By Lynn Montgomery, Chair, Coronado Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD)
and New Mexico Soil Health Champion
In lieu of extinction:
Each day it gets more and more difficult to make our way through this sick world. We have become a deadly mold enveloping the Planet. There are 110 lbs. of artifact; steel, cement, asphalt, plastic, chemicals, refuse, etc., for every square yard of Earth’s surface. She is resisting, imposing a pandemic, probably the first of many. She is also exhibiting diminishment as we keep feeding an insatiable maw to retain “our way of life”. Blame might be assigned to do-nothing, blah blah blah “leaders”, but other than that, there really isn’t anyone to blame. We keep compulsively going about our lives and don’t see or experience the malaise.
Each region has its climate extremism. Here in New Mexico, it is increasing aridification, which is severely reducing the health of our water resources. Eventually we will have little for food production and soon after not enough for daily needs in more and more places. Many will leave, which is an historical response, trying to find that greener grass.
But people are clever and can make vaccines and other cures. We can transform from a dangerous mold to a soothing penicillium, healing and nurturing the Earth and Her web of life. Over the last four decades, people have been searching for healing techniques as it has slowly become apparent where we are headed. Some have listened to Indigenous and Traditional people and started to look at the world through different eyes. When the sickness starts to overwhelm us we will have to purge it from ourselves so we can stand apart and have a platform to heal Her from.
Most of us don’t really know what it is like to run out of water. Our farmers have had some good hints about it. They will tell you when you are out of water, you are out of water. My own story illustrates that. I came to New Mexico from New England in 1971. My intent was to farm, as I had settled on that as a life project. There were opportunities in New Mexico to farm by being a caretaker, relieving the necessity of buying or renting property. At first I was a cowboy, caretaking a ranch south of Cabezon Peak on the Rio Puerco. Soon I was living in Las Huertas Valley in Placitas, one of the hippy settlers in the so-called communes along the Creek. We had a large communal garden, watered from the spring and acequia, and contracted out to care for vineyards and gardens, some of the harvest being our pay.
I lived at Sun Farm, the last settlement down the Creek. It was actually a farm, serviced by an acequia from the spring. Our neighbor, Rumaldo Montoya, had the other farm on the acequia. Rumaldo had gone to ag school on the GI Bill and was a good farmer. He had spent most of his life in the Valley, some exceptions being a seasonal job in Arizona and joining the Army and working in the shipyards in Stockton, California during the War. I don’t think I would have been very successful farming if he hadn’t answered my relentless questions over the ecology, cultural farming techniques and local knowledge. He had a love and fealty to place that made him an integral part of the landscape. Archeologists had found an agricultural field house site on his farm dating to 1150 CE. Rumaldo was very proud to have been part of an over 800-year line of farmers.
The 1950’s drought had dried everything up. Rumaldo was reduced to a 22- animal herd of dairy cows. He made wonderful queso blanco (farmer’s cheese) and drove around delivering it and milk. Little made it out of the Valley, as the kids got most of it. Rumaldo was already out of water when I met him. I learned a lot watching him struggle with it.
Rumaldo turned me on to the acequia. Land Grant Settlers had started construction on it in the late 1840’s. His grandfather, uncle and others built retention ponds to increase efficiency beginning in the 1870s. This enabled them to irrigate serious acreage. When laboring on it I kept them in mind, marveling at their engineering expertise using a horse shovel and team and a long plank with a glass of water on it for a level. He had asthma and couldn’t maintain it, but he was a good mentor and with the help of my fellow hippies we got it running again. I started to build the farm, which I managed to purchase, and after some years I was taking produce to market. Rumaldo had to leave because of health problems and his family moved up from the Rio Grande Valley. We organized the acequia and became a subdivision of the state government. I was the mayordomo.
Placitas, possessing beautiful views and close proximity to Albuquerque, is subject to development. Having been warned of groundwater pumping threatening our spring by a prominent hydrologist who had studied Placitas hydrology extensively, I started to protest water rights transfers into Placitas’ groundwater. Although one of these went to the NM Supreme Court with a favorable ruling, the domestic well loophole allowed development to continue unabated. The State did nothing to protect our spring.
A megadrought has developed over the last twenty years or so. The spring is down to a trickle and useless to our farms. I had to haul water for domestic use and watch the old cottonwoods along the acequia die along with the fruit trees and gardens. Just like Rumaldo did in the 1950s. The difference is this time there is increased aridification and groundwater depletion which portends the spring will dry up, never to return. When the solar power system failed I moved over to my wife’s place in the Village of Placitas, which still has acequia water and a mutual domestic water system. I garden when there is water, but it is getting scarcer year by year. We are also becoming concerned our domestic spring-fed water will begin to fail.
I lost my life’s work and am reduced to writing things like this. Many other farmers have met a similar fate. When you are out of water…. Placitas is a microcosm of the Middle Rio Grande Valley. It is a canary in the coal mine. What happens there happens everywhere eventually. It is the eventuality that we must prepare for, not some rationale of how we will “solve” our problems by talking about them. We won’t solve them until we also evolve our lifestyles, behavior and relationships with one another, including Mother Nature.
In order to enter our Small Farm Future:
It has become obvious that our time on Earth will end if we don’t stop consuming so much of Her. And restore Her ability to keep on providing. She must be healed and made resilient.
A major healing universe is regeneration. Robert Rodale of Organic Gardening and Farming first used this term to describe a different way of seeing agriculture based on the cycles and rhythms of life. Nature is more closely mimicked, creating semi-chaotic diversity that builds those cycles and rhythms. Soil fertility is created and maintained by maintaining soil life. This is very complex, beautiful, and the learning never ends. Very much like music.
The water, ultimately, comes from the land. By healing the land, we give the water a chance to heal too. When the land is healed, the rain will come and the aquifers will start to recharge. Healthy soil retains more water, is resistant to erosion, eliminates expensive and destructive inputs and sequesters atmospheric carbon where it will feed us rather than heat the Planet. It is already happening, expedited by the USDA, NRCS and the New Mexico Healthy Soil Act to help ranchers and farmers transition. So your tax dollars are already restoring the land to a resilient state through regeneration.
These practices can happen in backyards. They can happen on our depleted former grasslands. When we do them, we start to restore the water and ourselves. That means truly living on Her and in Her—tending the forests, grasslands, small farms and gardens. Then we can truly heal Her. Finding our way out of all the sickness is our last hope.
Our future society likely will be multi-layered and complex. Clans will be one of those layers. There is a universal clan, the Healing Clan, which has existed throughout all time. All beings are members in kinship. Most of us have lost the awareness of being a member and lost all our relations. Everything harkens to the cycles and rhythms in the Healing Clan. When we awaken we will heal along with all our Kin.