stanley crawford, “the river in winter”

Stanley Crawford
The River in Winter: New and Selected Essays
(University of New Mexico Press, 2004)


A consequence of growing up in the rural Midwest is a sort of pragmatism when considering art. This isn’t a pragmatism that Peirce or James wouldn’t recognize; rather, it’s a need to know what something’s good for, if anything. There are two causes of this: first, an environment in which art doesn’t exist as a matter of course; and second, the Midwesterner’s deep-seated belief that they are normal. I left the Midwest a long time ago, but I still find this attitude in myself from time to time; I’m not very good at appreciating architecture, for example, in no small part because the buildings that I grew up with were functional and nothing more. It’s an attitude I find in my reaction to reading as well: wondering who would read anything comes naturally when you grow up in an environment where no one reads anything. Obviously, the Midwest is not a yardstick against which anything should be measured; but it’s hard to step outside yourself.

There’s thus something that I find reassuring in Stanley Crawford’s writing: a sense of balance between art and work. Crawford’s fiction doesn’t appear to have reached a very large readership, which is a shame, as he’s a fine writer: his novels are modest and have been spaced out across forty years, but each is distinct and inventive. In his non-fiction – Mayordomo and A Garlic Testament – a philosophy becomes more apparent. Crawford makes a living as a garlic farmer in New Mexico; it’s an occupation that he’s put as much thought into as his fiction. Crawford’s someone who’s thought a great deal about how he and his writing fit into the world: I find this easier to stomach than the Monsieur Teste-like figure that most contemporary writers cut. This isn’t the most reasoned response; it’s more instinctual than not, but it is there.

The River in Winter is not the sort of book of essays that one expects from a fiction writer: only one of the essays in this book, “The Village Novel,” has anything to do with fiction writing, and even there Crawford is oblique (his “village novel” is metaphorical rather than a book), pointing out that living successfully in a community (in his case, Dixon, New Mexico) largely precludes writing about it:

Writers who grow up hearing episodes and chapters of the village novel at the knees of parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles set out into the literary world with something far better than a formal education – but this is also the source of the grief they can suffer when they offer up the contents of the village novel as a real book, a novel. They will then be charged with betraying confidences and appropriating something that belongs to no one person, or for quite simply getting it all wrong. (p. 146)

Crawford’s concern in this book isn’t writing; rather, it’s about figuring out how to live. He adopts a “small is beautiful” stance, following E. F. Schumacher; he observes the natural world around him and the way that people live in it. A third of the book has to do with water, as did Mayordomo, his chronicle of his time spent running a community irrigation ditch; while that book was concerned with how one particular ditch was run, here his eye roves, considering the myriad forces at play controlling water rights (especially the longstanding water adjudication batter) in northern New Mexico:

The ultimate effect of the adjudication process is to allow land to be separated from water, with complex consequences at the local level . . . . I have long argued that the fatal flaw of the adjudication process is that it allows the “commons value” of a water right to be privatized away and dissipated. Much of the commons value of water resides in the acequia system, which conveys the water from the river to the individual landowner. When that landowner is allowed to sell off his water right, he is also selling something which does not properly belong to him as an individual property owner, in the form of that portion of a commons which until then has underpinned and sustained the equity of his property as land and water. (pp. 69–70)

Crawford is talking about northern New Mexico’s idiosyncratic system of water distribution from his perspective as a small farmer; but he’s also aware that he’s suggesting the broader situation that all of us are in, a world increasingly full of reifications. While Crawford is too polite to make this a political book, his politics are apparent; as is a clear sense of morality. Comparisons might be drawn to Lewis Hyde; but Crawford seems to be more interested in people than in art. Later he considers the role of the funeral in his village and how we treat death in general:

Perhaps one of the reasons people leave villages all over the world is that they want to live in places where the lesson is not so relentlessly taught. Suburbs are places without graveyards, without necropolises. They zone out the dead. Like garbage and sewage, the dead are ferried away to special ghettos elsewhere – or anywhere. The modern liberal solution of scattering ashes to the wind seems to solve the problem nicely. By making the dead disappear in a puff of gray ash, we can conquer death itself. (p. 152)

