“Cistern. I say it aloud. Cistern. More magic” (William Kloefkorn, This Death by Drowning). Cisterns, whether man-made or nature-made, have seemed to be miraculous to most cultures. Kloefkorn speaks here of the cistern his grandfather dug, lined with rock and “connected somehow to a truckload of subterranean downspouts . . . thus when rain fell, it coursed and curved and sloshed its convoluted way down into the cistern.” These dugouts were sources of drinking water and garden irrigation for farmers and ranchers through the millennia. The nature-dug cistern has many names. In Spanish, it is a tinaja. (You can find these in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona: Edward Abbey often drank at Tinajas Altas, a place where “illegal aliens” drink now if they’re lucky enough to find it.) A bedrock cistern in the wild is an example either of chemical weathering or of rain excavating rock. The Navajo Sandstone Abbey encountered at Tinajas Altas weathers to form shallow pits that perform like cisterns. A steady drip or small cataract of rainwater grinds out and fills a bedrock basin. This bowl, or divot, deepens over the centuries, worked at, between rains, by wind and sand. A perpetual process of grinding. (Some cisterns grow from indigenous corngrinding metates, as can be found in the Las Palmas Valley, south of Tecate, Baja California.) In Walking Nowhere: Finding Home, W. Andrew Beckham notes a series of cisterns so deep that they have been called “Giant Track.” Truly, it was a giant who made a footprint so deep that wind cannot stir the surface of its water, and that giant is the rain cloud. Kloefkorn says, “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”

Luis Alberto Urrea