Getting to Know the Headwaters

panarama buff peaks
At first glance, South Park appears to be a never-ending expanse of shortgrass prairie. But the waters of this high mountain grassland are rich and varied.

We are thrilled to have Denise Culver back this summer to share so much of what she has learned about wetland plants, after a lifetime spent in the field. We will amble along the banks of South Park’s streams (including the South Platte River), and explore the ranch’s fen, a very special peatland environment with many globally rare plants. Please join us!


Saturday, August 5th, 10am to 4pm,  $50 class fee


Fen plants tend to be tiny. Here’s Denise, last year, leaning in to identify a grass.

Denise Culver is a botanist & ecologist with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program. She has been happily mucking across Colorado’s wetlands for over 20 years. Denise is also the co-author of the wonderfully comprehensive Field Guide to Colorado’s Wetland Plants.


Buffalo Peaks Ranch


Water & the Reverse Architecture of India’s Vanishing Stepwells


This has to be one of the most unique volumes in the Land Library’s Water collection– what a treasure! For several years author and photographer Victoria Lautman documented over 200 of India’s remarkable stepwells — water storage structures displaying magnificent engineering and great geometric beauty. Lautman’s The Vanishing Stepwells of India features 75 stepwells across India. She writes: “People don’t even know they’re there. They are hiding in plain sight.”

“It’s hard to imagine an entire category of architecture slipping off history’s grid, and yet that seems to be the case with India’s incomparable stepwells. Never heard of ‘em? Don’t fret, you’re not alone: millions of tourists – and any number of locals – lured to the subcontinent’s palaces, forts, tombs, and temples are oblivious to these centuries-old water-structures that can even be found hiding-in-plain-sight close to thronged destinations like Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi or Agra’s Taj Mahal.

But now, India’s burgeoning water crisis might lead to redemption for at least some of these subterranean edifices, which are being re-evaluated for their ability to collect and store water. With any luck, tourist itineraries will also start incorporating what are otherwise an “endangered species” of the architecture world.” Victoria Lautman


“Over the centuries, stepwell construction evolved so that by the 11th century they were astoundingly complex feats of engineering, architecture, and art.”


“Rudimentary stepwells first appeared in India between the 2nd and 4th centuries A.D., born of necessity in a capricious climate zone bone-dry for much of the year followed by torrential monsoon rains for many weeks. It was essential to guarantee a year-round water-supply for drinking, bathing, irrigation and washing, particularly in the arid states of Gujarat (where they’re called vavs) and Rajasthan (where they’re baoli, baori, or bawdi) where the water table could be inconveniently buried ten-stories or more underground.”


Helical Vav, Champaner, early 16th century: This simple, spiraling stepwell is so well hidden that it took the author several attempts to find it.


“By building down into the earth rather than the expected “up”, a sort of reverse architecture was created and, since many stepwells have little presence above the surface other than a low masonry wall, a sudden encounter with one of these vertiginous, man-made chasms generates both a sense of utter surprise and total dislocation. Once inside, the telescoping views, towering pavilions, and the powerful play of light and shadow are equally disorienting, while also making them devilishly difficult to photograph.”

For more on India’s stepwells, take a look at this short clip!

Chand Baori is a famous stepwell situated in the village Abhaneri near Jaipur in Indian state of Rajasthan. This step well is located opposite Harshat Mata Temple and is one of the deepest and largest step wells in India. It was built in 9th century and has 3500 narrow steps and 13 stories and is 100 feet deep.


The Oceans & the Stars


“Human lives are intimately entwined with plankton. Every breath we take is a gift of oxygen from the plankton. In fact photosynthetic bacteria and protists produce as much oxygen as all the forests and terrestrial plants combined. And for the last three billion years, phytoplankton have absorbed huge amounts of carbon dioxide. Plankton regulate the productivity and acidity of the ocean through the carbon cycle, and exert a major influence on climate.” — from Plankton: Wonders of the Drifting World

Fundamental to life on Earth, plankton are also eerily beautiful, and represent a virtually unknown cosmos in our midst. Christian Sardet’s Plankton: Wonders of the Drifting World is the most visually exciting book we have come across in a very long time. Go slowly, page by page, and a pure sense of wonder will fill you to the brim. Much like gazing at the stars — or viewing the astounding images from the Hubble Space Telescope. In the interest of both science and poetry, Plankton needs to be on the same Land Library shelf with the recent The Hubble Cosmos: 25 Years of New Vistas in Space!



