By Melissa L. Sevigny
University of Iowa Press 2016
Review by Marguerite Happe
Melissa L. Sevigny’s Mythical River: Chasing the Mirage of New Water in the American Southwest oscillates between personal memoir and biological monograph, travel narrative and scientific treatise to construct an archive of the Southwestern water crisis. The crisis, Sevigny argues, is actually just the most modern term for America’s protracted history of misunderstanding the environment in which we live. As Sevigny writes, “What westerners call a regional water crisis is really a chronic water illusion. The condition of the Colorado River Basin illuminates the two great myths Americans have always built up around water: we can create it if we need it, and we are always running out.”
Sevigny sets modern-day efforts to squeeze water from the desert via dams, canals, and aquifers alongside the tumultuous history of erroneous Southwestern cartography, both of which evince the human desire to create a “comforting illusion of constancy.” The book is framed with the mythos of the Rio de San Buenaventura, an imaginary river drawn onto a map presented to Thomas Jefferson by German botanist Alexander von Humboldt in 1804. The delusion of an abundant river in the heart of the Southwest was drawn onto maps throughout the world, leading fur trappers and pioneers astray for the following 75 years in search of water where none existed. Is this historical mirage so very different from our own?, Savigny asks.
The Tucson native visits locations along the Colorado Water Basin from the San Pedro River to the Mogollon Rim’s Fossil Creek to the Tres Rios Wastewater Reclamation Facility on Ina Road, employing each location as the impetus for a detailed exploration of a stage in the history of Western water. Sevigny begins the journey by tracing the history of geopolitics in the Southwest via the lens of her personal relationship with the South African aquatic ecologist Jackie King. As Sevigny investigates the demonization of water-gulping saltcedar trees along the Bill Williams and reveals the outdated ethics of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, she continually advocates for a revised attitude centered on community morality, in which water ethics are woven into the very fabric of a local society. For Sevigny, designing market systems that recognize water’s worth and the redesigning the infrastructure of farms and cities must be not only a commercial and logistical effort but also an existential one. After all, “What purpose do we serve if we extinguish the life around us?”
Interspersed throughout the book are excerpts from historical travel narratives by cartographers, explorers, and pioneers who laid the foundation for America’s attitude toward water rights. Sevigny writes, “The ruin of our rivers … began with a love of fashionable hats,” a truth that is simultaneously pithy and heartbreaking. The plunge of explorers into North America’s waterways to carve the beaver population from our ecosystems, for example, set the stage for the “dam-and-canal building craze of the 20th century,” the embodiment of a “misguided manifest destiny.” She devotes pages not only to her beloved Bill Williams River but also to the region’s more creative attempts to create water when we need it. She explores the modern-day pluviculturist, or cloud-farming, enterprises that currently function in six of the seven states surrounding the Colorado River Basin, as today’s iteration of American “rainmaker” Charles Mallory Hatfield, an early 20th-century con artist cum folk hero who charged the city of San Diego $1,000 for each inch of rain he drew from the sky. Each juxtaposition of history and 21st-century water practices reveals a darkly fundamental truth: The water crisis showcases humanity’s penchant to make the same mistakes, over and over again.
The book, though starkly realistic and investigative, is an optimistic one. Sevigny’s deeply rooted love for the Sonoran Desert pulses through every page, appearing in retellings of childhood memories and her own travel experiences. Her prose is abundantly graceful. Her research and historical evidence exemplify what it means to blend creative writing and impeccable scholarship. And as she traces the history of an issue that many Baja Arizona residents are all-too-familiar with, she exposes the necessity and the urgency of acknowledging the fact that, in fact, “deserts do not lack water: they have exactly the amount of water they require.” The humans, on the other hand? Well, it’s our turn to learn to live with a little more lack.
By Greenhorns Chelsea Green Publishing 2017
Review by Marguerite Happe
“An almanac is an homage to time,” writes Nina Pick, the editor of the New Farmer’s Almanac, Volume 3. While this certainly rings true, Pick notes that many of her conversations about the Almanac were received with some confusion. What is an almanac, anyway? Did my grandfather read this book? Why, exactly, am I suddenly thinking about Benjamin Franklin?
The history of almanacs is long and storied. The almanac, a loose term for annual texts constructed around natural events and chronologies, dates back to ancient Greek and Egyptian societies. The Middle Babylonian Almanac, for example, is currently held in the private collection of Martin Schøyen. Written on black stone between 1,100-800 B.C., the cuneiform tablet lists the 12 months of the Babylonian calendar in conjunction with “favorable days on which one can hope for a successful outcome of any activity undertaken.” More contemporaneously, most Americans associate the almanac genre with Poor Richard’s Almanack (1732-1758), Benjamin Franklin’s annual pamphlet featuring weather forecasts, thrifty aphorisms, and witty household hints. Still today, the Farmer’s Almanac preserves the tradition by offering “knowledge on weather, gardening, cooking, home remedies, managing your household, preserving the earth,” and more in each publication.
The New Farmer’s Almanac, Volume 3 is not only aware of, but relies upon the long-established practice of the almanac in order to most accurately represent the community of modern farmers, authors, poets, and artists within its pages. The book opens with illustrated precipitation maps, dates of notable astrological phenomena, and descriptions of lunar and solar events. The chapters are more aptly referred to as sections, organized and titled topically by month. In January, the text focuses on water. The months continue, spotlighting dry land, wetland, genetics, faith basics, supply chains, land and ownership genetics, and more. Few other publications include author biographies with titles such as “Goat Farmer, Writer” or “Witness, Weaver.” From fromager to student to graphic novelist to yard artist or ecotheologian, the index of contributors presents a taste of the variety and multiplicity within the almanac’s pages.
This almanac is the third in a series, and it intends to engage thoughtfully with the concept of a “commons”: “Farmers hold space in many interwoven commons, and possibilities for our shared future would seem to rest on how these intersecting commons are governed … in re-visiting the Almanac format, we assert our vision of American and equip ourselves for the challenges of rebuilding the food system and restoring a more democratic, more diverse, and more resilient foundation for society.” The “we” in the first-person description refers to the Greenhorns, a grassroots organization based in the Champlain Valley of New York with the mission to “recruit, promote, and support the rising generation of new farmers in America.”
The book not only expands upon the tradition of the almanac as a farmer’s resource, but sensibly notes the reading experience for many members of its audience: For farmers with a quick moment to span the pages of a book over a hot cup of coffee before heading out to the fields, brevity is essential. Each chapter is populated with anecdotes, poetry, essays, drawings, comics, stories, photos, manifestos, recipes, and short-form journalism, but no entry reads longer than four to five pages. As editor-in-chief and Greenhorns founder Severine von Tscharner Fleming writes, “welcome to our open miscellany of rambling, lyrical, opinionated and unacademic riffs on land theory and political economy; welcome to a format with room for many opinions.”
Von Tscharner Fleming does not exit the conversation after her editor’s note. In fact, her commentary weaves throughout the rest of the collection, noting and engaging with many of the articles: sometimes in a footnote, sometimes in an opening, sometimes in the midst of an essay. Her constancy feels comforting, in a way. Another voice reads alongside you, revealing that the texts are meant to be a dialogue rather than a monologue. After all, the concept of the commons itself is really one of dialogue. How can humans maintain their shared resources in a reasonable way? “The commons describes both the fabric of natural wealth relations that predates human contrivance and the systems we humans employ to govern our use of it … In case you think these systems are long gone, still today, 21 million acres in Europe are managed as a commons, mostly for grazing.”
Several essays approach like a freezing rush of air, shocking and pleasing if not particularly comfortable. “Falling in Love Outward,” a conversation between Derrick Jensen and David Abram, examines the ways in which humans manipulate language to establish dominance over the world, rather than to make contact with it, leading to increasing distance between ourselves and our environments: “Once the language is carried in books, it no longer needs to be carried by the land, and we no longer need to consult the intelligent earth in order to think clearly ourselves.” “Goat Onion Soup: A Recipe” by Jason Benton lyrically examines the trajectory of ingredients, timing, and environment as they make their way onto our plates, subtly equating the recipe with existentialism: “When does a good soup, a good life, begin and end?” Christine Hinrichs clarifies the meaning of “heritage chicken” as established by the Livestock Conservancy, in “Heritage Chicken.”
Almanacs function on the basis of time, and they expect time from their readers. They do not allow the reader to fly through them without care, and they provide constantly shifting lenses through which to view the world. Moreover, after the credits, the almanac provides space for notes, inviting individual, handwritten contributions to the already existing multitude of voices within. For readers interested in disrupting the traditional chronology and practice of their reading habits, the New Farmer’s Almanac remains an invaluable exemplar of true, honest literature with the power to induce purposeful conversation.
