On a sweet April morning, I went out to clean a ditch. I don’t irrigate, or live on a ditch, since I live in Taos proper, but my friend Phaedea has one. Or rather, she’s on one – the Acequia Atalaya, through which the waters of the Rio Hondo flow. Tradition still rules in northern New Mexico’s unique acequia culture, where formerly, every community had its acequia madre, or mother ditch, which fed the smaller ditches, or linderos. In this way, everyone had running water, albeit not exactly in the house and not exactly every day. Stories from the old-timers indicate water in the ditch was so clean you could drink it and in some places, clean enough or not, this is still the main source of water.
In some ways, much has changed, and in other ways, little. Water still glistens when the gates are opened to flood the greening fields, and life-giving water still flows in the ditches. A ditch meeting, held the week before the spring cleanup to discuss problems and camages, now has Anglos and women in almost equal numbers as men. One ski-instructor-cum-carpenter friend told me that 20 years ago he went to his first ditch meeting with a translator, since he didn’t then speak Spanish.
Ditch cleaning is a little like being in the army — except that if you can’t do your part, you may get a proxy. Helping my friend for half a day means that she can get off the hook for the afternoon, make me lunch and edit my writing.
Like life, the least you can do is show up. In the old days, both land and water were shared communally. Agua es (still) vida, as the saying goes: water is life. If you want a field of alfalfa or the taste of green peas in August, you better pitch in. If you are not by nature good-hearted, social and monetary pressure will require you to help anyway.
In the good old days, say, 300 years ago, acequia culture provided a kind of social security. God, the priest and the mayordomo were your higher authorities, and you knew your corresponding responsibilities. In those days, the acequia was also a large part of social, political and religious life. This system of politics, engineering and law sprang from Mediterranean and Moorish roots and was translated and transplanted into what was to become New Mexico. Spanish newcomers extended and enlarged the system already in place among Pueblo people. New communities sprang up in a land of little rain. Having water meant you could grow food and you got to eat. By now we’ve progressed far from that, so far that most of us couldn’t say where our garbage goes, who grows our food or where our water comes from.
I decided it was time to get my nose out of books and get my hands dirty. I pull my car to the side of the highway down the road from Herb’s grocery and bar and sip the last of my Sunday morning coffee. It’s a perfect New Mexico day — the sky is impeccably blue, the air clear like cybervision, meadowlarks sing, fruit trees blossom and the mountains I’ve skied on all winter still wear their mantle of melting snow.
But it’s all downhill from there. Like skiing, aceqias are all about gravity, but that’s where the similarity ends. Two dozen sleepy folks stand off the side of the highway, leaning on the backs of pickup trucks or on their shovels. This is my favorite part: shovel-leaning. We sign in with the mayordomo, sort of like the boss on a chain-gang, and we split up. Our group contains Phaedra, local reporter; Cliff, acequia treasurer; Al, ex-Berkeleyite sheep-grower-turned-website-designer; Jacob, local kid taking his grandpa’s turn at the shovel; and me, gringa graduate student. We throw our tools in the back of Cliff’s pickup truck and climb in.
We drive off down the highway and turn onto dirt roads, cruising Hondo’s assorted neighborhoods of megahouses with fabulous windows and arte moderne sculptures in the yard, while ancient adobes melt into the earth, recycling themselves, and still other homes sport yard art like old pickups or assorted pieces of farm equipment. So far, I like this job. I love the wind in my hair, and, like any Taos County dog, I think it’s cool to get all the smells for free without having to walk a lick. I read the landscape with my nose: sage, to me, is the state smell of New Mexico. It evokes deep feelings of happiness and longing.
Unfortunately there’s more to cleaning a ditch than shovel-leaning, shooting the breeze, talking trash about your neighbors and cruising in the back of a pickup truck. We set off across the pasture, climb into the ditch which extends beyond us, snaking and winding its way across a sere land, crawling under pines, winding and straightening. Together we begin scraping the sides, clearing and digging; the ditch loses its winter’s debris like a snake shedding its skin.
The ditch winds onward and downward, since water goes where gravity goes. What a marvel of instinct and engineering — to figure out where to dig a ditch and avoid any uphill battles.
The sun-drenched morning soon leaves me warm and thirsty. I hop out of the trough to shed my jacket. From where I stand, the others look like they have been planted in the earth. I heard that the traditional cry of “Vuelta!” (which I thought was a dance step) was what you yelled when changing positions. I am being sent to the front. First I take a swig from my water bottle and holler “Budweiser!” which admittedly invites a stronger response than “vuelta.” We all have to change with the times.
