Only Water

Only Water

I. Washington

On its long journey from mountaintop to sea, water infuses everything. Animals and plants take it into their bodies, their cells. Roots draw it in. Soil holds it. I am mostly made of water, as are you. A watershed is like a human body—distinct and self-contained, yet dependent on other living bodies and contingent upon their sustenance. I am connected, in ways I don’t fully understand, to all other living things on this planet. Ridges connect, streams merge. Basins within larger basins, like nesting Russian dolls. This I believe: everything is part of everything—the toads, the ferns, the tarns, the volcano, the flowers, and the melting snow gathered into a pool. I am happy to drink it.

Upper Silent Lake is one of my favorite places on Earth. It is easy to fall into clichés; finding the right language for matters of the heart is a challenge. When I say this place is holy, what I mean is that for whatever reason, the wholeness of the world has been made manifest to me here. I like to swim in it, although it is frigid. I feel, in this water, that I am partaking in something more interesting and significant than my own paltry and fleeting life. This water will make an extraordinary journey. First, it will drop a few hundred feet into Lower Silent Lake. Then, as Grizzly Creek, it will tumble with great enthusiasm to the wild Stehekin River. It will enter Lake Chelan—a stunning and very deep inland fresh-water fjord. Then it will join the mighty Columbia, and, eventually, enter the Pacific. Upper Silent Lake is a synecdoche: a small mountain lake, yes, but also the whole watershed. It is the whole world. It lets me in. 

How does a river move? It depends on gradient, topography, volume, momentum, obstructions, and other factors too many to mention. Water meets resistance—in the form of a boulder, the contour of a hill, a clump of willows. Then the elegant adaptation begins. The current is diverted into swirls and eddies. Its surface is dimpled by dips, scoops, and riffles. A river gathers itself up in standing waves that collapse and then pile up again. Whorls upon whorls. Complexity born of simplicity. It may appear flamboyant on the river’s part, but every extravagant flourish comes down to physics. The simple need to go downhill, forced to adapt to circumstance. Sometimes the fall line is a perfect curve. 

II. Arizona

Along the Mogollon Rim, many beautiful creeks bless the desert. In Fossil Creek Canyon, underground water suddenly springs forth. Above the springs, a dry and pretty typical mid-sized canyon winds through the chaparral. Alligator junipers, century plants, and prickly pear are sparsely dispersed on south-facing slopes. Slopes with a northern aspect, slightly cooler, host pinyon pines mixed in with the juniper. The overall vibe is dusty. Baked. Down at the bottom, the creek bed is dry, as you would expect. Until, abruptly, it isn’t. A burst of velvety-green foliage, tender against the reptilian junipers, indicates the presence of water. Cottonwood treetops. Sycamores. The vibrant green ribbon follows the sinuous path of the creek. A sanctuary of abundance, generosity, sustenance. 

And not just a little bit of water. The springs gush 344 gallons per second, billowing up joyously from under a cutbank, like unrequited love finally given a chance to express itself. Almost 30 million gallons per day. Its mineral waters are clear and shimmering in the shallows, slightly teal in the pools. The water from Fossil Springs emerges from the ground at 70 degrees Farenheit, consistently, year-round. Perfect for swimming, in both February and July. Perfect, also, for Leopard Frogs, monkeyflowers, maidenhair ferns, and a whole cornucopia of fish, amphibians, birds, and mammals—including some species that are found here and nowhere else on earth. The diversity is evident both in the water and out of it. Fossil Creek is a great congregator of life in an otherwise harsh landscape. 

We are terrestrial creatures, yet we are drawn to water. Not only to drink it, but to play in it. Maybe we are embracing ourselves; after all, the human body is 70% water. I treasure the memories I have of swimming in this glorious place alone or with one or two friends; it doesn’t happen often anymore. Fossil Creek has suffered in recent years from its growing popularity. It bears the dual misfortune of being too close to Phoenix and too close to a road. Along with the popularity, the creek has endured abuse that is not only gratuitous, but malicious. It’s hard for me to fathom why we often destroy what we love. Wendell Berry wrote, “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred and desecrated places.” Fossil Creek is both at the same time. 

III. Iceland

One Icelandic river that holds a special place in my heart is the Fossá, a modest stream that flows from the central highlands into the much larger Þjórsá. I should mention that there are numerous rivers bearing this name; in Iceland, calling a river Fossá is like giving the name child to your child. The name indicates a river of waterfalls—which could apply to every river on the island. As this lovely and generically-named river drops into a deep but brief canyon, it splits around an island, forming two sibling waterfalls: Háifoss and Granni. Each of them, alone, would be impressive. The two of them together are downright sublime. 

The Fossá is a short river, and its tributary, the Rauðá, is even shorter. The Rauðá is no more than about ten kilometers long, and along its short course there is a place where water presents itself like a gift. I don’t know of any place where water moves more beautifully, more artfully, more gracefully, than a little place called Gjáin. A traveler unaware of Gjáin’s existence would find such a place unlikely, judging from the approach. The rutted, rocky 4X4 track that leads to Gjáin crosses a beautifully blasted and Mordor-esque valley of red and black cinders. It is nearly devoid of vegetation. It’s scenic, to be sure, but as far from lush as it is possible to get. Until, that is, you arrive at the apex of a small rise, and look down into a little magical place. It’s water that conjures the magic.

Up above Gjáin, it seems that the Rauðá wanders without much distinction through the stark landscape. Then, it abruptly finds a break in the basalt, and, after a series of small waterfalls, drops into a gentle bowl. Outside of the bowl, the land is harsh and windswept. It’s easy to imagine a scene from a saga in which a lone Viking and his horse might die here if caught in a storm. But inside the bowl: A refuge. Pools. Caves. Flowers. Once in Gjáin’s bowl, the Rauðá splits into multiple channels. These weave through an obstacle course of basalt boulders, each chattering brook shaping its own miniature and semi-private paradise of tranquil pools and small waterfalls. Sedges and delicate wetland flowers like Marsh Saxifrage cluster around the pools. Right in the center of the bowl, a large boulder is perched above the largest pool. The place seems altogether sacramental and a bit like a miracle. Although it is only water.