A short story by Elizabeth Nichols
I grew up in a land of dry. House boxed into suburban square, next to sardined—some might say cookie-cutter—comfort, so close, so organized, so planned as to milk any possibility of desert out of its own landscape save its big, blue, boundless sky which paints itself in a reminder of what once was above our cement-channeled roads each evening. I grew up in a home painted blue—claiming that sky was one of the “desert colors” the HOA demanded—surrounded by adobe in dirt brown, and yards sporting lawns in green, showing off the affluence of first-world water rights. I grew up in Phoenix, drowning in a drought from both water and nature.
Mexico has not yet kissed its summertime, but the lovers’ approach is close enough to inspire a quickened heartbeat: perhaps the noses have touched, perhaps the eyes have closed. I read once that being covered in dirt, like kissing, is a source of endorphins, the chemical explanation behind that feeling usually pinned down as “being alive.”
I am alive, now, slimy with sweat pasting Mexican dirt to my skin. My honors liberal studies class, “The Colorado River and the West,” has spent the day with the organization Reforesta San Luis dedicated to Colorado River wetlands restoration just south of the US border where the river has now sputtered to a trickle. Once, north, just west of my university, the Colorado carved the Grand Canyon before flowing all the way to the Gulf of California. My class bounces through farmland in our white university van next to the meagre river-remains flowing straight into agricultural dirt to turn green with crop, well-north of the gulf.
We spent the morning planting rows and rows of the cottonwoods and willows which once greened the banks of the Colorado before it was cased in its new cement channels. Our professor, whose voice inhabits an illegible sarcasm, told us we were going to “a fiesta,” but we have been winding through random, identical Mexican roads for a solid hour. Every time we ask him, now, where we are going, he remains silent. At one point, we follow a road to a lone road-side tree for twenty minutes where we finally stop, but only for the professor to get out and pee—for the longest period of time anyone could ever imagine—before u-turning back down the length of the road to return to the maze of racing rows of farmland.
Oasis: [oh-EY-sis], noun, 1. A small fertile or green area in a desert region, usually having a spring or well. 2. Something serving as a refuge, relief, or pleasant change from what is usual, annoying, difficult, etc.
I am a camp counselor. My first summer as a camp counselor, I worked at a ranch camp, Chauncey Ranch, nestled in Arizona’s high desert. The camp had become infamous throughout its brief three decades as an example of why summer camps, even in the Southwest, are almost always housed in the shade of forests. The camp was provided minimal resources my first summer in an attempt by the camp director to starve Chauncey to non-functioning levels, warranting a final shut-down. The camp, in his eyes, was not supposed to exist, judging from its vast expanses of dry dirt and boundless sky.
At this camp, I learned the ritual importance of water to the body in defense against desert sun, heat stroke and dehydration, which were the number one illnesses among our campers. It was strange when a couple of years later—after the camp director finally succeeded in shutting Chauncey Ranch down—I moved to working at a summer camp in a skyless Oregonian forest, and I found myself telling the campers to drink more water considerably more often than they actually needed to.
I could never fully understand how the camp director extracted the image of barren desert from my oasis, though. Driving in to Chauncey, there was one point where you turned a corner on a hill and were given an image of the valley below, beige with desert vastness and a plot of green where Chauncey’s shading cottonwoods draped over our miraculous creek. During my brief moments of time off, I would always wander this creek which lived in a perpetual ten-degree temperature drop from the rest of camp. I would often close my child-caring eyes for an audible surrender to the cottonwood’s rustling sonnet. I would breathe into the moment where nature’s calm could replace camp’s unending responsibility. It is strange how my body, which evolution designed in the hues of survival, sees beauty through the lens of water’s presence this way.
Last year, we were supposed to do some sort of “creative project” for a class on the Colorado River. The professor had somewhat jokingly mentioned that an interpretive dance was an option, but mostly because he didn’t think any of us would actually do it. In the preliminary stages of proving him wrong, we made a simple Spotify search for “Colorado River” and ended up discovering Katie Lee.
According to Craig Childs, Katie Lee is “our foul-mouthed, lightning-eyed, boot-stomping balladeer, a character Louis L’Amour never could have invented.” Folk-singer, actress, author, and canyoneer, Katie Lee is perhaps most famous for her activist work against the construction of Glen Canyon Dam which flooded Glen Canyon in 1963 to form Lake Powell (a name fashioned in malicious irony, J.W. Powell having been staunchly against dammed manipulation of his beloved Colorado). Built to generate power, Glen Canyon Dam traps 45 million tons of sediment each year to the detriment of the Grand Canyon’s ecosystems and is also a major cause in keeping the river from reaching the Gulf of California today, 8 per cent of the Colorado being lost to evaporation and sandstone absorption while sitting in the lake.
Katie Lee never met Floyd Dominy, the man behind the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, because, she claims, “I would have cut his balls off if I did.” Just before the construction of the dam, Katie Lee and two other activists went through Glen Canyon, and, free from the threat of “hanky-panky,” took nudes against canyon rock, a series of black and white portraits highlighting human shape among water’s smooth corrosion . “It was absolutely the most natural thing in the world,” Katie Lee says today.
The cottonwood tree, or populous fremontii, is native to the riparian zones of the American southwest and central Mexico, growing near streams, rivers, springs, seeps, wetlands, or, basically, just any low-elevation water. Native Americans in these areas used to use the tree for medicine, basket weaving, and tool making. Near the Lower Colorado River region, the Quechan people used to use the tree for ritual cremations as well, finding the sacred in its oasian growth.
