Dawn Wink: Dewdrops

Landscape, Language, Teaching, Wildness, Beauty, Imagination

Wild Waters: Landscapes of Language


Tarahumara Skirts @ Curtis Doelle

The land spoke in the brilliant-colored layers of Rarámuri women’s skirts. @ Curtis Doell, 2012

Wild Waters: Landscapes of Language

                                                                                                                     Dawn Wink

          …in the bottom of a dark canyon, I stood in a shroud of voices. They spun up the canyon walls, radiating through the dusky interior…The voices were part of a complex language, a language that formed audible words as water tumbled over rocks, and one that carved sentences and stories into the stone walls that it passed…

          If you want to study water, you do not go to the Amazon or to Seattle. You come here, to the driest land. Nowhere is it drawn to such a point.

          In the desert, water is unedited, perfect.

                                     – CRAIG CHILDS, The Secret Knowledge of Water

The summer rain danced in sentences across the tin roof in the night. Shards of lightning rent the black fabric of the desert night, pulling thunder in its wake. Moisture misted in under the metal overhang, carrying the scents of creosote and wet earth. Another voice joined the staccato whispers on the roof—the rush of water down a nearby canyon. Cracks of rocks chimed into the desert’s conversation, as the water tumbled them across the canyon floor through blanket of night, rain, and thunder.

Cascabel Ranch, 1978

Cascabel Ranch, 1978

I was eight-years-old, and sat on the low stucco wall under the porch of our ranch house, my legs curled up in front of me and my back pressed against the rough stucco of the column behind. My younger brother sat across from me against the next column. Mom and Dad rocked on the front porch swing, the slow glide of the hook rubbing against the eye ring creaked its own rhythmic voice into the night. Lightning illuminated sheer bluffs rising above the river behind the house, their face lined with shadows of the crooked paths of water’s journey downward over thousands of years. The muddy, chocolate-colored waters of the nearby canyon poured into the northward bound river. The staccato whispers of rain on tin.

The desert speaks a symphony of sounds.

Fluidity. Nourishment. Destruction. Strength. Death. Life. All are commonalities that language and culture share with water. Here in the Southwest, the power of water underlies all.

Agua es vida. Water is life.

Reflections of memory. Cascabel bluffs. © Joan Wink, 1983

Reflections of memory. Cascabel bluffs. © Joan Wink, 1983

I grew up with this language on a cattle ranch in a river valley framed by sheer sandstone bluffs in the Sonoran desert in the southeastern corner of Arizona. Those bluffs frame my life—then and now. The San Pedro River runs north with water through the summer monsoon season, and with luck, through January and February. Most of the year, the river is a dry bed of satin sand, lying dormant in the carved forms created by run-off after the last rain. Tiny flakes of clay bake in the sun. When the much prayed for rains arrive, the riverbed and surrounding washes spring to life. Water stained a muddy brown moves along its bed, tracing familiar curves and paths and, forging new ones. The river rises on the parched land.

Growing up, my brother and I had few rules carved in stone, and instead explored our outer and inner landscapes with relative freedom. The rules we had, though, we understood were not to be breached:

          • Never climb into the corral if there’s a bull in there.

          • Always leave a gate as you find it.

          • Never, ever enter the river or a wash if it’s running. Every summer, tales of people   swept to their deaths punctuate the media of the desert.

Textures and colors of Rarámuri @ Curtis Doell

Textures and colors of Rarámuri @ Curtis Doell

Life eventually took me away from this ranch and immersed me not in the desert, but in languages and cultures. First, to Ciudad Chihuahua, Mexico, where the land spoke in the brilliant-colored layers of skirts of the Rarámuri women, lush mango on my tongue, and the pulsing thud of headaches as I struggled to understand and be understood. On to Spain, with its language of cobalt blue Talavera tile, the taste of dense olive oil melting into toasted bread, and shape of Andalusian mosques. Then to Germany, where language breathed from the throat, rather than rolled from the tongue. Here, language spoke in heavy scents of green hills and weight of history.

Twenty years came and went. Still drawn to language, I wrapped myself in its tapestry, followed their threads, drawn to their textures, colors, and how each felt on my tongue and in my ear. I taught bilingual education in the central valley of California, where my students included the children of migrant farm workers, who spoke only Spanish in their homes, the children of English-speaking parents who wanted their children to be bilingual, and I taught the teachers who worked with these students and more.

Language felt like the fine ridges of brightly-patterned oilcloth. @Dawn Wink, 2015

Language felt like the fine ridges of brightly-patterned oilcloth. @Dawn Wink

During these years, language felt like the fine ridges of brightly-patterned oilcloth beneath my fingertips and under my coffee cup, as memories of Mexico, of laughter and of tears mixed with the air and tingling nostrils from red chile enchiladas baking in the oven, and tasted on my tongue of warm arroz con leche, sprinkled with cinnamon and raisins. These years sounded of the rustle of polished suits at parent-teacher conferences with attorneys, doctors, and professors, and the sight of newspaper print held aloft to cover the face of the person who didn’t want to hear how to teach students who came to school speaking languages other than English.

