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Monday, 16 March 2015

Cleaning out the acequias



The beaver-dam was the last straw. It was only a couple of feet high, and it only stretched the five-foot width of the ditch, but it was tightly woven, caked with silt – and frozen. However, as I gave it a weary whack with my shovel I realised I had nobody to blame but myself. And when the mayordomo came by half an hour later to check the departure of the work party I confessed: I’d volunteered for this.

The original idea was to observe. I knew a bit about the acequias, the ancient irrigation ditches dug by the Spanish back in the 1700s and 1800s to take water from the rivers and into the fields around Taos. And of course I was well aware that they are still in use today. On Friday one of my colleagues here, an artist, mentioned that irrigation seemed to be on her mind as she painted her abstract canvases. Then she showed me an ad in the Taos News. I can’t recall the precise wording, but the message was clear: if you draw water from this certain acequia, be it known that Saturday is spring clean-up day. ‘Hey,’ I said, ‘why don’t we call the organiser, tell them we want to take pictures, maybe ask a few questions?’

We showed up at the designated rendezvous about 7.45. In dribs and drabs the others arrived. There were shovels and rakes aplenty. It seemed ungracious not to grab one. Half an hour later we had joined Delfino and Armando at the head of the ditch. We would work west and – this was the theory – would eventually meet up with the other party who were working east.

At the beginning it was easy, and it seemed like fun, lobbing out the larger rocks, raking up the odd pile of leaves, removing fallen branches and other debris – anything that would ease the flow of water when the head-gate was opened.

And then, little by little, it started to resemble hard work. There were thickets of willow to cut out. There were thorns. There were impromptu bridges to demolish. There were spots where residents on the bank had piled up trash and let it slip into the ditch: tires, radiator grilles, fenders, buckets, long tangles of rope, sheets of plastic, old tarps. I found myself looking up at the bank, half expecting to see some rifle-toting guard on horseback, leering at me through mirrored shades. I sweated a lot and my stomach rumbled. I think I managed not to complain – somehow.

By the  time we heard the voices of the other gang it was two thirty. And that’s when, after six hours of hard graft, the day improved, markedly. Armando, realising for the first time that we were volunteers, invited us to his house where his wife gave us chile beans and he gave us beer – and between them a hearty portion of family history. We sat there for a couple of hours, and got along so well that we were invited back – to clear another ditch in two weeks’ time. Oh well, at least we will know what we’re in for.

I should mention work - or writing. Early last week I completed the re-write of my novel. It’s gone to London, to be read by a good and trusted friend with more than forty years’ experience in publishing. Until I hear from her I am free to relax – or hire myself out as a ditch-digger.

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