In Absentia, Part 2

Image      After I became accustomed to the utter dryness of Albuquerque, I started to notice more.  It had always been there, but my eyes and brain were simply too busy screaming over the deficit of humidity to actually take in the more subtle presence of water, or the variations of color that often took its place.  I also became more keenly conscious of water, where it did appear.  Because it wasn’t as if there was no water.  It was simply a matter of geography.  Albuquerque is in the High Desert.  It’s arid.  The Rio Grande is small and shallow compared to the river I grew up knowing–the Chattahoochee–which is pretty modest as far as Eastern rivers go.

Still, the valley through which the Rio Grande flows is a river valley, and if I stripped away the vegetation clothing the bluffs overlooking the Chattahoochee in my mind’s eye, the land forms were not so very different.  Once I stopped reeling and wringing my hands over the lack of humidity, I could see where water had once shaped this place I now called home–the broad alluvial terraces carved by an ancient river raging in flood and receding into its bed over and over again, the odd occurrence of river cobbles far above and many miles distant from today’s Rio Grande.  They were carried there by water, their surfaces worn completely smooth by the energy of a stream.   With many of the fist-sized stones, a river flow of tremendous power and volume would have been required.  Once I saw this, I could see my new location as a place that had once known an incredible wealth of water, which would have made it especially attractive to ancient nomadic populations beginning to practice horticulture.

So it was not merely a question of having this new landscape in front of me, or even of coming to terms with the present climate of the place.  It was also about developing a deeper understanding of the story of the valley, and new eyes with which to see my surroundings.  While it seemed to happen all at once, I realize that it was simply the culmination of a much more gradual acclimation–I began to notice the uses of color.  Cool blues and lush greens were often present in building materials, ceramics, and landscape designs.  This, coupled with the sound of water trickling over stones or into a basin was enough to stop me in my tracks.  If I did not immediately see it, I would turn and look for the sound, and indeed the scent, of running water.  More often than not, no matter how trying my day had been, finding it was enough to make me laugh out loud with delight.

While there are plenty of heftily irrigated yards planted with all manner of flowers, shrubs and trees, City Water costs a bomb.  To have such a garden is an indicator of a certain level of material comfort.  I also came to see it as a sign of arrogance that was more than a little wasteful.  That just goes to show you how settling in a different climate can change how we view something that is at once so important and yet so basic as water.

A common and more conservative display of water wealth is the patio garden.  These are often tucked away in tiny courtyards or open air front vestibules that are almost completely enclosed behind high adobe walls.  The effect is one of something precious–a jewelbox garden with vivid ceramic pots, tiled floors or walls, and often a seating area, all overarched by pergolas or the branches of a large shade tree.  This use of space also plays into another area of inquiry, which is the sacredness of the enclosed area, but that is for some other time.

Before moving to Albuquerque, I never knew that plain old water had its own perfume.  I could have told you that stagnant water did–the scent of rich, organic materials decaying was a smell very familiar in the South–but not water itself.  That’s because of its ubiquitous presence.  Even in the depths of severe, long-drawn droughts, humidity persists.  It’s strange how this smell–produced by something as small as a garden hose or as awe-inspiring as the clouds that bring the Summer Monsoon rains–can have a rippling effect on my consciousness.  The presence of water in a place marked by its passage in the distant past is now a precious gift.  I became aware of it in ways that I never had been before.  My mind shaped itself around the absence like a cavern deep under the earth guarding the secrets of darkness and the Void.

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