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Reviewed by:
  • Thinking Like a Watershed: Voices from the West ed. by Jack Loeffler and Celestia Loeffler
  • Jeanne Harrah Johnson
Thinking Like a Watershed: Voices from the West. Ed. Jack Loeffler and Celestia Loeffler. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2012. Pp. 266, black-and-white photographs, acknowledgments, preface, introduction.)

Jack Loeffler is an expert in sound recording and fieldwork. In this book, he has created a nexus where he and the people whom he works with can express the practical and symbolic importance of water in the western United States. Thinking Like a Watershed is a model for those of us working toward collaborative ethnographies and shared histories. The Loefflers, Jack and his daughter Celestia, demonstrate that combining scholarship and the voices of “ordinary” people can work, and work well.

Thinking Like a Watershed is a compilation of 11 essays by professionals and community scholars who strike a balance in tone, using footnotes, academic language, expository writing, and oral history interviews with words and phrasings that provide both a sense of poetry and sound historical documentation. Watershed’s essays include analysis and stories largely from southwestern Native American perspectives that illustrate the physical, practical, and symbolic power of water to life west of the Mississippi. Such masters of social and political culture as Gary Paul Nabhan and Stewart Udall, and the editors themselves, provide focused insights and background of major state and federal water projects and give a solid framework of understanding about dams, canyons, waterways, urban development, and the impact of public policy on watersheds. The voices perfectly create an “anthology of points of view expressed by people of distinct cultural backgrounds, all of whom are profoundly imbued with the spirit of place that dominates the American Southwest” (p. xi).

The book was developed out of a project that included over 100 recorded interviews that explore the overlap of biodiversity and cultural diversity. In addition to this anthology, a website (, lecture series, a one-hour radio documentary, and a 14-part radio series grew from the recorded interviews.

Cultural perspectives and memories of place and land by Anglos, Hispanos, Navajo, Hopi, Tewa, and Tohono O’odham are represented in the essays, six of which were written for the anthology. Five of the essays are excerpted transcripts from the interviews, edited by Jack and Celestia. As a whole, John Wesley Powell and Aldo Leopold guided the concepts and conscience of the body of work and its objectives.

The book integrates multiple definitions of “watershed.” The mainstays, however, are that watersheds signify places where greenery and growth occur to nurture humans and animals, and that watersheds are essential to survival. Changing weather patterns and climates, environmental degradation and urban development, and food production—both animal and plant—modify the distribution and purposes of the watershed.

Having navigated and endured the arid, harsh lands of the Southwest, and having witnessed its transformations over time, these Anglo, Hispanic, and Native communities provide cultural perspectives of practical adaptation, story, song, belief, and customary rituals that celebrate and mediate their environment. Each chapter distinctly testifies to ways that specific communities, such as the Hopi and Navajo, embrace the challenges and beauty of their physical surroundings. Each chapter is worthy of expansion into its own short publication. Together, these chapters form a critical mass of near-perfect examples of fieldwork, scholarship, and collaboration.

I would not hesitate to use this book as a required textbook for a course in cultural geography, [End Page 99] history, folklore, or cultural anthropology, with an emphasis on traditions and practices in regional studies. If combined with popular and scholarly articles on the topic of southwestern environment and cultures, this work could be adopted as a text on a regular basis.

Jeanne Harrah Johnson
University of Nevada, Reno


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