River, How Do You Feel?
I don’t think the sky could be any bigger here in Cochise County. Just below the giant blue dome sits Ash Creek School, a little collection of white buildings with purple trim, not far from the barely-a-town of Pearce, AZ. The campus is separated from the highway by a line of cottonwood trees.
The last time I was here, in winter over a year ago, the leaves were yellow and I was tickled to see the school marquee announced my presence: “Welcome Artist Kimi.” This time the marquee announces a track meet, so the cottonwoods, in their full green-of-spring glory, do the job.
On the first day of my residency I show the 3rd, 4th and 5th graders (all in once class) a map of the Colorado River watershed. I trace the thick blue line of the Colorado River and then the tributaries that feed it, explaining to them that a watershed is the area of land that drains water to a single stream. Or, as John Wesley Powell, put it: “that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community.”
We look closely and identify where Ash Creek School would be, and the miniscule “town” of Pearce, if it were big enough to be shown on the map. Their teacher, Vicki Marvick, indicates a patch of map brown beyond the red line that delineates the watershed.
“We’re just outside of that watershed,” she says. “I’m not sure which watershed we’re in. It’s a captive basin, this area.”
A captive basin? What is that, exactly?
Well, it’s the Willcox basin, a 1,911-square mile basin bounded by mountains—the Pinaleños to the northeast, the Dos Cabezas and Chiricahuas to the east, the Pedregosas to the south, the Swisshelms, Dragoons, and Winchesters to the west. The lowest point in the basin is the Willcox Playa, where thousands of sandhill cranes winter every year. All water in the basin—from surface runoff, snowbelt, and just four perennial streams–flows toward the playa, which was historically the only outlet for water to leave the basin. Today most water infiltrates the ground before reaching it. Occasional ponds form in the playa after rain or snow, but most of the time it is a dry, vast expanse of white silt and clay. A captive basin, indeed.
The reason we’re looking at a map of the Colorado River Watershed and not the Willcox basin is because the students are scheduled to travel north to visit the Grand Canyon next month. So I’ve focused my residency with them on the Colorado River, which works well given that in my other life I’m co-directing a dance project about water–how it moves, where it comes from, what’s happening to it, what we can do to enhance the cycle of it—and can bring some of those activities here along with some creative writing.
The irony is that in my own body I seem to have activated into the form of ice, given a 4-month (and counting) bout with sciatica. Which means that I’m something of a captive basin, too.
I can’t walk far and can’t dance but with my hands. Fortunately, my particular condition allows me to sit relatively comfortably in a chair. I feel a little bit like a wrinkled and washed up ballet teacher, leaning on her cane, barking orders. Except I have no cane and I gave up leotards years ago. And actually I’m not really all that wrinkled yet, nor do I bark at the children. But anyway, this isn’t really about me and my immobility. It’s about children and how readily they move. Like water, uncontained.
I ease into the week. My task over the next 10 days is to assemble something for the students to perform. At the end of my residency, parents and community members will come to see what the students have learned. Then, at the end of April, they’ll perform it in Phoenix at the culminating event of this whole project, three years running now and about to end. Maybe there will be funding to extend the program. If not, we’ll be like water racing toward the dam.
I mix up the days with writing and dance activities. We write about our most recent experience with water in the desert; we take turns moving as rocks and water, each one shaping the other; we read a variety of accounts of the Colorado River and identify actions and images; we list all the things a river does and create movements for those actions.
Then we do some improv. I never quite know how students will respond to the wide open, but I do know that the younger they are, the easier it is for them to feel free. The 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders take to it swimmingly, shall we say. I ask them to go in pairs, from one corner of the room to another. Each crossing is a different movement quality. I imagine they are the Grand Canyon forming. Heavy like rock. Light like wind. Layers and layers. Cutting and carving. Tumbling. Twisting. Curving and turning. Their interpretations are curious. For “layers” some of them stack their hands together, keep them moving higher. For cutting and carving, some of them turn to their partners to shape them into poses or twirl them. Some make scissor hands.
And then we get to dying. The dying river. Earlier in the week we wrote down the word “trickle.” I mentioned that by the time the Colorado reaches the delta it is merely a trickle. So many dams and diversions, so much human dependency—the river barely makes it.
The children begin across the room. Some of them droop their jaws and eyes. Their arms hang limp. They fall to their knees, then to their chests and bellies, they drag themselves across the floor. I watch one boy lie flat on the ground and try to pull the weight of his body by his fingertips.
It’s not complicated movement. In fact, it’s rather literal. But with the music I have going—lots of slow violin and cellos—it’s unbelievably moving. In fact, what’s most moving of all is when all the kids have stopped altogether, their bodies splayed across the floor, completely still. I look at their teacher. She looks at me. We nod. Chills.
These students have never seen the Colorado River, but they’ve seen some of the region’s perennial streams in nearby mountains, so they know something about how rivers move. But, what else do they want to know about the river? If the river were a person, and you could ask it anything, what would you ask it?
The questions are delightful:
River, how were you created?
What are you made of?
How did you get so strong?
Why are you so cold?
River, what is your favorite song?
What do you do for fun?
What is your secret?
Who do you work for?
What do you worship?
River, what stories do you have for me?
What makes you angry?
Have you ever loved someone?
What are you afraid of?
How do you feel?
River, what do you want us to do better?
I have each of them choose a question to answer. Become the river, I tell them. You just danced the river. Now speak the river.
Here are their answers, edited to single sentences:
I was born in a cloud that was blue.
I was made by rain, blue as the sky.
I got strong by carving rocks. My heart will be in the sky soon.
My secret is that I hate soggy green frogs with rainbow teeth.
I work for the people. I keep them cool.
I work for the rocks who I give a home to, and the seeds who I transport.
I am cold because the warmth of the sun isn’t mine.
I would rather flow than die. I’m blue.
I bury my head in the deep blue sea.
I’m afraid of dying.
I feel intoxicated. I feel soaked. I want to be purple!
I will die for the people. They are like trees to me. I hear their music in the birds. I see their green leaves.
A few days later, back in Tucson, I am speaking on a panel about art practice and sustainability for the Tucson Water Project. I talk about how the body offers a good place to explore our connection to water. I share the story of the students dancing the dying river. I mention the boy and his fingertip crawl. When I’m done speaking, a woman in the audience raises her hand. She references the story and asks, “What about hope? What are you doing to teach the children hope?”
Hmm. I can’t tell if I like her question or if it annoys me. Part of me wants to be sassy. “Hope? What hope is there for the Colorado River?” But of course, that’s not how a nice teaching artist should respond. So, I tell her the truth: that I’m not finished with my residency yet, that I go back for another week on Monday. I tell her we’ll continue to explore our relationship with water through the body and that maybe some solutions will bubble to the surface.
The truth is, I don’t know what I’ll do to “teach the children hope.” That seems like a tall order. And anyway, I don’t think it’s really my job to do that.
My job, or at least what I think my job is, is to make them feel.
This week it was to make them feel the river—to imagine what it would be like to move as the river, to imagine what the river would say if it could speak, to feel something all their own in the body and in the throat.
Maybe there, inside all those feelings, is where hope begins its flow.