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The Secret Knowledge of Water

4.30  ·  Rating details ·  2,102 ratings  ·  208 reviews
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 com ...more
Paperback, 304 pages
Published May 1st 2001 by Back Bay Books (first published March 1st 2000)
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Mark I picked up this book in the BLM center in Kanab, Utah one morning trying my luck at the drawing for permits to enter "the Swell." I read this over th…moreI picked up this book in the BLM center in Kanab, Utah one morning trying my luck at the drawing for permits to enter "the Swell." I read this over the next few days as we hiked and visited other places in that majestic area such as Coyote Gulch. While in the desert, evidence of water shaping the landscape was everywhere - just like in the book.(less)

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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 ...more
Jul 05, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone who spends time in the desert
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
Elly Sands
Aug 01, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Apr 23, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
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 i ...more
Wendy Scott
Dec 08, 2009 rated it liked it
'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 scientif ...more
☼Book her,   Danno☼
Jun 01, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, science
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.
Shawnté Salabert
Jan 11, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Desert poetry
A story of water and
Spaces left behind
Apr 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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,
Roger Burk
Apr 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: other
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 boilin ...more
Oct 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Kerri Anne
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.]
Sep 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 a ...more
Apr 12, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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 ti ...more
Japhy Grant
Aug 15, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Melina Watts
Mar 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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.
Angie Mohle
Jun 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
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!
May 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jan 21, 2021 rated it liked it
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 viv ...more
Roman Dial
May 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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.
Joy D
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, providin
Grant Gallaher
Jul 05, 2018 rated it liked it
In this book, Childs traces the relationships between water, desert, culture, and himself. Through the extensive time the author has spent in and around deserts, slot canyons, and floods, he brings to the table an intimate knowledge of place. The storytelling is well crafted and has captivating moments, but too often is held back by self-indulgent poetics. I did come to appreciate Childs' tendency toward somewhat overdone description as a reflection of his immense reverence for the phenomena he ...more
Michael John
Jul 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
I actually spent time trying to decide on whether to give this book three or four stars. This extended meditation on water has its moments and is sprinkled throughout with just enough science to keep those with a more numerical and factual bent reading. I think Child's book is at its best when describing how the geography interacts with water. Then he adds some spiritual elements to the mix, making the land come alive in one's imagination. He is at his best when describing flash floods (which is ...more
Sophia Leiker
Mar 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
With some of my most formative outdoor experiences being set to the backdrop of red sandstone cliffs, mountains and deserts, this book speaks to me in ways that bring me right back to those moments. His descriptions of water, in excess and scarcity, are both lyrical and poetic. Sprinkled in with historical and scientific tangents, his adventures out in the desert paint a beautiful picture of experiences in reading the landscape for water both past and present.

“Everything comes to the river... i
Feb 21, 2021 rated it really liked it
This book actually took me a few years to read. I gave it a go multiple times but repeatedly stalled out. Childs' writing is as beautiful and absorbing as ever, I just really needed to have some degree of desert familiarity to really feel what he was saying on a personal level. I have that now.

I love the way this book is structured and executed, exploring water from the tiniest trace elements that exist in the harsh desert climate, to the supernatural destructive power of angry gods raging thro
Apr 10, 2020 rated it liked it
I'm not sure if the author is a genius or demented. Maybe he's spent too many days in the heat of deserts. But nonetheless, the book is intriguing. Child's is one of those rare individuals who is drawn to the hottest places on earth. Once there, he documents the locations, quantity, and types of water discovered. Most noteworthy is his conclusion that water is definitely available in deserts - you just need to know where to look. With this attitude, he packs minimal supplies and takes off for we ...more
Jan 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I loved this book, and was shocked to just realize that I never wrote a review of it or even marked it as read. So, here goes... two years later. I think what might make Craig Child's writing the most interesting to me is the unique back-country-type experiences he recounts and how we are able to "tag along" with him. (His other book I have read is The Animal Dialogues). However, he also has a great depth of natural history knowledge. I love his writing style, as well. It was not always easy for ...more
Jun 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
There are two easy ways to die in the desert: thirst and drowning. There is immeasurable water in the desert. You die when you can't find it. But you can also die if it appears suddenly in floods. Childs begins with water holes and underground (invisible water) then moves on to the water that moves in seeps and streams. Finally he describes (through his own adventures) fierce water that carries away the land, scours the canyons, floods towns, and drowns people. He is an almost haunting writer, a ...more
Oct 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
In the deserts of the Southwest, there is water; waterpockets, seeps, springs, waterfalls, and rainfall turning into deadly floods. Reading this book was a thrilling discovery of that water. The author has an exacting, delightful way of allowing one to envision the water, such as "...I could see an opening in the wall where dollops of flying water met their first bluish light", "(The stream) rounded inside as if it were a woman's voice singing down a stairway.", "...the place became a steaming g ...more
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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. ...more

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“Like any stage of the hydrologic process, we have our own peculiarities, our organs making us nothing more than water pools or springs of bizarre shape, filled with pulsing tubes and chambers.” 4 likes
“I’ve often thought that a planet without water would be a dull, sad place. Most, if not all, water on this planet came from countless small comets thumping against the atmosphere (which continues at about ten thousand comets or pieces of comets per day, enough to add a twenty-five-foot depth of water across the entire globe every half a million years). That it comes from space suggests why it is so peculiar and fascinating here on earth. It is a substance from far beyond our reach.” 1 likes
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