An irrigation ditch runs through it – author Stanley Crawford’s garlic farm in New Mexico

An irrigation ditch runs through it – author Stanley Crawford’s garlic farm in New Mexico – Western Wanderings

Peter Fish

* All the way from Santa Fe, I am nervous about the ditch. You make a pilgrimage to a favored literary site, you set yourself up for disappointment. John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row vanished long ago. A visit to Hannibal, Missouri, evokes Mark Twain less than it does musings about urban renewal. By the time I reach Stanley Crawford’s farm, I’m fretful.

Stanley Crawford is a soft-spoken 60-year. old who raises garlic and writes books. He wrote Mayordomo, which is about an irrigation ditch and so much more. It is a volume I press on people if they show any interest in New Mexico, water, literature, or life.

“I was trying to write a novel,” Crawford says of the book’s genesis. “The fiction I was writing was less interesting than the life I was leading.”

The life was one that Crawford and his wife, Rose Mary, adopted in the 1970s, when they moved to this mountain valley between Santa Fe and Taos. Having been expatriates in Europe for a few years, the Crawfords were hungry for community. Their new home – nameless in his books and therefore nameless here – was a traditional agricultural village. Residents viewed the newcomers with mixed feelings. As Crawford puts it, “They thought, ‘Thank God, some young people are moving to the village. But you’re not the right young people.'” Still, the Crawfords built an adobe house, began a farm, raised their children. They became accepted enough that Crawford was awarded a term as mayordomo – ditch boss – of the local irrigation ditch, the Acequia de la Jara. He says, “I felt totally out of my depth.”

The book Mayordomo is about maintaining this acequia, one of a thousand irrigation ditches that for centuries have served as the centers of social organization in rural New Mexico. It is about gathering work crews of piones to reinforce banks and build dams and clear brush from desagues, or sluice gates; it is about allocating water among parciantes, or shareholders, so that each gets enough to irrigate his fields. But this is New Mexico, where water is as vital as blood. And so Mayordomo expands. It becomes a story not just about water but also about the gulfs between Hispanic and Anglo and young and old, about marriage and suicide and floods and droughts, about the joy that comes with succeeding at a job you feared yourself incapable of doing.

The first publisher he approached didn’t want Mayordomo. The University of New Mexico Press did. A wise decision. The book earned accolades and an award. It remains in print, 10 years after publication. It has the muscle of a book that will be read a long time.

Stanley Crawford takes me out to his garlic field. In summer he and his wife sell fresh garlic at farmers’ markets, in winter they sell dried garlic as wreaths. The crop inspired another book, A Garlic Testament, slighter than Mayordomo but charming. We walk, and I get to thinking that Western writing has enjoyed a kind of renaissance in the past 20 years. Writers like Stanley Crawford, and Gretel Ehrlich in Wyoming, and William Kittredge in Montana have written lasting books about very particular corners of the West. These books seem to fill a hunger for places that are not like other places. “What I found here,” Crawford says, “is a complex and rich community I had searched for for a long time.”

At last we head up a dirt bank to the acequia. I’ve brought a copy of Mayordomo for Crawford to sign, and I thumb to a favorite passage, about rebuilding a ditch dam:

“The moment is luminous and transparent: boys and men working together in the dancing reflections of the water to build that most essential structure, the beaver dam. And at this sweeping bend in the river course overhung by clumps of cottonwood and a clear blue sky, with the still slanting sunlight on the glaring white ribbons of sand and bleached rocks along the banks, we work to the alpine sounds of rushing water. … And later perhaps we will remember only that we built a beaver dam to bring water to our gardens, in the way people have built them all over the world for thousands of years, and that we came home wet and aching and satisfied far beyond what we could easily explain to those who weren’t there.”

At the top of the embankment, water flows in a 3-foot-wide ditch.

“So,” I say, “there it is.”

“Yes,” Crawford says.

It is no disappointment. The Acequia de la Jara flows thin, yes. But it flows as deep, as beautiful, as it did on the page.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Sunset Publishing Corp.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group