I think, therefore I watershed

Geohydrological speculations of a changing world

“…go by yourself across

the forty fields and the forty dark inclines
of rocks and water to the place where
the falls are flinging out their white sheets

like crazy, and there is a cave behind all that
jubilation and water fun and you can
stand there, under it, and roar all you

want and nothing will be disturbed;”
- from The Poet With His Face In His Hands by Mary Oliver

The misleadingly steady rock shifts underfoot, an uncontrolled leap towards the shoreline, the hidden bamboo branch catches shirt fabric unforgivingly. I curse out into the jungle as I pull my waterproof boot out of the flowing stream whose depth was no match for carelessness. Standing in disbelief on the opposite shore with fingers clasped around protruding vines increasingly exposed by crumbling dirt, I look down at my one wet sock then back towards the barely visible rock. Surely, the last time I attempted to cross this section of stream, to avoid the sharp thorns of Triphasia trifolia on one side while remaining close enough to the water to collect data, there was well-tested stability documented in the running GPS device tucked away.

Squinting eyes to focus my attention on the bottom of the current, I observe more tumbled stones gathering since the last inspection, reminiscent of the piles of sediment building around the culvert further downstream. As more dry dirt sticks to my sweaty arms, I sidestep towards the nearest neck-high ledge capable of supporting my weight and haul myself up to the sound of debris kicked loose and splashing below. Pulling the bright orange-buff with the repeating phrase ‘real hunters don’t burn’ up over my face to keep the inevitable spider webs at bay, I proceeded higher and deeper into the jungle with a sense of purpose.

When I first arrived on Rota, a small island in the Marianas Archipelago, I continually ventured out of the office to conduct fieldwork necessary for building intimacy with the landscape. Although researchers have been present here for decades, there remains a sense of mystery emanating from the wooded areas, as though no accumulation of knowledge could ever quite encapsulate the spirit of the island. Unlike many of my colleagues here, most of whom are dedicated to the monitoring and recovery of the endangered Mariana crow (known locally as Åga), my commitments revolve around the priority watershed on the south side that is in a perpetual state of recovery. Fires, clear-cutting, sugar cane, more fires, erosion, another fire, and the seemingly endless pursuit to stabilize the soils with non-native grasses and nursery-grown native tree species.

There is an everpresent relationality here. Like places and non-places alike, it can be felt in the babble of streams and the rustling of leaves and the way a skink colored yellow and blue can dart from beneath your feet and vanish up a tree. Rusty barbed wire sprawls out of the dirt in unexpected locations. Deer bark from the towering cliffs overhead. A pile of beer and soda cans lack any discernable age. Unexploded ordnance next to a wall made of stacked stones next to a stream that is filling up with sediment next to a jungle rooster that causes me to jump each time I get close. Landscapes are meant to capture one’s heart, to be rediscovered day after day, to have memories and sentiments that transcend time, to leave marks on flesh and soul.

Everything is part of a watershed. This innocuous statement is radical in nature, particularly given the fact that many of us know very little about the watershed we live in, let alone about watersheds in general. Loosely defined as the “line separating waters flowing into different rivers,” where a shed represents the “ridge of high ground between two valleys or lower ground, a divide.” A quick search of catchment area maps or drainage divides or water basins (watersheds of a different name) will query images of countries and communities redrawn with colorfully chaotic shapes that rarely share similarities with the borders of states or counties that we are familiar with. Hydro-cartographies that couldn’t care less about politics and nationalism.

To know a watershed, from a data-driven natural-science perspective, demands familiarity with a wide range of disciplines. Geology to understand the way stones and aquifers alter the hyporheic flows. Hydrology to grasp the influence of sediments and nutrients on the quality of flowing water. Biology to sense the way fish and shrimp and trees and birds all depend on the ecosystem that encompasses them. Ecology to comprehend the depth of interconnectedness. Sociology to discern the human bond with the landscape. Soil composition, historical land use changes, impacts on coral reefs, and the infrastructure that allows us to pass through, study, grow, and depend on the watershed also seem to have their own dedicated degrees.

The Talakhaya Watershed is like this, full of considerable knowledge, much of it withdrawn, but enough sensually accessible for me as a researcher. Walking through the jungle on a clear day, I’m struck by how much I don’t know. What species of fish is that? Why is the water suddenly so turbid? Has this shoreline erosion increased since the first peoples wandered these same veins? Notebook in one hand, camera attached to my backpack, dirt under my fingernails. There are divides everywhere. Watersheds turn into subwatersheds that turn into subsubwatersheds that turn into innocuous pools of water that vanish when it’s either too hot or too wet to sustain their borders. I collect a sample full of juvenile Macrobrachium lar that will sit next to the other samples chilling in an office fridge.

