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The Secret Knowledge of Water

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The "essence of the American desert," as the subtitle of Craig Childs's book has it, is water. A desert, by definition, lacks it, but when water does come, it comes in torrential, sometimes devastating abundance. Childs, a thirtysomething desert rat with a vast knowledge of the Southwest's remote corners, knows this fact well. "Most rain falling anywhere but the desert comes slow enough that it is swallowed by the soil without comment," he observes. "Desert rains, powerful and sporadic, tend to hit the ground, gather into floods, and are gone before the water can sink five inches into the ground."

The travels that Childs recounts in this vivid narrative take him from places sometimes parched, sometimes swimming, from the depths of the Grand Canyon to the dry limestone tanks of the lava-strewn Sonoran Desert. As he travels, Childs gives a close reading of the desert landscape ("the moral," he writes at one point, "is that if you know the land and its maps, you might live"), observing the rocks, plants, animals, and people that call it home. Some of his adventures will remind readers of Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire—save that Childs writes without Abbey's bluster, and with a measured lyricism that well suits the achingly lovely back canyons and cactus forests of the Southwest. By turns travelogue, ecological treatise, and meditative essay, Childs's book will speak to anyone who has spent time under desert skies, wondering when the next drop of rain might fall.

304 pages, Paperback

First published March 1, 2000

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About the author

Craig Childs

27 books318 followers
CRAIG CHILDS is a commentator for NPR's Morning Edition, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Men's Journal, Outside, The Sun, and Orion. He has won numerous awards including the 2011 Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award, 2008 Rowell Award for the Art of Adventure, the 2007 Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award, and the 2003 Spirit of the West Award for his body of work.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 242 reviews
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,493 followers
April 14, 2015
I was captivated by this lyrical exploration of the ways that water shapes the ecology and human conceptions of the desert more than the absence of water. Childs is a self-educated nature essayist and author of over ten books on hiking, geology, environmental change, and archeology with a focus on the American Southwest. In this early book from 2000, he shares experiences from his forays in the deserts of Arizona, Utah, and Mexico about mapping hidden pockets of water, exploring the mysteries of desert springs and creeks, and pursuit of the beauty and power of flash floods. I agree with the blurb on the cover from Publishers Weekly: “His highly personal odyssey combines John McPhee’s gift for compressing scientific knowledge and Barry Lopez’s spiritual questing.”

Some kind of hybrid form of these authors’ writing hits the right spot for me. Another reason to read the book is to dispel any tendency to think of the desert in your mind as practically lifeless and little more than random piles of sand and rock that can sometimes be pleasing to the eye. Only late in life did I come to appreciate how where I grew up in Oklahoma, with its rocky landscape and 10 inches of rain a year, was itself almost desert and get pleasure out of exploring a true desert environment in Utah while I lived there for a couple of years. At one point a group took an outing at night to climbing a two-story high boulder in a desert plain known to the Utes as Skull Rock. As the full moon rose, the rock cast a long shadow (for miles it seemed) across the plain as coyote cries echoed far and wide. The spirituality of the place and knowledge that some big ancient flood rolled that massive rock like a pebble made for an interesting mental collision. Such marveling in poetic and archaic connection to landscapes shaped by water is a good example of how this book made me feel.

In the first section of the book, Childs recounts some special occasions of epiphany as he was mapping hidden pockets of water in the deserts of Arizona. Whenever it seriously rains in the desert, water creates channels in the rocks and gravel and ends up pooling in stone depressions, blind pockets, and shelves along cliffs. The surprise of such incongruous water inspires the author:

About a hundred yards east of where I had just walked, freckles of water-filled pockets extended over a sandstone plain. They looked like fallen pieces of sky, so delicious that dry seeds would split open just to know of their presence. Each sat in the open as if lounging, unaware of the aridity surrounding it, mocking the sun.

