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Maynard Dixon. LAST LEAFAGE. 1935. Oil. 25" x 30". Courtesy of Brigham Young University Museum of Art. All rights reserved. T o w a r d a S y m b io s is o f E c o l o g y a n d J u s t ic e : W a t e r a n d L a n d C o n f l i c t s in F r a n k W a t e r s , J o h n N i c h o l s , a n d J i m m y S a n t i a g o B a c a T o m L y n c h It’s spring in northern New Mexico. Water creeps through a ditch, first just a trickle sucked into the dry soil, barely dampening the ground. White foam advances before dark brown water. Then dried leaves, fallen into the ditch last autumn, begin to turn, float, drift ahead. Sticks lift on the surge. Tumbleweeds stir, start to roll with the advancing water. Sluggish worms, beetles awaken. Overhead, cottonwood trees flare new green leaves from bare branches. Tight stands of willows shimmer with red and yellow twigs. Sleek, arrogant magpies glide in, perch on the cottonwoods, peer and squawk from the branches, assessing the progress of the season. Warblers pause in migration, twitter in the bushes, search wild rose bramble for tasty bugs. The mayordomo— the local ditch boss—strolls along the ditchbank , rake flung over shoulder. From time to time he bends over the water, plunges in his rake, lifts a crumpled beer can, paper cup, faded plastic rose. This water he’s helping along will be shunted into fields to nourish hay, to quench apricot, peach, and apple trees, to quicken seeds in family garden plots. Watching this bucolic ritual played out under the placid blue sky of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, it’s hard to imagine that this scene lies at the heart of a divisive conflict over land, water, cul­ ture, environmental justice, and a viable ecology. It is a conflict that has ebbed and flowed for the past 160 years and that has inspired some of the most important literature from the region, including works by Frank Waters, John Nichols, and Jimmy Santiago Baca. The upper Rio Grande watershed of southern Colorado and north­ ern New Mexico encompasses a distinctive bioregion. It consists of arid and semiarid plateaus and valleys surrounded by high mountains. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains rise to the east, the San Juan and Jemez A version of this essay appears in Joni Adamson, Rachel Stein, and Mei Mei Evans, eds., The Environmental Justice Reader: Politics, Poetics, and Pedagogy (forthcoming from the University of Arizona Press). 406 W AL 37.4 W IN T E R 2 0 0 3 Mountains to the west. Much of the area is steeply sloped. All waters falling within this basin drain quickly toward the Rio Grande, which slices through a faulted rift zone splitting down the heart of the bioregion . This sort of mountainous terrain in arid regions creates a wide variety of life zones, nurturing a diversity of plants and animals, but such areas are also fragile; the steep, dry land is easily eroded, and thoughtless human impact can have dire and irreparable consequences. The upper Rio Grande bioregion is unique. Environmental histo­ rian William deBuys asserts that “no other region in all of North America so richly combines both ecological and cultural diversity” (6). Geographer Alvar Carlson suggests that this Rio Arriba, or “upper river,” as it is often called, “represents America’s oldest European cul­ tural region where a spatial behavior evolved that is manifested in the landscape in the form of certain settlement and land-use patterns that contributed to the creation of a persistent and distinctive folk environ­ ment” (203). Ernest Atencio, a native of the Rio Arriba country, asserts that “a distinctive culture has developed in the region that remains a dynamic and defining presence today. And after centuries of continu­ ity and adaptation, rural villagers have acquired a powerful sense of belonging, a...


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