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Run River Run

A new anthology celebrates the life, near-death & hopes for revival of the Santa Fe River

February 16, 2011, 1:00 am

Carp pond in Archbishop’s garden near Saint Francis Cathedral, circa 1887. Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archive (NMHM/DCA). Negative No. 15264.

Celebrating the Santa Fe River Watershed

By Jack Loeffler

Jack Loeffler moved to northern New Mexico in 1962 and has spent time as a sandal-maker, fire-lookout, environmentalist, curator, aural historian, sound collage artist, radio producer, and writer. His most recent book is entitled Healing the West: Voices of Culture and Habitat. He is currently producing a new radio series and book, both entitled Thinking Like a Watershed. In 2009, Loeffler was a recipient of the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.

Santa Fe Canyon pierces the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos, the eastern arm of the Southern Rockies that together with their western arm, the San Juan, Tusas, and Jemez Mountains, embrace the northern reaches of the Rio Grande. Santa Fe Canyon cradles the streambed of the Santa Fe River, a frequently abandoned meander that occasionally flows into the Rio Grande, which itself marks the course of the second largest rift of its kind in the world. To paraphrase the late, great Aldo Leopold, thinking like a watershed is possibly the clearest way to understand homeland.

It is thought by some scholars that four hundred years ago, La Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asís, was laid out geo-mythically by Tlascalan Indians who had accompanied Juan de Oñate northward from Zacatecas. These Mexican Indians had an understanding of the appropriate way to physically craft a community within the context of surrounding habitat. Mountains lie to the east, water is present in relative abundance, the westerly sun showers its light, life is nurtured, the landscape is spiritually revered, the spirit of place is honored. Thus Santa Fe was born and has lingered long and in beauty.

Indeed the Santa Fe River has been the aquatic lifeline of not just the human community, but also the surrounding biotic community within the geophysical cradle that provides the structural cohesion of this watershed. The myriad life forms, most of which are not visible to the naked eye, collectively generate an élan that is felt throughout the watershed by all living creatures whose sensitivities are honed in favor of survival. 

The great Russian geographer/philosopher Pyotr Kropotkin contended that evolution of species owes far more to mutual cooperation than mutual antagonism. 

He favored political decentralization as the most just and intelligent way for the human species to comport itself. Subsequent to Kropotkin, the bioregional movement stirred within our species as a means of comporting ourselves favorably within our respective ecosystems. It may be difficult for an individual human to envision the home bioregion, but one can readily identify the home watershed with only modest effort. The Santa Fe River watershed is tiny relative to the Rio Grande watershed of which it is part, yet it is vitally important both to itself and to the greater biogeographic continuum. Biogeography, the study of plant and animal communities over space and time, is a most splendid field of science. It has been known to lead the practitioner into a state of consciousness that is utterly appropriate for our time on the planet.

We are presently dominated by an erroneous economic paradigm that favors money far beyond intrinsic worth. We see turning habitat into money as the fundament of fiscal wisdom. We have long since secularized habitat, landscape, and waterways in a way that is a horrendous affront to the sensibilities of our Puebloan neighbors who have successfully survived in small autonomous communities wherein the seasonal cycles are celebrated in great ceremonials that honor the spirit of place. They have much to teach us about attitude.

If we can come to regard ourselves as members of the biotic community privileged to inhabit the Santa Fe River watershed, to perceive it as homeland wherein we become utterly familiar with its biotic and geophysical characteristics, to understand intuitively the elements of its own story, to become truly conscious of the ramifications of our human presence and act accordingly on behalf of the greatest good, our homeland may yet survive the juggernaut of factors that threaten so much of our planetary ecosystem. In my opinion, we must nurture a collective spiritual connection to homeland. To again cite Aldo Leopold, “Obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land.”

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