Not mine, not yours, but ours: Penasco Upper Llano acequias

The house on 17 irrigated acres from the Acequia de San Juan Nepomoseno del Llano. Water rights since 1789 (photograph by Taos Properties).

Forty-four years ago, in 1967, I traveled to New Mexico from Amarillo, Texas.  It was my third and most memorable trip for I dreamed for days about colors and pottery and adobe and silver.  I would lie down, fall asleep and pass into a dream world of silver and blue skies — northern New Mexico.  It was not all pleasant because I became ill from eating different Native American and Mexican foods, but that never deterred me from returning again and again and again.

Aside from digestive and dreaming events, I vividly remember a man plowing his field with horses near Mora, the unpaved streets about the Taos plaza and the narrow strips of farm land that bordered rivers and irrigation ditches.  The narrow strips of irrigated land not only reflected a precise lay of the land by survey crews, but also reflected a community, a meshing of farmers.  What was there about those fertile strips that drew me in?    In later anthropological field trips, I took my students by the Pecos River irrigated plots along State Highway 3 that ran from Interstate 40 to Interstate 25 between Santa Rosa and the Pecos Pueblo.  (Click to see Google map of the Pecos River plots.)

The system of irrigation is called acequia, referring both to the irrigation ditch and the association of members organized around it.

I have never owned land in New Mexico, but if I did I would buy a parcel of land that had water rights to an acequia, a system that stretches back in time to Native American communities before the arrival of the Spanish who adopted the local customs of water rights (riparian rights).  Having land that possesses an acequia, one automatically gains entry into a community that cleans, rebuilds and nourishes the ditches and, further, is granted rights to meet in a democratic association to discuss apportioning water and policies affecting owners that border the irrigation ditch.

Several weeks ago, I came across a piece of property near Penasco that if I could sell my ranchito, I would buy and move my horses and equipment post haste to Penasco Upper Llano.  See the following Google map:  This is the map-image of the Penasco Upper Llano property and other strips of community property.

This particular piece of property with the adobe house pictured above is located in the high country between Taos and Santa Fe and can produce 700 bales of hay a year.  The water rights go back to 1789, the year that the United States inaugurated its first president, George Washington.  The surveyor’s plat looks like this:

Stanley Crawford in his work, Mayordomo: Chronicle of an Acequia in Northern New Mexico (1988), writes of the acequia culture that I admire:

There are few other civic institutions left in this country in which members have as much control over an important aspect of their lives; relatively autonomous, in theory democratic, the thousand acequias form a cultural web of almost microscopic strands and filaments that have held a culture and landscape in place for hundreds of years….

Ditch-cleanings are all very much the same, and in this they often feel more like ritual than work.  The crew varies from year to year: a couple of old men don’t turn up each year, a couple of boys barely able to handle a shovel, fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds, take their places; the weather is better or worse than some vague notion of what is usual, mayordomos come and go and some are responsible and fair, others vindictive, punitive, almost military, others are lazy and heedless of the needs of the ditch; and the crew can be a good-natured, hard-working creature, or sullen and complaining and evasive, qualities perhaps dictated by the amount of pride or fear circulating through the hearts of both those in charge and those doing the actual digging….

Buddy Manzanares who, on one of my last perfunctory inspection tours half an hour from the end of the spring digging, calls on me to admire a meticulously dug out and cleaned up tarea [a grave-size chunk of the ditch], with the banks cleaned of grass and squared neatly where they end in the bottom of the smoothly shoveled-out channel….This man knows how to make this small thing, this chore, into more than we commonly imagine, and what can be more important to know in this life, than just that.

Mayordomo, pp. 176, 224, 228-29.

The deep thing about acequia that pulls on me is the ready-made community that circulates around water rights that nourish subsistence crops and the growth of hay.  The isolation of many Texas ranches and the people that tend them and steward their animals is not good; in fact, it diminishes the rancher to a coarse individuality that thins the possibilities of  human endeavors, insinuates a obsessive pecuniary attitude about the land and narrows civic — read unselfish — behavior to the mere casting of a vote once or twice a year.

There are western ranching communities that transcend these deficiencies, I grant you, but the tendency has been to sell out or buy more land, thus expelling more people from the agrarian way of life.  I have experienced this and have witnessed the deleterious affect upon my family.

