“Water, rain were the greatest of blessings, and all was asked in their name, and in their image, gesture and sound by the Pueblo peoples who invoked them…for upon their coming, the lives of plant and person and animal alike depended.”
– Paul Horgan, Great River
The state of New Mexico has relatively little water compared to states further east, north and northwest. It may be partly because of this that the founding Native American and Indo-Hispano cultures, to this day, hold significantly different attitudes and understandings about water than contemporary mainstream culture, which originally made its way here from the water-drenched East Coast and northern Europe. Having arrived equipped with the technologies of drilling, dredging, pumping and water storage, mainstream culture has largely relegated water to the role of a commodity with utilitarian and commercial purposes. However, at this time of growing water scarcity, we New Mexicans find ourselves facing the urgent challenge and opportunity to develop a different and deeper consciousness regarding this vital substance, one closer to that of the original peoples, who did not take it for granted.
The dominant culture’s reliance on buying and selling water from aquifers, rivers and streams is reflected in their progressive depletion. In recent years, it has not been at all uncommon for the legendary Río Grande to be totally dried up by the time it reaches Las Cruces, where only a wide swath of sand serves to remind us of the formerly robust río. Elephant Butte and Caballo lakes in southern New Mexico are today only a fraction of the size they were just 15 years ago. This is due to less snow and rainfall, the diversion of water in service to increasing urban sprawl, and the highly water-consumptive industries such as coal and uranium mining and the production of beef and pecans, chiefly for export.
In some areas, such as parts of the Pajarito Plateau downstream from Los Alamos National Laboratory, the exposure of water to radioactive substances has contaminated nearby watersheds, rendering it dangerous for human and animal consumption. In other areas of the state, such as in Cebolla and Dulce, fracking presents us with yet another set of problems relative to water use and quality.
Because the natural resources of the vast North American continent seemed limitless and inexhaustible at the time of westward expansion by American settlers and businessmen, little regard was given to coexisting with nature. People sought to conquer nature to exploit and harness her many resources. The decimation of the vast herds of buffalo on the Great Plains is a case in point. Such attitudes and strategies made life easier for the multitudes arriving from Europe and their descendants and richer for a select few industrial barons.
Dams were built, rivers redirected, artificial lakes created, wells dug and precious resources accessed to serve the growing population. Even clouds were artificially seeded to provoke the release of moisture in response to drought. The desert was made to bloom with monocrops, and whole cities were plunked down on the desert floor. The worldview that drove these initiatives, with its radical re-engineering of the physical world, has now resulted in the United States becoming the biggest contributor in the world to global warming. Another consequence of our country’s insatiable consumption of water is our current vulnerability to a host of unprecedented natural disasters. In recent years, these have ranged from freak snowstorms on the East Coast to increasingly more powerful hurricanes and tornadoes in the South and Midwest, earthquakes in Oklahoma, increasing numbers of forest fires and prolonged droughts in the West, as well as the sinking of the ground upon which California sits.
Unless we adopt wiser and more sustainable approaches to water use for a statewide population that now numbers well over 2 million people, together with a radically different understanding and appreciation for this vital liquid, we in New Mexico may be forced to abandon our current mode of living. We may perhaps even be forced to migrate elsewhere, as many sub-Saharan peoples have had to do in the wake of the loss of their traditional water sources. Global warming and the expected rise in mean temperatures and increased rates of evaporation will only exacerbate the growing scarcity of water.
Both Native American and Indo-Hispano people possess a much humbler and more reverential relationship to water because, aside from historically having had access to only springs and streams, water jars and buckets, as well as gravity-fed acequias for crop irrigation, these communities used relatively little water for their daily needs and used it judiciously. Indigenous communities devised ways of sharing water supplies, both in times of plenty and scarcity. Otherwise, they would not have survived. They also adapted to droughts and deluges as best as they could and incorporated into their culture reverence and thanksgiving for this miraculous substance.
Before the advent of deep wells, water pumps, dams and piped water, the peoples of Nuevo México had honed a keen sense of all of the places where water could be found, in all its states and throughout every season. By looking up at the snowpack high in the Sangre de Cristos in the springtime, the people of Taos Pueblo and Las Truchas could predict how much runoff they might have in the summertime for watering fields and livestock, as well as for domestic purposes that included driving wooden water wheels submerged in the acequias, which caused shafts to turn and rotate hefty grinding stones of the ever-present gristmill located in nearly every village. Villagers customarily took their wheat and chile pods for grinding there and, after a few hours, retrieved whole-wheat flour for bread baking or red chile powder for the concoction of fiery sauces.
The native people consistently aligned themselves with the great powers of the universe, especially the clouds for rain, through offerings and prayers to Mother Earth and Father Sky, as well as through concentrated forms of dance in which every movement and detail of dress bespoke the life-giving ways of water. In the Spanish-speaking Catholic villages, people observed the release of water into the acequia system through the recitation of special prayers or songs. They ritually observed a date close to the summer solstice—around June 21—by taking a statue of San Juan Bautista out in a procession, oftentimes to a site along an acequia, to shower praise and agua bendita, or water blessing. On this day, many people also immersed themselves in the flow of the acequia or river, recalling the ritual of baptism.
In the Catholic rite, the belief that water blessed by priests could become holy and curative allowed people to conceive of the possibility that water in and of itself might also be sacred. Consequently, it was treated as such. One of the most time-honored customs among Nuevo México’s Mexicano people was for a young person to offer a glass of water to an elder and wait with folded arms for the person to drink it. Only after having shown this form of respect to both the water and the elder would the young person exit the room.
In many families, when people drew water from wells in buckets, instead of pouring all of its contents out into containers, some was given back to the well, to reciprocate with its source. Another tradition, observed until quite recently, was for the bearer of bad news to a household to ask the person to whom it was about to be disclosed to take a seat, while offering him or her a glass of water to drink. Aside from this being an act of kindness, it was thought to lessen the likelihood of trauma and shock, and perhaps it did.
Before the advent of modern medicine, the majority of the remedies the people of this cultural community employed were in the forms of baths, herbal teas, infusions and the inhalation of vapor, all of which utilized the healing and restorative agent of water. Now that we know that the body is primarily water, these approaches to helping people regain health make all the more sense.
Before crises precipitated by shortages of water across our cherished land worsen, we may perhaps want to work toward the creation of a different collective consciousness around water that includes the profoundly social, metaphysical and poetic, as well as the ecological and practical. To be sure, some of this is already taking place. Annual water-blessing ceremonies are held along Agua Fría Street in conjunction with the revivification of the Santa Fe River. More scientifically minded people have been developing a variety of water-conserving technologies. Each of us could start directing conscious thoughts of gratitude toward water every time we use it and by using it more judiciously and consciously offering it to other living beings—plants, animals and other people—as the sacred gift it is. By effecting such changes, we might not only succeed in warding off conflict and be able to better quench our thirst; we also might, for all time, plant in our minds the conviction that agua is more precious than any other substance, for it provides us with life.
Alejandro López is a northern New Mexican educator, writer and photographer.