Childs discovers a place where hundreds of such stony pools hold gallons in stone potholes from gallons to thousands of gallons were described by a cavalry major in 1870 but was lost to mapping. For this abundance to be many miles from other know water was strange to encounter. “We came here for opulence”, his companion tells him. You may begin to suspect Childs to be kind of an obsessive nut, but he seems to be mining a kind of cool reverse image of the desert:

To say that the desert has no water is a tantalizing misstatement. It is believable But to look over this raven land and know the truth—that there is immeasurable water tucked and hidden and cared for by bowls of rock, by sudden storms, by artwork chiseled hundreds and thousands of years ago—is by far a greater pleasure and mystery than to think of it as dry and senseless as wadded newspaper. It is not only drought that makes this a desert; it is all the water that cannot be seen.
In the next section, Childs recounts visits to the elusive origins of springs and rare desert streams, many of which only run in part of the year and some only at night. Child doesn’t get lost in science, but merely uses it as a taking off point and grounding to his imagination. In these isolated sources of water, you often get an oasis effect in the ecology of life. But even when the water is only transient and among rocks, you still get in a fairly short time a burst of life from insects and crustaceans and sometimes amphibians and fish, Often such life springs from eggs or adult forms in a dessicated hibernation called anhyrobiosis. Maybe as a child you have experienced the dried packets sold as “sea monkeys”, which are a kind of shrimp that appear in days after adding water.

Like seeds, such species are believed to be viable like this for decades or possible hundreds of years. Other sources for life in this remote water arrive by transportation of eggs on migrating species ducks or dragonflies. One predatory water beetle is able to fly and search out remote water via ultraviolet detectors tuned to polarized reflections off water (he describes some which successfully targeted a cup of water in his hand).

The creatures that populate remote streams and pools in the desert are highly adapted to ephemeral water and through reproductive isolation represent species with very restricted ranges. And that makes their sustainability vulnerable to loss of habitat. Childs described endangered species of minnows with features evolved that helped them resist getting washed away in conditions of rapid flow. We sometimes hear about odd fish as endangered species, such as when a legal case pitted preservation of the habitat of the snail darter fish against a dam project. Many species have been lost when sport fish such as bass were introduced to replace “trash” fish such as species of chub. The potential for these odd species to be quite ancient gets some hyperbolic revery and delightful metaphors out of Childs:

A number of fish biologists contend that they are, along with the water they live in, holdovers from the Ice Age. There are other contentions that they even precede the last ice age. Streams are threads through time, remaining through numerous climate changes as ice ages and deserts rise and fall. The fish cannot stand up and walk to more suitable habitat, so for the hundreds of thousands of years that the desert lasts, they seek refuge in these final springs and streams, adapting to the particular rigors. …Were they there before the canyons were cut?

In the following part of the book, Child seeks out deep parts of the earth where there is an abundance of streams emerging from the ground, the many canyons and chasms of the Grand Canyon. I’ve need to lesser canyons in Utah, and I get Childs point that everywhere people travel in these landscapes is usually on paths carved by water, all those arroyos and washes. And some of carving is done by outflows of underground rivers:

The vision was incongruous: desert cliffs rising thousands of feet, bare and dry as chalkboards, and out of one, the emergence of water. It plunged hundreds of feet from the high face, pounding against several ledges, then rumbled into boulders with the strength of a river.

There was madness to this. The water seemed desperate to get out, to be born, wanting. Mad with ignorance, too, it knew nothing of the outside world, completely pure at this very second.

In one case, he and a friend slip through one of these cataracts of flowing Ice Age water and into the cave pockets beyond. Don’t you kind of want to be there, driven by nothing more than an insane compulsion?: What is in the dark, inside of the rock where the water has no idea of daylight?

And then, as obsessed as one of those tornado chasers, Childs puts himself at risk trying to get close to the origins of a flash flood. He was safe at first while up the mesas and cliffs to experience a thunderstorm and the birth of streams and short runs of water, all headed for a leap into the canyon:

Every move this small flood made was original. Every stone came as news. But what impressed me was that it took up residence without deliberation. It immediately knew how to turn behind a boulder, how to run straight down a chute and then wind like a stirred pot below, as if it had been here for a thousand years. It read the world as quickly as it could move.

