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Diviner Inspiration

Craig Childs and the search for desert waters



Chief Inspector of Rainstorms. It's a job first held down by Henry David Thoreau, who appointed himself to the position some 150 years ago on the banks of Walden Pond. The chief duties include watching the clouds form, measuring rain puddles and following bees to their hidden cache of water. Somebody's got to do it. Right?

For Craig Childs, the answer is an emphatic yes. The Secret Knowledge of Water (Sasquatch Books, Seattle) is an integral chapter in the essential story of the human experience, an attempt to rediscover the misplaced tales in a landscape where water -- both in its scarcity and its abundance -- is everything.

If the elusive knowledge Childs writes of were to be captured in a visual image, a freeze-frame capturing the essence of the elemental, the best image would not be a raging river or bubbling spring, but perhaps the dry desert canyons themselves, fluid and ephemeral, negatives cut in sandstone, the etched out record of water's determined journey.

Childs -- who has a home in Crawford, Colorado -- touched base with the Indy from a recent backcountry escape to the Olympic Peninsula, "shin deep in water," as he described the rain forest climate. But the deserts of the American Southwest are the chosen canvas for his codex of water tales, the product of a two-year series of immersions that found Childs searching for waterholes in the parched Sonoran desert of southern Arizona, penetrating the walls of the Grand Canyon to explore the subterranean source of its springs, and racing flash floods down slot canyons like Indiana Jones, working without a script.

He is drawn to the driest of lands to discover the essence of water, and his book never wanders far from the central notion that "in the desert, water is unedited, perfect." Speaking from a pay phone on the edge of Washington's rainy west coast, Childs elaborated on the central motif of his desert studies, noting "the thing that is so compelling about water is that it is this raw thing. If you want to get down to the heart of the matter, if it's the physical properties of it or the mystical properties of it, water has got it."

Blending equal parts physical and mystical, in his book Childs searches out the sources of that raw, elemental existence, finding a kind of sanctity in underground springs, where "water had not yet learned about daylight, about carving a path with all of its slender grace. It's knowledge here was primal." The drop of water in a silent spring represents the ultimate act of creation, as does the first churning movement of a canyon flood assembling itself at his feet.

The Secret Knowledge of Water is largely the result of Childs' master's degree thesis in desert studies at Prescott College, a self-invented course of study that culminated in a book-length project equal parts scientific research on flash-flood hydrology and creative non-fiction. The end product is somewhere between a scientific study of the desert as eloquent and poetic as our most vaunted bards of bedrock, and a piece of nature writing that goes into uncommon depth, never satisfied to merely relish the mystery of the canyons when intuition leads its author to search for the order behind the mystery.

Though he doesn't think of himself as a reader, Childs is an addictive scribbler, jumping into the paths of water walls to retrieve his notebook, and working on five book projects simultaneously, having already published five books, including this one. He professes to read about a book a year, mentioning Barry Lopez and Terry Tempest Williams as writers whose work he admires. The kinship he shares with them in finding the sacred in desert rituals that embrace the natural world is unmistakable.

"I probably spend more time out than they do, but they probably think more about it than I do," he observes by way of comparison. "I don't put a lot of space between me, my writing and what I'm writing about. I don't think a lot. If I have a deep intellectual thought, it only goes a couple minutes and then I can't find the other end of it.

"I'm just poking around, prodding at water, trying to find different aspects of the secret," Childs explained.

There's an arc to his poking and prodding, taking his readers on a progression that moves from an environment where what is scarce enough to routinely claim lives by virtue of its lacking, to moments when the sudden abundance of the unpredictable force of water uprooting trees and carrying boulders the size of Clydesdales can be just as deadly. To anyone with even a passing familiarity with these twin fears of desert water, and the unfathomable bliss of discovering springs and pools and secret seeps, Childs' stories will be a welcome homecoming, transporting you to the oasis of memory.

"I think what it finally comes down to is that water's knowledge is desire," Childs explained, giving away the book's surprise climax. "It desires to have an economy of motion, it desires to move down. It embeds desire all over the place. I go to the desert because you've got this really raw physical property of water, and this really raw environment. Everything is brought down to this point that you can see desire. You know, if you've been down to these floors. You look around, the place is just ravenous."

Despite the "tell-all" trend popularized by the ubiquitous "Ten Best" series on Outside magazine covers, Childs' book does not exploit the desert or its secrets. "Whenever I write about something outside, I feel that I shouldn't be doing it, that I'm revealing too much information. There's definitely that catch," he said. "Am I writing so that I can give people a sense of this wildness that's still out here? Or am I trying to make a living by selling wilderness? I do have that debate pretty strongly. My next book is an archeological book, so I really have to be careful."

Childs has already been approached by Outside to write a "Ten Best Ruins" piece. "They made it clear that this is the way in. I question what I do enough, I question writing about just being out there. For me to go further and actually do something that I can full-on say is wrong for me, I can't do that."

Despite his quest for the "unedited," raw experiences of desert water, Childs withheld one story that he had originally written for the book. His father died of a heart attack in his desert home north of Phoenix during the floods that came while Childs was finishing his writing.

"The day after he died, a huge flood came down and almost took his house. I just ran into his yard, grabbed his canoe -- and I didn't put on any life jacket -- I just jumped onto the flood," he said. "It was a [normally dry] arroyo that was leading down into the city. It led me through neighborhoods, down streets and into the storm drain system. I destroyed the canoe and barely got out alive. It's a pretty rip-roaring story. It was definitely a stupid thing, something I try not to do very often, but it seemed fitting on that day."

There are plenty of breathtaking adventures remaining among the enthralling stories that make up The Secret Knowledge of Water, and the careful observations told with such remarkably evocative language makes Childs' own prose like water in the desert, quenching an insatiable thirst and inducing us to wallow in its pools until our extremities are wrinkled like perfectly contented prunes.

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