Water Work

Joseph McElroy

Mayordomo: Chronicle of an Acequia in Northern New Mexico
Stanley Crawford
University of New Mexico Press, 1993
243 pp., $18.95 paper

Far Tortuga
Peter Matthiessen
Vintage Books, 1988
416 pp., $16.95 paper

In a time of water emergencies everywhere every week, of giant floods, continental drought, images virtually statistical of the Pacific Ocean circulating plastic in a tightly cohesive looping swath thousands of miles long, where do we turn to get a grasp of the crisis? It’s a maze, an unrelenting moment of parched forests where animals and plants are surprised to be newly extinct and men fish all night for what’s left; great rivers ambitiously dammed, but unwisely, we now see; and our own Colorado exhausting its waters as they run down to the Gulf, yielding less and less of a contracted share to states they pass through, the farmers besieged by West Coast cities thirsting for their water rights. To say nothing of this polemically, bewilderingly technical time of a Supreme Court ruling that a “creek” full of lead, zinc, and oil in Alabama is not covered by the Clean Water law. So perhaps to refresh my thought, if not to save the day, I find myself turning to small-scale comings and goings.

Two American books of the last generation with apparently little in common but water still speak to me and, in the strange neighborhood of my mind, to each other— Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga (1975) and Stanley Crawford’s Mayordomo (1988): one, a novel about a boat hunting the great green turtles, what’s left of them, in the Caribbean fishery—farming the sea, we like to say; the other, a nonfiction account of a small irrigation ditch fed from a river in a northern New Mexico valley, a one-year chronicle of this acequia, which anciently means both the channel and the association of members who share it and maintain it.

“Small-scale” seems hardly Matthiessen, best-selling seafarer, Himalayan trekker, naturalist, and anthropologist; yet sea, sky, and lives draw in upon this Cayman Islands schooner like the close-ups of oil slicks, an oar blade grating against “dead coral,” “slops [dumped] into … clear water [so] the stain rolls.” And nearer still are the voices we come to know aboard this 59-foot sail- and diesel-powered vessel, Lillias Eden, in dangerously poor repair and with a dubious crew (“goin to sea!”): poor blacks, from the irascible, driven Captain Raib Avers, prowling the deck, a skilled harpooner holding stubbornly with experience and control, to the eight or nine others, the strong one, Byrum, in clean khakis working, and the weaker, garrulous, raffish, drunk, ranting, threatening men passing the time on the way to the turtling grounds, reflecting on a supposedly better time and on seamanship, sex, impoverished and dispersed families, estranged fathers and sons, this job—the knowledge of the waters, what lies beneath them, the turtles grazing while the light is right, their epic eyesight, the eight-hundred-pounders you don’t see anymore, navigation better than a bird’s. Also, the famous turtlers of the “backtime.” Also, the reading of dreams, the gross pathos of “anything black, dat is bad luck” and “Green things … or silver money or colored folks”; but to dream “about a white person” is good luck, “white clear water”—but if, while putting out the nets, “you don’t feel no sign in your hand,” you next day will “find a water set, cause dey nothing in dose nets but water.”

Things later falling apart. And for all the mess and rot, the roaming, the catch and butchering cruelty, overloaded immigrant boats passing across this desert of water, famished pirates, the destitute beyond hope of a share—a share of what? Still, it is an inward elegy of composition, even of ravishing beauty, its impressions arresting, a meditation.

Also about a traditional relationship to water, Stanley Crawford’s Mayordomo, with its method, core, and social persistence stands in unassuming but significant contrast to Far Tortuga. Mayordomo became Crawford’s title when he was elected by the acequia in March of 1985 for a term as manager of the irrigation ditch; later it became his title for his book about being mayordomo. An educated Anglo in a mainly Hispanic working-class community, his job to hire the crew of below-minimumwage ditchdiggers, schoolkids, seventyyear- olds—thirty-strong the first day, thirteen missing the second. The annual, messy tasks of clearing the watercourse section by section will prove yearlong and endless work: cutting back willows, building up banks, digging out constricting grass, “sandbars to shovel out on the inside of bends … to keep the [serpentine] ditch wide and deep enough to accept the rolling tongue of water, clogged with leaves and twigs, muddy and white foamed, that will race down the three- or four-foot-wide channel” when the gates are opened.

Crawford is always on call to attend to the small emergencies. Delays in getting “a backhoe down from a village ten miles up the mountain” after a flood that “threw up a roll of gravel and rocks into the mouth of the ditch,” repairing a small dam “which everyone here (except myself) has done … since the time they were kids,” cutting up limbs of a “cottonwood rotten at the base” that “has fallen conveniently over the mouth of the ditch.” Through the year, water is present “like some creature” and is everywhere in Crawford’s book, yet elusive, passive in its power to be subordinate to other things if it ever had any inherent power. Crawford finds himself growing to be part of the ditch—he will not work a small crew “half to death to prove something … that this is work or that I am in charge. The ditch itself will pace our labors.” Clearing the channel is clearing the water; an aesthetic seems to surface, of tight work with others and water use.

The ditch unfolds again and again, three miles of it, place by place. “A mayordomo has to deal with people whole, often angry … regarding a commonplace substance that can inspire passion like no other …” A heavy from another acequia who may give you water if you need it but not as your right. Violent dialogue. Silent dialogue, “the eyes of [a very young crew member telling me] I am a newcomer upstart here” (not true, Crawford’s been here longer than he has). Internal dialogue of this mayordomo man who likes to talk and likes silence, acknowledges “two schools of thought,” putting a lot of water into the ditch the first two days of the season or only a little; rejecting wryly, stubbornly both options in favor of a medium amount.

In turn, two sides of Crawford, who, sometimes “the only gringo on the crew,” rediscovers through his acequia water relationships seasons of his own personal year: summers, working with his Hispanic neighbors outside; winters, spending time with Anglos inside. And writing, which he has earned. Remembering Kafka’s “The Burrow” as he reflects on often destructive animals, interfering yet perverse partners: a muskrat staring him in the face, maybe pretending not to know what he is; dambuilding beavers with legendary teeth if you think of reaching into a mass of branches to unclog the ditch. Crawford, right here where he lives, hears like his own voice one night when it rains, “the skies … saying that as soon as we all managed to cooperate among ourselves … there would be enough water for everyone.”

From the sky comes the water it is said we have a natural right to, wherever it has cycled up or down from, the sea, mountain snowmelt. That grandeur, not of special interest to Crawford, lurks like faith in the dimensions of Matthiessen’s voice. At dawn “stars fail” above the Eden as she beats across a channel, “the sky filled with pale light” watched by the men, a “rim of fire … where the corona clings to the horizon”; and so often to the squeak and bang of the hull straining, and “wind and waves … lost” on the reef, and “no time, no space, but only the chaotic rush of the dark universe” that to glimpse the men of this crew described once in a great while (though on an early page the ship’s manifest listing them all with information printed out feels more like dramatis personae) is to be reminded that their vivid, though also strange presence so convincing after the early pages is created mainly through dialogue. Across the “bleak ocean” it’s the voices of the men talking that most strike the reader. If we pay attention we know who speaks, but the talk is almost never ascribed. The mens’ faceless voices persist, continuous as the Caribbean waters, distinct and fresh.

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