Lingering Questions

The summer is coming to a close. The seasonal monsoon rains have returned in full force. Photos of college students paddling trashcans on a regularly flooded street downtown make the front page of Flagstaff’s local newspaper. Elsewhere, the torrent pops off a storm drain and a new murky pond slows traffic down Milton Road. The rains brings its petrichor—the distinct scent of rain created upon impact: droplets colliding with plant oils and soil awaiting their return. Storms get in the way of hiking plans, make you turn around unexpectedly before reaching a summit, erode trails, flood roads. They show up unexpectedly and sometimes linger. They bring a respite, a time to cultivate gratitude.

I am wrapping up many weeks of reading, interviewing, listening, and filmmaking. My project on water in and around Flagstaff has taken many twists and turns, beginning first with water scarcity and small-scale agriculture around Flagstaff, and eventually moving into a project about settler colonialism and affective relationships with springs around Flagstaff. At times, I have been overwhelmed by the directions that this film/ethnography project could take. From agriculture to settlement to management to resource-making to perception and human-water relations, the interwoven threads between water and humans almost feels too big a topic to navigate. There are already many well-written books and articles on water in the West. Is this the right direction? Am I overlapping with other research? Is this relevant? What can I offer to the conversation? Still, in moments of doubt, the stories of springs and people offer much to think with—and much to feel.

Nowadays, it seems many people are speaking of our present as defined by an increasingly uncertain future. The connections of this to water are prevalent. Alaska, where I was born, is experiencing unprecedented permafrost thaws, in large part due to unprecedented warming trends, that is shifting the ground underneath residents’ feet. Unprecedented groundwater depletion has altered Earth’s gravitational field. It is worth remembering, as Josh Fox reminds us in his recent documentary film How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change, that humans are changing the way that water moves and behaves on our planet. The connections between water, time, climate change, and life seem to be surfacing.

On a recent trip out to California, I walked out above Hoover Dam, the engineering fabulation that holds back the largest reservoir in the US. The bathtub ring of mineral deposits looked higher than ever. 157 vertical feet below capacity, Lake Mead dropped to its lowest levels since construction in the 1930s. That was early July—this July, 2016.

Hoover Dam, July 24, 2016

Hoover Dam, July 24, 2016 (video still)

Driving back to Northern Arizona, we passed by countless pickers clad in long sleeves and jeans, bent over in vast agricultural fields. Strawberries, mostly. At home, I heard that three farm workers, three women picking grapes in the Central Valley, died from the heat the week before.

Water. Stress. Loss.

This project emerged from my concerns about my town’s water future and, by extension, the future of life in the American West. I am coming to see that life itself is not only threatened by the unprecedented human use of water, nor by unbelievable heat that sucks moisture from the soil, from your own skin. It is also endangered by the inherited legacies and systems that have brought us to this point. Settler colonialism as a continuing system and process shapes the ways we interact with places, make resources, conceive of the future, and see ourselves. Such legacies are still at work in our psyches. Yet there are also moments where settler colonialism’s logic slips; moments of interruption that allow people to recognize their fundamental dependence on a resilient land and a resilient community.

Water. Respect. Relation.

What have Flagstaff residents learned through, with, and from springs? What might be the work of decolonization for Flagstaff’s community, for my town, for myself?