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The Secret Knowledge of Water : Discovering the Essence of the American Desert Paperback – May 1, 2001

4.6 out of 5 stars 90 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Childs's obsessive quest to find, map, observe and get wet in the waters of America's deserts has personal roots. Born in the Sonoran Desert of West Texas, this naturalist, river guide and author of four previous books (most recently, Grand Canyon) grew up learning to revere water, that fickle, scarce, elemental sustainer of life. More than a fiercely lyrical travelogue through Arizona, Utah, the Grand Canyon and northern Mexico's cottonwood-willow forests, his hypnotic new book describes an existential adventure. Trekking for days or weeks, alone or with a companion, in search of random waterholes, rare creeks, waterfalls, springs, shrimp-filled pools and sudden, furious floods, Childs mingles personal observations with a cosmic perspective ("Most, if not all, water on this planet came from countless small comets thumping against the atmosphere... ") to make readers feel an integral part of earth's hydrologic processes. Far from being arid, his narrative ripples with adventure. He descends into a slot canyon full of 800-year-old handprints left by the Anasazi people; spots desert fish found nowhere else and believed to be holdovers from the Ice Age; survives an Arizona chubasco, a violent convective thunderstorm that rips roofs off buildings and creates myriad waterfalls. Childs's sources are diverse: conversations with archeologists, ecologists, ranchers, conservationists, geologists; Native American legends; tales of backpackers, explorers and illegal immigrants who fell victim to the desert; and a meticulous, 300-year-old desert map made by a Jesuit missionary from Spain. His highly personal odyssey combines John McPhee's gift for compressing scientific knowledge and Barry Lopez's spiritual questing. Five-city author tour.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books; 1 edition (May 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316610690
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316610698
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (90 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #35,995 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Kurt Harding VINE VOICE on August 14, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I've lived in the desert, I've hiked in the desert, I've camped in the desert and I've cursed the desert but nothing I have read before made me understand and love the desert like The Secret Knowledge of Water does.
Until I read Craig Childs' essay, I never gave much thought to water in the desert except that without it you die. Childs paints a vivid picture of the juxtaposition of desert and water in all of its manifestations. I can still picture the pools of water in the tinajas of the barren, sun-baked Cabeza Prieta and the thunderstorm-fed floods on the Arizona Strip. I can feel the terror he must have felt squatting on a ledge in a feeder canyon of the Grand Canyon as flood waters rose and swirled around him and his relief as they receded, leaving behind tons of debris. I can also feel his awe at the power and majesty of nature at the same time. I can feel his exhilaration as he bathes in a deep, cool waterpocket after a long day's hike. And I can sense his deep respect for the original peoples of the desert and how they have adapted to its caprice.
It is obvious from his style that Childs has an abiding love for the desert. If you know and love the desert, you will find The Secret Knowledge of Water a fascinating read and come away with new respect for the desert and for the waters which both nurture and shape it.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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By A Customer on April 22, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Secret Knowledge is an extremely descriptive first-person account of a traveler's journey though the desert in search of water and its associated experiences. Childs describes his locales with a variety of methods: use of metaphor, scientifically and spritually. He intertwines information from a number of scientific areas, including, biology, geology, anthropology, archaeology and of course hydrology. The only negative thing I could say was my desire to learn about more desert areas--his book limits the reader to the Grand Canyon and some areas of Arizona. Also, the book read so quickly--it ended and I wanted more. I guess I'll have to check out some of his other books.
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Format: Hardcover
The Secret Knowledge of Water: Discovering the Essence of The American Desert by Craig Childs is a must read for anyone who is stirred by the desert. Water is the defining mark of the desert and everything you look at testifies of its presence. In this book Childs takes us through all the various incarnations of water in these arid lands...the water that waits in pockets and tinajas; the water that moves in washes, streams, rivers and aquifers, and finally to the very heart of fierce water that tears and creates in torrents of violence - floods. Water is what we pray for and what we fear. He explores the ways of the Tohono O'odham, "Don't drink too much water" and recreates the routes of Father Kino tracking precious water in the Cabeza. From triops that suspend themselves - anhydrobiosis - life without water to the native fishes of desert streams struggling to survive in the face of habitat degradation, to the riparian habitats and barren plains - he covers it all, in an artistry of words that left me feeling reverent.
This book is written in the holy prose of a prophet, one who knows. Childs is a natural writer who has gone to the desert and become a part of it. He cracks the door and lets the land bear witness for itself. It is incredible writing, better than I have ever known.
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