Galen Hecht ’16 (left) and Mark Fawcett-Atkinson ’17 reading up in preparation for their docu...Galen Hecht ’16 (left) and Mark Fawcett-Atkinson ’17 reading up in preparation for their documentary about the lands and waters of the Chama River Watersheds.

Galen Hecht ’16 and Marc Fawcett-Atkinson ’17 hail from nearly opposite ends of the continent—New Mexico and Nova Scotia. The two met first at Pearson United World College in British Columbia and now study together at COA. In the spring their paths will lead them to a third place, the Chama River Valley of Northern New Mexico.

The pair will create a documentary to explore how people use and relate to the lands and waters of the Chama River Watersheds and examine the area’s rich history of struggles for human and ecological rights.

Over the winter break the two began their research. A road trip through the Southwest and the conversations it brought helped them map a path that lead them to the Chama River as the central thread of their project. In the spring, the two are headed back to New Mexico to continue filming and researching. For both Hecht and Fawcett-Atkinson, this project has been a way to situate many of their intellectual interests in a personally relative locality. I met with the two to talk more about the project.

What is the project about?

G: It’s going to be a senior project for me.

M: And I’m doing it as a residency.

G: The idea, back in August, was to find ourselves some kayaks or maybe a raft and go out to a river in the southwest and travel down that river with the intention of getting to know the communities around it, linking them as the river links them.

M: There was a mine spill on the Animas River [in August], which is a tributary of the Colorado River. The Animas flows into the San Juan River, which flows into the Colorado River. The spill turned the river yellow, and this yellow cloud migrated down the river. Everyone was kind of freaked out, because suddenly there was this yellow cloud of  semi-toxic waste in the river. But it made us think, ‘Oh, rivers linking people that aren’t normally linked.’ And that’s where we got the idea to float down and talk to people all along as to how they use water; and how they relate to water. Over time we’ve refined our questions a bit, because that’s kind of a vague thing to ask someone…’How do you relate to water?’ So during the winter, we went to New Mexico to learn more.

G: That trip was a reconnaissance mission—to use a very militant term—the point being to find the geography that we were going to focus on wherever it might be in the southwest. We had our eyes set the San Juan so we went in that direction. We went to the Navajo reservation and then we started driving up towards the San Juan mountains in Colorado.

We talked to a bunch of writers, friends, and people along the way and the San Luis Valley and the northern Rio Grande region in New Mexico came up a number of times. So we started asking questions about it and talking with people from High Country News, which is a journal about western issues we found out that they had just been working on a story about a land owner’s organization called Chama Peak Land Alliance. We contacted the president of that organization, they are a conglomeration of landowners working in responsible management in this area that has tributaries of the San Juan River into the Colorado River Basin, but also into the Chama River, which flows into the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico. We thought, ‘okay, that’s really incredible 1) because we have a door in to talk to all these people and 2) because it’s just a really fascinating place.

M: The area around the Chama River is layered with multiple identities that have been built around the water. Before European contact, Pueblo and Apache and Ute peoples lived there. And then the Spanish came in the 15/1600’s and settled, and essentially developed societies that were very much self-sustaining, and a lot of the land was commonly owned…These colonists  were pretty forgotten [by the Spanish empire], so they developed distinct legal and economic systems that operated more on custom than on the regulations of the Spanish, and later Mexican States…And then in the mid-1800’s there was a war between Mexico and the US, and the result of that war was [that the US] bought New Mexico and Arizona.

At this point the area saw a massive flood of American settlers. So now there’s this triple layering of societies, and they all have pretty different understandings of what land is, and who can claim it. Now the watershed has a lot of these layers: you have the Jicarilla Apache Reservation that’s bordering the watershed. And then most of the area is contained in various hispanic land grants—In the 60’s there was actually a big uprising from hispanic settlers who essentially said that the US stole [their] land based on bad evidence and sketchy lawyers. That [relationship] is still quite tense. And then there’s a lot of anglophone settlers, some of whom arrived in the mid-1800’s, some of whom are very recent. And there’s been a push to get really wealthy people to come and build summer homes in the area. 

