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Book Review: River of Lost Souls

by John C. Shepard, ACIP; Planning Manager, Archuleta County

I remember the Orange Tang of the Animas River running through Durango, Colorado, and on down to Aztec and Farmington, New Mexico, in August 2015. Where normally kayakers and fly fishermen joust with tubers and swimmers, the river coursed with the mineral runoff of Silverton’s shuttered Gold King Mine, zinc, cadmium, aluminum arsenic, and iron hydroxides let loose by an EPA remediation team.

Jonathan Thompson, a writer who grew up in Durango, stood on a bridge and watched for the river to turn orange as the slug of mine waste ran through the heart of his hometown. The environmental disaster seems a natural fit for the one-time editor at High Country News, a respected regional journal with a well-practiced environmental bent. Yet rather than use the one-off event to self-promote and evangelize as an “I told you so” moment, Thompson takes the Gold King incident and puts it in the context of over a millennia of human settlement in the Four Corners region.

As part elegy, part ode, and all based on practiced journalism, the River of Lost Souls—el Rio de las Animas Perdidas—is a love story to the Animas Valley and the communities of Silverton and Durango to the north and south. This is a love story to the San Juan Mountains and the river valleys flowing from them, the place where Thompson grew up, where his parents and grandparents and great-grandparents generations back decided to sink roots. This is a love story to the Ancestral Puebloans and Dine and Utes who came first, the miners and farmers and ranchers who came later, and the diverse crowds who call Southwest Colorado home today.

It’s easy to see why readers on the Colorado Plateau—Southwest Colorado, Northwest New Mexico, Arizona, Utah—would want to read this book, to better understand the place we’ve chosen as home. Why would folks in Denver or Greeley or points east care? Most of Colorado’s population (and our planners) live on the Front Range, while most of Colorado’s water is located on the Western Slope. As we well know, water often has much more to do with land use than our best multi-color land use plan. River of Lost Souls is a fascinating story and contemplation of water, our natural environment, and how we can do better building the places we love.
 

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