It’s not all doom and gloom, of course; a number of these essays are attentive to the physical world. He considers the mud floor of his house and the apple crates that he’s reused for years in a manner not entirely dissimilar from Francis Ponge; but his is also an interest in human use and how we shape objects and the environment in which we live. His mud floor:

There are times when I have fretted over the unevenness of the floor, but in repairing it again last summer I realized that under our wear and tear it will continue to evolve in ways that other surfaces within the house will not, surfaces that will be recovered, smoothed down, painted over, again and again. The history inscribed in the surface of our mud floor is a version of the history of the house we built with our own hands and of our lives in it since 1971. (p. 9)

The reader will notice some repetitions in this book: the essays’s disparate original publications are doubtless to blame for this. This isn’t to say that the essays are repetitious: each stands alone complete, and might best be read that way rather than being gulped done all at once. This book feels like a coda to Mayordomo; while Crawford makes this seem entirely normal, the situation that he describes is so outside the experience of most Americans’ civil interactions that it stands redescription. It would be nice to have more from Crawford; but one senses that he’s busy living.

stanley crawford, “petroleum man”

Stanley Crawford
Petroleum Man
(Overlook, 2005)


It’s a truism that most great artists aren’t nice people, in exactly the same way that most great businessmen aren’t nice people, or in the same way that anyone who’s devoted to one thing above all will prove lacking in the rest of life. One starts thinking about this very quickly when considering the work of Stanley Crawford: because he does seem to be that rare example of the artist who seems to understand the problem of living decently. One reaches this conclusion from his non-fiction work, which focuses on agriculture; but one can also arrive there through his fiction. Almost all of it (Gascoyne, Log of the S. S. The Mrs. Unguentine, Some Instructions, this book) focuses sharply on dictatorial male characters who are set on ruining the world, domestically or more broadly construed, in some way. Travel Notes, his second novel, seems to diverge most widely from this plan, but the narrator of that book might be roped into this schema without too much trouble. Though satirical, Crawford’s monomaniacs might be seen as a critical inquiry: what makes people behave this way? And what can be done about them? Crawford’s own response is a life of rural agrarianism in New Mexico, but his continued treatment of these characters in his fiction suggests that he hasn’t finished trying to understand them as a problem.

Petroleum Man, as its title suggests, is his most explicitly political novel. Published in 2005, it can’t help but be read as a novel of the Bush administration. Leon Tuggs, the protagonists, deprecatingly refers to his adversaries with the specific epithet (a Reaganism?) “liberal democrats” (the italics are his); their opposite numbers are “Conservative Republications“. Tuggs is a close personal friend of the President; by his own account, he is the most wealthy businessman in America (and perhaps the world), having achieved this position by selling something named “the Thingie®” which is made out of wood, and the precise function of which is left unclear (a nod, perhaps, to what is made in Woollett in Henry James’s The Ambassadors); it is, he says, an “unchallenged tool used to keep track of the proliferating things of the world.” His “liberal democrat” son-in-law informs him that there is “a glob of Thingies® all stuck together the size of a small iceberg floating off the coast of Southern California and that Thingies® have cause the death of millions of ocean-going fish by getting stuck in their gills and seabirds by getting caught in their throats” (p. 86) – but Tuggs, every inch the industrial villain, has little time for such concerns. Tuggs writes the book while in the air in his private jets; with an eye to his legacy, he has embarked on a program to give his two grandchildren, Fabian and Rowena, a series of scale models of every car (with a few planes, for good measure) that he’s owned; each model comes with explanatory text telling, at least in part, his life story as well as detailing his ongoing struggles with the rest of his family and the broader world.