I shall not be accused of romanticizing the acequia culture — oh, go ahead and accuse! — because it is a human community and there will be conflict and law suits, but there is an association, a group of men and women meeting about water and how to nourish their livestock, beans, alfalfa, corn, tomatoes, okra, flowers, lawns, chilis, vineyards, peaches, plums, apricots, coastal bermuda, roses, trees, and every other conceivable plant that flourishes from the soil that is watered.  Having an acequia culture forces the lesson about sharing in real, material ways that no desk-bound, box-bound person will ever learn.  The basic premise is:  water is limited, we all need it, how will we share it?  And, how are we going to keep it coming down the ditch?  The answer: let’s talk about it, let’s vote on it, let’s implement our decision.

Like so many other things in life, the ditch is more than a ditch.  The acequia and the water is not mine, not yours, but ours.

Acequia near Vadito, New Mexico, (Vadito II, oil by Eric Andrews, Taos, personal collection of J. Matthews).


Notes, corrections and additions:

The language keyboard for Spanish and diacritical markings frustrates me.  Hence, the Spanish diacritical markings for “Penasco” are missing, although about every 20 times, I can get the tilde above the “n” in Penasco.  If anyone has any suggestions within the WordPress format to easily apply diacritical markings to writing, please comment or drop me an email at  I am intent upon using proper markings, but I am not going to spend ten minutes every time I need a tilde to paste it on.  Can Windows Vista do anything right?  Of course they can, but you have to update your browser every five minutes.  And, then restart.


Filed under Life in Balance, Santa Fe, Taos

13 responses to “Not mine, not yours, but ours: Penasco Upper Llano acequias

  1. You’d be an asset to that community, Jack.
    A place to visit:

  2. As you know, Jack, I love my little piece of land here, but that house and its setting speaks to me, as well. I can see why you would want to resettle there. Just beautiful. Wonderful phrases here, very nice writing. You just keep getting better and better. I also love the mayordomo’s description of acequia culture, both the physical aspects and the emotional. A perfect description of more community based living. I have written today of community based living, also. It’s in our minds and hearts, as it should be.

    Thanks for an excellent read today about a valuable way of life.

  3. Thank you, Teresa. The majordomo (Crawford) description is quite effective in telling the narrative. I will get over to your site and read your wonderful words. I love this ranchito, but there are other places that pull. Your place, however, has a stream (river?) and greenery and wildlife abundant. I think your descriptions and photographs of it are grand.

  4. I think it’s sad that the technology that one would think could better connect folks in a community has instead, tended to isolate them. We took a wrong turn there somewhere.

    • Yes, a wrong turn was taken somewhere. I think that solitude for some folks must be okay; in fact, I know it is, but the extended and unintended effects of “isolation” is rather bad. Far better to reduce, recycle and reuse rather than hammer out pottery, metal tools and textiles for profit off the unsuspecting public. It’s rather simple to grow and store what one needs rather than amassing produce to pack off to market. I’m in cloudy skies here, but the wrong turn has a lot to do with industrialism, consumerism and large landholdings in private hands. My point in this post — though not specifically said — is that communities of human beings, when pared down to simple actions rather than complex equations of producing things to sell, offer economic security and emotional support when cooperation occurs — read water associations for starters, subsistence and simple production from the soil by farmers and ranchers. Civic virtue, unselfish behavior occurs when you face your neighbor and have opportunity to counsel with others. The old “lonely crowd” and “bowling alone” accomodations that people have made in industrial America need to be set aside for human associations, town meetings, and bowling with others. I think that is a way out of this mess and to correct misturns of the past. That such toxic junk as CDOs that were foisted on the public by institutions is an object lesson on how far off the path we have gone. But, I digress. In fact, digress mega I do.

      Thanks, Montucky, for, “We took a wrong turn there somewhere.”

  5. But what, then, of those who cannot grow their own food, or sustain themselves on their own land? While I support buying locally, community gardens and such, I found myself pondering, during my recent trip through the agricultural heartland, how necessary large-scale farming is to sustain our country, if not the world.

