Our Loss becomes Extraordinary by Its Vanishing

Part of Parched: The Art of Water in the Southwest, Amerind Museum, Dragoon, AZ, 2021

Materials: Cottonwood timber, pine pitch, beaver skulls, clay jars from the Amerind Museum collection, Plexiglass containers filled with cattail down, glass bowls, cottonwood leaves, water

In April 2011, I visited the San Pedro River for the first time. I was on a field trip with my students for my site-specific art installation class, Ecological & Cultural Genocide in Arizona. We were just a few meters north of the Arizona/Mexico border. Huge cottonwood trees flanked each side of the dried-up river bed and a flurry of "snow" - cottonwood seed - drifted in the evening's setting sun. A rattlesnake lay curled inside the bank of the river, ready to strike.

The 140 mile-long, northward flowing San Pedro, once known as the Beaver River because of the abundance of beaver that once lived in its waters, is one of the last surviving free-flowing rivers in the Southwest. It disappears underground and then reemerges downstream depending on the level of the underground aquifer. Today, the flow of San Pedro's waters is determined by the unregulated drilling of wells, the amount of pumping that occurs within those wells, and a warming climate. The lawas of Arizona don't consider the rights of rivers, nor do they take into consideration the non-human constituents that inhabit those rivers. This lack of regulations continues to threaten the lush green San Pedro corridor of biodiversity. 

Along with a changing climate, this unchecked drilling and pumping has also exacerbated the final disappearance of ciénegas. Ciénegas are marshy wetlands unique to the American Southwest. They were established over the course of ten thousand years after the retreat of the last glacial period. Their loss began with the arrival of Spanish livestock - sheep - in Spain's northern frontier colonies. These four-legged "locusts" covered the land, destroying these riparian habitats. Then, in the early 1800"s, the extirpation of the beaver (Castor Canadensis) further compounded these slow-moving watered ecosystems. 

Just as it defined the San Pedro River, the beaver defined the Southwestern landscape. Because of its engineering skills and familial social pattern, the beaver was the wisest of all creatures and held in high esteem by the Apache. Before Arizona was granted statehood, when it was still only a territory, hundreds upon hundreds of beaver lodges marked the Gila River, creating reservoirs that controlled seasonal flooding and critical habitat for migrating birds. Beaver eradication led to ecological destruction, changing the once productive and complex braided streams and rivers that fed the ciénegas into staid waterless depressions.

Then came the cowboys and their cattle, agriculture and its need for siphoned water, and now artificial enclaves known as housing developments.

The pumping of precious groundwater has already dried up hundreds of ciénegas across the Sonora desert of Arizona. More than ninety-five percent of ciénegas are dead, their value and beauty gone. Their vanishing is our loss.