Now picture water flying off in hundreds of waterfalls, a phenomenon anointed with the charming technical term “ornamental waterfalls”. If you deserve an electric word vision of this experience, treat yourself to this brief diversion:

By climbing partway down a chasm, Childs hope to get close to the powerful work of a flood down the bottom of a canyon. But he went a bit too far and had a close call. Exploring the water and destruction immediately after the flood was another thrill of riding with this guy. He knows there is physics at work here, but he translates the experience into refreshingly personal terms:

The desire of water is scribed across the desert like graffiti, until all that is left of the desert is water. …Stared at closely, each part begins to look like a math problem, decipherable in some detail about water’s appetite. Rocks are eaten by sudden water, but not in clumsy, formless bites. In the stream of a flood, consummate carvings are left behind. Careful scallops are taken from the face of canyons. This is not random work. It is artistry distilled from madness.

Maybe I get carried away trying to share why this book gave me wholesome pleasure. I have trouble picturing which Goodreads friend I have might be moved to give the book a try. So perhaps some vicarious good vibrations slipped through with this. I leave you with the author closing the circle, returning to his beginning with the impact of his adventurous mother’s introduction for him to the wonders of the desert spring on their land, to cottonwoods marking waterways, to tadpole puddles, and to waterfall pools:

My sharp longing is one of these confessions of water, embedded into to me from my life here, and from the desert spring water given to me through my mother’s blood . The secret knowledge of water is nothing but desire. It saturates everything in the desert.

Example of flash flood generated waterfalls--Zion Nat. Park

Profile Image for Charlie.
154 reviews7 followers
July 26, 2007
I read this book while in rain drenched Ireland, in an escape from drought-stricken southern California. And throughout my trip, my mind kept occasionally coming back to water and the desert. Most of my good friends know how obsessed I am with water.. when it moves, when it cuts into soft sand, when it retreats to dark canyon potholes during droughts, when it rages out of the mountains during floods...

The desert is both defined by the absence and by the presence of water. A desert is a place of little rain, as just about anyone knows. What not everyone knows is that when the rains do come, they are torrential, and that every rock, mountain, gully, or sand dune has its origin in the carvings of water, especially during those floods.

This is one of those books that felt like it was written specifically for me. I know that not everyone is as smitten with water as I am.. however, anyone who loves the desert, or has ever stopped to poke at a stream of water flowing through sand, needs to read this book.
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,765 reviews212 followers
March 11, 2021
In this book, Craig Childs takes the reader on a journey to the deserts of the Southwestern US and northern Mexico in search of water. When traveling in the desert on foot, he takes with him only enough water to get him to the next source. Childs’s writing is a combination of travel, adventure, nature, and science.

In a similar vein as Barry Lopez or Edward Abbey, Childs combines his personal musings with descriptions of his adventures in the wilderness. He educates while he entertains, providing information about fossils, animal life, and conservation. Anyone who has seen a flash flood in a desert area will appreciate his harrowing experiences with too much water during several of his treks.

It appears to be Childs’ goal to highlight the interdependence of humans and nature, and to encourage “a respect for life and its uniqueness that goes almost unspoken, a reverence for the incomprehensible diversity of organisms that has woven itself into patterns across the earth.” His writing is more poetic than many writers of non-fiction, though his topics are sometimes not as tightly focused. I can also recommend his engrossing book Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America.
538 reviews10 followers
August 25, 2012
Once in awhile you find a book that is so good it sinks into your bones. I live in Arizona and love the desert. When I moved here 25 years ago from the Northeast everything about the landscape was new. I had no idea what I was looking at so I took classes in botany, geology, birding and backpacking. This book was like taking a class about the desert. Who knew all this hidden water existed? The author describes water pockets in rocks that are deep enough to swim in and streams that are dry during the heat of the day but come alive with water at night. Most fascinating to me was the aquatic life found in the dirt of rock pockets that appear to be dried up and dead until rain brings it to life. He is an adventurous author who will stop at almost nothing to learn about water. He is a wonderful storyteller and his writing is both exciting and poetic. Honestly I found this book flawless and it will sit on my bookshelf right alongside Edward Abbey's "Desert Solitaire." It's just as good!
Profile Image for Ron.
761 reviews128 followers
April 24, 2012
This book by naturalist Craig Childs belongs on any Edward Abbey bookshelf, where writers have fallen in love with the desert Southwest and portray it eloquently on the printed page. Childs is more scientist than environmentalist, but he has Abbey's fascination with wilderness adventure, which takes him in search of what he regards as the most elemental aspect of the desert - the water to be found there. These searches take him far into remote areas of the vast Colorado River watershed, mostly in Arizona, including the canyons that feed into the Grand Canyon.

