The land has been laid to rest. Wood stoves are burning. The beans and corn have all been harvested, shelled and strung up to dry. The whisper of brittle corn stalks greet me each morning as I step out my front door. Lobo Peak disappears into the clouds only to reemerge wrapped in a hat and scarf of fresh snow. Piles of compost, manure and mulch conceal the once green and vibrant furrows and rows of my garden. These layers of decomposing organic matter will protect and feed the soil all winter and next spring, like some great edible blanket. It is the season of festivals of abundance, and our microscopic vecinas y vecinos are no different. I like to imagine them feasting together on buried roots, while they sing to the coming cold. One last heave of life before we all slip into the slumber of winter.
I am proud to say that this year I may have grown the smallest oldest purple cabbage ever. Nine months old and only three inches tall, with three leaves to match. First started in March in my window, transplanted into the garden in June and eaten by a deer in November. Its seed came from the hardware store, and stays in my mind as a potent reminder of the value of ancestral seeds and place-based seed keeping. Red beans that I forgot to harvest last year, pushed into the soil by the sole of workboots, trampled in the spring while the gardens were prepared and barely irrigated, grew into bushy abundant plants. The blue corn that I planted in dusty shallow soil that hadn’t seen water in at least two decades, poked its head above ground just eight days after planting, and matured into a beautiful resilient corn patch. The marigold seed sprinkled on top of my rows just out of reach of the water that would flow down our acequia and into my garden every week, patiently waited for August rains. They became the celebrity of my garden in September, tropical fruits in our high mountain desert, the perfect cushion for weary visiting pollinators.
These seeds came to me not in sealed packages with barcodes, but in recycled medicine bottles and crumbling envelopes with hand scribbled labels. ‘Chamisal Marigold, 2021’. They traveled through countless gardens, greenhouses and fields of northern New Mexico. Passed between neighbors and friends, from mentors to students, a handful pocketed at the annual seed exchange. These seeds carry the knowledge of each of their stewards. They remember the sembradores that planted them and the acequieros that irrigated. They remember the heat, the freezes, the fires, the soil, the water. They are a living record, a library going back countless generations, packed with knowledge beyond anyone’s compression. They are our future. We have no future without them.
At the beginning of this month, I attended a conference in Santa Fe on regenerative agriculture. We learned all about the innovative technologies that farmers and ranchers are using to restore soil health, conserve water and holistically manage crops and livestock. For three days we collectively cast our ideas and imaginations into the future. What is working now that could be scaled up regionally or nationally? What systems are broken and need fixing, and how do we proceed? Faced with the immense injustices of climate change, land commodification and an extractive food system, I saw how we collectively gravitated towards new technological solutions and policy reforms. I left that event asking myself where acequias fit into these discussions? How does traditional irrigation technology, community governance and resource-sharing structure, and decommodified relationship towards land and water (querencia) equip us to navigate an increasingly uncertain future? Especially when acequia technologies (flood irrigation, earthen ditches, hyperlocal governance) are so often disparaged in popular discourse as wasteful relics of an unsustainable past.
There are many robust answers to this question. Academics and researchers are studying acequia hydrology and sociality to show how acequia communities model resilience and adaptability (link to research). They can respond quickly and dynamically to disasters and droughts. They practice mutualism and solidarity in the face of catastrophe. All this is proven not only by the research but also by our lived experiences in acequia communities. In our memories of water scarce years, and our stories about wildfires and floods.
I come back to, however, a deeper truth about the role of our acequias in an uncertain future. I come back to the seeds which contain the memories of so many generations. The seeds that hold the knowledge essential for our survival. These seeds are reflections of our communities, historical and current, and stand as living proof of our capacity for mutual care of the land and people. This capacity is intimately connected to our acequias, the waterways that bind us to one another and to place. These watery threads weave together our neighbors, our valleys, and ultimately our watersheds. They are our future.