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Mayordomo: Chronicle of an Acequia in Northern New Mexico
Stanley Crawford
University of New Mexico Press, 1993
243 pp., $18.95 paper

Far Tortuga
Peter Matthiessen
Vintage Books, 1988
416 pp., $16.95 paper

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In a time of water emergencies everywhere every week, of giant floods, continental drought, images virtually statistical of the Pacific Ocean circulating plastic in a tightly cohesive looping swath thousands of miles long, where do we turn to get a grasp of the crisis? It’s a maze, an unrelenting moment of parched forests where animals and plants are surprised to be newly extinct and men fish all night for what’s left; great rivers ambitiously dammed, but unwisely, we now see; and our own Colorado exhausting its waters as they run down to the Gulf, yielding less and less of a contracted share to states they pass through, the farmers besieged by West Coast cities thirsting for their water rights. To say nothing of this polemically, bewilderingly technical time of a Supreme Court ruling that a “creek” full of lead, zinc, and oil in Alabama is not covered by the Clean Water law. So perhaps to refresh my thought, if not to save the day, I find myself turning to small-scale comings and goings.

Two American books of the last generation with apparently little in common but water still speak to me and, in the strange neighborhood of my mind, to each other— Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga (1975) and Stanley Crawford’sMayordomo (1988): one, a novel about a boat hunting the great green turtles, what’s left of them, in the Caribbean fishery—farming the sea, we like to say; the other, a nonfiction account of a small irrigation ditch fed from a river in a northern New Mexico valley, a one-year chronicle of this acequia, which anciently means both the channel and the association of members who share it and maintain it.

“Small-scale” seems hardly Matthiessen, best-selling seafarer, Himalayan trekker, naturalist, and anthropologist; yet sea, sky, and lives draw in upon this Cayman Islands schooner like the close-ups of oil slicks, an oar blade grating against “dead coral,” “slops [dumped] into … clear water [so] the stain rolls.” And nearer still are the voices we come to know aboard this 59-foot sail- and diesel-powered vessel, Lillias Eden, in dangerously poor repair and with a dubious crew (“goin to sea!”): poor blacks, from the irascible, driven Captain Raib Avers, prowling the deck, a skilled harpooner holding stubbornly with experience and control, to the eight or nine others, the strong one, Byrum, in clean khakis working, and the weaker, garrulous, raffish, drunk, ranting, threatening men passing the time on the way to the turtling grounds, reflecting on a supposedly better time and on seamanship, sex, impoverished and dispersed families, estranged fathers and sons, this job—the knowledge of the waters, what lies beneath them, the turtles grazing while the light is right, their epic eyesight, the eight-hundred-pounders you don’t see anymore, navigation better than a bird’s. Also, the famous turtlers of the “backtime.” Also, the reading of dreams, the gross pathos of “anything black, dat is bad luck” and “Green things … or silver money or colored folks”; but to dream “about a white person” is good luck, “white clear water”—but if, while putting out the nets, “you don’t feel no sign in your hand,” you next day will “find a water set, cause dey nothing in dose nets but water.”

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