Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Ditch, la Acequia, Mayordomo

It took me the better part of two weeks to appreciate the ditch.  The ditch is unassuming and easily passes beyond notice.  Without the ditch, there would be little reason to be here.  Or fewer reasons.  But it's fruitless to think about life without the ditch.  And the ditch is only of many.  To think I traveled 2300 miles for a ditch, to sit and reflect at the end of the day that a ditch is behind this X-Country Adventure, and that behind that ditch there is a river, a river sunk of its water, a diverted river, a river broken into pieces, a river with forced branches, a river whose ever finer streams course into space-age plastic tapes and finally peep into the earth through pin holes.   This is how the Embudo river finds itself off course, in the fields of those who demand that it should be so.  The river makes no demands.  Demands are only made upon it.  At the tail-end of my time on this farm, I finally found a couple afternoon hours to roam the banks of the ditch.  They are man-made banks and spangled with poison ivy, and so I did not roam very far.  Nonetheless, here is the ditch that runs along the bottom of the slope, the arid slope, behind this farm.

In this picture you can barely even see the ditch, la acequia, because its banks are entirely overgrown with water-loving plants.  As I said, the ditch easily passes beyond notice, though if you were to climb the slope which lies just beyond the left-hand side of this picture, if you were to climb even 50 feet up that slope, the ditch itself would completely vanish from view, but the produce of the ditch, the abundance of lush foliage it affords would become totally apparent.  For all you know, this photo could be of some stream in Vietnam.  But it's not.  We are still in New Mexico, still thinking about the ditch.  We are facing up-ditch.  Let's turn around and face down-ditch.  (I am reminded of the expression: "face down in the ditch.")

Here you can see the irrigation ditch much more clearly.  To the the left-hand side of this photo are the small farms that this ditch serves; to the right-hand side is, again, the arid slope.  If you think that I repeat myself, I do, but I repeat myself because the ditch is the fine line between abundance and death.  The lushness of the foliage around the ditch would not be so without the ditch.  Without the ditch, it would look like this:

The last time I hiked up the slope behind the ditch, I thought to myself, "Life congregates around life."  The more life there is, the more life there is: the more sparse the vegetation, the more sparse the animals, the more sparse the insects, the more sparse the life in general.  This seemed to make sense in the hills, but I was wrong.  The truth is that life congregates around water, but humans are willful animals, but plants are willful too.  Up in the arid hills, plants protect their water rights by putting on wicked defenses: spikes, thorns, needles, sappy tight foliage and foliage that retreats to its roots until the water comes again.  The only time the plants of the arid slope give access to their water is when they must give access in the form of fruit.  (The animals of the arid slope depend upon the rare fruit.)  The story is not much different down below where the water has been diverted, and the humans down there who have worked to divert it defend their captured water just as fiercely as the plants above them do.  

Here is a patch of flower garden at the foot of the slope, a patch through which runs a shallow trench that is fed by the ditch.  These cosmos are not native here; they have been brought by the human farmers.  This, mind you, is only a garden at the back of the house.  The majority of the ditch water is channeled into a tank and from there it is dispersed into the fields by a pump through a system of hoses whose diameters gradually diminish, just as the gauge of the river gradually diminishes as it moves from river, to ditch, to hoses.  The overall system of water here can be understood as one of finer and finer veins.  What begins large and incomprehensible is, through human endeavor, refined into smaller and smaller streams until its value has been spent and transformed.  If you are interested in learning more about the ditches of New Mexico and their cultural history and importance, you can pick up Stanley Crawford's book, Mayordomo.  It is 230 pages about the life of one irrigation ditch, an acequia, in northern New Mexico.  It will defend the statement I made that the people who live below the ditch (and who depend upon it) defend their water rights just as tenaciously as the plants who inhabit the rocks, clay and stones of the arid slope above them.   I recommend it with all my thirsty tenacity.   

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