Springs, Science, and Fieldwork

Having left my bottle lower down the mountain, I let the cool water sit in my hands before bringing it to my lips. Apparently, I’m told by one of the scientists nearby, if I were a water connoisseur I would pick up on the particular taste. I’m no connoisseur, though something does taste different. Part of it is simply the rarity of finding water like this in the high mountain desert. Yet water is always present if you pay attention: in rosebush leaves and fleshy cacti, in the insects caught in bug nets, under the fur of the rodents who did not fall for the Quaker oatmeal traps, in the flesh of my own hands, spring water cupped, slipping through fingers.

Springs inhabit a lively space in this land. They are places of emergence, intersections between diverse surface and subsurface ecological communities, fascinating places for an ecologist. They are also spaces charged by contested land rights, resource management, and difficult (and violent) historical encounters. As canaries of the groundwater coal mine,1 they are dynamic, and like all bodies of water in the desert, feel like miracles to come across. Water is certainly scarce in Northern Arizona, though there is no shortage of stories that springs take part in. Around Flagstaff, a small city at the base of the volcanic San Francisco Peaks, springs sustained human life long before Coronado and his conquistadors came searching for gold in the 1500s and named the mountain Sierra Sin Agua, or “mountains without water.”2 Presently, springs are undergoing immense change.

I’m working on my Anthropology/Environmental Studies senior thesis this summer, which is focused on meaning-making and relationships between humans and springs in and around Flagstaff. My ethnographic and archival research has been exploring a settled past and unsettling futures that bring springs and people together in messy ways. My thesis also involves making a short documentary film, so I try keep camera equipment on hand wherever I go. Last week, camera in hand, I joined a handful of scientists involved in the Spring Stewardship Institute surveying a spring on the Peaks. Scientific assessment of a spring covers six categories: aquifer and water quality, geomorphology, habitat and microhabitat array, biota, human uses and influences, and administrative management context. A few (unedited) video stills of that fieldwork:

Research assistant preparing to measure spring flow.

Research assistant preparing to measure spring flow.

On the Peaks. A City of Flagstaff well, drilled in 1968, taps into the shallow aquifer that feeds springs in the area.

Inner Basin of the Peaks. In the foreground, a City of Flagstaff well taps into the shallow aquifer that feeds springs in the area.

Catching a moth for specimen collection near the spring.

Catching a moth for specimen collection near the spring.

I’m drawn to how the visual and audible can document stories of the land, how images and sound say much without saying much. Documentary media can help us “see” differently, cause disturbance, and help us imagine other ways of being. Being a one-person crew has its challenges, but I’m beginning to balance (literally) the camera, microphones, and audio recorder a bit better, while experimenting with other ways of seeing, hearing, experiencing, and thinking like a spring.

My research has also become guided by practices of listening. Anthropologist Lisa Stevenson and suggests a kind of deep attentiveness in “listening for what is, what has been, and what will be”.3 What might it mean—historically, politically, ethically—to listen to a spring, to the land, to those who know it well? And what do springs say about sustaining life in the West, about justice, about being-in-relation?

I’m not sure yet, though a few images are coming into focus. But I continue to follow these entangled threads, picking up on some of the wisdom and stories that fill this place.


– Caleb



  1. Quite a bit of irony in this comparison. Coal mining slurry pipelines use huge amounts of water to transport coal elsewhere for refinement. On the Black Mesa plateau, Peabody Coal pumped approximately 3 million gallons of groundwater each day, drastically drawing down the Navajo Aquifer used by the Navajo and Hopi tribes in the area. Many wells and springs went dry. As of 2005, the slurry is no longer used, though a proposal to refurbish the pipeline to supplement Grand Canyon National Park’s water supply has been considered.
  2. Even in names, water remains. The Hopi call the mountain, Nuva’tukya’ovi (“place of snow on the very top”); the Navajo, Dook’o’oosłííd (“the summit which never melts”). Officially, the Spanish 17th century Franciscan missionary friars’ name “San Francisco Peaks” stuck, though most people in town just call it the Peaks.
  3. Lisa Stevenson, 2014. Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic.