This is late summer. The squash plants are still blooming but they are also bearing fruit. Their huge leaves conceal sunshine colored flowers beneath their shade and soft ripening bodies of edible delight. The choke cherry tree on the west edge of my property is weighted down with dark red berries. In the early morning, I try to get there before the birds. But the truth is that after spending hours reaching up for them, I can easily justify leaving their mouths with a feast. After all, my brain echoes, there is a drought.
And then another mantra begins: the weather is changing. The weather is changing. The weather is always changing right? I mean, that’s why they say what they say about the weather. It changes, right. But now the changes are beyond the swing and sway of the seasons. In last month’s National Geographic another article about climate appeared. I don’t want to waste time on details that any reasonable or observant person already knows but essentially, where it is cold and wet things will get more so. What is hot and dry will continue to become more severe. I live in one of those hot, dry places. I migrate to a cold, wet one for most of the year. This means floods and storms, fires and drought. Not in a far off distant future: now.
The article also acknowledges that this climate driven instability will in turn create social and political unrest and chaos. The next week a local paper has their front page devoted to the “mega-drought” as they are now calling it. And sure enough, much of the article talks about farmers in the North Valley of Albuquerque who are having to fight, in courts, for their age old, generational rights to the water that has fed their trees for a decades.
The truth is, this is no longer an academic issue. In our state, New Mexico, water is about our very lives. I cannot say it plainly enough. The water that we use and the way that we use it speaks to the very fabric of our community and history. The acequia system in Northern New Mexico was brought here with the conquistadors and really comes from the Moors and from Africa. This unbroken and subtle line of connection across cultures and continents still sustains us. The acequia system is a community-based, community governed water network. Its power lies directly in the hands of its users who are reminded, in their participation, that they are not only neighbors but stewards of each other’s bounty. And because the rules and the rights of this water system lie in the hands of its constituents, it also lies outside of the rule or power of a state or federal government. How many such community-legitimized systems are governance are there left in this country?
And when I say “us” I don’t exactly mean myself. I am interstitial here. I am an anglo, born and raised on this soil, a part of the legacy of the 1960’s back to the land movement, but I am an outsider. I do not have generations of family here and I will always be a colonizer here because of my education, values and skin color. But nonetheless, I belong nowhere else.
However, no matter who you are in the puzzle, water rights are a central foundation of our identity as New Mexicans. And also, because this water, which sustains crops and fields, is derived from the seasons, rainfall and the changing weather, it is all the more fragile and precious. Most people who’ve lived here for a long time, live with that knowledge. Each spring, men and women pull out their shovels and pitchforks and clean each other’s ditches, praying for enough water to get them through to the monsoons. And the last few years, the monsoons have barely arrived. The snowfalls of winter have become less and less, leaving less water in the acequias and leaving plants hungry and fighting to survive.
It’s difficult to speak of this connection and this culture without sounding as if I am only romanticizing. And in many ways this relationship to land and water are lovely and poetic. But, water is very serious business here as well. During a summer afternoon, a friend of mine once accidentally forgot to close his gate, which meant that he was taking more than his allotted amount of water, thereby violating the social contracts with neighbors. He was arrested. With his young son playing in the yard, they hauled him away. This may seem trivial and sure, from the outside it does. But the truth is, it is a preview of the conflicts that will continue to arise as water becomes more and more scarce here in the desert.
But all of this is a preamble really. I have lived in this state my entire life and I have watched things change again and again. Anyone, from any small town in any part of the world could likely say the same thing. What concerns me is not the change; it is the loss. In the scope of my lifetime I have watched the monsoons dwindle and dissipate. I have become aware that it is harder and harder to grow our own food now on this land that, yes, has always been fragile but has nonetheless been enough to sustain valleys of orchards growing peaches, apples and alfalfa and hillsides that could support some cattle, and greenbelts by the water that carry the lives of birds, insects and all manner of wild plants.
It’s not just the water. The people who carry the memory of the bountiful desert are dwindling. People who know that there are long rainy nights here that soak dry earth and leave the most delicious coolness and comfort behind. Folks who carry the memory of wild plants thriving by roadsides, trees bent heavy with fruit, seasons that brought both warmth and cold, wet and dry in amounts that could be trusted and that could sustain generations. There was a rightness in the seasons that is barely hanging on. It is those spaces, that perhaps my children will never know, that grieve me most. Those seasons are now just memories. Sure, changes always happen and we adapt to them. From the outside this seems simple and practical.
I don’t know quite why I write this. I don’t have an answer. It is not a problem-solution story. It doesn’t move forward. My mind just keeps turning it over and over, as I watch clouds fill with rain over the mountains and then dissipate before they’ve left a drop on the ground.
And my prayers go something like, “Stay with us, dear rain. Stay with us, please, bountiful crops, just a little longer. Let the weathered faces of the men in the old trucks who lean on their fences and watch the water flow, continue to wake to lives that satisfy them. Let mothers put babies to breast under these mountains, knowing that their children will have enough, will have joy in their eyes.”
In the front of my car, late at night with a friend in Albuquerque, my eyes well up with tears. I think about the people in Australia and how the suicide rate has skyrocketed as the drought has become severe beyond belief. He gives me a hug. It feels a little better, to cry, to be seen. This land is a part of me, and I, of it. All other places I am only visiting.