April 2016

Minding the Chama


Jack Loeffler

Barbara Turner has penned a superb essay entitled “Thinking Like the Río Chama Watershed” that appears in a finely designed chapbook of the same name and published by the Río Arriba Concerned Citizens. In this essay, she clearly defines what a watershed is, the nature of the water cycle, the biogeographical characteristics, the diverse cultural characteristics—the compelling beauty of this Chama River bioregion.

Barbara Turner points out that almost the entire watershed is contained in the geopolitically defined region presently known as Río Arriba County of northwestern New Mexico. And she conveys the current faces of jeopardy—including “fracking”—that threaten this watershed, which conjoins with that of the Río Grande further downstream. She provides us with an excellent model of how to look at homeland in a balanced and educated fashion, a true bioregional approach that would moderate the threat of turning habitat into money—the hallmark of the prevailing monoculture. I love this little chapbook, a tastefully handcrafted way to convey information in this time of digitized techno-fantasy.

“Thinking Like the Río Chama Watershed” is also a model of perceiving a watershed as a commons. However, the European definition of commons differs from that of the Tewa-speaking people who are indigenous to this region. The big difference is that the sons and daughters of Europe perceive the commons as a region of common-pool resources freely available to all humans, whereas the Tewa people perceive the commons as everything in Nature as an integrated system on which everything therein reciprocally relies for subsistence. This is a valid holistic perception that is much more in keeping with the flow of Nature.

As a point of reference, the last Ice Age, known as the Pleistocene, ended about 11,700 years ago. The warming trends ushered in what is known to science as the Holocene epoch. Quite recently, there has been a move to change the name of the present epoch yet again to Anthropocene because our anthropocentric species is regarded by many as the greatest force now shaping the flow of Nature on our planet Earth and even beyond. My personal preference would be that we simply change one letter in Holocene, to Holicene, to ratify a much broader perception of what wholeness really means.

Fifteen years ago, I was busily producing a six-part radio series for Public Radio entitled “Moving Waters: The Colorado River and the West.” In my travels, I chanced to meet Dr. David Robertson, a professor at the University of California-Davis, who was then teaching aspects of bioregionalism. I asked him to provide his view of bioregionalism:

“I would start off with the notion of a watershed. And the term watershed is used around the country, probably more frequently than bioregion. Watershed is a nice place to start because it doesn’t have the political overtones of bioregion. Also, watershed can be pretty easily delineated. You can mark it off on a map with great accuracy.

“One of the reasons to pursue a bioregional approach, from my point of view, is that it is a way of doing justice to the complexity of the situation actually on the ground. So the way I would define a bioregion is, I would imagine a GIS [Geographic Information System] layer [on a map]. And the first layer is a watershed. And then I would imagine that you would add to that a series of layers that have to do with plant distributions. And then a series of layers would have to do with animal territories. And over that you would put layers that have to do with human culture. And over that, maybe lastly, you would put air-shed types of things. So, then, imagine you are up above, and you are looking down through the layers. What you would have then, if you imagine some opaqueness to the watershed, is that each map has some opaqueness that defines the territory of what you are talking about. Then, if you imagine looking down through these series of GIS layers or transparencies, then at some center you would have a very dark area. And then gradually, the denseness, the darkness would decrease as you went outward until at the level of air shed, you would have the thinnest layer.

“So, then, for practical purposes, the bioregions are the very dense areas toward the center. Clearly, you could never precisely define the boundaries of the bioregions. That would be good because, in fact, things are complex. And, eventually, you would get out at last to the entire Earth, and that would acknowledge the fact that we are all part of one system. So that is how I would go marking out a bioregion. And one of the reasons for it, of course, when you come back to the practicalities of the situation, is getting people involved in your bioregion. Watershed is a nice place to start because, as you are talking to people trying to get them involved, you can give them a fairly precise definition of it. So there is some practicality to being simple as you start out.”

