Beware the Beast

[UPDATED 7-3-2020: scroll to bottom]

AT THE BOTTOM OF THE HILL below our rented 120 year-old-adobe is the beloved and mysterious acequia. The white blossoms on the left are part of a large grove of wild cherry trees where each spring the western tanagers and Bullock’s orioles come to feast. (Some years they leave enough for me.) We also see them visiting at the house, resting high up in the elms or cheating at the hummingbird feeders. Their yearly appearance is miraculous and holy, and they stay around for weeks.

In the past we’ve hung our laundry down there and brought wine and tequila to drink beside the flowing water in the evening. Having this beautiful patch of Nature so close has brightened our days for over a dozen years. Each March or April the local acequia association sends a crew of men down the empty ditch to clean it out before the mayordomo opens the diversion gate upstream on the Rio Grande del Rancho and sends the water coursing through to irrigate alfalfa fields and orchards in the valley. It’s always a special time.

We haven’t been down there much in recent years. I used to hang a Mexican hammock from the apple tree on the bank until it fell apart. For some strange reason—climate change?—the “no-see-ums” have gotten worse and worse, to the point where you’d just as soon sit inside and have your drink. Despite the gorgeous location, the house itself is falling down (“adobe hell”) and we’ve wanted to move for several years. Call it Taos, call it the state of our resources, call it anything, most likely what I tell myself and which thoughts I latch onto, but nothing’s clicked hard enough to pull us away and into our new life. It’s beautiful here, of course. Even if months go by without walking down the cactus-cluttered path, at least the acequia is there to ground me.

So many, many birds. The water, trees, and heavy underbrush have provided sustenance and cover all this time. I wonder if you recognize them. Lazuli buntings, four different kinds of hummingbirds, scrub jays, magpies, robins, bluebirds, ravens, hawks, juncos, warblers, siskins, chickadees, piñon jays, flickers, woodpeckers, grosbeaks, buzzards, more than I could ever list. We even had a peacock once, but surely he’d escaped from someone’s place nearby.

Is it just me, or is it getting cold in here? Maybe I need to feed the wood stove, or have we left a window open in the kitchen?

Two days ago I saw a couple of men in our back yard. Local fellows. I went outside to see what was going on. They were very friendly and respectful as they introduced themselves. One of them was in fact the mayordomo of the acequia, and I was proud I had experience and understood. He explained in heavily accented English that this year they needed to dig out the ditch, and they were looking at the hillside to see if there was a way to get a tractor down there. There was, and I said that was fine. I’m only a tenant, after all. He also said they’d have to “build a little road,” which made sense to me. I imagined a Ditch Witch or something similar moving down a path along the water. The second man invited me to come down to the acequia to see what they’d done last year a little ways upstream so I’d have an idea of what was going on, but I was standing there with no shoes on because I’d just come from the house to talk to them, remember, so I demurred. Just a tenant, anyway, that’s me. No one said a thing about permission and I figured they didn’t need any. This was just a courtesy. It’s how things work around here. As they were leaving, they mentioned that they needed to “make a proposal” of some kind, though of what sort and to whom I didn’t know, and that they expected to come back in about two weeks. All right, no problemo.

The next day, two backhoes showed up, crashing through the sagebrush…

I heard them grinding back and forth all day, and chainsaws too, but I was in and out and paid little heed. They had a right to be down there after all, doing whatever it was they had to do, and I simply had to trust them. Local fellows, maintaining an essential community asset. Water, man. It’s everything. Maybe even too much.

Oh no, chilluns. No, no, no.

I sure wish I’d gone back in the house to get my shoes the day before and walked down to the ditch to see what kind of “little road’ they meant. Maybe I could have reasoned with them. (Not likely, but you never know.) After the crew had left and the backhoes chugged off into the dusk, my wife and I walked down the hill. Oh God.

The “little road.” No cherry trees, no apple tree, no big old aspen full of flicker nests. No grass, no flowers, nothing. Everything, all gone. Certainly no birds, not this year or any other for a long, long time. We’re both still in shock. I never imagined my fellow humans would look at what was there and not feel a sense of joy and wonder, see a way to compromise and leave the things that mattered.

Some men are like that, though. The ones who “prune” a tree by cutting all the branches like they’re dealing with asparagus and not a being with inherent grace, a form, a destiny. I don’t know how we get that way. It’s just not possible for me. Every weed and flower has a soul. When we lived in Maryland, I’d walk past a field of barley waving in the wind and feel the power like the tramp-tramp-tramp of marching armies. And a tree, my God. You have to ask permission of a thing like that. It wants to live, it has a purpose. Just ask the birds, if you can find one.

UPDATE, 7-3-2020: Except for hummingbirds and the occasional scrub jay, we’ve had virtually no birds this year. The change is catastrophic and dramatic. I visited the scene of the crime this morning and it’s worse than I remembered: deep ugly gouges in the bank, trees partially ripped down (not cut), no effort whatsoever made to restore or mitigate the damage. These were beast-men. I had no idea. Never take for granted that your fellow humans see the world the way you do. Find your corner of the Earth to treasure and protect. That’s what we’ll be doing, just as soon as we are able.

UPDATE, 9-16-2020: Since the previous update, the acequia has been shut down for the year, no doubt because of the drought. About a month ago I resumed putting out sunflower seeds to see if anything besides the squirrels would show up. Amazingly, we do now have a regular assortment of birds: scrub jays, robins, chickadees, juncos, nuthatches, magpies, and a few woodpeckers, plus of course the hummingbirds. For all of these, a constantly replenished birdbath seems more important than the seeds. Nature is resilient up to a point, and we feel somewhat better as long as we stay away from the scene of the crime at the bottom of the hill.