Through it all, I yearned for the desert. “My home is a red desert that trembles with spirits and bones,” writes Amy Irvine McHarg in Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land. When I read this, a wave of emotion swept over me to curl me over and leave me clutching the book to my chest. So is mine, I whispered. So is mine. Until one day twenty-five years after that night of rain dancing on the tin roof, I returned to live in the juniper and piñon dotted high desert of northern New Mexico.

Back to the land where water is life or death. Back to the desert’s symphony of sounds.

* * *

Too many seek to silence the languages of the land. “Speak English!” bark voices in the desert now. I ran along a trail through the desert and jumped a narrow trench sluiced through from the run off of the rain of the day before. Like the water cutting through the earth, the national rhetoric and tone focuses on sweeping any language other than English, or any culture not deemed as “American” in some misrepresentation of history, away with it. The word ‘bilingual’ has been expunged from the vocabulary of the Department of Education, replaced now with ‘English Language Learner.’

While we hear how in order to compete globally, our citizens need to be bilingual, apparently that only means if you’re first language is English, and then you learn a second at some later point. What historically has taken three generations to acquire regarding acquisition of English, is now expected to be done by five, six, and seven-year-olds in nine short months.

The beloved borderland of my childhood seems intent on a downhill slide into intolerance and the politics of hatred. Anti-immigration rhetoric has reached new heights, and people are dying in the deserts by the hundreds. It’s now legal for police officers to pull over any person they think might not be in the country illegally.

Stella Pope Duarte, author of If I Die In Juárez, spoke of being pulled over in Phoenix by a police officer recently, who asked her, “So, how long have you been here ma’am?”

“Well, let’s see, on my mother’s side, we’ve been here about 20,000 years, and my father’s family were some of the original founders of Tucson. How about yourself?” she asked and smiled brightly.

Run through the desert

A run through the desert

The wet sand crunched beneath my running shoes, as I rounded a corner and climbed the rocky trail lined with the ashy green chamisa shrubs and juniper trees. Mile six slipped behind me, sweat ran out from under my cap and down the back of my neck, my thoughts filled with the tangled, sticky, love-and-hate-filled webs of language, how rife with humanity we all are, and all that brings with it. Language cannot be dissected into a totality of mere sounds and syllables, much as many current reading programs in schools would like to do so.

Language is love; Language is family; Language is memories; Language is our ancestor’s legacy to us.

Language is power.

* * *

San Pedro River © Annie Wilkinson

San Pedro River © Annie Wilkinson

When allowed its own life, water flows naturally. It will adapt, flow, follow the curves of the earth and rocks. It can nourish or destroy. As do languages. We are a land of many languages. We always have been. “Language expresses itself in the rivers,” writes Jay Griffths in Wild: An Elemental Journey. “Rivers flow like language—we say that someone is “fluent” in a language, their speech flows like a river. Languages, like rivers, run roughly the same course, but always change in their details; you never step into the same language twice, because the meaning has newly shifted here, a connotation has just been formed there. Rivers and language are both gloriously wild.”

The wildness of the land and the wildness of languages are intimately intertwined, the richness of one infuses the richness of the other. The loss of either diminishes the wildness of the other.

As the desert sun has warmed rocks over the centuries, the desert speaks in the language of water, of wind, and of rain. Speaks in the language of quail, and of mountain lions perched on ledges above a valley, the language of ants, of jaguars, and of blue butterflies, each named by its own unique shade. The land whispers in yucca pods rattling in the wind, and Nahuatl, Diné, Apache, Spanish, English of every brogue and lilt. The sun sets, the rocks cool, and the moon rises above the continued cadence of language and water, of the chorus yips of coyotes, murmured hushes telling loved ones good night in whatever language of the heart, and the soft gurgle of flowing water in the moonlight.

I listened to the desert.

I listened to water.

This is what I heard.



Langscape Volume 4

Langscape Volume 4

This essay was originally published in the journal Langscape, Volume 4, Issue 1, Summer 2015, The People’s Issue – Part One: Flows and Bridges.

I am especially over the moon with this publication, for Langscape’s focus on educating minds and hearts about the importance and value of biocultural diversity. The ideas from around the world, combined with the gorgeous photos and aesthetics of the journal as a whole, create a feast for the senses. For more information on their work, table of contents, how to become members, or purchase PDF or print copies, please visit their homepage here: Terralingua.

Wild Waters is a piece especially close to my own heart.



Author: Dawn Wink

Dawn Wink is a writer and educator whose work explores language, landscape, wildness, beauty, and imagination.