In a leap not quite as far as panpsychism, speculative inclinations released by the spray of waterfall induced negative ions, I wonder what it means to think with the watershed. Like Pugh and other’s (2013) call for us to think with the archipelago, as opposed to the static and oft isolating tendency towards thinking with islands despite our ‘world of archipelagos’, there is a distinct kind of ‘spatial turn’ worth venturing towards; full of depth and fluidity and relationality and vibrancy. Where archipelagos represent our boundlessness in a changing world, watersheds express our inescapable boundedness with Place, regardless of our immigration status. The watershed is not the watershed. It’s an object, an assemblage, a place space, a habitat, a landscape, a collection of material time, an archipelago, an island, a more-than-human.

Moving swiftly past the familiar sight of a dangling paper wasp nest located squarely in the middle of a well-worn trail, I feel a sense of community resonating all around me. Each trek along the babbling streams, over toppled boulders, and through thickets of razor-sharp pandanus led me here to a lived-knowledge, to a relationship of practice with the more-than-human assemblage. Over a few years, what was once an unforgiving jungle that would leave me bloody and broken after every hike, turned into a partnership, where we co-produced conversance. My hands know which stones support my weight, paths that vanish in the density reveal themselves as secrets, once obsessively checked maps remain free of sweat and mud.

Reaching a choice of my onward path, one up a steep muddy slope and the other between towering cliffs, my attention is drawn towards the canopy by the contact call of a shadow. Fumbling inside the backpack, drawing a pair of binoculars, and scanning the area emanating the sounds, I catch a glimpse of the endemic avian kin. The Åga can be found all over the island, including just outside my home, yet their presence always feels like a gift. Their calls are distinct and stand out compared to the rest of the island’s cacophony, a piercing caw that causes me to stop everything to focus. ‘Bands, bands, bands,’ I mutter to myself shifting my vantage point to get at least one color to pass on to the researchers working to conserve the critically endangered species.

Jotting down a few recognizable colors next to a GPS point and current time, I quickly continue upward, fearing that I may have overstayed my welcome as their calls increase in intensity. I’ll send a message later with all the information, I remind myself, with my attention drawn toward the task at hand, climbing up the precarious cliffsides. We’re in the throngs of the dry seasons now and unlike the rush of flowing water drowning out all noise and making stones slippery, the lack of rainfall leaves soils desiccated and prone to crumble and collapse. Pulling myself over the ledge, I look down and notice the alterations in the valley’s shape, stones and slabs have collected in the center, piles of sediment grow terrifyingly high, the banyan roots reach towards emptiness.

We are missing a baseline, we will always be missing the baseline. This is the reality of ecosystems all over the world, scientists come in to collect all the little data points possible to craft a narrative of the landscape, a numerical history unattached from the physical reality. In some communities, oral histories passed on from ancestors takes the form of traditional and local ecological knowledge (TLEK) that can illuminate a deeper understanding of that which is and that which was. Like Latte stones standing in the middle of the jungle, distant from villages and difficult to access, the ‘people of the land’ (the literal translation of the Chamorro word for people, ‘ taotao tano’) have access to the shared relationality of the more-than-human coastalscape, unless something like colonization gets in the way.

Scouring through digital shapefiles and old research papers and the haphazard collection of documents stuffed into folders hidden in the abandoned desk, I found myself in a liminal space between the known and the unknown. The first people of this archipelago arrived on the island around 4,300 years ago (Rainbird, 1994), sailing from distant lands with what appears to be some kind of divine insight into what lies beyond the horizon. Pollen records collected in southern Guam show that with their arrival, the landscape began to change with small fires altering forests into something more suitable for agriculture. Eventually, the Spanish arrived in a return from the Philippines, bearing Christianity and the near annihilation of the entire culture. It is from here that much of what we know about the traditional people stems, in the journals of priests and missionaries.

Those initial moments, the beginning of the human impact on the material time of this place, solidified a kind of knowledge, an intimacy with the coastalscape, wherein the embodied experience of human life here found an equilibrium with the non-human. Like white blood cells rushing through veins to protect the body, the flowing streams of the island, including those hidden deep beneath the surface, offered sustenance and security. Latte stone sites, archaeological remains of the Chamorro culture of antiquity, can be found nestled between the vibrant coral reefs offshore and the freshwater springs finding their way to the surface. The shrimp and eels, native to the watershed, finding their way into oral histories. Turtles and fish painted on cave walls. Molluscs shells strung around necks.

‘The Spatiotemportal Value of a Thorny Oyster necklace’
There’s a peculuiar history surrounding how Spondylus shells, marine bivalves known as spiny oysters colored with reds and oranges, came to find prominence for both the Chamorro people as well as for the Precolumbian cultures of South America, where ‘ Mullu’ was considered sacred. When the first people landed in and settled on the archipelago, they had small gardens, gathered jungle flora, and consumed seafood collected along the coast. Then in a moment of seemingly sudden change around 1,000 years before the present, a separate wave of migration arrived to the islands from nearby, as seen in the genetic diversity of the Chamorro people (Vilar et al., 2012). This migration brought the knowledge of rice agriculture and the appearance of the iconic latte stone structures, as well as the initial use of Spondylus for jewelry, which continued through the arrival of the Spanish and up to the present day.

Walking along the beaches, my eyes catch sight of a deep orange hidden in the tans and whites of the sand. Holding the Spondylus shell in the sunlight, I wonder if it was carried on boats from New Guinea or Polynesia or further still, to be traded with the ancient people only to be lost at sea and eventually washed ashore a thousand years later or just the remains of a oyster destroyed in waves after the last typhoon. Or, more likely, was it a fragment of the spiny oysters introduced to these islands in the second migration so that a trade in the birght shells could persist? Another day, on a different beach, my fingers clinch a perfectly shaped bead, orange on one side white on the other. Who made this? Who wore it last? Who lost it? Material time is fickle like that.

Despite the Chamorro population decreasing from 100,000 to fewer than 1,000 individuals during the Spanish colonization of the islands (Rogers, 1995), the TLEK continues to be passed on to those willing to listen. However, education alone cannot grasp the withdrawn experience of landscapes. Like asking someone who has lived on Rota their entire life how many waterfalls they think are in Talakhaya and being met with a hesitant “one or two?” when there are dozens of falls with a range of structures hidden between ridgelines. “I’ve never even seen one,” then follows from his lips, as though to reassure me that he only knows through word of mouth. The knowledge of the streams has gone hyporheic, seeping into the landscape, invisible to behold, difficult to comprehend, yet still at hand.

The term used to describe streamflow, rheic, comes from the Greek ῥέω (rhéō) meaning stream or to flow. Similarly, Plato used the term to represent the idea of being in perpetual flux, as used in both Cratylus and Theaetetus. In the former, Socrates compares the original creation of a word to the work of an artist, eventually leading to a debate about the origin of names and, by extension, of knowledge. Cratylus emphasizes the consistent flux throughout the foregoing etymologies, a kind of theory that believes that everything is in constant change, and the ineffable authority of the name-makers to divinely define that which is. Socrates responds by questioning where the name-makers got their knowledge from, settling on an idea of Forms where reality should be directly studied in its own right. Repetitive avian calls, the backs of hands, unmarked trails, permission from Taotaomo’na, hidden Macrobrachium lar.

Clinching my teeth in anguish, I try to adjust my body weight between my four limbs to reduce the sharp karst from cutting my hands and knees. The trail I find myself on is regularly trodden by the non-native ungulates that call this coastalscape home. The hoof prints vanish beneath my own markings while I squeeze past the abrasive Triphasia that forms a tunnel around me, catching my shirt and hair in an attempt to slow my progress. I notice a pile of seemingly fresh droppings before being startled by the trampling of hoofs shrouded from visibility by the towering grasses that await me at the end of this path. Releasing my held breath once the last tumbling stone echoes around me, I plod forward and pull myself into the brownish grass, no less forgiving on my skin than the thorns behind me.

With gloves on my hands, it’s easy to clasp the sharp grasses that easily tower around me. If I were to crouch down, as one must in some places in the island savannah, there would be no light and even less reference to identify where I was and which direction I was heading besides the slope of the landscape. The grasses begin to draw blood as they cross my exposed arms and legs, instilling a sense of urgency to reach the ridgeline above, where the exposed stones offer a kind of sanctuary, despite the lack of shade and reality of annual erosion. This is the present story of Talakhaya, a source of sediments carried by rain through the streams and carried out to the vulnerable corals below. Over the last decade, a plan was developed and implemented to protect the downstream ecosystem through the conservation of the coastalscape.

Community members came together to undertake a monumental effort to revegetate the exposed and eroding soils of the badlands. Conceiving of a future where the soils remain in place and the native limestone forest could repopulate the slopes of the watershed, financial support was acquired and activities were devised. In order to restore a landscape, to “revegetate”, a dozen or so volunteers drive out to the watershed and carry 50-pound backpacks full of grasses grown in nurseries up the steep slopes to dig holes and pray that the roots will hold the fragile surface in place. In a single summer, beneath the scorching sun egged on by the quiet music ringing out from a tucked-away phone, the volunteers plant more than 25,000 seedlings. ‘The landscape looks healthier,’ decries a local who has watched the watershed change over the last fifty years. Yet a single fire, like that of 2012, can char away two years worth of effort in a single week.

These fires seem to be omnipresent during the dry season, at least in other parts of the island. Sometimes used as a tool to clear the land to make way for tilling and agriculture, other times the by-product of a cigarette tossed out of a car. However, in Talakahay where there isn’t any space for agriculture on the slopes and few roads to traverse by truck, fires are mainly caused by hunters seeking easy access to the non-native deers that call the island home. In the tall grasses secluded from the rest of the island, deer roam plentifully, occasionally wreaking havoc for the revegetation efforts when they munch on the indigenous seedlings out-planted during the summer. Once the grasses have burned away, new growth begins to shoot up, drawing the deer into open spaces making it easy for hunters to prey. Yet, the new growth does very little to secure the soils when heavy rains are destined to strike.

‘A brief history of Rusa marianna in the Marianas’
Despite the spatially associated name of the Sambar deer, Rusa marianna is an endemic brown deer species of the Phillipines that is now listed as a vulnerable, mostly due to habiat loss. However, the species was initally described by scientists who encoutered the deer in the Marianas Archipelego, specifcally the popualtion found on Guam. Like most oceanic islands, there are no indigenous popoualtions of terrestrial mammalian herbivores prior to human colonization. As such, the native plant species on the islands are highly suscptible to herbivory from the deer, which is why they have become such a serious nusance for ecologists conservationists.

In the late 1700s, the Spanish governor of the Marianas, Mariano Tobias, introduced the Philippine deer to Guam as a new source of fresh meat for the inhabitants (Wiles et al., 1999). Over the next few centuries, the deer populations fluctuated from being prolific around the island to being nearly extirpated following food shortages cause by tropical cyclones. Hunting laws were enacted, savanna grasslands began to burn, the deer persisted as their invasive range spread throughout Micronesia. More recently, the species has undergone a sort of protected status, not for their vulnerabiltity that exists in their native Philippines, but to ensure that hunters can continue to harvest the species every year for festivals and celebrations. Hunting permits are issued, fires continue to burn, spotlights draw them out at night, and their trails have become my trails.

Standing atop the reddish-brown stones and exposed soils that are distant from any access point in the watershed, I hear the distinctive bark of the deer along the stream veins below me. Those waters are the life-blood of the entire watershed, pouring forth from caves along the upper ridgeline, ducking beneath stones to mysteriously seep out of soils as the dry season draws to an end, providing sustenance for trees and fish and birds and humans. Like tracing the veins on the back of my hand, my fingers trace the streams demarcated on my trusty map with a sense of caution and uncertainty. During this dry season, not a particularly notable one, two of the perennial streams ran dry for the near entire extent of their reach. The stream changes bring fear to the few residents who are familiar with their material presence.

Water is a substance that crosses spatiotemporal scales, a process of perpetual becoming taking the form of transpiration, a system humans and non-humans, microbes and nutrients, bodies and relationships. Strang (2014) describes the material agency of water as a collection of potentials and relations that act upon everything around them. From carving valleys over millennia to drawing living things in to consume its resources, water contains a unique vitality that is hard to grasp but always experienced. When we try to draw out a watershed, that divide between agentic water networks, the geologic characteristics of the earth come into stark opposition with the fluidity of water, where the very act of evaporation seems to defy the laws of gravity. We are composed of water, little hyperseas strolling far from our oceanic origins, yet still always proximal to hydrologic processes. Like eels caught in the ‘ocean-cradle of birth and of death, in ebb and in flow’.