The book is divided into three sections: still water, streams, and flood. We discover that if one knows how to search for it - and the first inhabitants of these areas did know - there is water to be found in plentiful supply. Likewise, there are spring-fed streams that flow during certain seasons, and in and along both kinds of water there is a host of different life forms, plants and animals, each place representing a specific and evolving ecosystem. Childs' eye and ear for detail and his scientific knowledge join to create vivid accounts of the discoveries he makes as he explores. We learn, for instance, how pools of rainwater in the desert wastes become populated with forms of aquatic life and how these survive, even through long periods of extreme drought.

For me, a particularly harrowing adventure was his exploration of a system of caves from which a stream of ice-cold water emerges high on a canyon wall near the Grand Canyon. Others include his pursuit of floods in the making in this same system of canyons following summer cloudbursts, and he underscores the perilousness of his curiosity by describing the deaths of other hikers and campers taken by surprise by flash floods. Often he travels alone for days and weeks at a time; sometimes he takes along a companion. What he writes of his experiences is consistently full of wonder, as well as a realization that human interference with the natural order (pumping from aquifers, as just one example) is rapidly and permanently altering ecosystems that have adapted to the desert environment over millennia.
Profile Image for Wendy Scott.
30 reviews
December 8, 2009
'The Secret Knowledge of Water' is a loose narrative about Childs' travels and explorations into different water-related phenomena in the southwestern United States. Among other things, the author talks about life in desert potholes, chases flash floods in canyon country, and searches for a location only vaguely described in the journals of early (white) explorer John Wesley Powell. Childs has an enormous capacity for adventure and getting into sketchy situations, and his discussions of scientific studies add some depth to his narrative without confusing or boring the reader. Childs' writing style is both descriptive and engaging, and when I read 'Water' this summer I had a hard time putting it down. In many aspects this is an excellent read, and it reminds me why I myself love the desert . . .

Nevertheless, I wasn't sure whether to give this book three or four stars. Throughout 'Water' the author talks about wanting to find some deeper understanding of water in dry places. He talks about the spring his mother was born near, delves a little bit into mythology, and does the whole Thoreau "being alone with nature" thing. I'm sympathetic to his interests and I like this kind of writing, but after a few chapters of reading about what I supposed were epiphanies in the desert, I couldn't help but wonder what exactly Childs was searching for . . . Scientific knowledge? Awareness of his roots? Dramatic scenery and a little adrenaline? If he didn't talk about his "search" so much I wouldn't have been bothered by not understanding what it was Childs did or did not find in the desert. As it is, when I finished this book I felt a little bit unsatisfied.
Profile Image for ☼Bookish pam in Virginia☼ .
1,158 reviews46 followers
May 11, 2017
Damn, this is such a good book. I am so sorry that I didn't review it at the time that I first read it, waaay back in 2008. I mean, it's amazing how often I think about this book. Certainly whenever I read about the desert or watch or show which features people searching for water.

Water in the desert is not what you think. You don't seek at the bottom of the canyons. Worth a read. In fact, it's worth a re-read.
Profile Image for Dave.
667 reviews17 followers
August 26, 2021
Interesting book, written by a person who is obviously immersed in and smitten with the desert southwest. Author Craig Childs writes about his exploration and study of water in the extremes of Arizona and surrounding areas. He writes very lyrically, but at times I wasn't sure where we were going. A little too wordy at times, 3.5 to 4 stars. Ultimately though, I learned a lot about this beautiful, rugged, and harsh country. If you're interested in the environment of the southwest and the Grand Canyon area in particular, this book would be a good one to add to your reading list.
Profile Image for Matt.
526 reviews9 followers
April 2, 2018
I wasn't sure what to expect, based on what other Childs I'd read, and I think I'm glad for that. No expectation could have prepared me for the combination of lyricism and science, of prose poetry and succinct description. Nor could I have adequately prepared for how it forced me to see places I'd long ago considered homes in a new way, to better understand them and the dynamics of water at play.

