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River Flowing From The Sunrise

River Flowing From The Sunrise: An Environmental History of the Lower San Juan

James M. Aton
Robert S. McPherson
Foreword by Donald Worster
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    River Flowing From The Sunrise
    Book Description:

    The authors recount twelve millennia of history along the lower San Juan River, much of it the story of mostly unsuccessful human attempts to make a living from the river's arid and fickle environment. From the Anasazi to government dam builders, from Navajo to Mormon herders and farmers, from scientific explorers to busted miners, the San Juan has attracted more attention and fueled more hopes than such a remote, unpromising, and muddy stream would seem to merit.

    eISBN: 978-0-87421-397-3
    Subjects: Biological Sciences, Environmental Science, History

Table of Contents

  1. Foreword A River in Time
    (pp. IX-X)
    Donald Worster

    St. John the Divine ended his Book of Revelation with “a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.” On either side of that river grew the tree of life, bearing all manner of fruits every month of the year and shiny green leaves that could heal all the nations. He would not have liked the San Juan, the river of the American Southwest named by Spanish missionaries in his honor. Only cottonwood and tamarisk trees grow along its banks. Its water is dark with silt and has...

  2. Introduction Twelve Millennia on the San Juan
    (pp. 1-12)

    When the famous explorer John Wesley Powell passed the mouth of the San Juan River on 31 July 1869, he barely acknowledged it. During the next decade, when his geologists and archaeologists fanned out to explore, map, and generally reconnoiter the Colorado Plateau, the last blank spot on the United States map, they ignored the waterway the Utes call River Flowing from the Sunrise. For Major Powell, as for most nineteenth-century Americans, the San Juan River country remained a terra incognita. There were simply few pressing reasons—geological, agricultural, or cultural—for most Americans to know more about it. For...

  3. 1 Prehistory: From Clovis Hunters to Corn Farmers
    (pp. 13-28)

    Humans have hunted and herded animals, gathered and cultivated plants, and generally made a living in the San Juan River area for at least the last twelve thousand years. Although always a marginal area, the river valley’s population reached a high point during the Anasazi occupation between 1500 b.c. and a.d. 1300.¹ During this prehistoric period, the San Juan landscape was certainly no untouched Eden. To be sure, since Euro-Americans entered the San Juan country and applied the technology of the Industrial Revolution, they have changed the landscape more dramatically than both prehistoric and historic Indians. Yet, before one accounts...

  4. 2 Navajos, Paiutes, and Utes: Views of a Sacred Land
    (pp. 29-41)

    Close to the time (roughly a.d. 1300) when the Anasazi abandoned their alcove dwellings and floodplain farms for lands south of the San Juan River, the tribes that would be present at the start of the historic period arrived to take their place. Fortunately, because of written records and a healthy oral tradition, there is a much better understanding of the importance of the river in the lives of these Native American groups: the Utes, Paiutes, and Navajos. All three tribes took a physical, pragmatic stance toward the river, encouraging use of the riparian ecology in a high-desert environment. They...

  5. 3 Exploration and Science: Defining Terra Incognita
    (pp. 42-64)

    Navajo, Ute, and Paiute sacred views of the San Juan River and its environs were about to meet their greatest challenge when the Spaniards arrived in the eighteenth century. The ways in which the Indians eventually adopted European ways of life, however, were slow and selective. In fact, the process was indirect at first because these Spanish and later American explorers never settled in the San Juan area. Nevertheless, the exploration of the San Juan basin by Spaniards and Americans from 1765 to the mid-twentieth century forms an important precursory chapter in the story of Anglo exploitation of resources that...

  6. 4 Livestock: Cows, Feed, and Floods
    (pp. 65-83)

    As the San Juan River has coursed through the Four Corners area, it has both encouraged and denied economic opportunities to Native American and Anglo-American entrepreneurs alike. Its system of canyons and floodplains offers forage for livestock, channels movement, suggests strategic locations for trade, and provides possibilities for agriculture. On the other hand, the river can swell uncontrollably to flood stage, ripping out everything in its path; it has served as a clearly defined legal boundary, restricting access to resources by people on both banks; and, due to the mere presence of its water in a desert environment, has created...

