The River of Life

A new book follows the Río Grande— its course and its challenges—in historical images and thoughtful essays.

RIO:
A Photographic Journey down the Old Río Grande
By MELISSA SAVAGE (editor), with essays by WILLIAM DeBUYS, RINA SWENTZELL, G. EMLEN HALL, JUAN ESTEVAN ARELLANO, ESTELLA LEOPOLD, NORMA ELIA CANTÚ, JAN REID, and DAN FLORES (University of New Mexico Press, 2016)

The river is old. And for as long as it has run, the river has animated the country around it. The Río Grande, alternately life-giving and dangerous, tranquil and turbulent, has shaped the lives of the people who came to settle by her side. And the river valley, in turn, is a landscape shaped over centuries by those settlers. The photographic images in this collection tell the story of how the river was woven into each of the successive cultures that inhabited the valley.

Ancestral Puebloan people were the first permanent settlers, migrating to the valley from the west, then settlers filtering up from new Spain, bringing Indo-Hispanic ways of life, followed by a wave of American culture. Sometimes settlers shared knowledge and customs. Sometimes there were violent clashes between cultures. But the traditional lifeways of these overlapping cultures gave gifts that are still part of everyday life in the valley: artifacts of material life—woven rugs and blankets, pottery bowls, silverwork, riatas, spurs—as well as relationships of respect for neighbors and the earth and the sharing of resources, especially water. Each culture, one after the other, laid patterns of custom and tradition that are still embedded in the communities of the Río Grande Valley. And at the heart of the valley, the river continues to eddy and flow.

I first came to the Río Grande Valley as a young woman, to write a story on early efforts to restore cottonwood tree groves along the riverbanks. I felt at home. I stayed. And over many decades of living near the river, I have become who I am because of where I have been.

For those of us who live near her, the Río Grande allows us to survive. Once dynamic waters are now tamed and diverted. But the water in our glasses still comes from the river and the deep waters that lie beneath in aquifers. The peaches we eat in summer swell and ripen with water from her watershed. The rains and snows that fall in the mountains provide the bathwater we step into. In truth, the river’s water runs in our very blood. We depend on the river for life itself as much as the people in these flickering photographic images do, even as we are less aware of our dependence. Even with fiercely competing demands on her waters, the Río Grande is still a living river with the power to animate an entire valley.

Excerpted text and photos courtesy of University of New Mexico Press.

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