Despite having a family, Tuggs is much better with things than with people; his fortune, he explains, stems from his General Theory of Industrial Sex, which mostly goes unexplained, but seems to stem from his observation that since sex can be found everywhere in the metaphors of the industrial world (nuts and bolts, plugs and sockets, etc.) there is no need to look for it in the considerably messier world of people. The position of Tuggs is that of Ayn Rand: he sees a rational world in front of him (found though the lens of engineering), and is purposefully blind to everything outside of that world – his family in the throes of collapse around him. His grandchildren, to whom his narrative is ostensibly dedicated, don’t seem to be interested in the slightest in his educational program, being, as they are, scions of a wealthy family above all else. But telling his life story through cars owned is the only way Tuggs can express himself: his world is the world of things. He yearns for the day when human advance will finally overtake the natural world:

This should be not far off, according to the figures I am being supplied concerning the paving over of raw land and the converting of forests into useful industrial products like Thingies® and the plans for processing useless icebergs into drinking water and – of course – into bags of ice to help counter the effects of global warming, which I have always regarded as yet another business opportunity, perhaps the greatest ever in the history of civilization. At the present moment, the main tool is the computer – which appears to work flawlessly, however, only in the movies. (p. 130)

The discordant introduction of the computer here points out how oddly anachronistic Tuggs seems as a figure of the American businessman: while everything, of course, can be made from petroleum, his fixation on the thing (as opposed to the human) seems out of place in an American economy that’s increasingly virtualized. His hated son-in-law, a lawyer for an investment, might point the way forward: like most financiers, Chip (note the name, of course) produces nothing but the abstraction of more wealth. (Fabian and Rowena, the reader assumes, probably will never bother to actually have jobs; they trade away their collection of laboriously constructed metal models of their grandfather’s cars for cheap plastic copies and cash to make up for their lack of an allowance.) There’s something almost laudable in Tuggs’s function as a producer: he is monstrous, but in his ridiculousness he is a comprehensible figure: we can see how he arrived where he is. His position at the end of the book is predictable: though he is more wealthy than ever, his family refuses to speak to him, and his long-suffering wife is suing him for “being the source of a drift onto her organic fields of illegal pesticides or herbicides or other substances not approved for organic production” when thousands of miniature hamburgers dropped from helicopters fail to hit his birthday party, as intended.

It’s always surprising how few American novels are about the mechanisms of capitalism and its effect on the businessman: off the top of my head, there’s The Rise of Silas Lapham, Melville’s “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” Nathanael West’s A Cool Million, Gaddis’s J R, Richard Powers’s Gain. It’s a big subject: there should be more.

noted

stanley crawford, “mayordomo”

Stanley Crawford
Mayordomo: Chronicle of an Acequia in Northern New Mexico
(University of New Mexico Press, 1988)


I came to Stanley Crawford through his fiction – Log of the S. S. The Mrs. Unguentine got a reissue from Dalkey Archive a few years back with an afterward by Ben Marcus, and there was a bit of attention. It’s an easy book to read, though one that will require re-reading; from there, I quickly went through Some Instructions, Gascoyne, and Travel Notes; his most recent, Petroleum Man is on a stack of things to be read. Gascoyne and Travel Notes feel like juvenilia compared to his later books; stylistically, they feel like Pynchon and Robert Kelly’s Cities, a writer trying out forms. In Log and Some Instructions, the novelist has found his subject: the relations between people. Though formally very different, both are about marriage and the unknowability of others. Crawford doesn’t present this as an endpoint, but as a position from which to think about the ethics of our interactions with others.

From this, it’s a small jump to his non-fiction: A Garlic Testament is his account of growing garlic in New Mexico, which seems to be his primary occupation; it is about growing garlic, and can be judged as such, but it’s also about the problem of how we live our lives. There’s a similarity to the two books that Gianfranco Baruchello and Henry Martin put out (How to Imagine and Why Duchamp) about Baruchello’s attempts to use Duchamp’s thoughts to run a farm: like Crawford’s books, these are meditations on the place of work in our lives, a subject that’s more and more interesting to me. Mayordomo: Chronicle of an Acequia in Northern New Mexico precedes A Garlic Testament. It’s a book about his time as the mayordomo of an irrigation ditch used by himself and the neighboring farmers in New Mexico. The givens are simple: there’s a certain amount of water in the ditch, which everyone needs; water use must thus be rationed, especially during the dry season. The ditch is community property: it must be maintained, which may require a fair amount of labor, which must be apportioned. The mayordomo is paid to keep the ditch in order. Not knowing a great deal about water law, I’m not sure if ditch councils are still in existence: writing in 1988, Crawford speculates that water rights adjudication is likely to massively overhaul how water is administered in the area. Probably western droughts and the massive influx of population into the Southwest has also changed things. But the value in this book isn’t so much in its documentary quality (though I’m sure some readers might find it important for that) or how it functions as a memoir (though it does that). Rather, it’s a study of how people organize and relate to each other, their work, and the world they share.

