Dry World

If you wonder why they still print books in physical form, you haven't seen Ground/Water yet

To experience a stretch of desert riparian oasis in its glory, with the mighty cottonwoods and sycamores, and the fluttering and scuttling and splashing of life, is to be doomed.

All the more beautiful and inviting in contrast to the dry and jagged hinterlands, the Southwest's streamside habitats, from the Grand Canyon to the Rillito, once slashed through arid America in varying shades of green, drawing life like a magnet. Now they are mostly gone, and those still clinging to their dry banks inspire nostalgia more than love. If I would ever win a ride in a time machine I'd go back to, say, the 1700s, just so I could see the teeming banks and muddy flow of the Santa Cruz and the Rillito as they once were.

Gregg Garfin, an assistant professor in the University of Arizona's School of Natural Resources and the Environment, with admirable economy and frankness, describes the wonder that once was the Rillito—and what happened to it—in an essay called "Desert Water: Paradoxes and Trade-offs." It's published in the UA Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry's new book, Ground/Water: The Art, Design and Science of a Dry River.

"The Rillito has suffered numerous local extirpations of wildlife species, and the loss of much of the cottonwood, sycamore, and mesquite gallery forests and bosques that once lined its banks," Garfin writes. "The stream dewatering is the result of groundwater mining, which has reduced the stream's baseflow level to beneath the surface. The bulk of riparian forest loss is due to a combination of groundwater drawdown and development priorities in which streamside forests have no place."

Edited by UA faculty members Ellen McMahon, Ander Monson and Beth Weinstein and published recently by the UA Press, Ground/Water is the first volume of the Confluencenter's Confluence Beyond Boundaries series. The book, itself a beautiful object, is the result of a series of collaborations between UA faculty and students and the Rillito River Project, a Tucson-based arts group. It contains an array of essays, poems, photographs, graphic design projects and architectural proposals inspired by the Rillito.

The "little river" that drains a large mountain watershed is nothing more than a dry white gash below the foothills of the Santa Catalinas these days, along which thousands of Tucsonans run, walk and ride every day. It fills up after a rainstorm sometimes but dries out soon enough. It's been sucked dry and cemented in place, spanned by 15 different bridges and forgotten. But it was also, along with the Santa Cruz River, the very thing that first brought humans to this hot valley in the first place.  It is an ideally ironic subject, then, for the kind of freewheeling, multidisciplinary thinking and inspiration that the Confluencenter is all about.

Allison Dushane, assistant professor in the UA's English Department, in her essay "Imagination and Invention: Romanticism and the Life of a Dry River," provides an eloquent defense of the center's brand of multidisciplinary ethos, using as her model the poet-scientist Erasmus Darwin, Charles' grandfather.

"It is necessary to marshal all of the resources at our disposal, scientific and humanistic, towards rethinking, reimagining, and reinventing a world that recognizes the inseparability of human and nonhuman concerns," Dushane writes.

Another fascinating project included is called "Expedition," by artist Camden Hardy.

One day in September 2010, Hardy walked 22 miles upstream in the Pantano Wash, a Rillito tributary, and recorded what he found along the way. Mostly he found a lot of trash—beer cans, water bottles and shopping carts. But Hardy also discovered a  bit of mystery in the wash. At mile one he found half of a surfboard; at mile two he found a "garbage bag full of teddy bears"; at mile four, a "bare human footprint"; and at mile eight he found a "possible grave site."

I have decided this represents the future of the printed book, not so much in its content but in its design and construction and elegance: an off-kilter size; heavy cardboard; a minimalist, letterpress-printed cover; and open-sewn binding. There's even a "hydrograph" printed on the back that depicts, with simple and clear black lines, the unsustainable pumping of groundwater from the Rillito between 1941 and 2004. It seems an object of art before you even turn a page. Hopefully this is the direction in which bookmaking is headed in the digital age, toward the small-batch and the quirky—something worthy of being called a genuine artifact.

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