So the people on the board of this organization are trying to get representatives from all these different voices to work together, by bringing them together around the water and the Chama [River] as the linking factor.

G: It’s a land project in that they’re trying to do forest management [and are] working to thin and control burn the forest there so they don’t have any huge sedimentation happening in the rivers. And it’s also a water issue because everybody’s using the water, there are traditional methods for using the water—or methods that have been happening for a few hundred years—and then there are some newer methods, including a tunnel that goes from the San Juan River basin under the continental divide into the Chama River which provides drinking water for Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

This very rural area in northern New Mexico is providing the drinking water for the southern urban areas. So, in addition to there being this very complex layering of social identities and marginalization, there are also tensions about how the land is going to be managed.

M: And there’s money for this, because Santa Fe and Albuquerque want those headwater areas [to stay] rural and clean, and they don’t want there to be forest fires, because forest fires will fill the water with ash.

G: Our role in this is that we’re going to go explore the great issue of the commons, resources that are necessary for all who live there but not necessarily available to all—because in many ways there is a tragedy of the commons. We’re looking at rivers and land as commons and also looking at these complex and deep relationships between people. We’re going to try and capture that and paint a portrait of this region to encourage the dialogue.

M: Our focus is on the river as the linking factor, which is a perspective that allows us to bring this diversity together at a common point that isn’t a human common point, but is shared by all life forms. It’s a physical necessity, and that’s something that’s really characteristic of water. This should help us think beyond the social boundaries of human social categories like race and gender.  So essentially it’s almost like we’ll make a map of the watershed by weaving together the stories we encounter into a sort of tapestry.

G: A map, but not a map because we’re going to try to not be reductive.

M: It’s a map, but it’s not universal. It won’t be the map, but a map. If you picture tapestries, each one is different, each has different motifs and textures and smells. So we’re making one tapestry with the stories, but there are many many others to be made. So it’s recognizing that it’s just one tapestry.

Map of the US and Mexico by J. Distrunell, 1847.Map of the US and Mexico by J. Distrunell, 1847.

Why are you focusing on this river and area?

M: Partly because it’s such a rich area, partly because of the Chama Peak Land Alliance who opened up their door. We’re not working for them. We’re working with them. This will give us a name and a list of contacts in the area which is really useful. For instance when we were up there in the winter we were coming back and we talked to the president and she said we should visit this guy [who has] a ranch. So we went and got to visit his ranch.

G: He’s a lawyer who retired and purchased land to try to restore it for fly fishing…

M: It’s somewhere we would never have gone without the organization.

G: Right, you can’t knock on somebody’s door up there. You know, nobody’s going to hear you.

M: The Chama is also close to Santa Fe, which makes it easier logistically for us…

G: The whole idea is very humanist; it’s very, in some ways, I would say romantic, in that it’s holistic. We’re trying to look at a holistic picture of this place because it is a whole… we’re [looking at] this whole picture and returning to a place that I consider home. I feel the home connection there and these other people feel the home connection there, but we might be intruding on their connection, or we might be welcomed…I want to go home to do this project because I want to enrich that place personally as well as try and have a dialogue with people there and learn a lot because I feel very ignorant as far as the perspectives of these people.

I’ve already learned so much by asking fairly simple questions like, ‘how did you end up on this land?’ and looking at that history a little bit…Questions like that are so simple, but unearth these incredible stories and great depth. Those layers are what we’re going to be grappling with through making this film. It’s going to be very challenging, I think, to follow a storyline, but what allows that to happen is the water—the linking connection of the geography and hydrology.