This is certainly a work I'll come back to, and one I want to keep processing.

[5 stars for air, sun, sand—and especially water.]
Profile Image for Leila.
142 reviews3 followers
November 28, 2021
A reverent examination of the desert, its water, and its life.

The writing flows like water, reading as easy as sitting by a stream. Through it, feel a sense of awe at how life persists in a place that is both extremely dry, and at times, unexpectedly and violently wet.

There’s nothing like learning there are species of fish in the desert of southeast Arizona that have survived since the ice age to put the world in perspective. Our worlds can feel so small, so confined to our homes or cities or troubles or social circles. And out there, in a place I’ll likely never visit, are generations of fish from the Ice Age.

You know what else is fifth grade science class level of awesome? Anhydrobiotic organisms. Once dehydrated, you can dangle these bad boys in outer space, torture them with vacuums and helium and -450 degree Fahrenheit conditions, but stop torturing them and add water and, voila, they come to life. Or, in one case let some researchers feed mallard ducks dust and they poop out fourteen varieties of crustacean eggs. The desert is sort of magic.

Then you have water. The violent, beautiful, devastating, life-giving gift or curse of water. As the book’s cover says so well,
“There are two easy ways to die in the desert: thirst and drowning.”

Pools in the driest parts of the desert. Flash floods. Streams that grow out of the ground at night and disappear during the day. You can’t predict it. It does as it will, reminding you of where the real power balance lies. And how well the things that ultimately survive can endure.
“So everything living down here has got to be able to survive cataclysm because cataclysm brings life."

The way the water reshapes the landscape, moving boulders and tress and, in one example, an acre of sunflowers according to some intelligence of its own.
"It is not only drought that makes this a desert; it is all the water that cannot be seen."

There is also recurring theme of desire. So much so that certain passages read like erotica. It fits. As the author says,
“The secret knowledge of water is nothing but desire. It saturates everything in the desert.”

One outstanding example:

"My god, I thought, I prayed, pummel us down here. Ravage us. Please.

"The boulder sent heat straight through my body, up my raised arms to the sky. The clouds were dark with water, bulging down as if about to rip open. A few drops of rain fell. Fat drops. I closed my eyes, turned my head upward. One hit my cheek. My first rain since sometime in the late winter or spring. But that had been a different kind of rain. So much desire in the summer desert. So much goddamned, furious desire. I was begging out loud, holding my hands up.

“It did not come."
Profile Image for Matt Ryan.
52 reviews2 followers
June 1, 2022
"There are two easy ways to die in the desert: thirst and drowning" The Secret Knowledge of Water offers great insights into a common blindspot on desert regions: water. The tag line is a great synposis and I immediately found myself challenged to picture what seemed at first to be impossible tales of thousands of gallons of water in inhospitable desert climates that all humans seem to fear as crossing them certainly means death right? Wrong according to author Craig Childs. Make no mistake - deserts certainly are extremely harsh climates but they also harbor and hold on to more water than one could possibly imagine, you just need to know where to search. Childs describes a host of examples in the southwestern United States (chiefly Arizona and Utah) wherein rain water has been collected and secretly stored away or has been seeping in the ground for millenia only to emerge as springs. The list goes on from there. His exploits in search of water appear reckless if not insane at several points as he climbs through canyons in search of flash floods and even enters inside of a spring that has taken the form of a waterfall!

