I lived for almost ten years in a house with water rights controlled by Elephant Butte Water District. Elephant Butte is the reservoir that serves southern New Mexico; so called because it is a butte that in the right light strongly resembles a sleeping elephant.
When I first moved to southern New Mexico—picked up at the El Paso airport which rolls past Juarez on one side and the remains of the Asarco Chemical Plant, strip malls, and the humped shapes of the Franklin Mountains on the other—I, who had only lived in green areas before, wept. The landscape was so sere, so pitiless, I felt as if I had landed on the moon or in hell. But in time that bareness became familiar and treasured until I saw the reservoir at Elephant Butte as necessary but somehow wrong-feeling, out-of-place, a man-made lake that reduced the Rio Grande to mere trickle, the water still and floating with sinister objects—beer cans mostly, plastic bags, the occasional body from who knows what boating accident or murder.
There are few settlements around the lake—a handful of hot springs and the low Quonset hut headquarters of the mysterious authority that controls the flow of water to the lands below. In recent years this flow has become a trickle, stressing the farmers along the Rio Grande Valley. Southern New Mexico is known for one crop in particular—green chilies, which gain their addictive heat from constant exposure to the unfiltered sun. Onions are grown also, but the big cash crop, pecans, is imported from elsewhere—native to the Mississippi Delta where the land is flooded regularly. The pecans can’t survive without regular infusions of Elephant Butte water—water which has become ever scarcer in recent years.
When I first moved into the house along the Acequia Madre, and people told me how fortunate I was to have access to water, I decided to keep a kitchen garden. This proved more of a challenge than I could possibly have imagined. Not only was the clay soil—the caliche—bone-grindingly difficult to dig or plant in—even when you added bags and bags of topsoil from Lowes or Home Depot—but most of what you put in the ground simply shriveled away. I was able to keep the basil going, but the tomatoes all succumbed to curly top virus; the squashes were eaten by desert rats as soon as they appeared. Only the peppers flourished—and they were worth it, each one, though grown from a normal bell pepper seed packet, contained a mysterious richness and heat. You could hardly keep yourself from eating them raw or with just salt, tearing them in strips to feel the burn in your mouth.
To live in a desert, a land water-starved, is to become equally familiar with despair, deprivation and the astonishing grace that a sudden flowering can bestow. No wonder religions, I would think after I lived in New Mexico for quite some time, were all, or mostly all, invented in the desert. In lands of plenty there is less need for faith—or art for that matter. When life is comfortable these things may appear luxuries. In a tropical rain forest, it might be enough just to walk out into the world. In a desert this is patently not the case, or rather usually you walk out into murderous cold or heat, the ever-present nagging of thirst, or the hallucinations brought on by thirst. You are like an astronaut in the safe little bubble of your car, aware if it breaks down you step out into a burning plain with a name like “Malheur”, and no shade for thirty miles, or a river bed named “Puerco,” with nothing but cracked mud at the bottom of it, where to live you must learn to pierce the side of a thorned cactus or be willing to take shelter under whatever rock you can find until the sun sets and you have to worry about snakes and javelina.
Yet nothing is quite like water in the desert. Rain falls and overnight spindly wild flowers—flowers almost too vivid to have names—carpet the bare plains. The strange scarecrow figures of the ocotillo are bathed in blossoms of the purest orange. Juniper trees cluster with ghost-blue berries and creosote, mesquite, and rabbit brush bloom in sync and give off odors that resemble frankincense and myrrh. Sometimes toads fill a creek suddenly, splashing wet and birds, birds who have hidden who knows where in rocky crevices or dry branches of trees fly out and cluster into glittering clouds.
Everything greens so abruptly, so overwhelmingly, it is like watching time itself leap forward like a coiled big cat. At those times you feel briefly that where you live is the center of heaven.
