In my last blog I shared some of the historical importance of the Santa Cruz River. That’s a good example of the way I use history and archaeology — the study of the past — to illuminate the present. That river, no matter how much it has changed, is the reason for Tucson being where it is.
But I’m not an historian; I'm a folklorist. I’m really interested in the way communities express themselves informally. So let’s move on to some of the stories that are associated with our desert rivers.
Jokes are a part of any culture’s folklore. They circulate through the community, they get re-framed and recycled to fit new occasions, and most importantly, they seem to cluster around topics that make us uncomfortable. (We have more jokes about sex in our culture than almost any other theme. Ever wonder why?) In other words, our jokes can serve as a kind of salve or ointment that we can slather over the raw places in our consciousness.
I first heard this story in the 1950s, when I first came to Tucson. As I remember, it was told me by the late Clara Lee Tanner, a teacher in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Arizona.
A woman from Southern Arizona was visiting an old school friend who lived by the banks of the Hudson River in Upstate New York. After about a week, the hostess asked “How do you like our beautiful Hudson River?"
“I don’t know,” replied the Arizona lady, “I haven’t gotten a chance to see it. It’s been full of water all the time.”
By the same token, I was on a bus crossing the Potomac River on a bridge. The bus was full of participants in the 1976 Festival of American Folklife on the Mall, by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Sitting a few seats back from me was Van Holyoak, a cowboy from Arizona’s White Mountains. “Hey, Jim.” Van called up, “It rained in the mountains last night.”
“How can you tell, Van?” I asked.
“Creek’s full of water,” he replied.
What’s going on here? It seems to me that these jokes say that a) we live in a special part of the country where rivers only occasionally flow with water, b) knowing this, we find it fun to apply our rules to soggier climes where they just don’t fit, and c) by doing so we are reinforcing a self image as special people who live in a special and challenging place.
And now we’re ready for the king of all Southern Arizona dry river exaggerations: the Santa Cruz Sand Trout.