The mysticism of mud

by Ernest Atencio

Mud season just ended on the sage-covered mesa north of Taos that I call home. During the last few months, you could tell who lives on dirt roads by the perpetual stripe of mud on their lower pant legs. That's normal. But I have never seen as much mud as I saw this spring.

On the two-mile drive from the pavement to my house, the mud built up in the wheel wells and froze, leaving maybe a millimeter of coarse clearance to abuse my already-worn tires. Slipping and sliding through the foot-deep quagmire, the car sucked goop into every nook and cranny of the undercarriage.

Out here on the high and dry mesa we had so much runoff from snowmelt that homes flooded. People were stranded for days at a time. A babbling brook flowed across our normally parched property for weeks, creating a sizeable pond behind a simple check dam across a gully.

Last November, we braced ourselves for the predicted La Niña drought. Now, neighbors who have lived out here longer than we have say they haven't seen this much water in over 20 years.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service says that the Sangre de Cristo Mountains just east of us have the greatest snowpack with the highest water content in decades. Taos Ski Valley says this was the best year ever. Local rafting outfitters are beginning what's sure to be a wet and wild summer. New Mexico will meet all its water delivery obligations to Texas. The gentry will water their Kentucky bluegrass sod to their hearts' content. And everyone will forget for one more year that we live in a dry region and that we need to be frugal with our water.

Next year, when we're back to our normal dryness, people will complain about the "drought" as if it's just a passing blip, and we will continue watering golf courses and suburbs and using high-flow plumbing fixtures, waiting for the rains to return.

Maybe we all have a case of eternal optimism. Despite years of drought -- despite all the evidence that the West was always a hot and dry place that is steadily becoming more so -- one snowy winter erases all memory. I have a friend who comes from a much wetter region and fervently believes that the rain and snow will come, even when it's dry as a bone. Two years ago, when we were suffering the worst winter drought on record, he consulted a psychic who convinced him that it would start snowing in January. When January came and went without snow, he revised it to heavy snows in February. Then, March was going to be a record-breaker. I think that psychic left town soon after.

It's a matter of faith akin to the "rain follows the plow" mysticism that brought settlers to the Great Plains in the late 1800s. For decades, pioneers just passed through the "Great American Desert" on their way to greener pastures, but the 1870s and early 1880s saw some of the heaviest sustained rainfall in centuries. The newcomers believed they had brought the weather.

A 19th century amateur scientist and bombastic marketeer of the West named Charles Dana Wilber promoted the theory, saying, "God speed the plow. ... By this wonderful provision, which is only man's mastery over nature, the clouds are dispensing copious rains ... (the plow) is the instrument which separates civilization from savagery; and converts desert into a farm or garden. ... To be more concise, rain follows the plow."

This was more fuel for Manifest Destiny, the idea that the United States was meant to expand westward and that God was on its side. People wanted to believe it, so they did. In about 10 years, nearly 2 million people put down roots and industriously farmed the plains. Until the rains ended, and things dried out again.

You would think we know better these days, but I'm not convinced that we do.

Some of the old acequia farmers still talk about the terrible drought of the 1950s. The acequia tradition -- brought from the other side of the planet by early Indo-Hispano settlers -- has been around long enough to see big fluctuations in the weather, and the farmers have learned to live with it. But that 1950s drought was severe enough to stick in the memory of anyone trying to make a living from the land: It was the longest and driest spell in over a century. Yet tree rings tell us that the '50s, tough as they were, were nothing compared to much drier spells throughout the last 2,000 years. The 30-year rolling average we use to figure "normal" weather skews our perspective into something close to what those High Plains settlers once believed. But enlarge your perspective to the last two millennia, and it's a very dry picture indeed.

Add global warming, and you can see that we're heading for some huge changes. Hotter and Drier is the ominous title of a recent report by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and the Natural Resources Defense Council. It says that the American West is heating and drying up faster than the rest of the planet. According to University of New Mexico climatologist David Gutzler, there will be zero snowpack in the northern New Mexico Rockies by the end of the century, if not sooner. Imagine what skiing and runoff will be like in the meantime. Before too long, I won't have a reason to complain about springtime mud.

But for the moment, getting down the driveway is a mucky chore, and we have more water than we know what to do with. It would be nice to believe that maybe all those scientists are wrong, and that we really are the chosen ones. Maybe the rain will continue to mystically follow us across the West. But maybe not. Anyway, we'll worry about that next year.


Ernest Atencio is a writer and anthropologist who spends most of his time working on land conservation in his northern New Mexico homeland. He finally got all the mud off his car.

This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.

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