A melancholy cyclist riding along the Santa Cruz River

February 22, 2013

The Lessening Stream: An Environmental History of the Santa Cruz River, by Michael F. Logan (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2002)

Turkey Creek in the Canelo Hills

Turkey Creek in the Canelo Hills

As American rivers go, Arizona’s Santa Cruz isn’t very much, 205 miles from its headwaters in the Canelo Hills to its confluence with the Gila River near Phoenix where both streams exist as dry washes most of the time.

My interest in this little desert stream is based, in part, on the fact that on four days of PAC Tour’s Border Towns bicycling event we’ll be riding up and down in two valleys that are part of the Santa Cruz’s drainage basin. A second reason is that this river is a useful paradigm for the environmental history of rivers great and small across America’s West and in many other places in the world.

To understand the river’s history, it is necessary to have a comprehensive account of its life as far back as we can get it, with special attention given to the forces, natural and human-caused, that have affected it. Environmental historian Michael F. Logan, whose family settled on the Santa Cruz a few miles north of Nogales in 1880, has provided this narrative. Its usefulness is increased by the fact that he intends to avoid a moralistic overlay to the narrative. Evaluations of good and bad and right and wrong are largely absent, leaving it to the readers to develop their own interpretation of the story’s meaning.

As we bicycle along the historic course of the river and its tributary streams, we can ignore its history. We can focus full attention upon the ride itself and give little thought to the way this river has entered into the human history of the societies that have endured through this desert landscape. All that we have to do is keep to the designated route and revel in the delights of Arizona’s winter sunshine and broad vistas.

As a history-oriented cyclist, however, I keep thinking about the human stories that have unfolded along the roads over which I bicycle mile after mile. As I travel along the Santa Cruz waterways, Logan’s book will provide a multi-faceted narrative that interweaves the interaction of natural and human factors in three eras which he describes as archaic, modern, and postmodern.

My mindset will differ from Logan’s, however. He considers himself to be a materialist, and therefore resists seeing this history as a story of decline. As a religious historian, I pay attention to meaning as well as to fact, and it is more difficult for me than it is for Logan to resist the tendency to develop the morality of the actions that have taken place in the Santa Cruz basin. Topics that interest me include this short list:

Logan1)    The capacity of this little stream to support extensive human development, including the Tucson metropolitan area, vast acreages of irrigated farming, and an extensive mining industry. Even though the Santa Cruz is a diminishing stream, the reservoirs provided by its ancient aquifer continue to support a complex industrial society.

2)     The ability of humankind to alter the forces of nature. Logan shows how even the Hohokam—the “Ancient One”—were able to change the river’s flow by their simple but highly efficient irrigation systems. In later years, and especially in the most recent postmodern era, this human capacity beggars the imagination.

3)    The strange, disquieting character of what Logan describes as the postmodern era. Even Logan’s determination to avoid moralizing escapes him as he describes the “postmodern vision of the river” as “chaotic and surrealistic.” People with this point of view completely dissociate the river, and all of the politics revolving around its use, from anything that is important to them in their daily lives—and this despite the fact that the Santa Cruz and its aquifer continue to “be central to the survival of human society in the valley.”

4)    Logan’s calm confidence that our culture, like that of the Hohokam more than six hundred years ago, will disappear because the natural world will no longer be able to sustain our way of life. “Just as a river existed before human cultures arrived in the valley, . . .a river will no doubt continue to exist in one manifestation or another long after the last human culture, and I, have passed from the scene” (p. 11).

Despite the somber character of Logan’s eschatology, I tend to share it. As a religious historian I am drawn to the vision of a new heaven and a new earth, but as I bicycle through life the plot of world history seems to be fundamentally tragic.

This bicycle ride through the Santa Cruz basin, enjoyable as it is bound to be, is likely to send me home even more uneasy about our human prospects than when I began the ride.