The River That Once Was a Playground

Date January 14, 2008 at 11:00 PM


Categories Health & Beauty


My connection to the Santa Fe River begins with my birth in 1977, just a road's width away from the bosque. It begins with a sky so blue it hurts the eyes, hills spotted with juniper and cactus, and green splashes of cottonwood along an intermittent stream. It begins in a land of contradictions, a high arid landscape stretched south beneath a sweep of rustling aspen in the mountains above. Through this landscape cuts the lifeblood of Santa Fe - its River - the reason for Santa Fe's existence itself, and a potent part of my own personal history.

My earliest memories are interwoven with the River. I walked its banks, scaled its trees, collected smooth, shiny river rocks, and built mud castles along its shore. I remember expanses of lush grassy banks, the magic of river insects and wildlife. On summer evenings I'd squint at the river from my porch through the clothes hanging on the line, looking fearfully for La Llorona, the ghost of a woman rumored to roam the river banks. The river always seemed to be rich, alive, mystical. I loved and feared it. Here I will share some of the memories I have of growing up near (and often in!) the Santa Fe River.

When I was six, I played often in the river and its tributaries with an excellent childhood friend, Ariela. We traced footprints in sand, collected twisted branches and leaves, and created mischievous and magical stories about the place. One spring day there was a sudden roar in the distance. We clamored out of the arroyo and in our rush, Ariela left a single red shoe on the arroyo floor. A wall of water crashed through the channel below us, and Ariela's shoe was swept away. Even though it could have been us, we simply laughed in surprise.

I played in the river almost every day with my sister in the summers. I was small, my sister gangly and tall. She easily scampered up a cottonwood that sloped over the water, her laughing face peering down at me. I was afraid to climb the tree. She tied a long, strong rope, and we swung out over the water. When the river swelled enough, we leapt into the shallow stream, creating a splash. We considered this our special kingdom, where we read Bridge to Terebithia and cried our eyes out. The river cultivated our own wilderness, creativity and curiosity. It also cultivated a bit of sibling rivalry - in fact, the English word "rival"€ comes from the Latin word "rivalis"€, meaning "someone sharing a river."€ My sister and I competed to see who could climb the tallest trees, who took the bravest swings, and who was crowned as River Queen for a season.

In addition to playing in the river with my sister, I also wandered the river alone, even at a young age. I was probably too small to be alone, but I knew my mom would call me home for dinner with a huge bell she kept just for this purpose. I explored the river's nooks and crannies, my constant yet changing friend. In the sandy rocks I sought treasure, like someone combing a beach after a storm. The best thing I ever found was a tin tea box with the Mandarin Orange lady on the lid. She became the goddess of the river to me; beautiful, other-worldly. I carried my treasures in this box for years.

In another memory, it was the spring rush. The water was high, as brown as chocolate milk, and raging. I stood on the muddy bank, and planned to make my way down to the water to see its furious face up close. A woman stopped her car and began yelling at me, asking where I went to school, my parents' names, who my principal was. She shouted that the river could kill me, and to go home. I did, ashamed at my foolishness. I never approached a spring rush again.

As I grow older, I remember walking along the bank across from my house with my dad. The trees above were green, swaying in the wind. "Look"€, he said, pointing to a willow. It was covered - simply covered - with bold orange and black monarch butterflies.

The impact the river has had on my life is indisputable. Today I work for River Source, a small environmental consulting firm. We monitor the Santa Fe River and other New Mexico streams, work on stream restoration, and teach watershed education at local schools with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. If I had not had the experience of growing up in the wild, of wandering alone in the Santa Fe River, it is doubtful that I would have chosen this career path. Those childhood experiences left a vibrant, indelible mark on me.

Today the River has changed its face once again. In the spring it still has the furious, raging flows. Sometimes these are even fiercer than those of my childhood, as more development and pavement yields more rushing waters. Frequently, however, the flow is sluggish or completely nonexistent. Walking over the downtown bridge over the water I often see an insipid flow, and usually it is a strange, stagnant color. Gone are the masses of monarch butterflies. Today the Santa Fe River is designated the "most endangered"€ river in the United States. This River, the very River that the city of Santa Fe and my own personal history is built upon, is dwindling. Jerome Delli Priscoli, senior policy analyst at the Institute of Water Resources, writes: "Water is one of our enduring human symbols of life, regeneration, purity and hope. It is one of our potent links with the sacred, with nature and with our cultural inheritance."€ I can only hope that the Santa Fe River, our own symbol of regeneration and life, will recover and thrive. Our very cultural and environmental identity, as well as our wildlife and water sources, may depend on it. The decision is ours.

Sources Cited

  1. Doyle, Alister. "Water Wars' Loom? But None in the Past 4,500 Years."€ Reuters, 2006. Accessed on 13 December 2006 at (Herein Doyle, Alister. 2006).
  2. Delli Priscoli, Jerome. "Don't Cry Wolf."€ Senior policy analyst at the Institute of Water Resource, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. Accessed on 13 December 2006 at