  7. 5 Agriculture: Ditches, Droughts, and Disasters
    (pp. 84-98)

    The Southwest is known for its arid climate, dramatic beauty, and turbulent weather. To the inhabitants who wrest a living from this land, its unpredictability, especially supplying water, provides one of the greatest challenges. The Colorado Plateau and the Four Corners area are consummate examples. The San Juan River is the only major, continuously flowing source of water that courses through Colorado and New Mexico and then crosses into Utah at Four Corners. Melting snows in the spring and intense thunderstorms in the summer and autumn make the river rise and fall sharply. As the moisture pours off the San...

  8. 6 City Building: Farming the Triad
    (pp. 99-112)

    Today a traveler, coming in sight of Bluff from the desert and canyon country to the west, is struck by the contrasting redrock cliffs and gnarled, green cottonwood trees. Indeed the trees are implausible until one sees the sinuous bend of the San Juan River, snaking its way against the bank that abuts the southern bluff. The cottonwoods suck their life from the brown waters and high water table, then give it back through an exploding tangle of leaves and limbs. Certainly nothing is more pleasant than a shady retreat, leaving behind the sun, heat, and dwarfed desert growth.


  9. 7 Mining: Black and Yellow Gold in Redrock Country
    (pp. 113-128)

    Once a beautiful, well-dressed woman visited the home of a powerful stranger. The master of the house invited her inside, asking who she was. She replied that she was the goddess of wealth, which pleased the master, who in turn entertained her with kindness. Soon another woman appeared, but this one was ugly and dressed in rags. The master of the house inquired her name, and she answered that she was the goddess of poverty. The man became frightened and tried to drive her away, but she hesitated to leave. She explained, “The goddess of wealth is my sister. There...

  10. 8 The Federal Government: Dams, Tamarisk, and Pikeminnows
    (pp. 129-149)

    The federal presence on the San Juan appears in the khaki-and-green uniforms of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the National Park Service (NPS), the Fish and Wildlife Service, and other public-land agencies that have jurisdiction over parts of the river. Of all public-land issues, water development has loomed like the four-thousand-pound gorilla and had the greatest impact on the San Juan landscape in at least two fundamental ways. No single human activity along the river has wrought so much change in ecological processes as Navajo and Glen Canyon Dams. Moreover, concern about water was the first manifestation of the...

  11. 9 San Juan of the Imagination: Local and National Values
    (pp. 150-166)

    This book has focused primarily on the riparian landscape that people found along the San Juan and what they did with it. Clovis hunters stalked mammoths and mastodons and perhaps killed them to extinction. Indians, from the Clovis down to contemporary Utes, Paiutes, and Navajos, gathered ricegrass, hunted bighorn sheep, and later planted corn. Spanish and Anglo explorers and settlers introduced European-based agriculture and domestic animals. Later, Americans developed highly sophisticated technology to control water in the San Juan basin. The ripple effects of that technology—dams—are still being discovered, felt, and analyzed.

    Underlying the physical adaptations are the...

  12. Epilogue Visions: Flowing from the Sunrise or a Water Spigot?
    (pp. 167-171)

    Since the first Earth Day, 22 April 1970, predicting the planet’s future has become almost an obsession for environmental prognosticators. While very few today envision a rosy scenario for the planet if the world continues on its present course, some positive developments have occurred since 1970. The 1997 Kyoto Global-Warming Treaty and population-control programs throughout the world are two examples of progress.¹ Nevertheless, hopeful or despairing, all predictions have one theme in common: Take better care of the environment, or not much of the planet will be worth inhabiting.

    Predicting the San Juan River’s environmental future is about as easy...