This is a good read to help any casual reader start to reexamine what they have carried with them since childhood: desert = hot and dry. The answer is vastly more interesting and Childs flips easy and uninformed thinking like that on its head as he prompts readers to see desert landscapes as places that have been entirely formed by the presence of water and how it behaves there - not the lack thereof.
Profile Image for Roger Burk.
431 reviews29 followers
April 21, 2018
Childs writes lyrically about water in the southwestern American desert, from small to large--small pluvial pools; springs that pour out of rocks in the middle of nowhere; cottonwood-lined streams that dry up in the daytime when the trees are metabolically active, then bubble and ooze back to life at night; flash floods that form when a summer downpour empties into the watershed of some arroyo, then come barreling down the narrow cannon like the hammer of God, rolling huge boulders in the boiling brown water, coming up suddenly on terrified and doomed hikers, engulfing them and stripping off their clothes and breaking their bones and leaving them miles downstream. It's not clear why Childs spends so much time roving and writing about the desert. Maybe he's a park ranger, or a scientist, or just a perfervid outdoorsman. But he sure writes well.
Profile Image for Geoff.
338 reviews3 followers
October 4, 2019
A brilliant book. Childs takes you into the desert, a desert I have never seen, a desert with water. He takes you through a series of adventures in different microclimates. Always water, the beauty of what water can do. He did amazing research and turns the physics of water into poetry. A truly amazing read.
Profile Image for Harmon Cooper.
Author 95 books286 followers
May 14, 2022

Love all of his books and would recommend to anyone interested in good writing and southwest history. I use these books so often for research - Great stuff!
Profile Image for Kerri Anne.
469 reviews37 followers
April 23, 2018
I can't remember the last book I finished the same day I started it, but that's exactly what I did with this book. I read it within earshot of a rushing river on the warmest day of March, the end of winter still slowly stretching its way toward spring. It's a beautiful book full of beautiful truths.

[Five stars for the power of water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink...unless you know where to find it.]
Profile Image for Finrod.
277 reviews
December 8, 2015
A few days after reading “The Secret Knowledge of Water” I stumbled upon an unmarked photo of a desert landscape while browsing the Internet, and as soon as I saw it my first reaction was “wow, it looks like a place from Child's book”, then by checking where this place was I discovered it came from a canyon near Sedona, in Arizona, and while I don't think that precise spot was described in the book, still I could guess it was in the US South West (a place I've never been) mainly thanks to the accurate, detailed and at the same time poetic descriptions of the North American deserts found in this excellent book. And this despite the fact that all the plants are named only with their (English American) common name, and without a scientific name it was sometimes a bit difficult for me (as a European) to imagine how they look like or what they're.
For both professional reasons and tourism I've seen quite a bit of deserts, from the Sahara to Central Asia (also, as a nerdie addition, I'd point that, “technically”, many if not most the places described by Craig Childs qualify “only” as “pre” desert), and I've written a few papers on the ecology and zoology in these environment, sometimes citing the same authors listed by Child in the long Bibliography at the end of this book, but still this book has helped me a lot to realise, to focus on the role of water in “defining” the desert landscape. A phrase like “this place has no other profession but the moving of water”, is more than counterintuitive… but I doubt this thesis has ever been demonstrated in a more exhaustive way than in “The Secret Knowledge of Water”.
I can only recommend reading this great book.
Profile Image for Jason.
555 reviews26 followers
April 25, 2011
I've spent a LOT of time in slot canyons but have never fully had a true understanding of their character and beauty until reading this book. A friend recommended it to me and I'm very glad I read it.

Childs has a beautiful writing style which encompasses more than just the scientific elements of what he observes. He taps in to the core of the experience, the spiritual, the poetry of the moment. I found myself mesmerized by some of his descriptions to the point that I'd often read and re-read his accounts. I wanted to include one short example as he talks about a natural spring, just because it was so beautiful:

"There was madness to this. The water seemed desperate to get out, to be born, wanting. Mad with ignorance, too, it knew nothing of the outside world, completely pure at this very second. Just at the entrance came a deep, hollow sound, like a bow dragged across a string bass."