When water vanishes, be it from dehydration after a long run or through the persistent evaporation induced by a climate change super-charged drought, it’s agency bemoans attention. This kind of attention-drawing is one of the few ways that hyperobjects come into clarity, a rephasing into consciousness like dry lips reminding you how thirsty you’ve become. Hyperobjects, as ecophilosopher Timothy Morton (2013) envisions, are objects (in the object-oriented ontological sense) massively distributed over space and time, adhere to all the objects they come into contact with, phase in and out of existence beyond human conception, and are formed through the relations of multiple objects yet can only be perceived through their attention-drawing. The most readily available example of a hyperobject is global climate change. We can’t touch climate change, yet it's happening every all at once, even in the deepest depths of the ocean. Thinking of climate change as a hyperobject challenges us to reconceive of the world as being a collection of hyperobjects in which we exist, “objects all the way down” as Morton states.

Yet, the same hyperobjective framework is particularly salient when applied to both rivers, “in which [the river] is a partial manifestation of something much greater,” and landscapes, such that “hyperobjects expose obsolete landscape traditions of the picturesque that conceal the artifice of culture under a veil of naturalness“ (Edgeworth & Benjamin, 2017). For Latourian actor-network theory, landscapes are composed of many actants, both human and nonhuman, that are interconnected, symmetrical, and create actions and events through their relationships. However, by considering landscapes as objects in their own right (rather than networks of things), hyperobject theory “necessitates re-examining the profound immersion of humans within the ecosphere” (Kullmann, 2018). Conversely, thinking of rivers and watersheds through Deleuzian assemblage theory, we encounter the “web of agentic capacities” that influence flood risk and resilience as well as the “matter-flows” which in one instance align only to disperse and resurface in different assemblages.

To think with a watershed, or a coastalscape as I prefer to call the hyperobjects, is to encounter a vitally agentic object that is far more than the divide traced on maps or the streams that drain into another body of water. Watersheds formed over millions of years through a strange mix of upwelling and erosion, storing large quantities of water that rise and recede with the climate. Watersheds are bioregions through which species have coalesced to compete and thrive, or are species just the by-product of the watershed-object? Watersheds falter beneath human pressures and call forth advocates to protect and conserve them. Watersheds are ephemeral, actualized, and interpreted objects. Watersheds are lived in and living. We are all watersheds, little divides between each other and all things, fluid assemblages phasing in and out of existence, where, rather than the dust analogy from Genesis, we must be reminded that ‘water thou art, and unto water shalt thou return.’

At the center of Rota is the unaptly named Mount Sabana, which acts more like a natural water tower for the island, storing a seemingly indefinite supply of freshwater for the residents of the island. Speaking with the watershed’s ecological knowledge authority, I propose a scenario in which climate change strikes the island particularly hard and the community can no longer rely on Sabana. We discuss the agriculture happening on top of Sabana and how no one really knows what kind of impact pesticides might have. We ponder how much water is wasted in homes and on agricultural land that could be easily remedied. We debate whether some places are even worth protecting give the mounting costs to do so and the unrelenting death drive that is anthropogenic climate change. Before long, we start telling each other stories. He details the first years of the revegetation project with 50 odd volunteers and eyes full of hope. I recount my initial days with the watershed, wandering aimlessly up each stream until, at this moment, they have become part of me as much as I them.

During my last week on Rota, we sit on exposed karst stones, the sun radiating through us, grasses prattling with the occasional breeze. Tracing lines between success and ambition, as though knowledge alone is enough to achieve that elusive sustainability we so desperately seek. The sweat builds on our brows, I express concern that I accomplished so little, that what I learned over the last few years only paint a grim scene for the more-than-human coastalscape. Talakhaya’s greatest champion reassures me that every person who has dedicated time to protecting the watershed matters, particularly when change is past, present, and future. Without him, there would be no restoration, no soil securing grasses, no hope for the myriad of non-humans that grace the lands and seas seen from our vantage point, from our coastalscape.

While my time on Rota and amongst Talakhaya has surely come to an end, I continue to dream of how I want to be remembered, of whose existence I’ll encounter and bend, of which waters will fill me up and settle me down. Like stones accidentally pulled from steam banks or nebulous friendships phasing in and out of presence or words of hope disguised as policy recommendations. Looping relationalities. “Will you come back?” It sounds more like an invitation than a question. We both recognize the persistent difficulty of conservation when capacity continues to recede like streams in the dry season. Uncertainty looms, hyperobjects gain locality, and despondency reigns supreme. Turning back on the GPS device contacting unseen satellites, we continue along the perimeter of the annual revegetation project whose reporting withdraws from the monumental realness. Crises of alliteration, empty office desks, forgotten daydreams, anguillidian ouroboroi.

Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Tasmania, studying climate change adaptation, risk perspectives, and coastalscape values.

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