There’s a focus on the interactions of communities in this book: Crawford’s ditch shares water from a river with several other ditches, and in dry seasons negotiations with representatives of other ditches are necessary. These are associations of people rather than corporate bodies: those who share the water are small-time farmers, with a few acres of crops. It’s very much a version of the American dream, but one that’s not so blind to believe in self-sufficiency. The amount of water is limited; it needs to be shared. Ditch-sharing agreements, Crawford points out, extend well before New Mexico became a state; the acequia system of management came from Spain, a remnant of an earlier time:

There are few other civic institutions left in this country in which members have as much control over an important aspect of their lives; relatively autonomous, in theory democratic, the thousand acequias of New Mexico form a cultural web of almost microscopic strands and filaments that have held a culture and a landscape in place for hundreds of years.

(p. 176.) In its extended treatment of a subject that might not initially seem interesting, this is a book that forces the reader to slow down. Here, for example, Crawford talks about horses, which he’s just admitted that he doesn’t particularly care for:

There are a few old farmers still using horses up in the higher valleys where the internal combustion engine arrived a decade later than here. The horse has its advantages. Like you it tires with work, needs rest, food, water: your rhythms are similar. A tractor, a machine, invites you to work at a pace unnatural to the body, and while the machine does the work faster and better in some ways it is also designed with complex needs that seem like deep ulterior purposes to connect you to international fossil fuel and manufacturing conglomerates, banks, insurance companies; and its waste products, unlike a horse’s, are toxic and useless.

(p. 95.) When stated this way, Crawford’s point about rhythms of the horse and the machine seems obvious; and painfully applicable to our own lives. A rural Midwestern upbringing is more than enough to inoculate one against romanticizing agrarianism; but there’s something here that’s hard for me to ignore. Maybe it’s the cultural moment we’re in, where it’s hard to look forward to anything substantially improving; maybe it’s New York in a recessionary winter. Watching Paris Is Burning – filmed here while Crawford was minding his ditch in New Mexico – the other night suggested how much the city has changed in the past twenty years: there’s so much more wealth now, but people seem less alive, less attuned to each other. We spend more time in front of computers than we do in front of other people; I won’t argue that’s entirely bad, but one does wonder about how one ought to be living.

Technological mediation seems inescapable right now: correspondingly, maintaining a ditch seems much more interesting than it might have. Crawford, it should be pointed out, was not born to his ditch: born in California, he went to U. Chicago and the Sorbonne before spending time in Greece and moving to New Mexico; he’s acutely aware that he’s a latecomer to the land, but it’s his perspective as an outsider that finds the interest of the story. It’s strange, really, how little notice has been given to his work: no mention of him can be found in the Harper’s database, where one might think he’d fit. A longer piece by Verlyn Klinkenborg appeared in the New Yorker (21 September 1995, p. 125) on the occasion of the publication of A Garlic Testament. There have been a handful of appearances in the New York Times (most notably a generally disapproving review of Travel Notes by Stanley Elkin), but not since 1992. Maybe this lack of attention will change as the increasing importance of water as a social issue has been receiving a fair amount of careful attention recently: Joseph McElroy considers water and writing (his treatment of Crawford is probably the most thoughtful this book has received); and William Vollmann’s Imperial, a book that seems to have awakened reserves of resentment in the nation’s book reviewers, is deeply concerned with the ways in which water use affects communities, amidst the myriad other forces that shape the California-Mexico border. Both McElroy and Vollmann could be read profitably against Crawford.

mcelroy on crawford

“. . . . What little I know about acequias in that general area – including the Rocky Mountain high-altitude meadow system now threatened by climate change – I know from Stanley Crawford.

