Reimagining a Riverrnby Stephen BodiornGila: The Life and Death of anrnAmerican Riverrnhy Gregory McNameernNew York: Crown; 215 pp., $24.00rnIn 1944, a party of German prisonersof-rnwar escaped from a camp inrnPhoenix, armed with old maps and withrnthe intention of stealing a boat and sailingrnto Mexico. When they saw the “pitifulrntrickle” that is the modern Gila, theyrnbegan to hike downstream in despairrnand were soon rounded up. Their leaderrnlater complained, “I only wish thernGila really had been a river. If it has nornwater, why do the Americans show it onrntheir maps?” In the spirit of EdwardrnAbbey (and with a few of his prejudicesrnagainst such things as cows), GregoryrnMcNamee goes a long way towardrnanswering this question in his readable,rnbut never shallow, history.rnlie begins in the first person, in thernhigh 10,000-foot-plus headwaters of thernriver, the forests of southern New Mexico,rnduring a vivid September thunderstorm,rnthen casts back into geologicalrnhistorv to when the Gila was a sea bottom,rn150 million years ago. He passesrnrapidly, though not superficially.rnFor Immediate ServicernCHRONICLESrnNEW SUBSCRIBERSrnTOLL FREE NUMBERrnthrough paleontology and slows downrnas humans arrive. His treatment of earlyrnIndian history seems comprehensivernand taught me much I did not know.rnEntering upon the history of existingrntribes, he takes for a chapter epigraph arnhaunting quote from an Apache elderrnthat might stand for the whole book:rn”The land is always stalking people.”rnHis coverage of the conquest is fair. Ifrnit seems at times to be critical and perhapsrna little politically correct, his documentedrnaccount of the watershed is hardrnto dispute, and depressing. I le does givernoccasional glimpses of another side; Irnfound it fascinating that the Church inrnthe 1600’s had declared, “He sins againstrnDivine Providence who tries to improvernwhat God, for inscrutable motives, hasrnwished to leave imperfect,” and that itrntherefore disagreed with Father Kino’srnpublic works projects. There is wit here,rntoo; McNamee, writing of the peripateticrnKino, wryly observes, “Qui multumrnperegrinatur, raro sanctificatur”—”Whorntravels much is rarely made a saint.”rnBut the darkness deepens, as the historyrnof the Gila drainage comes to resemblerna novel by Cormac McGarthv.rnMcNamee rightly observes a fact stillrnoverlooked today: the Spanish inventedrnthe taking of scalps that became an industry,rnone indulged in by all sides in thernI9th’century: “By 1800 . . . a mat ofrnscalps numbering in the thousands bedeckedrnthe great doors of the cathedralrnin Ghihuahua City.” Blood flows plentifullyrnthrough that century and intornours, but the river, strangled by damsrnand irrigation and the cutting of riparianrnvegetation, beset by overgrazing of itsrnwatershed, diminishes until the haplessrnGerman prisoners find themselves walkingrnon sand. Phoenix is founded, grows,rnmetastasizes, sucks up water, eventuallvrnchanges the climate. (A “Phoenicianrn. . . will use three hundred gallons of waterrndaily, the highest rate of consumptionrnin the nation.”)rnMcNamee then examines the naturalrnhistory of the Gila basin. As much as Irnlike this book, I think he is at his weakestrnhere, using perhaps too many secondaryrnsources. The Dust Bo\l affected easternrnrather than southern New Mexico. Bitternsrndo not live in the mountain headwatersrnof the Gila; the state has one ofrnthe healthiest populations of cougars onrnthe continent (which is not to say thatrnthey should be killed indiscriminately);rnsquirrels are not hunted for their coats;rnand the Puerco on the other side of therndivide, not the Gila, is the muddiest riverrnin the wodd. (The Gila undoubtedlyrncomes close.) “Speciation” meansrnsomething very different from “diversity.”rnEach of these errors is minor in itself,rnbut the cumulative effect weakensrnMcNamee’s authority.rnOn the subject of cattle, McNamee isrnright about the ill effects of overgrazingrnin the I890’s but probably far too pessimisticrnabout the possibility of a rapprochementrnbetween modest cattle grazingrnand environmental health. However,rnhe does not stand alone in this respect;rnthe polarization of this issue is one of therntragedies of the modern West.rnI do not want to leave the impressionrnthat Gila is a seriously flawed book.rnThough it is possible to quibble withrndetails, McNamee’s central thesis—rnthat greed and shortsightedness haverntrashed and continue to abuse a oncernmagnificent and still haunting landscapern—is inarguable. His documentationrnof the unintended effects of damsrnand reckless water policies is (forgive me)rnparticularly damning. “When the greatrnrains of October 198? came, the rustyrnfloodgates at Goolidge Dam failed tornopen. Glen Canyon Dam, on the Colorado,rnshivered loose from its bedding inrnsoft sandstone, and its operators soundedrna warning that it might collapse at anyrnminute—taking with it, in turn. HooverrnDam, Davis Dam, Parker Dam, and ImperialrnDam.” The story of the CentralrnArizona Project, its expense, destructiveness,rnand worthlessness, should be arnlesson to conservationists and conservativesrnalike.rnFinally, McNamee refuses to give in tornfacile pessimism. His models are AldornLeopold and Ed Abbey, people whorntranscended contemporary culture’srnshort attention span and simplistic politicalrndivisions. In a statement reminiscentrnof Abbey, McNamee remarks, “Torndam a river is only to pretend that riskrncan be minimized, and ours has been arnrisk-fearing age, to the great delight of insurancerncompanies and cowards.” Andrnin the spirit of Leopold, he concludes:rn”The nature of human beings is torndream. The nature of writers is to spinrntales. It is time that we turn to betterrnstories and dreams than we have now.rn”A flowing Gila would be a start.”rnStephen Bodio’s most recently pubhshedrnbook is Querencia (Clark City Press).rnHe has a book about fine gunsrnforthcoming.rn40/CHRONICLESrnrnrn