Of time and the river

First there were only wild things. Springs bub­bled up in the moun­tains, crys­tals on the crust of snow melt­ing in the warmth of the sun to forge freshets stream­ing to­ward the river. The river coursed in braided chan­nels across high alpine mead­ows. — Meliss


A Pho­to­graphic Jour­ney Down the Old Río Grande

Melissa Sav­age’s new photo book about the Río Grande is a nat­u­ral fit for her, con­sid­er­ing her past work in ot­ter con­ser­va­tion and bosque restora­tion on the river and her long love of his­toric pho­to­graphs. But the tip­ping point for the de­ci­sion to im­merse her­self in the project was the dis­cov­ery of some dis­heart­en­ing facts in a 2003 re­port about the river. “The McCune Foun­da­tion asked an or­ga­ni­za­tion called Har­poon Con­sult­ing to do a sur­vey of how New Mex­i­cans felt about the Río Grande,” Sav­age said dur­ing a re­cent meet­ing, “and the al­most uni­ver­sal re­sponse was, ‘Well, we never think about the river. We never go there. It’s not an is­sue for us.’ That was shock­ing to me. As a ge­og­ra­pher, I’m think­ing, ‘How can you miss it?’ But so many peo­ple are miss­ing it ... so many of these pho­to­graphs show how much peo­ple used the river for all kinds of things.”

Her book, just out from Univer­sity of New Mex­ico Press, is Río: A Pho­to­graphic Jour­ney Down the Old Río Grande. Its pages present 81 pho­to­graphs of the big river, from its head­wa­ters near Sil­ver­ton, Colorado, to its ul­ti­mate des­ti­na­tion, the Gulf of Mex­ico, as well as im­ages of ad­ja­cent land­scapes and of peo­ple in, on, and around the Río Grande.

Sav­age’s in­ter­est in his­toric pho­to­graphs of the river be­gan with those taken by Laura Gilpin. One of Gilpin’s bet­ter-known projects was pub­lished in 1949 as The Río Grande: River of Des­tiny. Sav­age’s Río is graced by a dozen pho­to­graphs by Gilpin, who died in Santa Fe in 1979. The fron­tispiece is a lovely shot of a wind­ing, sun­lit river, Río Grande at Rin­conada, from 1947. Oth­ers in­clude a por­trait of a gold-pan­ning prospec­tor at Creede, Colorado; a man tend­ing an ir­ri­ga­tion fur­row in the San Luis Val­ley; a pen­sive young­ster stand­ing on the root of a cy­press tree in Cer­ralvo, Mex­ico; and Gilpin’s mar­velous and well-known im­age The Río Grande Yields Its Sur­plus to the Sea, 1947.

The new book also boasts 11 re­pro­duc­tions of ster­ling im­ages by Wil­fred Dud­ley Smithers, who shot cow­boys and His­pan­ics in the Texas bor­der area for decades. Among these are photos of a young boy fill­ing a wa­ter bag on his burro along­side the river near Pre­sidio, Texas, and two men in a shal­low boat head­ing into an area of dan­ger­ous rapids on the Río Grande in Santa Elena Canyon. There are two im­ages by the 19th-cen­tury pho­tog­ra­pher Wil­liam Henry Jack­son, one of them show­ing the in­fant river flow­ing through Wagon Wheel Gap high in the Rocky Moun­tains of Colorado. And Ansel Adams is rep­re­sented with Bo­quil­las, Mex­ico, Dust Storm From North Bank of the Río Grande, Big Bend Na­tional Park, 1942.

The pa­rade of im­ages through his­tory con­tin­ues with the Den­ver & Río Grande Western Rail­road “Chili Line” train steam­ing through Em­budo; Ho­race S. Po­ley’s won­der­ful Road to Taos, 1910; a mo­ment in the con­struc­tion of the Ele­phant Butte Dam, from about 1914; a cadre of (more or less) rough and ready Mex­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion-era bridge guards; and a trio of

con­tin­ued from Page 32 fish­er­men with a big saw­fish caught near the mouth of the Río Grande, pho­tographed by Robert Run­yon.

A truly mul­ti­fac­eted por­trait of the river, deals with its 1,900-mile sub­ject from end to end — “from snow to shrimp,” as writer Wil­liam deBuys puts it in his in­tro­duc­tion — and in­cludes writ­ten odes to its primeval na­ture. “First there were only wild things,” Sav­age writes in the pref­ace. “Springs bub­bled up in the moun­tains, crys­tals on the crust of snow melt­ing in the warmth of the sun to forge freshets stream­ing to­ward the river. The river coursed in braided chan­nels across high alpine mead­ows.”

River use by Na­tive peo­ples was typ­i­cally low-im­pact. “Indo-His­panic vil­lages cre­ated a com­plex sys­tem of ir­ri­ga­tion ditches, or ace­quias, that wa­tered or­chard rows of peaches and apri­cots and metic­u­lously tilled rows of corn and chiles,” Sav­age writes. Be­gin­ning in the 16th cen­tury, Euro­pean im­mi­grants con­trived more ag­gres­sive strate­gies.

of­fers an in­trigu­ing va­ri­ety of pic­tures of the river and of peo­ple work­ing, recre­at­ing, and cross­ing and at­tempt­ing to cross the Río Grande — and get­ting busted. Wit­ness the Un­der­wood & Un­der­wood photo of a U.S. Cus­toms of­fi­cial re­mov­ing con­tra­band from a pair of Pro­hi­bi­tion-era Mex­i­can men: With Bot­tles Around Waists, 1923. “When I first put the book to­gether, I had only pho­to­graphs of the river,” Sav­age told “That was my base­line cri­te­rion, but the press wanted to add these oth­ers.”

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