passage. For the first 150 kilometers of the river’s journey, there are no towns and at over 12,000 feet of elevation the place is cold and scattered with canyons on all sides, making it difficult to cross. Further on, as the river starts passing through towns, the water diminishes dramatically because the mine at Chuquicamata has bought up water rights from many of the villages for use processing ore, and sometimes this leaves the river dry.
Below Calama the river goes through a series of intense canyons in absolute desert as it makes a u-turn through the desert and then arrives and Quillagua, before heading straight west through the biggest of all the canyons, at least half a mile deep, before it wanders into the Pacific. 
I started reading studies on the water quality of Loa and its tributaries, and especially noted the high levels of arsenic as well as other heavy metals like mercury and even detergents. One paper I read blamed most of the serious pollution on the mine, but an article from the Journal of Applied Geochemistry notes that the waters in the area are heavy in arsenic and other metals as a result of the groundwater coming from young volcanic rock, for example the Río Salado is born from geothermal geysers at El Tatio. The article blames the mine some, but moreso it blames evaporation and water impoundment for the concentration of harmful materials. 
In 1997, the town of Quillagua was devastated when floods, not unlike those that Doña Virginia told me happened this February, caused sediment in three reservoirs above the town to get stirred up. This sediment was holding unnaturally high concentrations of heavy metals that had built up over time behind the dams. Suddenly the water went from having 300 µg/L (micrograms per liter) of arsenic to having 30000 µg/L, while the recommended maximum for drinking water is just 50 µg/L. This flood apparently devastated the crops, animals, and the people in Quillagua, a town that at the time had not received rain in 40 years. It has still to recover and most residents have left. Quillague is considered the driest town on the planet, and the Loa, the oasis, was what kept it alive. The floods also seriously damaged the fishery off the coast.
With all this in mind, I am redressing my plans to trek the length of the river – the Quebrada de Mal Paso, the heavy metals, the danger of canyoning alone, and the potential for drinking seriously polluted water along the Río, even with a good filtration system, it probably isn’t safe. Tomorrow and Thursday I am going on a reconnaissance to explore the river in a vehicle, to see what these places really look like. Reporting back soon.
Look out the window

The dark of space, the light earth

A desert laughing

Letter Home 2

Crisp

A page in a book

Fractal ice

Percussing

Under trail footsteps

The sound of a bell

At sunrise

 


 

I am nearing six months in South Asia. Three and a half in India and two and a half in Nepal. I am also halfway through my Watson year. Time for another letter home to the Watson Foundation. I will include excerpts of my letter here in a larger essay.

 

 

I am sitting on the warm concrete roof of the house where I live in Kathmandu. My Nepali friend from university, Porcia Manandhar, and her family lent me a room here, and their invitation allowed me to find my earthbound footing again.

 

Just north of the house is the Hanuman Dhoka, a five-story pagoda palace at the center of Basantapur Durbar Square; the uncountable bricks of the palace are held in place with ornate teakwood carvings of deities and serpents. Abutting it is a colonial palace built by Britain a century ago in thanks for Gorkha soldiers who served in the Great War. The façade of this white, Romanesque elephant reveals most conspicuously the scars of the earthquake that happened two years ago; cracks glare through the white plaster and the walls are in a stunted tumble outward. The rows of collapsed balconies are poised at skewed angles, ready to fall. A whole story is missing from the top of the pagoda. Walls around the square are bowed in S shapes, miraculously still standing with help from braces and scaffolding. Whole temples disappeared to leave only a pedestal, standing empty.

 

What do we invest

In the everyday?

In the understanding

That around the corner

Life will appear as

Yesterday

And tomorrow

 

Do we feel

That the places

We invest our spirit

Will protect us like a mother?

 

A lovely thought

 

But what if it tumbles

And in a cloud of dust

Becomes rubble?

 

What is there to do?

 

With the people I have encountered in Nepal, I have found remarkable compassion. Nepal is a nation plagued by bad politics; bullied by expansionary imperial neighbors north and south; in utter disrepair from the earthquake in 2015; with streets and public works disregarded by the government; a capital city with black rivers and poor air; a country still recovering from a civil war. It is hospitable here because of the heart of the people.

Looking beyond Durbar Square, I can see the Langtang Peaks, gazing down at the urban oasis. The sight of their quiet presence brings me back to the weeks I spent in the mountains when I first arrived here.

