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Red Willow Spirit: Knowing the Water

Summer Waters Resized

Yesterday’s post showed the river  at Red Willow in a good year: full, high, animated, not so much running downward as rioting, roiling, tumbling, a wide silver ribbon of agile speed and unbridled joy.

This year, the river will not run nearly so fast.

It will not rise as high, either.

The same is true of our ditches and streams, and of the upper reaches of these same waters that extend deep into the mountains.

If this land is lucky, if it is blessed, there will still be enough water for the river to be a river: That same wide silver ribbon, enough volume and force to birth small whitecaps and waves, strong enough to sweep the dead branches downstream and powerful enough to turn the riverbanks green.

That will be enough to supply the village.

But for most, those outside its walls, more than the river is required.

To be clear, that last sentence has always been the case. Even long ago, when all of the village homes were inhabited by all families year-round, those same families spent much of the year working the surrounding lands. Within little more than the last half-century, Wings and his brother would spend the warm months on this land where we now live, working the fields, tilling the crops, cooling off under the arbor through the heat of the day, sleeping under the stars at night. The same was true of hay and corn alike, and harvest was a group effort.

But at this time of year, then as now, it meant preparation. Even before one could till the land, turn it over and ready it for planting some six weeks hence, the complex system of ditches used for irrigation must be reclaimed from the overgrowth of winter. In some instances, that involves fire: Where the bindweed has extended its grasp over everything with all the invasive sprawl of new corporate housing developments, its grip is so pervasive that the only practical solution is to burn it off. That will hold all the more true this year, this winter of drought having left behind an earth as dry as ash and bone. But this time of year brings with it another elemental spirit in the form of the wind, and there can be no burning of anything on a day such as this. And so irrigation preparation must be left in part to the rare spring day when the air is still; the rest requires the back-breaking labor of shovel and hoe.

Below the Wire Resized

Still, in many places, the ditches are shallow enough to require relatively little digging; now-ancient patterns in the earth route the water on its way to each plot of land, thence to be turned out across the fields. These feeder ditches feed the land itself, too, keeping the stands of piñon lush and green.

The system seems, to outsiders, rudimentary, but that is part of its beauty. There will no doubt come a time when the system is modernized at least somewhat more, but for now, much of it appears unchanged from the time of Wings’s grandfather and great-grandfather, for whom barbed wire was the only necessary concession to modernity.

Of course, not every ditch, nor every junction, remains untouched by modern technology. Our peoples are nothing if not inventive, and contrary to the stereotypes imposed by the outside world, we do not regard technology as an enemy. From mustangs to smartphones, we have always adopted and adapted, integrated and used that which works to enhance our ways and lives. Today, we drive cars, we watch television, we sell Wings’s work and stay in contact with friends over the Internet — in other words, we live as 21st-Century people. And we keep to the old ways where it makes sense — traditionally, culturally, practically — to do so.

At the Weir Resized

And so, at this time of year, once the ditches are cleaned and the weirs cleared, what remains may look like this: ancient earth channeling the waters of recent snows; weathered posts and barbed wire that could pass for the 19th Century; weathered-steel rebar and cast-iron plates that belong to the century just past.

And, buried in the earth at the junction itself, a crossroads of white PVC pipe to ensure that a certain amount of water gets routed properly even in the event that the rest of the ditch fails. Not much of a change in the ditching system, or the irrigation method itself — just an adaptation to keep it functioning correctly.

It carries its own evolutionary beauty, the sort of timelessness that links modern needs to ancient ways.

Still, at bottom, it’s not the pipe, nor the plates, nor the rebar, nor the wire, nor the posts. It’s not even the earthen ditch.

It’s the water.

Water Up Close Resized

The water — up to now, at least — has outlived and outlasted it all. Water is elemental: We are born in its flow, just as the cliffs and mountains of this land its people call Red Willow. The red willows themselves, and the weeping willows too, like the aspens and the cottonwoods and the medicinal plants, all owe their survival, their existence, to the water.

In the lands of my own people, water is everywhere. It is not now as pristine as it was before colonizing and capitalizing forces moved in, taking by force and the blessing of an occupying government. But the water is there, and in most years, the rains and snows are, too. People take its presence for granted, most pausing to think about it only when the local supply becomes contaminated or is shut off entirely.

It’s different here.

Here, in the arid high desert, to say that water is life is something so fundamental that those of this place need not verbalize it. It’s a truth that lives deep in the spirit. The people to whom this place belongs have always respected its force, its power, its existence, whether manifest as rain or snow or spring or mountain lake. In a place such as this, survival depends on many things, but chief among them is knowing the water: knowing its shape, its character, its patterns; knowing its routines and anomalies; knowing how it bubbles and flows, where it runs and when it stops. It’s knowing the spirits that live in and on it, that thrive in it, that need it to survive.

It’s knowing how to tend it, to guide it, to use it, to conserve and protect it.

Today, our pond is more full than not, the stream still flowing through the ditches to spill into the pool — and yet, it is nowhere near as full as it should be. The ditches themselves run low and slow, no risk of spillover and precious little animation visible in its movement. And these are things we must know, too, things to recognize and observe and incorporate into our calculus for the year, how much water might be available to us, how much to plant and when and where.

Because while we can hope for the rains, right now, that’s all they are: a hope, not a promise. Emerging from this winter’s drought into a warm and windy spring, it is time for us to reacquaint ourselves with the most elemental spirit, the one that birthed us all.

It is time, again, for knowing the water.

~ Aji







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