Zoe McCully: Water is Life

zoe blog 2

Listening. To the wind, whipping the Colorado River into a frothy turquoise skin. To the sound of rain pattering across my sleeping bag.  To the slow hollow slap of Lake Powell against the washed out rim of Glen Canyon. To the voices and experiences of multiple speakers and hosts: Steve, Dorothy, Buckey, Richard, Clorinda, Deryl and his sons. To our brand new instructors Uncle Ben and Aunty Eva. To the crackle of a fire burning apple wood and juniper.

This third section of WRFI has been one of wide open spaces, and open ears.  As we’ve traveled from Utah to Arizona, we’ve driven over mesas, past the Vermilion Cliffs, and over the Rainbow Bridge and Glen Canyon Dam, to visit Hopi and Navajo reservations. The sky has opened up and the wind has rushed south easterly across the land.

We have had MANY speakers share with us their lifestyles, thoughts, history, truths, and culture. We visited Glen Canyon Dam, looked down into the carp filled waters of Lake Powell and swam in the deep clear blue waters of the Colorado. We worked at the Star School, saw the application of solar energy and hydroponic food growing systems, and stayed at a home “off the grid.” We drank from a spring on the Hopi reservation, and used its water to plant cloves of thick stemmed garlic.

A reoccurring topic that comes up is water.  In the Southwest water is scarce, yet companies like Peabody Western Coal Company use it to slurry coal across the country and the Bureau of Reclamation has created an evaporating bathtub called Lake Powell. One of our hosts this section, Dorothy, let us work in her garden and described to us how Hopi people farm without irrigation using a method called “dry farming,” yet rely on springs to sustain themselves. She talked about how the water on the Hopi reservation has levels of arsenic so high she always hauls her water from these springs or buys bottled water jugs, to avoid drinking the contaminated tap water.

An elder from the Hopi Reservation, Bucky, shared with us information from an organization called Black Mesa Trust, also related to water. He also wouldn’t drink the reservation tap water and discussed how Peabody Coal, the company that runs the Navajo Generating Station, is depleting the springs, washes and aquifers that the Hopi people depend on for drinking water. He organizes the “Water is Life Run” a truth that is becoming an increasingly used expression.

When we stayed with Steve who lives off the grid outside of Flagstaff, it was clear that interacting with the resources you consume, by growing your food, or hauling your water, creates awareness for the source and scarcity of the things we depend on. I find in my own life complacency sets in when I live in a city where any food item I want is available year round, and water is always potable if it comes from a tap. So many systems are in place to support this instant gratification consumerism, so many corporations profit off it, and it is dangerously distancing people from the reality of the land.

Hearing the phrase “Water is Life” and learning about all the issues relating to water in the southwest made me think about how these issues parallel the Dakota Access Pipeline. Peabody mine is wasting water, depleting springs and aquifers, and the whole generating station that provides jobs to many people who live on the reservation is closing in 2019. The tap water is contaminated with high levels of arsenic. The reservation economies are dependent on coal and natural gas.

This is not so different from the high profile situation with Dakota Access in North Dakota. This pipeline has desecrated sacred burial grounds and threatens the land and water of the Sioux.  It puts the Missouri River, and drinking water of 7 million people in the Midwest at risk. A similar thing is happening in Utah and Arizona with coal and uranium mining on Hopi and Navajo land.

How many more front-lines or instances of fossil fuel companies exploiting the life giving water and land of Native people, and all people, are there?

How many corporations get to do their own environmental assessments and investigations when things go wrong?

Is there no accountability or responsibility to the people and land?

How many people are so distant from the resources that they consume, so used to a culture of fresh vegetables in cold winter climates, that there is no understanding of resource scarcity, availability and the reality of what the land can provide?

In the midst of these questions that swirl around my head daily and nightly, one of the things I have realized is the power of listening. It is a skill to be able to observe, absorb, and hear what people tell you, rather than make assumptions and automatically begin to analyze things before you start to even understand them. It is overwhelming to sit round a fire past bedtime, and hear so many stories, histories and current realities of exploitation, and not feel your brain jumping to guilt ridden solutions.  Randy Ramsley told us, “The land will show you what it wants to give you.” I believe this is something that can only be discovered through observation, and listening to people and the land they live on.

There is power in stillness; in slowing down from a culture of constant questioning and accepting the words of others. There is respect in silence and peace in the moments where all you hear is the raging of the wind as the sun sets over the sagebrush. However, I can’t help but wonder, what will happen to the world’s water, here and everywhere, if we continue on this trajectory of taking not giving, and masking the reality of the land?

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