 

I believe that a section of our hearts and our minds is shaped purely by the landscape. In Buddhism the virtues are linked to the sun, earth, air, sky, and water. Looking up at the pinnacles of Machha Puchhre and Numbur Himal, the holy peaks, this is no surprise. Their majesty instills at once a humble disposition and reminds us that we are but fleeting visitors on an earth itself growing and falling. The rivers, thousands of them, are arteries pumping life and power into the land as far afield as New Delhi, Kolkata, and Dhaka. This landscape—its majesty, its forbidding heights, landslides, avalanches, floods, earthquakes, high passes—has shaped a nation of hearty, reverent people.

 

My awe has come most in these past weeks. Rather than assign myself directly to a river, I decided to spend my days working with a group of papermakers in Kapan, a region in the northeast of Kathmandu that is home to a number of Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries. Kapan also abuts Boudhanath, an enormous stupa where thousands of people daily go to walk in circles around its glorious point, pray, and empty themselves.

 

The papermaking workshop is called Tibetan Handicraft & Paper. It began in 1995 as three cousins, Nimto Sherpa, Nima Sherpa, and Samten Lama, decided to create a business that would allow village people like themselves to sell paper at higher dollar. Instead of having to travel for days with a small load of paper to the city only to return from the expensive journey with little or no cash, the process and transport could be organized and made more efficient and more profitable. This was their motive, to help the people.

 

The business began with help from some American friends including Tom Leech, a dear family friend and my printing mentor. Tom is a prodigious papermaker and marbler, and he has been to Nepal and Tibet various times to make paper. He told me about Tibetan Handicraft with high regard for their good nature and generosity. One of Tom’s beautiful prints adorns the walls of a café next to the factory.

 

The paper for Tibetan Handicraft is mostly made in villages around Nepal. It is made with bark from the Lokta Plant, a bushy flowing thing that looks a bit like a mini rhododendron. After harvesting the Lokta, wait a few years and the one plant that was cut becomes five new plants. The bark is stripped and dried, then soaked, cooked, pounded, pulped, and made into sheets. The paper is phenomenal. It is very strong and it doesn’t dissociate in water so it can be dip dyed. Fine paper can be printed on with an ink jet printer, and the sheets have a wonderful deckled edge and very fibrous appearance.

 

After the paper is made, it is brought to Kathmandu for dying, printing, cutting, sorting, and so on. The Kathmandu facility employs nearly 100 skilled workers, primarily from discriminated castes and mostly women. In their hands the paper may become a box, a journal, a set of prayer flags, or take on a new life with silkscreened designs. The finished products are sold to clients mostly in Europe and North America.

 

The profits from the company are worked right back into the community. In 2006, after Samten Lama passed away, Nima and Nimto started Samten Memorial Educational Academy. Currently 410 students study there and many receive scholarships, including the children of the company’s employees. Nima and Nimto also support education in their home village east of the city and chair the Himalayan Regional Welfare Association.

 

Their humanitarian interest is really striking, and while it is extraordinary, it doesn’t seem uncommon here. Many of my Nepali friends, those I’ve met here and those I’ve known from the past, practice this spirit of giving and sharing.

 

In times when politics seem so spoiled and the news provides nothing but grief and worry, we must invest in each other. We are all family after all, somewhere down the line. Living with Porcia’s family, working in Kapan, making many new friends, I am reminded of how we find family, even when far from home.

 

Life together

 

It’s as though the void of the everyday

The spaces in between

Melt

Melt through the hallway rug

Melt through the kitchen table

 

Living together

Feeling certain we know

Everything about the other

 

Only to find out

We know nothing

 

The depth of human spirit

 

Where appearances

Are bathrobes and flipflops

 

Its humbling

Baring it all

Even the heart’s doldrums

 

As I prepare to leave Nepal for a long ski up the Torne River in Finland, I am left with a keen sense of the moral obligations I want to carry with me through my life. I want to hone my discipline and develop a thoughtful demeanor to approach situations as I have seen people here do—with care, resilience, patience, grace, hard work, and compassion. How can I do that? How can we do that?

 

Thank you again, for setting my feet walking.

 

Galen

Quarterly Letter 1


The Watson Foundation requires me to share a letter reflecting on my experiences every three months. While I work on my next entry, I want to share this with you all.