Plankton Mandala: This image from Christian Sardet’s book depicts more than 200 different kinds of plankton. In the upper part of the mandala are the largest creatures of zooplankton: jellyfish, siphonophores, ctenophores, salps. In the center are a mix of chaetognaths, annelids, mollusks, and crustaceans. Also included are larvae and juveniles. The lower part of the image shows microscopic organisms (measuring less than 1mm), mostly single-cell protists: radiolarians, foraminifera, diatoms, and dinoflagellates.


Just one of thousands of images from the Hubble Space Telescope: Supernova Remnant: SNR 0519.


Planktonic Juveniles: including the red-blotched squid, Loligo vulgaris.


From the chapter, Worms and Tadpoles: Arrows, Tubes and Nets.

John Steinbeck had this to say about tide pools. He could have been talking about the wide open ocean as well:

It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.

For more on the Plankton Chronicles Project visit their photo-filled website, or view many short film clips on Christian Sardet’s YouTube channel!

Deep Insight into a Complex World

Water will always be a central issue reflected in the Land Library’s growing collection of books. Here’s just a few new acquisitions!


Alok Jha’s The Water Book: The Extraordinary Story of Our Most Ordinary Substance — from one of Britain’s leading science journalists, this is a fascinating story of one of the world’s strangest molecules. Also pictured above, Sustainable Water: Challenges and Solutions from California, edited by Allison Lassiter, and written by leading policy makers, economists, ecologists, engineers and planners, all offering lessons on increasing resilience in a water-limited world.



Every Last Drop: Bringing Clean Water Home by Michelle Mulder, part of one of our favorite kid’s environmental science series, Orca Footprints. This book is packed with information and inspiration from across the globe. Nancy Bo Flood’s Water Runs Through This Book combines science and poetry in a convincing call to action, that is also high on hope!


stephen grace

For more on water’s central role in the unfolding history of Colorado, there’s no better book that Stephen Grace’s The Great Divide (the companion book to a wonderful film). From archaeological evidence of ancient Native American reservoirs, to current day water shortages, this book offers deep insight into the complex world of water in the West.

For more good water-related books, and to learn about the Land Library’s plans for a special riverside Watershed Library at Buffalo Peaks Ranch, you might enjoy one of our earlier posts:

Water in the West & Beyond

Water in the West & Beyond

Water, so common on our lucky blue planet, will always remain a mysterious substance — one that inspires gratitude, wonder, conflict and concern. Given the global importance of this increasingly limited resource, the Land Library is always excited to add another important volume to its water collection. Books such as these:


Enduring Acequias: Wisdom of the Land, Knowledge of the Water by Juan Esevan Arellano. The word acequia has its roots in the arid Middle East. This insightful work pays homage to like cultures across the globe, especially New Mexico’s time-honored irrigation system that balances the needs of community with the limits of water in the West.
Also pictured above: Kurt Fausch’s For the Love of Rivers: A Scientist’s Journey, with streamside reports from the Rocky Mountains to Japan’s Hokkaido Island. (“With deft storytelling and poetic prose, Kurt Fausch conveys the mystery and magic of flowing waters.” — Sandra Postel).

And just published, here’s two more good books on water in the West:

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Trout Culture: How Fly Fishing Forever Changed the Rocky Mountain West, a fascinating environmental history by Jen Corrinne Brown, and Rivers, Fish and the People: Tradition, Science, and Historical Ecology of Fisheries in the American West, a collection of Pacific Northwest studies, edited by Pei-Lin Yu, combining both traditional knowledge and recent scientific discoveries.

So there you have it, the most recent handful of essential books for a Western Watershed Library. One that we are planning to locate here:

The Lambing Barn at Buffalo Peaks Ranch, along the Middle Fork of the South Platte River. (photo by Berry Oliver)
The Lambing Barn at Buffalo Peaks Ranch, along the Middle Fork of the South Platte River. (photo by Berry Oliver)

With Buffalo Peaks Ranch lying so close to the South Platte River’s headwaters, water will always be a central theme to the Land Library’s resources and programs. Our planned River Hut will house a Watershed Library, full of books focused on one of the next century’s most critical natural resources.

