FOR most of us spring is heralded by the smell of lilacs filling the air and the sight of fruit trees erupting into bloom. But here in Placitas, a small foothills village north of Albuquerque, New Mexico, spring officially arrives on "ditch day," the annual cleaning of the acequias, the irrigation ditches. It is a sacred village tradition; for one day, every able-bodied person with a water right - derecha - must help prepare these ditches for the release of the winter water, that precious commodity upon which the arid Southwest depends to grow its vegetables, fruit, and alfalfa.
A Saturday in April is the designated day for this Placitas rite. At 7 a.m. the water users congregate at El Oso Reservoir, one of the two village water tanks fed by springs, in turn fed by the melting snow of the Sandia Mountains rising above the village. Most of the original 21 Hispanic families of Placitas are represented. They settled here hundreds of years ago as members of the San Antonio de Las Huertas Land Grant, deeded by the Spanish king; extended and intermarried, they've survived the 20th-cen tury invasion of Anglos.
I am part of that invasion, the first wave arriving in the 1950s to settle into rural life, raise kids, build comfortable adobe houses, and commute to Albuquerque, 25 miles away, for employment. The 1960s brought a second wave of transplants who built the first local commune in a valley up above the village, moved into leftover adobes in the village itself, and pursued the back-to-the-land experience under the watchful eyes of their noncommittal but friendly Hispanic neighbors. The two waves of Anglos an d the land-grant members mixed together to produce a diverse community, building homes, growing gardens, raising chickens, trying to establish a less materialistic and simpler lifestyle in a world of 20th-century madness. It's been especially hard lately to ward off the world, as the '80s brought the subdividers and land developers to Placitas, who built expensive homes surrounding the village in attempts to create a more suburban-style community, replete with paved roads, swimming pools, and cable TV.
The village water system has always been the domain of the Hispanic community, although every household with a water right must participate in ditch cleaning or hire someone to participate in its stead. And until the year I dug ditches, the water system had always been a male domain. As long as anyone could remember, it had been men who gathered together at El Oso to wield their shovels against the weeds and dirt clogging the acequias. I certainly never thought of ditch day as a vehicle for making a stat ement regarding a woman's status in village life. Sometimes necessity dictates the order of things, though, and being an able-bodied person with an irrigation right to maintain, I decided that, barring any furor, I should do my own digging.
That year there was a new mayordomo, head man of the irrigation system, who organized the calendar of water release to each family - the Neptune of the derechas. I decided my first move was to meet this man, test his reaction, and hopefully gain his approval. I found him cleaning the remains of a butchered cow out of the back of his pickup.
"Well, now, so you want to clean the acequias. That's pretty hard work, you know. You pretty strong?" I assured him I was, hoping his interpretation of strong was the same as mine. "Well, as long as you're pretty strong I don't see why you shouldn't help us dig."
"I wouldn't want to offend anybody, being a woman and all."
"Yes," he laughed. "I can see you're a woman all right. But don't you worry about anybody else - as long as you do your share, you're welcome."
Well, I did my share and it almost killed me, but then it almost killed some of the men, too. Cleaning ditches is back-breaking work. After an hour and a half at El Oso Reservoir, trying to figure out who was working whose derecha, we formed a line at the head of the main irrigation ditch, each assigned an eight-foot length to clean. The object of the endeavor was to clean out all the excess dirt that had caved into the ditch over the winter, pull all the weeds, brambles, grasses, and willows that had ta ken hold, and generally ensure an even flow of water for when the reservoir was to be opened. As we finished one section, the line would swing in snakelike progression, down the hill to the next section. And so it went, all day long.
I got right into it, anxious to make a good impression, and felt exhausted by the second swing of the snake.
"Hey, man, you're working us like dogs!"
This came from the man working next to me, already done with his section, leaning on his shovel, and was addressed to the members of the water board, who, along with the mayordomo, supervised the activity. My neighbor - dressed in overalls and a red bandana tied around his forehead accentuating the freckles across his nose - was the life of the line. As we moved down the ditch he kept up a steady banter of whining: "Hey, it's too hot to do this, let's go to my house for a drink; hey, man, give this poor lady a break - and me, too, while you're at it." It was his prerogative to complain, I guess, being a member of one of the original families upholding the tradition. I envied his sense of place that allowed him a sense of humor while I sought to prove myself. And I appreciated that he sometimes dug a few extra feet beyond his section - in my direction.
Around mid-morning, as I followed my part of the line down the hill, everyone started yelling at me that one of the two brothers on the water board wanted me back at the section I had cleaned. Embarrassed, I walked back to where he stood, everyone watching, and was relieved to see him standing over a section that my vociferous neighbor had cleaned.
"This section has not been dug deep enough. Water does not run uphill," he said to me, very seriously.
"I'm sorry, but that's not the section I cleaned. Mine is the one above that."
Now he was embarrassed, and he said gruffly, "Well, who did this section?"
"I don't know - our line got all out of order last time," I said, glad to prove that I could be a good old boy, too, if I wanted.
"Well, Miss, next time don't leave your area until your line has been checked," he said, looking down at his feet.
"No, I won't."
As I walked back to my place, one of the older men winked at me and said, "Did he give you a hard time? Don't pay him no mind. We like having you. He's young - he has to throw his weight around."
The morning dragged on, and my muscles ached with every shovel load, but it was interesting to see the layout of the village as we followed the complex irrigation system down from the reservoir. I saw houses I'd never seen before, and ruins of houses that had probably existed long before the irrigation ditches. Standing above Placitas, looking down, the village appeared as an oasis amid the pinon-juniper tree covered hills stretching to the red-colored mesas of the Rio Grande Valley. New Mexico is filled
with villages like Placitas whose inhabitants will do the same thing we were doing in a tradition as old and revered. In many ways, Placitas has lost a sense of its past that the other villages still maintain because of their remoteness. Life is different in San Miguel and Truchas, for instance, with less opportunity for employment, education, and for government solutions to individual problems. But it is just that isolation that protects a tradition of pride and self-reliance.
At lunchtime, one of the board members discovered that my water right was shared by my next-door neighbor, who plowed my back field every year with beans, and that I didn't have to return for the afternoon's labor. My disappointment at the auspicious day's ending was more than compensated by my physical relief. I went home and did not move for two hours. Then compassion got the best of me, and I drove down with cold drinks to where the others were working.
Ditch day ended for everyone late that evening at a party given by the water board members, restoring another tradition that had been unobserved over the last few years. We all drove out to the site of one of the old communes, where a goat was roasting, underground. The men I'd worked with introduced me to their wives, who all congratulated me on my achievement. "I always wanted to help, too," one of them confided to me. "But I was afraid I wasn't strong enough. Maybe I can dig next year." I was relieved
they didn't think of me as an intruder.
I dug ditches every spring I lived in the village, and I always felt much the same excitement, if not the novelty, of that first spring. I discovered that I liked tradition and sharing an important event in the life of a community that celebrates both a cultural heritage and a cross-cultural way of life - a life that may soon be devoured by the homogeneity and anonymity of the modern American way. I knew there might be kinks and hassles in the long hot summer's division of water, but for one day at least
I was proud to be one of the workers.