I wonder if anyone notices how hard I’m not working. I wish I’d put hand lotion underneath my work gloves. I pick up a couple of lacy tumble weeds and toss them delicately over the side of the bank. I am trying to emulate everyone else’s professional methods, so I won’t look like a greenhorn. They cut and toss long grasses, remove dead branches and weeds. Part of my work on my graduate degree has been studying ritual and religion, and how this relates to nature. As a wannabe PhD, I simply must know the significance of throwing detritus westward.
“The wind’s blowing from the other direction,” says Al.
“That wasn’t in my ditch-cleaning manual,” I tell him and he grins. I’ve seen that look before on the faces of people who don’t believe PhDs know how to pour water out of a boot.
As I practice my shovel-leaning technique, high clouds move slowly over the greening land. I clear my throat and say, rather dramatically, that I am writing a paper titled “Holy Water, Holy Wars: Water and Religion in Northern New Mexico,” and that it is about about human constructs of nature and how spirituality impacts the policy, consciousness and politics of water use in our bioregion. I intend to supplant postmodern theory with a dose of reality.
“It’s simple,” interrupts Cliff. “Water is religion.”
“No,” says Al, “Religion is water.”
As Jacob and I fight our way through willows, I discover that he is only 14, actually an underage worker. I threaten to report him to the acequia authorities. He reassures me that he has an official excemption, has been properly supervised and, he says proudly, been pronounced a “hard worker.” He is old enough to do a man’s job. Al, who moved here 30 years ago, remarks that his kids couldn’t wait until they were old enough to work on the ditch. After that, though, the excuses to get out of it became more imaginative. Jacob tells me that he still has to go home and do some more irrigation work by their house, cover up gopher holds, and finish a five-page report on a U.S. president. Fortunately, he says, he has hand-picked his president — the one who only served a one-month term.
Jacob points over yonder to the field where he and his grandfather bucked a hundred bales of oats/alfalfa last year, netting something over $300. It’s hard to see how it’s worth it in terms of dollars and cents, except that now his animals have food for the winter. The concept of jobs has taken over traditional farming.
Meanwhile, Jacob has a long bus ride to Taos schools, but knows the fish in the nearby lake, where the deer lie down in the fields, and the paths they take. He has wild game in his freezer, hunts, and regales me with stories about the elk they killed last fall, and about a small bear that was tranquilized and “taken to a zoo or somewere” and about a moose that followed the Rio Grande down from Colorado, headed for Mexico, and had to be given a one-way ticket back. “I might pitch a tent out here,” he says, “and see what comes.
I think about my South Dakota farm cousins, and how things have changed since I was Jacob’s age. Instead of the variety of crops and animals everyone raised, farmers now ride $100,000 air-conditioned tractors to maintain thousand-acre mono-crops. I am busy lamenting these economic and cultural changes when a voice breaks my reverie: “In the old days, if you didn’t properly clean your section of the ditch, the ditchmaster made you do it over.”
The men lapse into talk of water rights, ditch meetings, land grants, adjudicated rights, and how one parciente scheduled toe surgery to coincide with ditch-cleaning time and couldn’t make it. I wipe beads of sweat from my forehead and ponder the meaning. Water is a complicated story, taking in history, law, geography, sciology and anthropology, just to name a few. Even after reading water law, policy and politics, I understand little of Al and Cliff’s conversation, but I do get the part about scheduling toe surgery.
Jacob and I begin to watch the clock, except that we have no clock. “Are we done yet?” I ask, modulating my voice carefully so as not to whine. After folding myself in half to fit through barbed wire fences, wading through thistles, and pulling thorns out of my skin, I’m ready for a break. At last the mayordomo yells, “Time for lunch!”
Cliff walks off toward home after working hard on a beautiful spring morning, carrying his shovel across his shoulders. The shovel looks good on him, I think, as we sit in the shade of a cottonwood to wait for him to bring back the truck. I glance toward the mountains, up the line of sight where the ditch comes from. It now has a cleaner line, an earthy elegance. I am anxious to see the acequia carrying cool water to the thirsty fields.
Maybe, I think, some of the rituals have been lost. Maybe we make our own. I still can’t articulate the mysteries of religion in northern New Mexico. Perhaps hard work is its own prayer, one that, at least in these parts, still gets answered.
— Graduate student / ski instructor / writer Michele Potter really is working on her doctorate in environmental studies.
This article appeared on page 24 of HighCountry 2000.