The fleeting wonder that is water in the Western desert
Clear water pooled up on the creamy, orange bedrock where a school of several dozen succulent tadpoles, already sprouting legs, were swimming around. There was no time to ask how they got there, only where they were going. Coin-sized raindrops steadily filled the natural bowl to capacity. One brave, wiggling soul had the foresight to explore to the water’s edge. Unable to crest the lip of sandstone, he turned away until the next surge of water helped propel him on Mr. Soon-to-be-Toad’s wild ride. His tail writhed and wriggled, pushing him over the edge and down the watery slip-and-slide. The tadpole flew down the stream, hit an amphibian Class V whitewater wave, took air and flopped over the abyss into the canyon below. When my eyes retreated to the puddle, the tadpole’s brethren were following him down the ephemeral waterfall on the ride of their lives.
For years, I have devoted myself to exploring the Colorado Plateau at its driest. Each season seems drier and hotter than the last, because it is. It’s even drier than the catastrophic drought around 1200 A.D. that is believed to have pushed the Ancestral Puebloans to migrate away from the same canyons of which I am a foolhardy devotee. Some of these places are so parched that it is not physically possible for me to reach them despite my maniacal attempt to haul almost a third of my body weight’s worth in water stuffed inside a heavy backpack. Climate change is taking exploration beyond the frontier aesthetic, beyond places where no humans have been before, to the places that soon may not be hospitable for them to reach at all.
This summer, the water returned. Healthy monsoons were predicted, but because of the persistent aridification, I did not trust the weight of words until I was standing at the edge of this pool. Sight was not enough to wake me from the dehydrated nightmare of the past few years. I placed my fingers in the flowing stream of water, hot to the touch upon contact with the sun-scorched sandstone. Variation in droplet size and cadence orchestrated a symphony echoing off canyon walls. The ethereal alchemy of liquid permeating the desert’s surface unlocked the petrichor of wet sand, sage and ponderosa. Even the black cryptobiotic soils and lime green lichen suddenly smelled alive. Lightning seared the edges of the mass rehydration event as thunder beckoned desert creatures big and small to feast on the arrival of watery delights.
To understand the desert’s relationship to water, one must build faith through times of drought and drop to your knees in worship when it’s wet. Rain does not bring the desert back from the dead – it’s an adrenaline rush taking everything in its path from survival-mode dormancy to full-throttle thriving. One can never anticipate such an experience. Like finding new romance, it’s best to put it out of your mind, to forget about it most of the time. But when it does arrive, you better be ready to peel off your excess layers, hop in, make a splash, drink it up and ride the pulse. Rain in the desert, like love, is best when embraced freely. It cannot be held, only left to flow. It will vanish in a blink, leaving sandy traces of its swift kiss.
The rain ceased as suddenly as it came. I returned to the canyon every few days. Evidence of what I witnessed seeped several inches into the sand and debris lined water marks. The now-dry slickrock still held muddy pools of water ready to overflow if the sky spit a drop in them. A week later, all signs had vanished. The desert looked as if water never fell here at all. Yet my eyes could not unsee the glistening basalt stones, electrified moss, crystalline pools and tadpoles sprouting meaty legs. The creases, billows and narrows of this slice of earth before me was sculpted by millions of years of sporadic rain. So, too, is my relationship to water being shaped by the ebb and flow of flood and drought in the desert, saturating my roots and sharpening my senses.
Two weeks after the last storm, I walked across the dry, sandy, hot desert alone. At the edge of a larger perennial spring-fed pool, I stripped off my clothes, sending ripples across its glassy surface. Kicking my legs like the toads, a sweet, earthy perfume overwhelmed my olfactory system. For minutes, I swam the edges of the seeping sandstone, sniffing reeds, flowers and willows, trying to find the scent that I had never encountered before. When my nose touched the petals of sweet white clover, I gave them my full and delicate attention. A note from my lover, the rain, lingering in the air, promising his return.
– Morgan Sjogren