I have a friend who grew up in the Bootheel; her father was the caretaker of an enormous ranch where they tended ten-thousand head herds of cattle. She grew up with her sister, miles from anywhere, attending a ranch school with only five other pupils. One was the son of the owner. The year he turned eighteen, he became engaged to her sister and was preparing—learning to take over running the ranch. When his parents left town one summer, they left him in charge, but it was a bad summer, drought and heat—and the whole land sizzling like a bad hangover or a panic attack. Picture fields of spiked weeds, dying or dead, under a sky of utter flat clear blue, a sun burning at around 117 degrees. Picture the mandibles of insects chewing, chewing, and the buzzing relentless sound they make. Picture that sound as a symptom of a global agitation—famine time, a land where everything is struggling, striving.
Something went wrong with the wells that year, and the cattle began dying on their feet. The boy and a couple of the older ranch hands went down to clear the wells. This is often done by exploding propane through the bottom, but to go deep enough you have to risk being overcome by methane fumes if the well has been standing for some time. Three times the boy went down, set off the explosion, and the well did not clear. The fourth time he made a sound and fell away from the ladder. They fished him up, but he was dead.
My friend and her sister drove the 130 miles from Las Cruces; my friend was twenty; her sister was eighteen. And my friend said the next day, “What no one understands is it isn’t just that he’s gone, but what will become of the land?”
We love what we can’t fathom, can’t break, can’t control, or we love it best. For example, as a recent psychology study showed, people tend to fall hardest in love with people whose motives and actions are unpredictable—tender one moment, cruel the next. The whole landscape of the Chihuahuan Desert can feel like an illustration of this, only in ecological terms. Some summers, especially recently, with global warming raising the thermometer, you are plunged into a sense of the atavistic struggle of all living things to simply keep living. The months pass in a blur, and you watch things die with no ability to do much about it other than breathe.
The last summer I lived there, the Elephant Butte Water District announced that this year, they would be giving no water. We turned off the water softener in our well and set the hose along the trees—thirty or more of them—rotating it as we remembered; we watched for rain, but there was no rain for over 100 days. We watched the canal behind the house, but nothing moved in it. The concrete channel of the Acequia Madre, which has existed there in that very spot for the past six thousand years or so, stayed bone dry, empty, but for stray kids, who clambered down and skipped along the bottom.
In my yard, the junipers along the back fence were the first to give up the ghost, and we had to cut them down. Then the fig which had been in its prime so large I could fill a laundry basket with split figs and still not strip it clean of fruit. The pomegranates hung on, shaggy and dusty, so did the pecans, but they clenched inward, and the nuts were much reduced. Winter and still very little rain, and then one day, the following spring, the Elephant Butte Water District mysteriously relented. Ditch riders rode up and down the dirt paths on either side. The water came—first a trickle, then a rising tide, flood. One watering, the District announced, and we unlocked the headgates. Water covered the field to a depth of three inches. Overnight, the yard transformed from skeletal to ghost green, then deep green, the color of oasis, green as the walled garden of paradise.
My children raced out into the water, and mosquitoes filigreed the air with their black-flecked wings, and rainbows of dragonflies buzzed everywhere. What a strange trajectory from the dry socket of drought to the fleeting sense of plenty— living in a world blessed by water. I understood why you would pray for this, but it felt somehow ghastly, too—that such extremes should follow each other in such close succession.
My friend said this was what she loved and could not live without about the land of her birth. Yet also what she hated so much that thinking of it her hands shook, and she could not contain her sense of mute and helpless rage. She said at the funeral of her sister’s fiancée, she realized for the first time how extreme was the country she had been raised in; how extreme was the love people felt for the difficult land in which they found themselves. His parents turned his picture to the wall. They proceeded to write to their other son—the older surviving one who had moved to the Midwest, a cattle farm in Wisconsin. “You must return,” they said. “Donny is dead and the ranch needs you.”
Sheila Black is the author of House of Bone, Love/Iraq, and Wen Kroy, which received the 2011 Orphic Prize in Poetry from Dream Horse Press. She co-edited Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, named a 2012 Notable Book by the American Library Association. In 2012, she was a Witter Bynner Fellow, selected by Philip Levine. She lives in San Antonio, Texas where she directs Gemini Ink, a literary arts center.