M: And for me the area’s really interesting because of the social layers it has, and I’m curious….the more I dig into it, the more I find similarities to Nova Scotia in terms of our colonial histories. The French arrived at about the same time as the Spanish in New Mexico and settled in Mi’kmaq lands, and then were kind of forgotten by the French government. This is a group called the Acadians, and  they developed agricultural and economic systems that in ways became indigenous to Nova Scotia. They were not Mi’kmaq, but they were not French either and had more of an interest in living in the area than settling more land. Then the British kicked them out in 1755 by forcibly removing them and after that numerous waves of peoples, many of them fleeing prosecution or slavery came and contributed to the layers that make up what we call Nova Scotia.

A lot of the questions we’re asking with New Mexico would be very applicable, I think, to Nova Scotia and honestly North America in general. This is a continent of settlers, but not all the settlers or the indigenous peoples have the same backgrounds, experiences, or have developed the same kinds of relationships with the landscape. Thinking about colonisation in terms of the simple, clear story often told in textbooks, that homogenous groups of europeans—like the French or the British—came and took land from homogenous groups of Indigenous peoples—like the Iroquois or the Mi’kmaq—doesn’t do much more than reinforce these categories and the systemic oppression they perpetuate. We need to start thinking outside of these categories and think about the colonial process as much more flexible, malleable, and slippery than we have so far.

There is still a lot of injustice on this continent, not to speak about the rest of the world, and our mainstream understanding and analyses of why this is true are perpetuating this by failing to acknowledge that these encounters are messy, and that the best solutions will come out of a lot of mutual listening, dialogue, and a reconsideration of our politics in terms of categories that are not human, like water.

G: So that metaphor will, with any luck, carry over, so that we can have this piece of the Chama but talk about it at greater scope anywhere we go, because it’s really an issue all over the place…That Marc has this perspective coming from Nova Scotia and coming to New Mexico [is] so awesome, and to have this dynamic between the two of us, because I think without that I’d be so limited because I understand the place the way that I grew up there. Habits form, and he doesn’t have those, so it pushes me and I hope that’s mutual, that there’s this push-pull of ideas.

M: And even in the way we think—we think differently, and that definitely helps [us] kind of…feed off each other.

G: A balance of tension.

M: Yeah, exactly.

Illustration of a bend in the Chama River by Galen Hecht ’16.Illustration of a bend in the Chama River by Galen Hecht ’16.

How does this relate to what you’ve been studying so far/want to study?

G: It’s like all these threads that I’ve been fortunate to experience at COA, I’m trying to braid them together into this thing—all these branches are flowing together. I’ve done a lot of literature studies here, a little bit of anthropological stuff, some performing arts, some science as well, and some craft work. I think that all of those ways of knowing have structured this sensibility and way of thinking that I want to apply in a setting that’s not purely academic, in school, or theoretical in its essence, that’s actually interaction, and collaborative.

I did some filmmaking this year and it is an awesome and obvious medium to work with because it requires human interaction, it’s like crafting or collaging with story and images together. It enables a way of communicating in a dialogue that can spread on a wide scale, and can maybe have some reach that other projects might not. So that was all in mind as the project was coming together. So it’s really this confluence of ideas and practices from the last years that are coming together. 

As for the future, I applied for a Watson Fellowship to do a very similar project in various parts of the world. It’s called Poetic Cartography, which is the practice of doing this—of creating a poetic of space and place in whatever medium it may be.

M: As for me, I think a lot of my focus has been around how humans construct themselves in their environments. I’ve done a lot of anthropology and sociocultural theory, looking at certain categories of difference, how they came about, and who they serve. I’ve done some law as well, which is useful here. Useful for the larger theories and ideas, and also because I had a lot to learn about how the US political system and philosophies work. I think I’ve been living very much in theory here, and this [project] for me is a way to bring that theory to a reality, on some level, and to start to…dig into the social spaces more in a particular region. The ideas that have allowed me to think of landscapes in that way have come from the classes here.

More information about their film can be found on their blog: