An Irrigation Ditch Runs through It

Article excerpt

* All the way from Santa Fe, I am nervous about the ditch. You make a pilgrimage to a favored literary site, you set yourself up for disappointment. John Steinbeck's Cannery Row vanished long ago. A visit to Hannibal, Missouri, evokes Mark Twain less than it does musings about urban renewal. By the time I reach Stanley Crawford's farm, I'm fretful.

Stanley Crawford is a soft-spoken 60-year. old who raises garlic and writes books. He wrote Mayordomo, which is about an irrigation ditch and so much more. It is a volume I press on people if they show any interest in New Mexico, water, literature, or life.

"I was trying to write a novel," Crawford says of the book's genesis. "The fiction I was writing was less interesting than the life I was leading."

The life was one that Crawford and his wife, Rose Mary, adopted in the 1970s, when they moved to this mountain valley between Santa Fe and Taos. Having been expatriates in Europe for a few years, the Crawfords were hungry for community. Their new home - nameless in his books and therefore nameless here - was a traditional agricultural village. Residents viewed the newcomers with mixed feelings. As Crawford puts it, "They thought, 'Thank God, some young people are moving to the village. But you're not the right young people.'" Still, the Crawfords built an adobe house, began a farm, raised their children. They became accepted enough that Crawford was awarded a term as mayordomo - ditch boss - of the local irrigation ditch, the Acequia de la Jara. He says, "I felt totally out of my depth."

The book Mayordomo is about maintaining this acequia, one of a thousand irrigation ditches that for centuries have served as the centers of social organization in rural New Mexico. It is about gathering work crews of piones to reinforce banks and build dams and clear brush from desagues, or sluice gates; it is about allocating water among parciantes, or shareholders, so that each gets enough to irrigate his fields. But this is New Mexico, where water is as vital as blood. And so Mayordomo expands. It becomes a story not just about water but also about the gulfs between Hispanic and Anglo and young and old, about marriage and suicide and floods and droughts, about the joy that comes with succeeding at a job you feared yourself incapable of doing. …