If you're a lover of the outdoors, a scientist, a poet: read this book!
28 reviews1 follower
April 21, 2011
I attended a reading that Craig Childs did at the Conservation Alliance breakfast at the 2011 OR show and it was one of the better reading I have been to. What impressed me the most was the amount of time he has spent in the deserts of the Western US, Mexico, and Argentina. There is no question that he is a bit "out there" but what his experience has yielded is a depth of knowledge about the desert that seems unparalleled in our age. The Secret Knowledge of Water left me wanting to spend more time in the desert spots that I am familiar with and explore some of the spots I have not visited. This is not a book that I am reading very fast as each page is rich and worth taking time to think about. I think it would be interesting for people who have not spent time in the desert, but it will be most interesting to those who are familiar with the desert environment.
Profile Image for Thomas Geyer.
50 reviews
January 2, 2023
The book's premise is that despite the apparent lack of water in the desert, it is in fact water that shapes and reshapes the landscape. I hadn't considered this before and was astounded by some of the stories Childs included and by the sheer destructive power of water in the desert. Childs' writing is quite poetic throughout and I was able to feel the various environments he described. While there aren't a tremendous amount of takeaways, there were several fascinating details sprinkled in. The first two thirds of the book had me rapt, but the last third felt a bit repetitive and meandering. Childs seems to be more interested in recounting his adventures versus providing the reader with a deep education of hydrology.
Profile Image for Japhy Grant.
20 reviews18 followers
August 16, 2009
On the surface, this book's subject: desert water, seems, if you'll pardon the pun, dry. Childs, however, explores the hidden pools, raging cascades and subterranean sources of his chosen subject with a combination of scientific methodology (he's a fan of making lists) and adventurer's verve (a section on discovering the source of a spring in Grand Canyon is as harrowing as anything you'll find in say- Harry Potter.) Best of all is that Child's, though undeniably a reverent nature writer, never romanticizes the desert; there are things to be learned from this great expanse of shifting rock and sand, but the desert remains the desert and man remains man, an interloper.
Profile Image for Melina Watts.
Author 1 book19 followers
August 21, 2021
Childs' reveal of where water lies in desert lands is fasscinating, in particular he details how earlier civilizations survived by trekking from small water source to the next. If you've ever been awed by the enormous sere beauty of the Southwest, this is the book for you.

Child's language is consistently gorgeous and memorable. This is one of these uncommon books that I'm so glad I bumped into and bought and own, because I know sooner or later i'm going to have to read it again.
Profile Image for Angie Mohle.
3 reviews
June 15, 2017
The writing style of this book is what makes it a page-turner. Child's comparisons and artistic style of conveying what would typically be a dry, scientific read is exceptionally well done. Gives a very new perspective on the desert and canyons of the SW US and show just how dynamic and resilient our ecosystems can be.
Profile Image for Melinda.
746 reviews53 followers
June 5, 2015
Beautifully written, amazingly thoughtful. And this guy is a crazy nuts outdoorsman! The section on going into the cave that serves as the source of the one of the rivers that feeds the Grand Canyon made my palms sweat!
Profile Image for Jeannie Leighton.
43 reviews1 follower
May 8, 2019
I finished reading this during a rare May thunderstorm. Water - Craig Childs mesmerizes you with his sensual details of how and where water flows in the southwest.
Profile Image for Wayne.
138 reviews4 followers
March 22, 2022
Book 10 of 2022: The Secret Knowledge of Water: Discovering the Essence of the American Desert by Craig Childs

The “catchphrase” of Childs’ book is “There are two easy ways to die in the desert” thirst and drowning.” It is taken as a truth that deserts are dry. By their very definition, deserts are areas where less than 10 inches of rain annually (or rather, this is one definitions of deserts). Despite this aridity, I have been surprised, after working in the desert Southwest of the United States for over 20 years, at how much water there actually is in the desert – springs, streams, and flash floods. In fact, this is essentially how Childs has arranged his book – passive catchments of water (waterpockets and tinajas), springs and perennial streams, and floods. Much of the books are essays on his studies of desert water.

It took me a while to get into this book, mainly because I was unfamiliar (actually initially confused) with the geography of the waterpockets he investigated in the first section of the book…unfamiliar, that is, until he mentioned Vermillion Cliffs in Arizona and John Wesley Powell. From then on, I was oriented and drawn into the narrative. Much of the subject matter was very familiar to me, having professionally studied surface and groundwater in the same areas he touches with his elegant prose, rather than my clipped academic jargon.

In the epilogue, Childs writes “All I can confirm from my walking in the desert is that water demands a simple economy of motion. If it cannot have this, if it is driven too quickly, left in a hole, or forced through the underground or through a canyon, it will imprint its surreptitious details into everything around, like shedding ballast to get free” (p. 268). Deserts are areas without a lot of precipitation, yet their shape, mood, and structure are shaped by ephemeral, moving, or fierce waters.