By Peter Friederici and Peter Goin University of Arizona Press 2016
Review by Marguerite Happe
A New Form of Beauty: Glen Canyon Beyond Climate Change is a book that is betwixt and between forms. It is an experiment in what photographer Peter Goin terms a “new genre of engagement”: Visual limnology. Limnology, the study of inland waters such as lakes, reservoirs, rivers, streams, and groundwater, interprets ecological systems that “interact with their drainage basins and the atmosphere.” In A New Form of Beauty, Goin and essayist Peter Friederici alternate between photo galleries and essays to craft a scientific elegy to Arizona’s most compelling limnological subjects: Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell. By pairing the “lyric photographic investigation” with objective scientific inquiry, the authors complicate our understanding of the relationship between science and the fine arts and in turn, the ability of photography to function as “plain, prosaic fact.”
A book that dances along the borders of photojournalism and scientific essay fits the distinct character of Lake Powell, an extraordinary form of water that is indeed a study in liminality. The reservoir, created by the flooding of Glen Canyon by the Glen Canyon Dam, is both human and natural, a commercial recreation respite and aquatic ecosystem. Having visited the canyon every year from 1987 to 2014, Goin and Friederici have witnessed the vanishing of the second-largest official lake in America from a front-row seat. Goin’s full-color photographs alternate with Friederici’s essays on the history, background, and identity of the reservoir. However, the resulting document comments not only on Glen Canyon but also on all of our known landscapes under the umbrella of climate change. Furthermore, the study in chronology and new forms functions on a deeply personal level for the authors, who have literally aged along with their subject. For them, as for the lake, “it is all happening faster than we’d bargained for.”
The beginning and ending of the book each feature foldout landscape photographs of Lake Powell. The opening gallery presents images of what Goin deems “artifacts.” The artifacts span plastic chairs sunk beneath the water to fishing lures lodged in trees to grounded boats. A vertical photograph reveals a rusty, silt-covered ladder, and the adjacent photo showcases a dusty rope swirling down a rock face into sand. A shoe is grown into the sediment; a chain dangles over branches. Each artifact, which would have touched water in the reservoir, depicts how low the water levels in the lake have fallen. Friederici’s following essay tells of their experience as they navigate the hidden canyons and waterways of the reservoir, each year witnessing slightly less water than was there before: “We were there on the hilariously grandiose premise that we might explore this landscape as John Wesley Powell did in 1869 … yes, that John Wesley Powell, the decorated Civil War veteran turned explorer turned interpreter of the new American West to the curious East.”
The following essays and galleries fall into a similar rhythm. Goin’s photographs capture the dissonance of an environment evaporating before his eyes. The photos are infallibly stunning yet haunting, because they capture the recesses of the reservoir that were never meant to be seen without water. The experience of viewing the fossil-impressed dry bed or dead fish entombed in silt is almost voyeuristic—the lake is exposed, forced to reveal its secrets. Friederici’s following essays trace the history of the reservoir’s creation and functionality, outlining the ways in which the man-made lake feeds on gravity and engineering to remain full. However, as the photographs gradually unveil the increasingly recessed water level, the essayist explains that “when you try to corral water in a dry place, the shimmering dance between gravity and evaporation becomes a war.” During an average summer, an estimated 163 billion gallons of water steams off the reservoir’s surface into the desert air. As the global temperatures increase, so does the evapotranspiration. As such, Friederici concludes, “there is at least a one-in-four chance that Lake Powell and Lake Mead will, within decades, be at levels too low to allow any generation of electricity.”
Is it possible to age gracefully? “How do we reimagine a landscape—every landscape—that is changing to something new?” Friederici asks. The book attempts to envision, as the title suggests, a new form of beauty in which aging and loss are inherent. The lake is a microcosm of the process of becoming. However, neither author suggests that we should remain complicit, or complacent in this process. Rather, A New Form of Beauty is a paper-and-photograph embodiment of Dylan Thomas’s famous words: “Do not go gentle into that good night,/Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” ✜
Marguerite Happe is a writer, English teacher, and editor. Follow her on Instagram @margueritehappe.