25 thoughts on “Wild Waters: Landscapes of Language

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  4. Lovely, thought provoking post.

  5. Beautifully written. Wonderfully stated, Dawn. I was there with you, running, sitting on the porch, listening to the rain, and remembering about water when it fills the San Pedro River and when it doesn’t, making the riverbed a wash. I was listening with you; now I know why I like to be immersed in Nature’s cloak. You’ve opened my eyes wider…

    • Alice, oh, I love that we were running, listening to the rain and sounds of the San Pedro River together. Love, love, love. “Immersed in Nature’s cloak,” what a gorgeous conveyance of the experience and one that will stay with me. Thank you for this. I so very much look forward to seeing you in October. Huge hugs.

  6. Oh, Dawn this is so beautiful it brought a bit of moisture to my eyes. I had not heard of Langscape previously nor had I heard of Terralingua. If it was mentioned during one of our classes I forgot :(. Having read your exquisite piece I immediately became a Terralingua member and ordered Langscape, Volume 4, Issue 1, Summer 2015, The People’s Issue – Part One: Flows and Bridges. I have read ‘If I Die in Juarez’ by Stella Pope Duarte (one of my wonderful classroom aides was born and raised in Juarez) and ‘Trespass’ by Amy Irvine McHarg. Although I love where I am now living I often feel a great sense of homesickness for that ‘red desert’ and I so very much understand your words ‘clutching the book to my chest’. I have also read Craig Childs, ‘The Secret Knowledge of Water’. These are amazing books and there are so many more like them – my book shelves overflow with just such titles and the books bulge with those tiny, colorful sticky notes marking places I want to return to. And now to add ‘Wild’ by Jay Griffiths to my collection.

    Language is so special, so important. Language sustains us, helps us to understand who we are and where we come from. Our first language is our heart and soul. Forbidding people to speak their native, given language is robbing them of their souls, robbing them of their culture and their heritage. It also robs the robbers of the rich diversity of other cultures.

    I’m on my bandwagon – best that I get off before I write an entire manuscript.

    Thank you again so very much for this beautiful, motivational, enlightening piece.

    Hugs and more hugs, Lindy

    • Dearest Lindy,

      Exquisite—”Our first language is our heart and soul. Forbidding people to speak their native, given language is robbing them of their souls, robbing them of their culture and their heritage. It also robs the robbers of the rich diversity of other cultures.” You convey all right here. Thank you, thank you for this.

      I am so grateful this piece touched you in the deep place that these ideas and memories touch me. And you became a member of Terralingua! Wonderful! You will love their work and Langscape, Lindy. I never cease to be intrigued and amazed by the pieces published. Prices about places and people around the world I would’ve been unfamiliar with or highlighting dynamics that send me musing. The work of the organization itself is extraordinary and so very, very needed in our world today.

      What a beautiful note to receive. I am so very grateful for our friendship and our continued shared journey .

      Hugs and more hugs!

  7. Beautifully written. Much food for thought. Thank you.

  8. Ahhhhh Dawn, you have put into words so many of my thoughts and heartfelt beliefs about the meaness of the rhetoric of today. Thank you! I find and feel over and over the likeness between the prairie and the desert! This is a beautiful meditation!!

    • Mary Kay, the desert and the prairie—yes, this piece could’ve been written on the prairie, as well. I love that you feel the kindred nature of the ideas and Place. Thank you, thank you for sharing in this meditation!

  9. Extraordinarily beautiful, powerful writing, Dawn. And illuminating. Full of images we will never forget. Your voice rises up – full of truth and love. Thank you for having the courage to write this piece. You should be invited to the table whenever and wherever these issues are discussed. You are a hero to me. -Mary Harding

    • Mary, so very wonderful to hear from you! This piece came from a deep place of memory, experiences, and those kernels in our lives that we are passionate about. I so wanted to honor all in a way they deserved. I am so grateful that this touched you, as these ideas and experiences touch me. So much love, Dawn

  10. Dearest Dawn,

    I always look forward to your wonderful essays! This is beautiful, as always! Thank you, thank you! Love, love, love, Jann

  11. Beautiful! I have read it and will re read it! Into my journal, it will be an inspirational resource.

    • Carol, ah, I love that this is going into your journal! I do the same thing with pieces that I want to read again or that have special meaning for me. Over the moon that this is one of those for you. Gratitude.

  12. Lovely memories, Dawn!  Keep sharing!  Love, Peggy

  13. Hi Dawn, I really enjoyed reading your beautifully written article! Are you settled in the new home & found a good place for your workspace? I hope so. Will you be working ( teachin) this coming year? Hug to you all, love micki

    • Micki, so glad you enjoyed this piece! We are working on getting settled into our new home. Just in from planting trees and lilacs. I planted 3 apricot trees, in the hopes of one day making apricot jam like yours! Yes, lots of working in the upcoming year. Love you! Dawn

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