What Water Means in the Desert

It's rained two nights in a row in Phoenix. It was dramatic rain, part of the monsoon season, complete with high winds and lightning. I've been away for a week but there was evidence of recent storms here as I pulled into my neighborhood Sunday evening. A couple of trees had torn branches. One jacaranda had simply snapped at the base of its trunk. I hate the damage done to the trees, but in general I like this weather. I think most people like the change from our usual sun and drought.

I thought about the lure of water last week in Sedona as I watched people jump from a cliff into frigid creek water. The water was so cold it left you breathless. There were more rocks than there was water, but you would have thought that we were at the beach. Hundreds of people stood around on the rocks waiting to jump from the cliff or to ride a shallow current that was as narrow as a playground slide.

Water. Everyone is drawn to it but it takes on added significance in the desert. When I'm riding the rail to work, there is a palpable energy that passes through the train when it crosses over Tempe Town Lake. People become calm. If you look east as the train crosses, the sun creates an illusion that the lake is a big body of water like an ocean. When the water abruptly ends, I'm reminded that it isn't an ocean but part of an intricate, man-made canal systen started by Hohokam Indians.

Water blesses, cleanses, nourishes. Last night when the storm subsided and there was only rain, I saw five of my neighbors standing outside, no umbrellas, just talking and enjoing the raindrops.

When I first moved here, a couple of my high school students told me that it was a crime in Arizona to refuse drinking water to someone who asks for it. I've heard this legend repeated by other people, but I'm not sure that it is true. Snopes.com has looked into it as well without much luck. Anyway, I like the legend. It says so much about our desert culture.

I'm working on a story that has water as the main theme and image. I wrote the first draft ten years ago; it was a first person narrative, a "voice from the water" that frankly spooked me. I've returned to it now and I'm enjoying thinking about my fears of water. Water as a violent natural force. Water as the home of predators. Water as the home of captured prey.

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