Its course is the heartline of New Mexico, surging down from Colorado, tumbling through Taos Canyon and swelling at the ancient confluence of rivers in Española before pooling in Cochiti Lake. Its flow is regulated, diverted and doled out in precise amounts between there and the shrinking shorelines of Elephant Butte, then trickling on to Texas. But the Rio Grande historically led a wilder life beyond our borders, back when steamships plied its wide waters at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico.

Rio: A Photographic Journey Down the Old Rio Grande (UNM Press) is a collection of essays and photographs edited by Santa Fe geographer and conservationist Melissa Savage. In it she has curated a moving collection of images that capture scenes of the river's history in the lives of those who have depended on it.

Big Bend, Texas, ca. 1846-1847
Big Bend, Texas, ca. 1846-1847 | Henry B DuPont

SFR: You first became interested in doing this project looking at photographs by Laura Gilpin. What about them inspired you?
My impression was that Gilpin was interpreting the landscape through the people living by the side of the river. She published a book called The Rio Grande [in 1949], and that focused on cultures and landscape of the entire watershed and you could see from the photographs the relationship of the people in the valley with the waters. And I was very touched by that.

How did you decide who would write the essays?
All of the writers are long-term historians, history buffs and river rats who have been writing about this for decades. Estella Leopold is the daughter of Aldo Leopold, who had such an impact on conservation in New Mexico and all over. Estella became a hydrologist imbued with that same sense of the land. I think she's 85 and she's still active. The Rio Grande is her mother river. That's sort of true of all of these writers.

Washing Wheat, San Juan Pueblo, ca. 1905
Washing Wheat, San Juan Pueblo, ca. 1905 | Edward S Curtis

The landscape photos in here are stunning, with these grand vistas. Almost all have people in them.
Photographs of the river without people are boring! Photos with people illustrate the struggle to live by the river, which was turbulent and difficult.

There's one Ansel Adams image in this book ("Dust Storm from North Bank of the Rio Grande") and it reminded me of the role Adams' images played in introducing the natural wonders of the West to people on the coasts.
That particular photograph is a big chunk of landscape, very austere, very forbidding and this tiny Mexican village nestled in the folds of the river. You can see how this little village had difficulty surviving. The river destroyed many villages like that.

One chapter of Rio includes dramatic photos of flooding. We don't see that these days.
Well, at the moment we're going through a dry period. The river often flows just over 300 CFS [cubic feet per second]. But there's evidence that there were floods of 100,000 CFS and it's possible there were floods of up to 200,000 CFS. That's enormously bigger than the river that we see right now. But there have been really wet periods in the past, and that could happen again.

But we control the river so much now.
No, not really. The first real dam is Cochiti—a dirt dam!—and there are a thousand miles of river above that. The next one is at Elephant Butte. People don't give the Rio Grande enough credit.

One of the things that also inspired me to do this book was a study that the Alliance for Rio Grande Heritage commissioned on people's perceptions of the river, and the general perception was: We never think about it, we never go there and it's embarrassing because it's a little dirty river. But it's not that! It's a very powerful river capable of changing the landscape around it, even now.

Mexican Bridge Guard, Matamoros, Mexico, Rio Grande, ca. 1915
Mexican Bridge Guard, Matamoros, Mexico, Rio Grande, ca. 1915 | Wilfred Dudley Smithers

In her essay about river crossings, Rina Swentzell talks about how building bigger and better bridges makes people less and less aware of the river.
I think we take those bridges for granted now. There are pictures of the river taking out bridges in Albuquerque up to the 1940s.

All our technological advances tend to separate us from the natural world that we depend on but don't pay attention to. Flooding is the invisible hand of the river that we don't calculate.

Part of the book talks about trade along the rivers and there's a great image of a steam train parked at Embudo, between Española and Taos. That was the Chile Line, which ran until 1941. But the era of train travel and freight in New Mexico was relatively short.
It was very short. And you can see in the picture there wasn't enough room for tracks at Embudo. There were towns and tracks that were just completely washed away. San Felipe built its little town on the mesa, away from flooding, because they knew, and then the Anglos came and built tracks along the river. The town moved down and it was utterly washed away.

It was a short-lived lesson. Nobody builds trains along the river now. We do think of the river as somehow being tamed, but in fact it's not. One of the outcomes of climate change is intensified natural events—hurricanes, flooding—and that's also true here. We could get these enormous downbursts that cause intense flooding. We're at increased risk.

Caught in quicksand at Ojito crossing of Rio Grande, Sandoval County, New Mexico, ca. 1932
Caught in quicksand at Ojito crossing of Rio Grande, Sandoval County, New Mexico, ca. 1932 | JW Wyckoff

One of the things you notice in these pictures is how much of our agriculture has moved farther away from the river because of more sophisticated irrigation systems. How has that changed the character of the river?
It's changed the river enormously. Emlen Hall talks about how when the floodwaters went down, islands would appear and the Pueblo people would plant corn on the islands. They didn't have to irrigate because the water table was so low and it worked! Assuming it didn't flood again. But now the whole concept is diverting water away from the river. It has drained dry to its bed in a lot of places.

Your chapter on "Los Insurrectos" captures images of conflict at the border. The country just elected a president who pledged to build a wall across this same border.
It's a hot international border and it's going to stay that way. It was a very porous border and people crossed it all the time. In her essay, Norma Cantú talks about the "other" looking across the river at the other, how people on one side perceive the people on the other. I just love that first photograph, which a lot of people don't get at first. The people of El Paso are strolling around with their parasols, watching a battle on the other side of the river. Bullets would occasionally whiz past them. That concept of the "other" is implicit in that picture and is perhaps much stronger today.

There are many great rivers on this planet and in this country. Compared to most of them, the Rio Grande isn't particularly grand. What makes it so special?
The Amazon is a really wet place, but this is a really dry place. This is the only water around for hundreds of miles, in many cases. We've been depending on it for all our agriculture, our drinking water, for ages. [Western explorer John Wesley] Powell did a map of the watersheds of the West, before we had all the technological tools we have now, and you see the watershed of the Rio Grande is huge. It starts in Colorado and goes all along the Texas-Mexico border. It encompasses an enormous area of land.

And it is a big part of the story of the West.
And that is the book. It's a photographic story of people's interactions over 400 years. Part of the reason I wrote the book is because there are many beautiful photo books of the river, but they're all current, and I thought: Well, what about all that history? Those 400 years were pretty important.

In some ways it looks so different now. But you can go to one of those communities right on the river, say, Bernardo or San Antonio, and look out at something that could have been exactly the same 400 years ago when Pueblo people were hunting there, or when the Spanish missionaries were planting the first grapes there, or when Conrad Hilton's father was building a hotel there.
When we go to the Bosque del Apache, we stay in our cars and drive around and look at birds. We've got bottles of water in the car. Nobody walks down to the river. It's really astonishing that we've separated ourselves so much. The river is the entire reason we're all here.

Discussion with editor Melissa Savage
and contributor William deBuys

6 pm Thursday Nov. 17. Free.
Collected Works Bookstore and Café,
202 Galisteo St.,