We have been diligently gathering books on water in the American West, but we’ll also have water-related books from across the globe, including these two from Great Britain:


Simon Cooper’s Life of a Chalkstream, a lyrical look at one of England’s natural treasures: over 150 streams flowing wide, shallow and clear, thanks to the natural filter of headwater chalk hills. Plus: a British natural history classic, H. E. Bates’ Down the River, a journey along the River Nene and the River Ouse, full of flora, fauna, not to mention the keenly observed life of villages along the way.

For more on Buffalo Peaks Ranch’s future Watershed Library, take a glance at one of our past posts — full of wonderful books that will soon find a home on the banks of the South Platte River!

Headwaters to Plains, and Across the Globe

Headwaters to Plains, and Across Our Globe

panarama buff peaks

It’s been a very good summer along the Rocky Mountain Land Library’s emerging Headwaters to Plains Network. We are making progress on establishing an inner-city Denver library, one that will celebrate nature-in-the-city, and all the allied fields of urban homesteading.

At our headwaters site (on the banks of the South Platte River) we still have a few more weeks to go in our first summer at Buffalo Peaks Ranch (pictured above). Over two hundred people have toured the ranch in the past few months, seeing first hand the hayloft that will soon be a Western History Library, the beautiful old lambing barn that will house a Natural History Library, and much more

We’re also making room for a special Watershed Library, full of books on water and watersheds. Water has always been one of the central themes of the Land Library, at both ends of the South Platte River. And “thinking like a watershed” seems like one of the very best ways of living on the land — just the right focus for all of us to celebrate the beauties, joys, and responsibilities of living on earth.

powell maploeffler

For us, Jack and Celestia Loeffler’s Thinking Like a Watershed: Voices from the West, is a book we have been waiting for. Through their interviews with writers, historians, farmers, tribal and community leaders, they uncover the resiliency we all need to face the environmental challenges ahead. Often the lessons learned in this book come from the past — from visionaries such as John Wesley Powell, whose Watershed Map (1890-91) is also pictured above.

Our Watershed Library is likely to be in the old gray steel sheds (on the right side of the ranch photo above). It will house wonderful books such as these:


The Platte: Channels in Time by Paul A. Johnsgard, along with many, many river & watershed stories from across the country, such as Daniel McCool’s comprehensive River Republic: The Fall and Rise of America’s Rivers.

As much as we need a Watershed Library today, we will need it even more in the years ahead. Water will surely be a central issue for the next century. That’s one of our motivations to continually add books such as these to our shelves:

Maude Barlow’s Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Forever, and one of our all-time favorite water books — this one’s for kids (and adults too): Our World of Water: Children and Water Around the World by Beatrice Hollyer.

We’re always looking for good ways to tell the water story. One way is to tell all the other stories well. For instance, when the Land Library helps tell the story of urban farming, we are also stressing the importance of fresh water. When we celebrate a watershed’s wildlife, we make the strong link to all the ecological benefits water bestows.

Here’s one last book that we especially love — a joyous collection of riparian writings from England:


Caught by the River: A Collection of Words on Water, edited by Jeff Barrett and Robin Turner, featuring Roger Deakin, Chris Yates, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, and Irvine Welsh, among others.

For more on the long ties of water, people and the land, learn about it from the ancient perspective:

— Throughout Time

Throughout Time

thirst mediumfagan

Ever since the Neolithic, the world has had an unquenchable thirst for water. Meeting that need was a key driver of social, economic and political change within the ancient world, one that played a fundamental role in both the rise and then fall of ancient civilizations. That unquenchable thirts continues today, perhaps more desperate than it ever has been before.” — Steven Mithen

Scientists estimate that 75 percent of the globe will face freshwater shortages by 2050. Clearly water is one of the great emerging issues of our time, and here is a book that puts it in a much-needed historical context. Steven Mithen’s Thirst: Water and Power in the Ancient World explores more than 10,000 years of man’s management of one of the most vital substances on earth.

Some civilizations fell, others engineered solutions, but all had much in common. Steven Mithen:
Concern about water…is something that we share with the ancient Maya, Hohokam and Chinese. Those who built the canals in the Yellow River Valley of China, the Salt River Basin of Arizona, in the rainforests around Edzna and Angkor, and in the Tigris-Euphrates alluvial plain did so thousands of years apart, with no knowledge of each other and within completely different cultures. But they all shared similar ideas, plans and physical labours; they addressed the same questions about gradients and where to place head-gates; they found the same solutions imposed by the common properties of water and then engaged in the same fights against the accumulation of silt and protection against floods.

