This April, as the communal irrigation ditches known as acequias run with spring melt and farmers carve new furrows into their fields, many northern New Mexico villages will celebrate their annual homecoming. This is the time of the limpia –– the cleaning of the acequia, when water-rights holders and their families gather to haul rocks, dig mud and clear brush, honoring a tradition so old that its followers can only guess at its roots. In some villages, the tradition has died out as young people move to cities in search of employment and the elderly pass on. But in El Cerrito, a small agrarian community on the Pecos River 60 miles southeast of Santa Fe, more people come home to attend the limpia every year.
El Cerrito has been photographer Sharon Stewart's creative ground for two decades. Now based in Chacon, N.M., Stewart grew up among canals and pump houses in southern Texas. Her great-grandfather was a photographer, and her father a water district attorney. She earned a degree in economics at the University of Texas, and after an uninspired fling with business school, helped found the Houston Center for Photography. Her work has been featured in galleries across the United States and in Europe.
Selected images from Stewart's El Cerrito portfolio, El Agua es la Vida, are part of Earth Now: American Photographers and the Environment, an exhibition that features Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter along with contemporary artists like Stewart, for whom landscape photography has evolved into a wider genre -- one that explores the human cultural connection with the American landscape. Earth Now opens at the New Mexico Museum of Art on April 8 and will run through Oct. 9.
High Country News: You say acequias are the Southwest's oldest water systems -- so old, in fact, that the villagers don't really remember their origin. Where does this tradition come from, or is it a mystery?
Sharon Stewart: When the Spanish settled here, the first two things they established were the church and the water system: Faith and water, if you will. They learned these irrigation techniques from the Moors who occupied Spain for 700 years, and before that the tradition came across Northern Africa from the Indus River Valley, which is modern-day Pakistan.
So the acequias are likely a confluence of our indigenous American arid farming techniques and those brought by the Spanish conquistadores. In Tucson, several years ago, they discovered traces of an irrigation system that dated back to 1200 B.C. In El Cerrito, though, you could say it's still somewhat of a mystery. We have a long oral tradition in northern New Mexico, but there was no word passed along -- nothing like, "My great-great-great-grandfather Luis established the water system."
High Country News: It has a supernatural or spiritual element, as you say -- the merging of faith with water.
Sharon Stewart: When I ask the people of El Cerrito why they think this village survived when others have not, they'll look me straight in the eye and say, "The water." The people care so much for the acequias that they'll put aside their usual tussles -- fence lines moved, or water taken when it's not someone's turn -- to work together on the ditch. It's deep culture, deep ritual.
High Country News: Tell me about the limpia ritual.
Sharon Stewart: The mayordomo -- the person elected to oversee the care of the ditch -- will walk the acequia to see if there are any problems. Then he or she will turn off the head gate at the diversion dam, let the ditch dry out and make marks in the ditch, 33 inches in length. Between each mark is a tarea, a task. On the morning of the limpia, people will line up in the ditch and choose who they're going to work with -- who will be on their left, and who on their right. They have shovels and picks and shears, and they set to work cleaning their tarea. If you come across a difficult spot -- say a muskrat has burrowed through and there's a hole to repair, or a big rock has tumbled down the hill into the ditch -- people will help. Men will come with sledgehammers to break up rocks, lift them out. Then when you're finished in the back, you walk to the front and take the next tarea. It's a beautiful, continuous line.
High Country News: And people come home from far away for this day?
Sharon Stewart: In the early '70s, it would take a few men every weekend of a month to clean the ditch. Now there are so many people drawn to El Cerrito each spring that you might have 55. They can finish in half a day. Then there's a meal, music and dancing. Lots of people go back and forth between houses to catch up. It's really a celebration of the life of the village.
High Country News: Is the acequia tradition at risk?
Sharon Stewart: People who are part of the acequia culture view water as a communal resource, not a commodity. But there was a point in the late '90s when water speculators were coming in and buying rights. We are a very poor state, and people wanted the cash. But once you sell your water rights, they're forever separated from the land. So the New Mexico Acequia Association set up something called a water bank, where water rights would be held and responsibilities redistributed -- say, if Leo couldn't work on his portion of the ditch, his right would be taken care of by someone else who needed the water. That kept the land and water unified.
High Country News: All of your El Cerrito work is in black-and-white, gelatin silver.
Sharon Stewart: Yes. There's something very meditative about dropping in with a manual camera. I find that having to set the f-stop, the shutter speed, really quiets me. I get much more contemplative with the rhythm of observation.
High Country News: Your photographs are more focused and subtler than, say, earlier landscape prints featured in the same Earth Now exhibit.
Sharon Stewart: Want to talk about Ansel Adams?
High Country News: Sure.
Sharon Stewart: I think he served a great purpose in bringing people to understand the art of photography. His work was about the monumental and majestic. Then we had Eliot Porter, and his was a microcosmic view. He photographed leaves and birds and streams; he was on the ground and integrated. Then we had this period of photography that was about what man has done to the land, which is a bit of the tradition I came out of, although in my landscape work, I've always included people. The work I do is about the interrelationship of humans and our source, our ground note -- earth, air and water -- that nurtures the vessel of our spirit.
High Country News: So when you go into El Cerrito with your camera, what do you look for?
Sharon Stewart: As a photographer who works on very long-term projects, I am a storyteller. You look at that photo of the mayordomo, the people working, the dog, and the ditch's long line up to the canyon. One of my purposes when I photograph is to bring in as many elements as I can into an image's four sides to tell the story's complexity.
High Country News: You've photographed more than the limpia; you've been there in villagers' daily lives, and at religious rituals. After 20 years, they must be comfortable with you.
Sharon Stewart: They're used to being photographed. It's a source of pride. When I first went to El Cerrito, I didn't know its history. One of the old guys, the ancianos, looked at me and said, "Have you ever seen the book on El Cerrito?" And I said, "No." He said, "Well, I'll show you." So we shuffled down a little dirt road to an abandoned car and he pulls out some keys, opens the trunk, and that's where he's keeping the book. This was his library.
El Cerrito is very small now, about 14 people. It was once a thriving village back at the turn of the century. The USDA Bureau of Agricultural Economics funded a study to look at rural life in the United States in the late 1930s and sent a rural sociologist, agricultural economist, and photographer to El Cerrito to document the planting, irrigation -- these kinds of things. And that started a long procession of people coming to El Cerrito -- studying it, photographing it.
High Country News: Do you go back to the village often?
Sharon Stewart: I went back in November, and it was very interesting. The village was so quiet. As I walked around, I had my own memories of the place from having gone there for so many years --those echoes of memory. It kind of surprised me. I was like, I really have a relationship with this village -- and not only of looking in and asking people about their lives, but of my own.