My Dear Watson,
I am currently sitting in room at Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh. I’ve had a bit of a fever this morning, but I am feeling better. Odd and beautiful chanting is the soundtrack today, along with a rock drill next door.
First, I want to quickly cover where I have been to date: 
–I began on a flight to Europe after failing to find a sailboat to take me across the Atlantic. On the way I flew with Icelandair knowing that I could make a small stopover there to see that fascinating North Atlantic Island. I hitchhiked around the southern end of Iceland and visited the Skafta River. It’s the only place I had ever been where one can stick their head right in a river 100 yards across and drink. 
–From there I routed briefly to London because I was connected to an Indian woman and two men there planning to paddle down the Ganges River, more on that later. 
–After London I headed to the first river in my itinerary, the Torne River. The shortest visit on my main itinerary, I look back on the Torne as a magical place, a well managed international watershed, and the second very big river pristine enough to drink right over the gunwale of the canoe. I stayed with a wilderness guide who took me foraging for mushrooms and berries, fishing on the river. He and his Afghani apprentice Mohammed were great companions.
–I left the arctic circle (just before Autumn snow on August 23) for Stockholm where I attended World Water Week, a major gathering of governments, civil society, and businesses to discuss global water challenges. 

–W.W.W. was a wonderful transition into India where I am now and have been for nearly two months.
Moving about like I am is a rhythm that is challenging to maintain. I like to do practical things, building, farming, cooking, things that often require rootedness, but when I am travelling along the river, it is hard to participate in such work. So as I move, I write. I write at once because I love to craft language and because it makes my mind–a surprising soup of thoughts, feelings, intellect, reaction–into something I can look at, interpret, and refine. I like that, it keeps me running smoothly.
In Europe I wrote about the power of Western ways and sensibilities, the edges of rationalism and western institutional technology against the whim and way of nature. There is a paradox in rationalism a bit like entropy and order, the most civilized societies can have the most chaotic, thoughtless reactions, like Trump in the states now, or the Dakota Access Pipeline situation coupled with the Bundy case… what are we thinking people? (nice piece here… https://transformativespaces.org/2016/10/27/how-to-talk-about-nodapl-a-native-perspective/)
In Sweden, at 67 degrees North on the beautiful, dam free Torne River, life is simple and good but challenging in the elements. Last year, just when the summer light faded, the 250 person community of Junosuando, where I spent most of my time up north, grew by 60 people, refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. The public schools doubled enrollment with the influx. This wave of people reminded me that rivers are not always made of water, it made me consider how migrating people cause shifting burdens on the land and water and one another’s communities.
After Junosuando I got to learn and write about international climate politics, specifically concerning water and sanitation at World Water Week. I made it a point to attend the lectures on India and I learned about the current buzz to relieve this country of open defecation, to clean the overburdened rivers here. With the policies in place, the struggle is for implementation.
Now here, on the ground and the water, I understand India’s challenges in a new light. As I mentioned, I found a group with plans to paddle the length of the Ganges. We have a smattering of Indians on the trip representing a small sliver of the cultural landscape here, a Gujarati, a Tamil, and a Delhi urbanite. It is a wonder that India is a democratic and unified state to any extent, and how things work here would take a few reincarnations to understand, but I am trying none the less.
Paddling the river is not straightforward, and that is why I chose to travel with a group; it is massively polluted and dangerous along many lines. The river supports 500 million people, and it passes through highly populated areas, including two of India’s poorest states. Planning was a lengthy process, and I spent a few weeks in Delhi meeting with all sorts of people to link with organizations, ashrams, bureaucracies, fellow adventurers to learn about the river and make arrangements along the way.
Three weeks ago we started in the headwaters at Gangotri Glacier, and now we are into the plains (It’s a week after Rishikesh as I write now), passing sugarcane plantations for miles and miles, makeshift distilleries, river funerals, temples, barrages, and water buffalo herds, meeting agricultural communities of many sorts.
Just before leaving for this year I read a book called The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane. In the book he writes about learning by passing through, a way of knowing as a nomad. More than anything that is how I feel now, my eyes are open and keen, I am trying to absorb all I can, traveling downstream. I dream of Huck Finn, the namesake of my paddleboard.
I have an overwhelming sensation of tinyness and insignificance here in India, and I am listening and learning to figure out what we are all part of in the world.
Thank you so much for this opportunity to truly live and feel it.
Galen

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