Steven Mithen’s new book joins the Land Library’s collection of water books with a historic bent — books such as Brian Fagan’s Elixir: A Human History of Water (also pictured above), and the works of Kenneth R. Wright:

mesa verdemachu picchu
The Water Mysteries of Mesa Verde by Kenneth R. Wright, Machu Picchu: A Civil Engineering Marvel by Kenneth R. Wright, Alfredo Valencia Zegarra, Ruth M. Wright, and Gordon Francis McEwan.

Our understanding of Machu Picchu as an exemplary feat of hydraulic engineering is thanks to the work of Kenneth R. Wright. He first visited Machu Picchu in 1974 with his wife, Ruth, returning in 1994 to begin an intensive study of how the Inca hydraulic system worked.” — Steven Mithen

Tipon: Water Engineering Masterpiece of the Inca Empire by Kenneth R. Wright, Gordon Francis McEwan, and Ruth M. Wright, and Moray: Inca Engineering Mystery by Kenneth R. Wright, Ruth M. Wright, Alfredo Valencia Zegarra, and Gordon Francis McEwan.

For many more essential books on water and water management, be sure to take a look at some of our past posts!

And here’s a bit more from Professor Steven Mithen:

The Issue for Our Time?


“At the Toronto Film Festival, program director Thom Powers called Last Call at the Oasis a “feel-angry movie,” which he later amended to “feel-smart movie.” I was rather partial to both labels, since they emphasize the “feel” part. We wanted to make Last Call an emotional film as well as an educational one. One hope was for people to connect viscerally and personally to the water crisis. We wanted to bring water problems into the open, to show the impact on the lives of real people — to bring oft-hidden abstractions into the light of day where we can finally see what’s going on.” — Director Jennifer Yu

Less than 1% of the world’s water is fresh and drinkable, and thanks to drought, climate change, waste, and population growth, water is likely to be the most critical global issue for many years to come. On May 4th, a new documentary film from Academy Award winning director Jennifer Yu takes on the complexities of water in our lives. A companion book, Last Call at the Oasis: The Global Water Crisis and Where We Go From Here, has just been released, and features the analysis of scientists, policymakers, and writers such as Peter H. Gleick, Robert Glennon, Alex Prud’homme, and William McDonough. Reading this collection has put Jennifer Yu’s forthcoming film on our must-see list!

Knowing how central water is to our lives and future, the Land Library has slowly build up a considerable collection on this issue. We’ve especially focused on studies of North American watershed and rivers. Books such as these:

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River in Ruin: The Story of the Carmel River by Ray A. March (only thirty-six miles long, this California river is also one of the top ten endangered rivers in North America), and The Mightier Hudson: The Spirited Revival of a Treasures Landscape by Roger D. Stone (building a new economy around the health of the river).

elwhario grande
And from the Pacific Northwest, Finding the River: An Environmental History of the Elwha by Jeff Crane, and from the Southwest, Reining in the Rio Grande: People, Land, and Water by Fred M. Phillips, G. Emlen Hall, and Mary E. Black.

And here’s the subject of one of our earlier posts, and one of four books selected for the Water 2012 Book Club:

colorado river
The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict by Peter McBride and Jonathan Waterman.

“From the beginning, I was fascinated by the whole psychology behind the water crisis. Problems such as drought, pollution, contamination, competition for resources, and privatization aren’t new; they’ve existed since before civilization….In the movie, we wanted to explore this paradoxical behavior: Why don’t we act in ways that are in our own self-interest, especially when it comes to something as crucial as water?” — Director Jennifer Yu

Water 2012 & Beyond

water matters

It’s common knowledge that you can survive for weeks without food. But how long can you survive without water? A few days, at most. Human beings are mostly water and our planet is mostly water — indeed Earth is often called the ‘water planet,’ its blue seas and white cloudy mists forming the dominant features we see from space.
Yet in many ways water is scarce. Ninety-seven percent of the planet’s water is undrinkable seawater, and most of the rest is locked up in glaciers and ice caps, or falls in romote places. Even so, we’d have enough water if we hadn’t invented a staggering list of ways to pollute and squander our birthright.
” Bill McKibben, in Water Matters.

