By Anita Walsh
Neither one of us can remember the year when the pipe went in,under our dirt road, connecting the community ditch to our small plot of land. Counting on our fingers and our feeble memories, we figure it’s been around 24 years. Everything after, and slightly before that event was so charged with drama, intrigue, and emotion it is impossible to forget.
We first asked our neighbor to the south, Emilio, if it would be okay to tap in to the ditch for water. The answer was, you should try your neighbor to the north; Diego, and his ditch, you’ll never find a nicer neighbor. My neighbor from the north returned the compliment of the neighbor to the south, saying we’d never find a nicer neighbor than the one on our southern border. This is how they both said “No.”
The ditch on our southern border is on our property, and is part of our easement. Emilio acknowledged that fact, but said that he and his father dug that ditch, by hand, when he was just a little boy. He had worked on it, maintaining it, for 50 years. Who were we to think of accessing it? What had we done to deserve its use? Fair enough. But we continued to ask. He turned his back each time I would approach or pass him, and for my partner he would deliver a hard stare and spit on the ground.
We had cleaned the beer cans and tumbleweeds, rocks and glass from our lot. We had cut down elms. I had planted seeds that never “took” in the hot relentless sun. The soil nourishment that I added blew away rapidly in the dusty clay.
I felt that it was a sin to have land that was going to waste. I wanted a garden. I had wanted a garden when we were just renters here, and that’s when I started my unrewarded efforts to grow things. One of the first things that went in was an apricot tree which was a gift from Diego, to the north. That did last. It survived the lack of irrigation on hose water, and though the fruit is small compared to the fruit of other apricot trees, it is still the sweetest, most delicious fruit from an apricot I’ve ever tasted.
It wasn’t until we bought the property that my brave partner decided to exercise his legal right to access the ditch. He called Corrales’ busiest and most beloved tractor guy, Joe Shea, and asked him to dig a trench across our road with his backhoe. We laid a 10-inch steel pipe in the trench and covered it with dirt. Emilio had argued that we would have a hard time getting water to go uphill, but it turned out that the water, with some careful planning, transit work, land molding, and sufficient damming, came in just fine.
After we had access, we were able, actually obliged, to finally talk, once again, to Emilio. It should be added here, that there had been no interrupted flow of pleasant conversation between us, until the ditch question was brought up. Emilio was actually one of my favorite friends; calling me over to pick up a huge melon from his field, sharing information about native plants and oftentimes laughing and musing together.
This conversation we had was strictly business. We were told that we must maintain the ditch from the mother ditch at the old cistern, to Corrales Road. We agreed. It was a long stretch, and included passage through some tough territory where litter as large as a swamp cooler, and as plentiful as a McDonald’s parking lot was just one of the obstacle courses. At least if we got the willows, the elm branches, the leaves, tumbleweeds and household appliances out, Emilio would run his tractor to make it deep and right.
Not necessarily so. For awhile, we had to hire Jesus, down the road, to do the tractor work, because, no, we didn’t have a tractor of our own. That was a ritual in itself. I would sit with Jesus and Grace in their kitchen, and wait for the answer. Then, following this expert of ditches out to his work area, he would get things in shape, replace bolts; make adjustments, and then we would take a short trip on the road down to the ditch. I would often sit on the fender and cringe when I’d look down and feel the pitch of the old machine enter the deep ditch. Cleaning the ditch with a tractor is a specialized skill, and could certainly be considered dangerous with the wrong operator.
There were a few years when my partner’s work as a teacher at UNM wrapped him up so tightly he could not participate in the cleaning, and I cleared all the debris myself; filling about 30 large garbage bags . It was at this time that Emilio finally accepted our use of the ditch because we had proven that we would do the work, and try our hardest to earn the right to access the water from his years of hard work in making and maintaining this fantastic ditch. I think he felt sorry for me, or sufficiently admired my effort, and he resumed running his tractor with the ditcher down the whole length, as he had always done.
We still had to devise a way to dam the water so as not to flood any of the neighbor’s fields. For this, my partner made a removable dam with a heavy steel frame and thinner steel interior slide, in the shape of a V, with a spike on each side to steady it, and keep it from slipping and tilting. It weighs about 70 pounds, and was lowered into place from a standing position on a 2x8 board. It was placed and removed every time we watered.
We did not want to put in a request for permission to install a more permanent, saner, solution because that would have set the relationship back to the dark ages. Eventually, Emilio would tell me to open our pipe while he was watering, and that eliminated lots of unnecessary work.
There were three years when I hired someone to clean the ditch. I think that was when I was first diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, an auto-immune disease that attacks the joints first, and then goes on to tendons and other systems of the body. At first I hired a dear friends’ son, who, I think actually wanted the job. The next year I hired him again, but that time he brought a friend, and the two’s work did not equal the work that just one had done. The third time, I hired a friend who did an excellent and quick job, but the following year she did not want to do it again.
By then, I had some good medicine to hold back and slow down the RA, and my partner and I kept cleaning the ditch until last year when neither of us were up to the task. Genova, and her helper, Martin, our neighbors down the road, cleared that long and daunting section for us last year.
Since Emilio passed away over a decade ago, his son, who is also called Emilio, has cleaned the ditch with his tractor; multiple times during the growing season, and just before the water first flows in the spring. We have a good relationship and, like his father before him, he allows us to take water at the same time he, or his sister Veronica, are watering their fields.
This is a practical arrangement which limits the number of times the ditch gets wet… or if you look at it another way, it also limits the watering of the weeds that want to grow on its walls and base. It helps limit the necessary tractor work, and also keeps weed whacking down to twice a month. Beyond that, it feels like a cooperation and sharing that builds not just soil, but peace in our community.
Last week, as I lay in the ditch screaming “Help!” at the top of my lungs, I almost forgot the reason for contributing , even slightly, to the maintenance of the conveyance of water to the garden. The base of the ditch is narrow, and shaped like a V, and I wear a brace on my foot, so I lost my balance and fell. I have an enthusiasm for exercise on a daily basis, so I was able to stand up again, but I’m afraid my partner will have to finish the work. I can hardly believe it, but I envy him.
In our garden there are now 17 fruit trees, numerous blackberry canes, carpets of herbs and native flowers where once the soil simply blew away and would not support life other than noxious weeds; goat heads, couch grass and the like. I am sure these endeavors both interpersonal and physical have been well worth the effort, and nothing is more exhilarating than seeing the water come in to the field at springtime.
Birds, snakes, tree frogs, toads, rabbits, butterflies, all kinds of bees, ladybugs, snails and other critters enjoy this garden as much as we do. The air is improved with the numerous trees including catalpa, vitex, juniper and spruce. The life-giving water from the river is a treasure, and I am grateful we have been able to experience the goodness it gives, from the good of the ditch, to those who made, and maintain it.