Reoccupying the Santa Fe River

Living next to the Santa Fe River, I get to walk it nearly every day with my family and dogs.  And in the last couple of years I get to work in it nearly as often. Like an old friend, my relationship has deepened over the years so I’ve come to know it, both the elements seen and more hidden beyond easy view.

My mind feels like a raging flash flood when I get too much in my head – click to the bottom of this post for a video of this 2016 flood!

Sometimes while crossing through the sandy or cobbly bed I can get caught up in my head, muddling through project details, aspiring for future improvements, looking for ways to get people involved.  It’s during these times I realize my mind can become cloudy and turbid, like a raging flash flood.  During these times I try to let go of all the concerns, and remember to just enjoy my time in the river bed, exploring and observing, and above all connecting and learning from just being there.

I’ve learned one crucial lesson from the push/pull of working, walking, and thinking about the river: that reOCCUPYing our nearby open spaces is the best way to learn from the river and be a good caretaker of open spaces.  When we are reOCCUPYing our open spaces we begin caring for them, cherishing them and, of course, benefiting from what we can learn.  I’m sharing this post about what reOCCUPYing my neighboring river means for people in Santa Fe and perhaps beyond.

Leading with the heart, following with the mind, and connecting people to the river with action

About 75% of my work life involves getting youth and adults out to their local rivers, engaging them in activities that connect them to the river, and creating opportunities for building a long-term relationship of stewardship and care for those rivers.  I’ve found that, to make relationships grow, people need experiences that involve both emotional and cerebral, and to learn about the aspects of the place that are seen and unseen.  The experience might be seeing for the first time seeing a dragonfly larvae and amazing abundance of aquatic insects in a stream. It could be standing by and wondering about the rock layers on a cut bank include layers of round rocks, magnetic silt, and even cool historic cars.  Provided these experiences, eventually most people begin to develop an emotional connection to those places.

Experience curiosity and wonder.  People can apply their minds to issues and become a nature detective to reveal what is hidden and what will remain hidden but has big impacts on the river.  Tracking the storm drain that runs under Alto Park until you’re standing under the metal grates in the parking lot where water cascades in during a storm (only done on a no-rain day); connecting the dots of manhole covers until you learn how sewer lines run below the River from Camino Carlos Rael to the next downstream cement grade control; seeing how slowing the water down with one rock dams or media lunas charges the nearby soils full of water and grows grass and supports rich riparian plants like willows and cottonwoods.

The river has many aspects both hidden and easily seen.  Today the river is flowing with about 0.25 cfs at Frenchies Field –it’s easy and wonderful to see.  And what is hidden is how the soils and rock outcrops act like a reservoir, holding water for many days after, keeping the willows and cottonwoods thriving.

Cochiti Pueblo students planting willows on the lower Santa Fe River in April 2017

Be creative & take action.  But connecting the heart and mind is just the beginning.  Taking action on the river is critical for creating a community connection for long term care.  culture of connection — historic and future going forward.  This where people do things and undertake practices for the benefit of our common areas.  It’s one thing to walk with your dog out on the river trail, and it’s something even much better if you pick up or bury your dog’s poop!  The simple act of scooping the poop means less disease-carrying bacteria gets in the river when it runs.  There are many other actions people can take — getting involved in the local river stewards groups coordinated by the Santa Fe Watershed Association, picking up trash, placing small one-rock dams on the downstream edge of native trees to slow down rainwater by the roots of a cherished tree, or becoming the watchful eyes for illegal dumping or other hazards in your local arroyo.

Creating a culture of community stewardship.  A culture of care comes from experience where people become able to craft their own stories and sense of values and ethics.  Elise Sibley Chandler, a fellow at the Santa Fe Art Institute and Water Culture Institute, recently described this process as creating experiential education opportunities that leads to collective stories and practices.  We can creating or recreate this sense of caring for a place, or perhaps to use a Spanish word “querencia” by reconnecting and reOCCUPYING our river forest.  And then we as neighbors and will care better for our River.