For those interested in the arid regions of the United States, I highly recommend this book for its impartation of water’s secret knowledge and the wonderful prose of Childs descriptions of his studies and his adventures with water.
Profile Image for Lisa.
214 reviews
January 21, 2021
There was a great amount of description of the landscape, plants, and life that was seen in the desert. I enjoyed hearing about the water pockets that had their own ecosystems, with shrimp that were not living anywhere else, beetles, toads, etc. (this reminded me of "The Wild Trees", where separate ecosystems were found in the treetops of Redwood trees). It was nice to hear of someone's experiences exploring the desert, loving the desert, and enjoying his time in the beauty of the desert. He vividly describes each pool of water, the sandstone, the rocks, the plant life, the beetles, bees, shrimp, the rain, the lightening, and all of that desert experience so well. He does not fear the snakes, the heat, or anything else that people fear in the desert. However, a lot of the description was almost a bit much for me. "It was the sound angels make as their wings are torn off." Most people equate angels with good/holy/divine being so equating a flood with tearing off the wings of an angel makes it sound evil/vindictive/awful, when it is actually just a part of nature. I also didn't like the fact that he is reckless in his pursuit of observing flash floods. He is correct that the tribes have taboos/tips/stories about not doing certain things because it keeps us alive. He then states "I am not of the Havasupai tribe. My history is more like that of a mouse exploring crevices, or of the white man crusading nowhere. I am burned by thirst. Perhaps I am looking for death." I think that one statement hit home with me. This is what has been bothering me. He writes about how he puts himself in the path of floods yet finds it exhilarating. I wasn't impressed with his climbing into the washes during the build up to the floods. So, this is why I gave three stars instead of four.
Profile Image for Roman Dial.
Author 3 books145 followers
May 20, 2020
One of Craig Child's essays called "Anatomy of a Flash Flood" surfaced on a blog recently. He wrote about the lethal power and creative force generated by the relationship between too much and too little water in the desert.

It reminded me of how some writers, like him, make me want to write right now about landscapes that I love and know intimately, to share with others in evocative words and simple language full of meaning and feeling about how nature works and why it is so utterly fascinating.

It's been a while since I read this book. A friend gave it to me, and like all excellent books, no sooner had I read it, then I'd passed on to another friend, eager for them to enjoy it, too. My book shelves are empty of many favorite books because of this behavior. For example, missing favorites, besides this title, include "American Buffalo" by Steve Rinella and "The Bond" by Simon McCartney.

Given another life, I might have chosen to write for a living. But reading books by Krakauer and Childs and Lopez, leaves it all too clear how competitive the profession is. It requires so much: art for putting words down; time for research; personality to open people up; a knack for sharing interests among you and your readers.

The Secret Knowledge of Water does all that. If you like nature enough to walk through it without trails, to camp inside tents without floors, to hunger for the why of the Earth's patterns, and to need the emotion that goes with passage through wild landscapes—well then, Dear Reader, this is one of those books for you.
Profile Image for Anna Hawes.
349 reviews
July 29, 2021
I had to put this down for a few weeks. It has a very meditative feel but too many similar chapters in the middle were making me impatient. After giving it a break I was able to come back and appreciate it again.

The author discusses some scientific phenomenon between his musings and those discussions were easily my favorite part. The insects and fish that make their homes in desert water have such fascinating adaptions, things I had never known about before. I was bewitched at the streams that only run at night because the trees stop pulling water for photosynthesis when the sun goes down. And, after having spent a year crunching numbers in fluids class, I also loved the discussion of turbulent and laminar flows in floods. My biggest complaint about these discussions was that there were no footnotes or endnotes, just a very extensive bibliography to hunt through to look for sources for more information.

The author describes the visceral aspects of his journeys but so much of it was outside my realm of experience that I was left wanting. I want to see the beautiful sights, feel the rocks and water, and listen to the silence and speaking water described. But all the death and disaster described checks my enthusiasm for taking such a trip. Even with all his experience, the author gets into some very tight spots. I'll have to find a way to visit with some measure of safety and responsibility.
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