This is good advice, especially for a simple-minded fellow like myself. I asked my old pal Melissa Savage, who is a world-class biogeographer, if she could define “watershed.” She replied, “That’s easy because you’re just following the raindrops downhill. So you just draw a line around where the raindrops are rolling down to a convergence with the sea.”

Simplicity within complexity.


Many are the times that I’ve floated down the Río Chama, having camped for the night at the whim of a late-afternoon moment. All told, I’ve run the river from just downstream from El Vado all the way to the confluence with the Río Grande, albeit in separate journeys. Running the river downstream from El Vado brings to my mind a flute concerto by Mozart. One passes through the bottom of the watershed in a state of absolute delight, where wildlife is abundant, the forested terrain is healthy, the air sparkling. The river gradually riffles past the piedmont of the plateau east of Dead Man’s Peak into one of the most beautiful regions of the North American Southwest, el Valle de la Piedra Lumbre, or the Valley of the Shining Stone. Downstream, Abiquiú Dam stoppers the Río Chama and forms Abiquiú Lake. I remember the valley before the dam was built, before the harsh hand of man had reduced the magic that permeates this mythic landscape, before developers and their political counterparts claimed this commons as their own. Even so, the watershed of the Río Chama remains a jewel of Nature in spite of the limited perception of monocultural humankind.

As my friend Melissa Savage so aptly put it, “We are so presumptuous, we can’t even imagine ourselves outside of our range of presumption.”

Melissa has spent the latter half of her life restoring river otters to their appropriate habitats. She has concluded that if those of us who are inclined to work in behalf of our planetary habitat each adopt an endangered species, and then work relentlessly to restore these creatures to their native homelands, we may yet piece our shattered ecosystems back together in some state of balance. Dr. Melissa Savage is a highly regarded scientist who responds to her intuitions and aesthetic sensibilities as well as her intellect.

Downstream from the dam, the Río Chama passes into the Abiquiú Valley, where Hispano farmers have tilled the soil for centuries, rooting themselves to a new arid homeland made more benign by the river. Acequias abound, and the river runner must take care to avoid entering an acequia mistaken for the main channel. I did that once, back in 1970, with my old friend Jimmy Hopper, who gave me an ironic grin as we dredged to a halt at the edge of a cornfield and, thereafter, had to drag our raft back to the river.

The landscape is somewhat tamed by the riverine communities downstream from Abiquiú until one reaches Ohkay Owingeh, formerly known as the San Juan Pueblo. It is just downstream from there, east of Chicoma Peak, that the Río Chama conjoins with the Río Grande, and the two rivers become one.

Many years ago, I visited the Tewa Pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh and met with Herman Agoyo, a highly venerated community elder who gave me permission to record him reading his river poem, “P’o-Kay”:

“To us you are P’o-kay. Strong water.

You are the source of life and joy.

You nurtured us with swimming and fishing holes.

You cleanse us now, and in 1680.

When you overflowed, there was an abundance of trout, carp, suckers, minnows

and catfish.

We gather your gifts with bows and arrows, .22 rifles, pitchforks, nets, fish lines

and by hand.

You water our corn, squash, chile, wheat, alfalfa, hay, pumpkins, fruit trees

and all of life along the riverbanks.

You are home to the O-yo. Beaver.

Oh-kano. Otter.

Oh-kooh. Turtle.

Oh-maku hedeghe. Watersnake.

Diditi. The water spider,

and numerous unknown creatures.

And in recent time you brought in the elk, bear and eagles.

You are Avañu. Sacred water serpent.

You fed our sacred springs, ponds and wells.

Because of you, Oh-kay Owingeh, Village of the Strong People was born.

Because of you, we are all connected.

We are still connected to our place of birth and emergence.”

Jack Loeffler is an aural historian, author and radio producer whose perspective includes bioregionalism and systems thinking. He has recently completed a 10-part documentary radio series entitled “Encounters with Consciousness.” www.loreoftheland.org

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