Book Reviews of The Secret Knowledge of Water: Discovering the Essence of the American Desert

The Secret Knowledge of Water: Discovering the Essence of the American Desert
The Secret Knowledge of Water Discovering the Essence of the American Desert
Author: Craig Leland Childs
ISBN-13: 9781570611599
ISBN-10: 1570611599
Publication Date: 2/2000
Pages: 288
  • Currently 5/5 Stars.

5 stars, based on 1 rating
Publisher: Sasquatch Books
Book Type: Hardcover
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reviewed The Secret Knowledge of Water: Discovering the Essence of the American Desert on + 13 more book reviews
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Craig Childs is emerging as one of the great authors of wilderness literature in the 21st century. In this book he explores the American desert, combing through the scant evidence left behind by early settlers and vanished Native American civilizations. I was astounded by the care and effort ancient peoples undertook to identify, protect, and transmit information about water in their culture. Using this knowledge, which has nearly been forgotten in modern times, native peoples flourished in the desert. While many of the native peoples are no longer here, the plants, animals, and the land itself continue to tell a story about water. The author vividly illustrates how he developed his perception of these signs to find water even in the driest and harshest environments. This book is a primer in how to learn the secrets of any wilderness by being a patient and committed student of that wilderness.
This book reads at times like a detective story, a survival epic, an ethnographic or geographic survey. This book changed the way I think about deserts, and about water. Often putting himself at great personal risk in his explorations, Childs is able to present his readers with an intensely personal experience of just how important, powerful, and fragile water is. As the population increases in the wetter parts of the world the importance of clean water and responsible management of our natural resources becomes more and more paramount. After reading this book you will know this in your bones.
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The "essence of the American desert," as the subtitle of Craig Childs's book has it, is water. A desert, by definition, lacks it, but when water does come, it comes in torrential, sometimes devastating abundance. Childs, a thirtysomething desert rat with a vast knowledge of the Southwest's remote corners, knows this fact well. "Most rain falling anywhere but the desert comes slow enough that it is swallowed by the soil without comment," he observes. "Desert rains, powerful and sporadic, tend to hit the ground, gather into floods, and are gone before the water can sink five inches into the ground."

The travels that Childs recounts in this vivid narrative take him from places sometimes parched, sometimes swimming, from the depths of the Grand Canyon to the dry limestone tanks of the lava-strewn Sonoran Desert. As he travels, Childs gives a close reading of the desert landscape ("the moral," he writes at one point, "is that if you know the land and its maps, you might live"), observing the rocks, plants, animals, and people that call it home. Some of his adventures will remind readers of Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire--save that Childs writes without Abbey's bluster, and with a measured lyricism that well suits the achingly lovely back canyons and cactus forests of the Southwest. By turns travelogue, ecological treatise, and meditative essay, Childs's book will speak to anyone who has spent time under desert skies, wondering when the next drop of rain might fall. --Gregory McNamee