The Secret Knowledge of Water

Craig Childs
Little Brown, 2000

Craig Childs belongs to a group I call The Extreme Intrepids, people who take themselves into unexplored wilds and live to tell and write about it. A confirmed desert rat, he is also part poet, nature hermit, scientific recorder, physical endurance fiend and sensualist. He is a spliced combination of bits of Annie Dillard, Thoreau, Sir Edmund Hillary and Charles Darwin.

I’m enough of a southwest U.S. native to feel comfortable alone on a plateau with no one around for miles. I seek total absence of sound in nature and I love the stark beauty, the brutality and frailness of desert, so I had a cursory background to enjoy this book. Someone who has never visited the area may find the descriptions as remote as I do the Congo.

The opening chapters are as shy and unobtrusive as the hidden desert water pockets he finds. Ever so slowly he maps and records what seems as innocent and endemic to the desert as a city child’s plastic backyard wading pool. It wasn‘t until over halfway through the book I realized how skillfully I had been led down and up his canyons and across his deserts in an ever growing crescendo of danger and mystic wonder. His understanding and awe of water in the southwestern U.S. becomes an intellectual mystery without human beings.

Neither gifted with nor having acquired much scientific knowledge or appreciation, I wondered not too far into the book if I would continue enjoying it to the end. If human storyline and plot action is preferred, Childs will feel slow and perhaps pointless. If discovery of the earth and sprinkled cosmic thoughts on how the universe works is of interest, you’ll wish you could spend time, albeit perhaps only a long weekend, on his arduous walking trips.

I learned words like anhydrobiosis (fun to say and means “dehydrated life–life shrunk down to its most primary aspects.”) and sere, a useful desert word meaning dried and withered. I read about the intention of water, its desire and visited sources I knew nothing about. Childs is a “desert whisperer” who, in the tradition of the greatest naturalist/journalist style, took me closer to the mysteries I had perhaps walked past without noticing.

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