Our destination, it turns out, is indeed “a fiesta.” The Sonoran Institute, for which we had planted the trees earlier, is having what seems to be some kind of anniversary over tacos and Mexican soda. We have finally left the rowed calm of Mexican farmland for a more developed restoration site, Laguna Grande, which breathes cool respite from the Mexican heat in its draping canopies of cottonwood and willow. This space is a result of legislation from a couple of years ago which allowed restoration work to have a “pulse flow” from the Colorado River, extra water usually fought for in unending battles between state, nation, city and agricultural interests. Laguna Grande would have fit nicely into Phoenix suburbia’s grids with its roads consisting of little Colorado rivulets and its cookie-cutter wildlife development painted in messy, shedding cottonwood cotton which now floats through the shaded air. It is here, at the fiesta, that I have my first real Mexican food.
The professor tells us to journal, but my friends and I explore. We find a dilapidated lean-to next to a small rivulet of Colorado River, and, having loved Katie Lee for about a year now, we, of course, bare our asses for a camera held by a woman from the class we have just met the day before. I am short. My shirt keeps falling over my moon, and a few of the shots simply consist of me frantically trying to bare better. In these shots, I feature as a frantically awkward foreground to a once raging Colorado River that is now content to simply lie still and hold on to a calm snapshot of the desert sky above.
This year, I am learning Chinese. After eight years of French and two of Danish, it would be silly to make things easy and learn another Romance or Scandinavian language. No, it’s time to delve into the sloping roller coasters of tone and the sweeping art of the character. I have dreams of moving to Taiwan to teach English which, I have learned, means that I have to learn “traditional Chinese,” the written form of Chinese that existed before the communists simplified many characters in an effort to improve literacy. This was done, of course, after Taiwan separated from mainland China, so certain words that the rest of my class are learning may consist of four strokes while I labor alone to memorize twenty-one. The character for “what,” 什麼 versus 什么, drives me crazy. “Noodle,” 麵條 versus 面条, is just unfair. Sometimes, though, traditional Chinese whispers to me through my pencil the secret romances behind the formation of language. “Love,” 愛 for me, holds onto the four strokes for “heart,” while my classmate’s love sits simple and heartless with 爱. My person 員, resembles a little man significantly more than simplified’s员.
In Chinese, both traditional and simplified, though, I am drawn to the character for life: 生活, with its three strokes on the left side of the second character symbolizing water. In the pictorial fantasy of reducing experience to mere shape, across the historical and political lines of literacy, I am infatuated with water’s stake in the most sweeping idea that language could ever try to capture.
I remember in third grade, once, we were learning about how the sun would someday explode and consume our planet. You know, third-grade stuff. Although my concept of time, death, humanity, space, life, and all other grandiose abstract concepts wrapped up in finality were not yet developed enough to even remotely begin to worry about this information, my teacher found it necessary to let us know not to worry. We would have the technology to go to another planet by then. I knew that my dad was a rocket scientist, and I took this information as an exercise in the comfort of parental protection.
The narrative has since twisted around my mind a bit from that childhood moment. With a better grounding in the abstract, I do not worry about finality in the size of our sun, but its ability to freely come and go on my little planet. Regardless of my dad’s occupation, I do not read the actions of older generations in tones of parental benevolence and protection anymore, but, instead, of a human selfishness that is perfectly reflective of my childish own. A history of action upon action removed from the context of consequence in which I now find myself living.
I still follow news, though, of the space-exploration that my third-grade teacher promised. I search for the streaks of water running across pictures of the surface of Mars and look to the inky expanse of night and star for promises of water and life, even though I would never have any right to claim it.
We are wrapping up the class on the banks of the Colorado River north of the border again in Yuma, Arizona. As part of Yuma’s restoration efforts, this portion of the Colorado River—next to the old mission and under the railroad’s bridge—has been turned into marshlands and cottonwood-forested recreational areas. The day my class planted our cottonwoods, the professor allowed us to swim in the river for a bit. I will forever hold on to that moment drifting in the Colorado’s southern calm waters and being gently pushed toward the trains I was content to spot into eternity.
Winding to a close on the trip, I find myself reflecting on the nature of how I connect to these spaces. For instance, right now, on the banks of the Colorado River, the heat of the sun and the sound of the birds return me to a space of reminiscence: they resemble the heat and the sounds of my hometown in Phoenix. Similarly, the day before at Laguna Grande, I was reminded of my summer camp through the sparse vegetation mingled with cottonwoods and their sound, purple mountains painting the distant horizon behind it all.
I am reminded of happy moments rooted in the past and am filled with the calm joy of nostalgia. But my memories are layered with the experience of making new memories to inspire a later nostalgia too. That time I went to Mexico and planted trees. That time I had my first real Mexican food at a fiesta. That time I mooned practically a stranger on the Colorado.
I can’t help but think of this co-existence of past, present, and future in terms of the Colorado River and its wetlands too. When I look at these areas, I am inspired to a degree by a sense of total nature that I have never personally known, but connect to in an instant, automatic, human sense. Conservation work does not merely translate to habitat protection for me, but to inspiration for this mysterious, sourceless nostalgia. My time planting these trees was not just for the sake of wildlife in these areas—I, like a human, am selfish—but for attempting to string together this isolation of the present along the West’s stitch of the Colorado River.