    Subsistence and simple production will not help me put dinner on the table, living as I do without the luxury of land. With an apartment void of even enough sunlight for a tomato plant, I must depend on others for food. And certainly Houston cannot be fed with community gardens – no matter how many we manage to support.

    In short, how can the lessons of face-to-face community be translated to a larger scale? How can the beauty of large-scale farming, built upon dedicated families and now transitioning to more corporate structures, be maintained?

    I have absolutely no answer – but to range from Texas to Minnesota and back, watching the harvest in all its stages along the way, certainly raised these and similar questions.

    • Large-scale agriculture is necessary to sustain the seven billion population — no question about that. Lessons of face-to-face can be applied at town meetings, neighborhood associations, water associations (acequias) and the like. Over-consumption of resources and social hierarchy are our basic problems in societies. Fables are spun to keep the commonweal “content.” Face-to-face meetings whether in northern New Mexico or coastal Texas brings participation and expels alienation and fabrications. Being close to the soil whether with a window box of flowers and herbs or subsistence farming teaches the reality of food chains and cycles of birth, maturation, death. The corruption of human relations “can” be exposed with being close to the soil and face-to-face associations — the social hierarchy, over-consumption of scarce resources that are basic problems. My approach is anthropological — see Marvin Harris. I despair, however, that these turns off the road can be corrected. Other times, I think we can make course corrections. It can hardly be done at acequia association meetings, so I despair further. Alas.

      • “Being close to the soil whether with a window box of flowers and herbs or subsistence farming teaches the reality of food chains and cycles of birth, matu ration, death.”

        -I totally agree!!

      • I nearly said I’ve not thought much about social hierarchies, but when I consider the title of my unwritten book – “I Passed for Blue Collar” – there’s a suggestion that’s not quite true. I do live with a foot in at least two different worlds, and there are times when it’s quite an interesting experience.

        Now that I’ve had time to think more about this post, I’ve realized that my favorite fantasy – which involves lawyers, academics, professional religious and such doing manual labor on a regular basis – is directly related to your points about the importance of face-to-face contact.

        As for overconsumption – of course you’re right. And we live in a society that’s turned the old saying on its head, teaching us in a hundred ways that “invention is the mother of necessity”. If they make it, we will buy it, because we’re told we must have it.


      • Several of my friends have degrees and engage in manual labor and a few have dropped their professional status to work full-time — that’s not for all of us, I know. But, as a sample: a lawyer that builds fence and tends cattle; a former undergraduate dean that is building strawbale structures in Utah; a philosophy professor that tends horses, cattle and builds fence (fence building is big-time occupation it seems). These activities put them out in the field, close to nature, yet they have the life of the mind, professional backgrounds. “I Passed for Blue Collar” sounds like a great possibility, especially since you varnish marine craft — am I correct? — but was in academics out on the west coast?

        My background is academics (fifty-one years of college, university life with forty-five teaching), but I live in the country and perform “some” manual work — not a lot. I have to be outside in field work; for me, it’s my nature. Combining science or humanities with field work is what I like to do — nature observations, archeology, anthropological data collection, map reading, surveying, wildlife tending, native grass restoration. I’m a classic Jeffersonian in the sense that being close to the soil puts me in touch with real things, not the artifice of the city or Old World civilization (although I love to walk the streets of Paris and Berlin).

        I think of your coastal residence and it conjures up pleasant memories for me in Galveston and Corpus. When I am on the beach and can hear the waves, I am relaxed and fall asleep quickly (all depending on the weather, of course). Same thing with the wind in the trees up in the high country of New Mexico in a sleeping bag.

  6. What a contrast to the water rich northeast where we take an abundance of water for granted. My artesian well overflows about 20,000 gallons of water a day out the top of the well head and I run it through a pipe to the brook that runs parallel to our land.

    Communities are built around people working together, forming solid relationships, and exchanging ideas. In my opinion you can judge the health of a community by how people interact with each other. Lots of smiling faces, its a good place. Lots of frowns probably not so good.

    It sure looks like a beautiful place Jack. One worthy of a good tenant like yourself and your wife.

    • What an abundance you have — 20,000 gallons! I agree. Lots of smiles versus frowns. I think the interacting quite important. We have a water board here that people need to attend the monthly meetings. Not many show up. We are in a terrible drought down here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s