North of Santa Fe, It Takes a Village

Daisies at the acequia

Dixon, New Mexico is home to historic acequias (irrigation ditches) that remain protected by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago, signed on February 2, 1848. One of those acequias rambled across the small apple farm that my husband I purchased in the early 1990s. The ditch became a central part of our life in Dixon, a tiny and rustic village in the Upper Rio Grande Valley, just as it had been for the Spanish settlers under the 1725 Embudo Land Grant. (The Rio Embudo, a tributary to the Rio Grande, fed our acequia.  The tributary lowed at the bottom of our property.)

When I volunteered to serve as our acequia’s secretary/treasurer, I was handed a precious record book that dated possibly a century’s worth of property owners and their contribution to the annual maintenance of the acequia. Most of the records were written in Spanish. This was my introduction to living in what was once an isolated area of New Mexico that preserved the old ways and traditions.

Each early Spring required the annual cleaning of the ditch — a task usually carried out by both land owners or hired workers paid by the landowner dues that I recorded in that historic record book. I chose to join in the cleaning of the ditch. Few if any women took to this labor-intensive task. But for me, working beside longtime residents like Alphonso Mascarenas and “Sugar” Sanchez, I grew to appreciate and respect a culture new to me, plus add honor to the privilege of access to precious water that fed our apple trees and my oversized garden patch.

About five landowners and a few hired workers—with tools in hand, clippers, hoes, rakes, shovels—gathered where the ditch ended. The mayordomo, the acequia overseer, split us in to two groups, one group to start where we stood, and the other to begin midway to where the ditch began. Admittedly, the fellows were wary of my value to the job. I made sure they each learned that no rogue root, no stand of uninvited reeds, no clumps of unidentifiable masses or even beaver dams challenged me. After all, boys, I grew up on a Mojave Desert ranch. You think this is tough?

The working walk up the ditch began with echoes of old New Mexican Spanish blended with Spanglish and English. Once into the work of clearing the ditch so that water could easily run through it, a comradeship imbued between us. Jokes, gossip, friendly ribbing, and an occasional curse word made the labor light. 

The mayordomo, the acequia overseer, split us in to two groups, one group to start where we stood, and the other to begin midway to where the ditch began. Admittedly, the fellows were wary of my value to the job. I made sure they each learned that no rogue root, no stand of uninvited reeds, no clumps of unidentifiable masses or even beaver dams challenged me. After all, boys, I grew up on a Mojave Desert ranch. You think this is tough?

Growing up on a chicken ranch in the Mojave Desert

Midway was roughly at my property. As the acequia’s secretary/treasurer, my duty was to collect the $45 cleaning fee from those property owner who didn’t work the ditch that day, and to pay the hired laborers.

No sooner did I grab my record book, paper and pen, and an envelope with change, did the laborers arrive for pay. Hola. Buenas dias. Muchas gracias showcased my Spanish fluency (or lack thereof). Mostly a smile, and green dollars resolved any payment confusion.  Landowners too old to work the ditch drove in with their checkbooks. Several older men from families who laid claim to their property many, many years ago,  asked that because of their bad eyesight, could I fill in the ditch name and amount on the check they had already signed. Truth was, they never learned to read. A smile and no problema saved any embarrassment.

Just before Holy Week, the mayordomo opened the ditch. Freshly melted snow that descends 7,000 feet from its highest point at North Truchas Peak (elevation 13,100 feet), makes it way to where the Rio Embudo confluences near Picuris Pueblo. The first day we opened our gate to flood irrigate the apple orchard, the water was like ice, but crystal clear and sweet smelling. We had to hustle to get the water properly directed as it rushed in as if its dam had broke. 

This moment awakened the brown grass and the trees thick with buds just waiting to burst open. A week later, the orchard resembled an elegant lawn beneath a canopy of 50-year-old apple trees dressed in pink blossoms. I never experienced a spring like the one beneath the flowering apple trees.  We spread a blanket on the grass and shared our evening meal with a bottle of New Mexico’s sparkling wine by Gruet. In a few weeks, fireflies would brighten the world beneath the apple trees. All the world’s troubles ceased to exist. Nothing could harm us in that orchard, except, perhaps for a falling apple as the trees’ fruit turned red and heavy.

These scenes would never have happened without the acequia. The work to clean, irrigate, and maintain the precious books was well worth the enchantment we lived during that time.

My life lesson included not only lasting friendships with persons whom I might otherwise never have met, but also the value of community and the fact that it does, indeed take a village.

—Excerpted from a work in progress by Charmaine Coimbra

Categories: New Mexico Notes

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