Several organizations, including the Rocky Mountain Land Library, have joined together to celebrate our most precious natural resource. We’re still in the planning stages, but Water 2012 will be a year-long collaborative effort to promote awareness of the history, use, protection, and stewardship of Colorado’s water. Over the next few months, the Land Library will determine the best way we can contribute to this needed effort. (If you have ideas, please let us know!).

As of now, here’s three contributions we hope to make for Water 2012:

— The Land Library’s Rocky Mountain Land Series (in partnership with the Tattered Cover Book Store) will pay special attention to new books on water issues — we’re all ready seeing some excellent titles on the horizon!

— We have also created a new Water category for our blog-archives, and we’ll be doing many more posts on water in the West, its impact across the globe, and in our lives.

— Lastly, for now, we hope to add even more water titles to what is already one of the largest subject categories in the Land Library’s 25,000 volume collection.

Throughout the next many months, the Land Library hopes to learn much, much more about this critical issue. Stay tuned for more on Water 2012 and beyond!

Meanwhile, here are just a few of the books we’re already pulled from our shelves. Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource, edited by Tara Lohan (and pictured above) is an excellent place to begin. This collection gathers together essays by writers such as Maude Barlow, Barbara Kingsolver, Jacques Leslie, Bill McKibben, Sandra Postel, Elizabeth Royte, and more. A partial list of the essays included hints at the range of this thoughtful anthology: Why We Need a Water Ethic, Water in Myth & Religion, Acequias: Water Democracy in the U.S., A Short History of Dams, and Making Water a Human Right — all themes that we’ll return to in the year ahead.

And here’s a few more indispensable titles from the Land Library’s shelves:

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Water: The Epic Struggle for Water, Power, and Civilization by Steven Solomon, Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About it by Robert Glennon, Dry Spring: The Coming Water Crisis of North America by Chris Wood

Ogallala Blue: Water and Life on the High Plains by William Ashworth, Water Consciousness: How We All Have to Change to Protect Our Most Critical Resource, edited by Tara Lohan, Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water by Maude Barlow.

“Anything else you’re interested in is not going to happen if you can’t breathe the air and drink the water. Don’t sit this one out. Do something. You are by accident of fate alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet.” — Carl Sagan, quoted in Water Matters.

Caught in the Gyre


In David de Rothschild’s book, Plastiki — Across the Pacific on Plastic: An Adventure to Save Our Oceans, he writes about the five great oceanic gyres, especially the North Pacific Gyre, twice the size of Texas, which concentrates 3.5 million tons of discarded plastic. He also offers this chilling definition of a gyre’s grim hold on our plastic wastes: “A gyre is a place where currents meet and form a whirlpool type system — this forms a meeting place for ocean debris. Millions of tiny and large pieces of plastic accumulate here; due to the currents they remain trapped, breaking down over time to become smaller and smaller pieces of plastic until they eventually become plastic dust. This ‘dust’ will never go away but will instead stay in the ocean accumulating toxins and working its way into the food chain as more animals digest these invisible and dangerous items of plastic waste.

Plastiki also reports this astounding incident:

Did junk food kill a 36-foot gray whale that washed up dead on a beach near Seattle in May 2010? Biologists aren’t sure whether the whale mistook garbage for food or accidentally swept it in during normal feeding, but when they cut open its stomach, here’s what they found: 5 lengths of fabric, 2 lengths of duct tape, 1 sock, 3 feet of electrical tape, 1 sweatpant leg, 1 golf ball, 2 towels, fishing line, 15 inches of green rope, 1 Capri-Sun juice packet, 3 feet of nylon rope, 1 red plastic cylinder, 2 grocery bags, 30 scraps of plastic bags.

Sad to say, Plastiki is full of the most depressing environmental news imaginable, but it’s also an incredibly inspiring book as well. The Land Library often goes to our own shelves for the pure inspiration of the remarkable lives of our fellow creatures. The following works of natural history gives us hope, and further fires our commitment to do a little less harm to this fragile planet of ours. What a world this is, to contain lives such as these!

The Great Sperm Whale: A Natural History of the Ocean’s Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creatures by Richard Ellis (his latest book, after a lifetime of whale studies), The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea by Phillip Hoare, The Grandest of Lives: Eye to Eye with Whales by Douglas Chadwick.

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Gray Whale, artwork by Richard Ellis