Geese, River Ghost, the Holy Ghost – a field report by Ellen Meloy (1995)

Photo on Feb 1, 2019, 7_29_04 PM
Early river runners on the San Juan floated past Clay Hills to the confluence with the Colorado River and into Glen Canyon. Photo courtesy Doug Ross.

By Ellen Meloy

Our simplest perception of the San Juan River is one of physics digested by the senses: sun on water, the graceful curve of a meander, best felt through the membrane of a boat, or the rasp of water over sand as the river shifts, sorts, and reshapes its silty load. Instead think for a moment of the river as protein. Think of a sinuous, mobile soup.

The soup’s solids range from microscopic protozoa to fish the size of obese dachshunds. The big meat: Colorado Squawfish, a rare, federally-protected native that evolved over millions of years with the river itself, its migrations along the liquid veins of the Colorado Plateau rivaling those of coastal salmon; and channel catfish, an exotic, or introduced species whose adaptation to dams, pollution, and other human influence will likely secure its destiny as top soup omnivore. Thoreau called fish “animalized water,” a coalescence of sunlight and river into flesh. The transformation does not end in fin and scale. The river also reincarnates as leaf and wing, heart and lung, fur and feather. Every lifeform carries the river within it.

Bluff’s proximity to the soup puts us in intimate contact with its airborne proteins, the winged members of the riparian food chain. These birds include year-round residents, seasonals, and migrants. I find great solace in the homebodies, perhaps because of their orthodoxy, their unshakable faith in one place. What if birds had religion? Magpies would be Catholic, of course; woodpeckers some kind of Holy Roller. Snowy egrets surely must be the Holy Ghost herself, brilliant white against the red rock, aloof and regal atop black legs and wacky yellow feet. If I were a sensible gray chukar I would be Lutheran. If I were a Canada goose, in spring, on a rising San Juan River, I would be nervous.

The San Juan’s geese nest on gravel bars and on islands, ringing themselves with a moat of safety against predators. Spring runoff and nesting periods coincide; a goose will watch the rising river eat her island or cutbank as she tends her clutch. In choosing her nest site, somehow she calculates the year’s snowpack, the flow regime from Navajo Dam — flows driven not by nature but by bureaucrats — and other variables that affect the timing and volume of high water. In this race between incubation and high water, odds favor the bird.

Nests seldom flood. The eggs hatch and off waddles a brood of goslings, a new generation of homebodies. When there is open water and ample food, Bluff’s geese winter over. Jones’s field and Guymon’s pasture honk and flutter as if alive.

If goose brains bear an instinct comparable to hydrographic predictive modeling, that instinct surely must recognize that since the sixties the word flood has become somewhat relative. In Bluff we live on a petrified flood plain. Beneath town, field, and tamarisk lie the scars of a raw, unpredictable river that could spread across valley in high flood and hurl through sandstone canyons like a liquid avalanche. Receding floods left backwaters and sloughs rich with nutrients — ideal fish nurseries, feasts for waterfowl, and on up the food chain. Navajo Dam now controls flows, leaving the riparian zone flood-poor — good for property but bad for native fish and others dependent on the ephemeral wetlands of pre-dam times.

When spring brought considerable rain and runoff this year, I believed we might observe a river edged with a teeming spraddle of wetland proteins. The river corridor is no longer a natural but a naturalized ecosystem, manipulated by exotic plant (mainly tamarisk) communities and human hand. The operative hand near my home west of town is Guymon Ranch and its predecessors, where irrigation and reclamation structures have redesigned the flood plain for livestock and mosquito production. This year nature re-engineered the re-engineering, and wildlife used the opportunity to thrive.

The ditch flowed brimful, dikes broke, tamarisk jungles became swamps. Pond and puddles spilled into the lower fields, where hundreds of Canada geese grazed in herds as dense as cattle. Toads copulated as if there was no tomorrow. Snowy egrets waded the grassy marshes. Ducks, great blue herons, and night herons fed with zeal. One evening a flock of white pelicans rose from the cottonwood gallery and flew off toward Mexican Hat. The songbirds were so thick they snagged in your hair as you strolled among the Russian olive trees.

Several mornings began with an unusual cry amid the honks and quacks, raven quorks and pheasant squawks. I knew this as the distinct voice (imagine a pterodactyl playing a kazoo) of a sandhill crane, and indeed cranes were here. Daily the pair flew over the benches in a circle of feeding and resting between Bluff and Sand Island. A leggy, gray-brown bird with a seven-foot wingspan and red crown, the sandhill crane is a rare species on the lower San Juan. From southwestern naturalist Stewart Aitchison I learned that crane sightings were uncommon before 1936. Birds of Navajo Country (1945) notes: “Sammy Day, Jr. told R. Jenks that in early Sept., about 1926, he saw cranes on one of the marl hills near Chin Lee [sic]” and “J.O. Brew reports bones of this species excavated from Awatovi ruins, which he dates between 1400 and 1600 A.D.” (Awatovi is in Hopi country.) A 1960 bird handbook for southeastern Utah, Aitchison informed me, mentions no cranes.

What conclusions can we draw? Rather simple ones: When the sky opens and the soup spills, things get wet. Cranes, like other transients, and the homebodies, are opportunists who will push the edges of their territory when there is food. And even the wettest spring or heaviest snowpack won’t undo a century of local riprap and Bureau of Reclamation megadams. This year gave us a hint, a small, imperfect taste of desert wetlands. For a moment, pieces of the ghost floodplain came alive.

–This story first appeared in the June 1995 issue of the Canyon Echo. Reprinted with permission.

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