If it seems indelible and deep – active – what is it but a few visits over almost a generation? Governed as memory works by a continuity that may even give form to the little I know about the right livelihood he and his wife Rose Mary built for themselves over the past 30 years farming garlic in a small Hispanic valley south of Taos, New Mexico. For a year Stan, an Anglo many years a parciante, or member shareholder in the ditch, was the ditch manager, the Mayordomo. This is the title of one of his books, which covers roughly that year (March 1985 to March 1986) in the life of his acequia. This organization, this democracy, that “taught” them to feed themselves, connected them with 30 families, “prods us to remember . . . that if we use our own labor to do so and the labor of our friends and neighbors, we are far more efficient in energy terms than the largest agribusiness farms in the world.”

Tangible work on the land and on the page. That difficult double career never seeming (at least to me) at Stan’s apparent pace egregiously difficult or impeded, so much as continuing and contained and unscreened by word or delusion. This “over-educated novel-writing truck farmer…caught between two eras like a [Turgenev] character” who has put into his non-fiction book the “veins and capillaries” of this land, the work of maintaining the ditch among other things in every inch of effort and knowledge shared with the fortunate reader, the sometimes bewildering interruptions of uncontrollable weather, the “human constrictions and diversions the mayordomo” must take charge of who is “the pump, the heart that moves the vital fluid down the artery to the little plots of land of each of the cells, the parciantes.” (In Outwater and elsewhere we hear the metaphor of blood circulating, which anciently is a correspondence not metaphorical at all. Crawford is somewhere in between, though not in the following remark.) “Water relationships would be simple and linear were they not complicated by all those other ways that human beings are connected with and divided from each other: blood, race, religion, education, politics, money.” Rights likely to be most nearly reliable locally as here, a precinct of water democracy I imagine.

Walking the ditch, Stan and I come upon a crossing where the beavers have messed things up, two chewed saplings are down across the steep-banks, maybe not even a dam-in-progress. The everyday passingness must be more than passing, though he might shrug off this thought (or that water “rights” [my “quaint,” he calls it, archaic contribution] have anything to do with where you live, considering major diversions of water just about everywhere in the world though the New Mexico basically usufruct – “ownership” custom is archaic. Maybe a luxury of my experience of his life and that I will come back (as he himself will go to market every week in season) and that I will reread him and believe that some metaphors are more than comparisons. Is Stan’s writing what will last?

Though a few years later he has a multi-year grant from the Ford Foundation to study farmers markets in New Mexico. His knowledge is priceless. It takes him away from full time farming. (He’s discovered that State Engineer records of well-drilling in his neighborhood are complete garbage; he and his neighbors rarely have anything to do with the overlapping jurisdictions, typical perhaps of water resources once thought so abundant that rights definitions seemed unnecessary.) His own farming? Perhaps the time itself is ripe, as for more attention to be given to his writing though truthfully he has managed to write fiction and non-fiction of quality during these many years growing garlic and commuting in season twice a week many miles to market in Santa Fe and Los Alamos. What is it to revisit a person? What happens to occur to me, or I happened to be reading something.”

In these remarks of mine, I come back to several figures.

Second thoughts? Odd, this revisiting. “Accretions” the title of Chapter 17 of A Garlic Testament and typical of Stan’s method: “what people do to make things grow . . . consists of . . . eliminating everything else that gets in the way.” My own writing is weeding since I’m always experimentally planting (maybe weeds like nutritious amaranth) just to see, and maybe this analogy stretches things. Revisiting is clearer, though: rereading a person, seeing what I didn’t see before. Facts, however: Stan doesn’t know how much longer the current generation of ditch commissioners and mayordomos can handle drought years, before saying the hell with it – like so many small farmers.

Yes, a walk in the woods or along the river; finishing a table top, making a floor; repairing a bark canoe with pitch or pine gum. Reading, though, as Experience: the book as distillation (I don’t mean, into desalinated water vapor): the book as . . . revision. What Homer even in translation means to a reader of twenty or twenty-one: “. . . a new planet swims into his ken.” Some of my experience, like Keats’, is through books. (Isn’t yours?) Some? Novelists more than they like to admit. A line, a sentence, a scene, an impression of a whole book continuing for years.”

(Joseph McElroy, “If It Could Be Wrapped”, an excerpt from Water Writing – an essay, as yet unpublished.)