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.)

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