Water Work

Joseph McElroy

This is Matthiessen’s most effective fiction because of the strangely prevailing dialogue, the concrete abstraction of these voices, the scattering gaps into which we are drawn somewhere between its effect and a physically fully framed scene which Matthiessen mostly does not do. The voices pointed as can be, yet adrift and free as a force and also, fluid and solvent like water, their smallness in the history they tell and its decline. The scary, unpredictable moment- by-moment dismembering of the voyage, while the snatches of dialogue go on, like closeness, eddying sounds, joke, lament (“ain’t people any more”), dialect, hunger, beauty for these men, weather, “de wind in de reefs,” a wide sea that breeds, while against its unknowing (“Green turtle very mysterious, mon”) we have its offhand survivors casually slitting the white throat of the great animal that blinks (“best cotch turtles one time in dis life just so you know it”), burning holes into flippers with a poker—“ a quick sweet stink of flesh” so they can be “lashed tight across the belly,” though some of these turtles are dumped helpless overboard for some other special enemy, who “bite de head off” but “give up den and go way ... cause dat turtle head is still openin and closin inside of de shark, de way de turtle do when you chop his head off.”

And what exactly is this great turtling tradition we’re told of now to be curtailed (in the early 1970s) by new “Spanish” regulations, the best of the fisheries soon to be off limits to Cayman boats? It is a siltclogged estuary delta near the Nicaragua Honduras border along the Miskita Coast where Raib in search of the customs post upriver to register and be legal tries to take a catboat in with the tide falling, deep mud grounding them. Raib rails against bad boat-making and the river, but he has no reason to be angry at nature, Stanley Crawford recalls: anger comes only from dealings with other men.

No two coasts are equal, even fractal measurements prove that now. Yet all adventures are equal. Confronted with the prospect of radical change, Crawford thinks his way through the meanings of the promised new State adjudication of acequia water rights. Traditionally a share entitles a parciante to take water from the ditch a certain number of hours a week, the amount of water available to the acequia from the river, a variable given the year and other realities. Water and land go together under the old Spanish law, and a parciante could not transfer or sell one separately from the other. Under adjudication a share of this obviously variable amount of water would become a fixed share measured in acre feet of a whole regional system, in fact a commodity that can be rented or leased in a huge market unrelated to the acequia it was attached to. What was held in common by oral agreements can now be held privately. A parciante without water rights is no longer a parciante. In effect, adjudication, clearer than the old, sometimes “myopic” law based on common sense, would destroy the civic institution of the acequia unique in its democratic autonomy. These alternatives aren’t that simple, Crawford figures. But for him, having “worked to become a neighbor,” the thousand acequias in New Mexico make a “web of almost microscopic strands and filaments that have held a culture and a landscape in place for hundreds of years.” His thought will take him further still, and, companioning it, usher in a climactic, perhaps surprising, de-emphasis to come.

It meets us everywhere these last couple of decades, and we it more than halfway. “Water brings the distant near”—“Water’s a personal thing”—“What does water look like?” observes the New York visual artist, Roni Horn, among the upward of five or six hundred numbered “footnotes” that in, it seems, deliberately hard-to-read small print line the lower margins of fifteen magnificent and disturbing photographs of water hanging in one room of her recent show at the Whitney Museum. Water like mountains seen from above. Textured like lava. Or all fluid surface seductively close, or camouflaged reflections—their anonymous planes threateningly leaden and coldly immediate. Polluted with metaphor, too, for “Water is the master verb: an act of perpetual relation,” the insights (“Water is sexy”) go on and on, rich yet self-indulgent, often leaving out what might responsibly follow from a putative idea as in fact Horn inserts each footnote number codelike and nearly invisible into the photo above as if keying the footnote to explain the corresponding wave, ripple, fold, trough, dot or turn of light. Water, all there, palpable, potent— yet the artist has to tell us in subtitles and often in footnotes that it’s the Thames. Is it some cachet or rescue words have for this visual artist? To redeem the water from its unsustainable silence, repeatedly in fact telling us what a magnet the Thames is for suicides, “a self-entrance to simply not being here.”

So that while I ponder her amplifying words against what Matthiessen leaves out in order to sustain his own beautifully alone voices, I’m reminded by the visual artist’s death theme of the novelist’s epigraph: “Death, Thou comest When I had Thee least in mind,” from the fifteenth-century play Everyman.

It is a secular death of Nature we are bringing about, and the art of Far Tortuga shows both large-scale and humanly smallscale catastrophe whether it says Yes or No. Darkly, shiningly, heartbreakingly—and in lyrical resignation which is, thus, just short of thinking through more fully what has gone wrong, what we are looking at.

A small-boat subsistence sometimes. Almost a living. “I no farmer,” says Captain Raib’s engineer, proud, rootless, with a liking for the violence of “soldierin” in Colombia. Another crewmember has fond memories of some land and a cow in the Bay Islands, “Have your own ground.” Another, “I know practically everything dat grows, cause I were reared up in de island, and by dat I come to know things.”

We can know about most things if we are committed to knowing. Curious that Stanley Crawford finds not only that acequias, these half man-made, half natural “features of the landscape,” are structures of considerable beauty, but that the aesthetic aspects of farming are as important to him as the utilitarian ones. Writing in the mid- 1980s, when few members of his acequia make their living by farming, Crawford finds water’s real value in “keeping our communities together ...”; to this, “even agricultural use may be secondary.” Thus, perhaps he has arrived at his partly aesthetic view of water through his valuing of community and of people.

What can this seriously matter at a time of material emergency around the Earth? An answer can be found in E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful (1973), the early chapter “Buddhist Economics.”

Coming off County Route 48 at Mattituck Inlet, Long Island, driving or walking, you might hardly notice beyond the parking lot and off to the left of the boat ramp a new swale of grasses sloping down to the water: drought- and flood-tolerant Switchgrass; hardy wetland Marsh Mallow; Turtlehead, which attracts butterflies; and Little Bluestem grasses grown locally. These and other plants, including the dominant phragmites that require managing, form a newly graded buffer zone to take the overflow of toxic stormwater runoff with its salts and petroleum products from the highway and in effect clean it—of its nitrogen, phosphorus, and fecal coliform bacteria— before it enters the inlet, where the pollution had long threatened wildlife and shellfish. The intervening parking lot itself has been repaved with a permeable surface of recycled glass. This and a bluestone substrate take most of the runoff but far from all.

Interpretive signs near the water’s edge identify flora, birds, aspects of the design. I’m lucky enough to hear it from the person largely responsible for the WATERWASH project, Lillian Ball, an environmental artist who has been working with water for thirty years. A sculptor, botanist, photographer, a deeply knowledgeable spirit who worked hard to interest local government in backing the project, she has shaped a whole place that speaks in collaboration with her and with us. She raised the public money principally from the Long Island Sound Futures Fund, designed the project herself, and brought in contractors and helpers, many of them young students.

I visited the WATERWASH “opening” in early November 2009. Not a gallery. Much more. There’s an osprey nest and a mating couple now, mallards, egrets, and black-backed gulls again. Are the monitoring stations established in this saltwater inlet by the Department of Environmental Conservation recording lower pollution levels? It’s too early to know.

Is this our life? An example of coherence, economy, self-sustaining improvisation as life? If so, in some rough and changing manifold is it beautiful? As a complicated, hardly independent event made in ways that would educate and sustain and surprise us—if we look, is it beautiful?

The author of nine novels and a forthcoming volume of short fiction, Night Soul and Other Stories, Joseph McElroy is completing a non-fiction book about water. He lives in New York City.

Image: A map of Crawford’s acequia in northern New Mexico

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