the secret knowledge of water: review

Craig Childs has had countless close calls in the desert. One involved a rattler, the rest involved water. Childs seeks it out, water, that is, in the desert. He finds plenty. Actually, it's an understatement to say he finds plenty. The amount of water in the desert staggers the imagination. The desert is a river, it is a sea.

Childs writes about his desert sea journeys in The Secret Knowledge of Water. It's as beautiful a piece of nonfiction writing as you're likely to find.

I read lots of books about the western and southwestern U. S. That half of our country holds an incredible fascination for me. It is especially rewarding when I find someone who writes from that same sense of fascination; Craig Childs succeeds at this, turning his preoccupation with the desert and its water into rich, elegant prose.

A review on the back cover of the edition I just finished says that this "lyrical, meandering work" turns into a "sudden page turner." That's quite true. You think upon opening the book that it's going to be a study in hidden water. It is, but it's also a memoir, a travel narrative, and a profound work by a thirsty spirit.

So much water in the desert might come as a surprise. It certainly does for a few unfortunate souls in Childs' book who lose their lives in sudden floods, during which the secret water becomes much more than a rumor. But the book is not a cobbled together account of hair raising encounters with desert water (desert water sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it?). As Childs says, the desert is a map of water. He simply follows the map, rendering it for us in prose.

There is very little in this book to quibble with. One brief section reads a little like a desert biology text. But no, that's too strong a criticism. When I hear "textbook" I think "boring," even when Childs is giving us ecological details, he's never boring.

This is simply a great read. It is especially good for anyone who has ties, or just an interest, in the southwestern reaches of our country.

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