Review: River of Traps: A Village Trap by William deBuys & Alex Harris Print

river_of_traps(San Diego Union-Tribune November 23, 1990)

The Old Man and the Land of Enchantment

Perhaps no other region in the United States has captivated the soul of artists and common people as fervently as northern New Mexico. The high desert first lured the Anasazi, whose glyphs and ruins can still be found in stark, sacred settings.

As norteno, the northern extreme of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the area attracted the heartiest families to its mountains, where Spanish Catholicism has been imbued with Native American legend and myth.

Today northern New Mexico is the heart of the U.S. Southwest, represented best by the Indian markets of Santa Fe and the desert-and-bone paintings of Georgia O'Keefe. River of Traps further deepens this love affair between artist and place, lingering on the region's Hispanic life and one of its partriarchs, 80-year-old Jacobo Romero.

His story is told by William deBuys, a recent Anglo migrant, who settled next door to Jacobo and formed with him a 10-year friendship.

It is told also with Alex Harris' photographs, which depict Jacobo's daily existence and his dependence on the land and his neighbors. With deBuys' evocative prose and Harris' sparse pictures blending easily, the book documents the three men's friendship, Jacobo's last years and a passing away of self-sufficient agrarian life. Many Anglo-Americans who wandered away from their families' suburban, spiritually-dead lives in the 1970s were drawn to northern New Mexico, to the peaceableness of its people and the grandeur of its scenery.

Alex, deBuys writes, "was a photographer, just starting out, and quiet by nature. Once he mentioned that the mountains kept a person far enough away from critics and curators that he didn't have to struggle not to hear them."

"I, meanwhile, was writing a book, though for a long time I wasn't sure about what, except that the mountains had to figure in it. The high country was my anchor, solid and constant. I wrote in my journal that the years of Nixon and Vietnam had rendered everything else unreliable."

Their neighbor, Jacobo, took a liking to the gringos, mostly because to survive they needed his knowledge of how to irrigate their hayfield and garden. Water is scarce in the southwest, but the Rockies hold it in accumulated snowfall.

In Jacobo's village of El Valle, the water flows out of the Sangre de Cristo mountains and down the Rio de las Trampas (trampas = traps), from which it is diverted for irrigation.

Each user has one day, every few weeks, to take his share, spread it over his land, and then release it for the next user down the line: "Jacobo fitted a gray pine board, its sides smooth from long use, in the guide slots of the log so that it stood where the log had been hewn.

He tapped the board down with the shovel.

The ditch water, backing against the board, seemed to pause for an instant and then burst loudly through the hollowed side gate toward the field.

The ditch continued to fill against the board and in a moment shot a smooth and resonant curtain of water over the top of it.

Jacobo pried the board higher for a moment and then tapped it part way down again, each change blending a new sound from the voices of the water.

Finally the volume charging through the side gate suited him, and he turned and followed the water to the field." In chapter after chapter of telling, unsentimental prose, deBuys records Jacobo's daily tasks -- their dignity, tragedy, lessons of survival.

There are many poignant scenes that deBuys' renders masterfully with a documentary-like realism: the night Jacobo's horse is trapped in a ditch, its back legs break, and it must be killed; the gaggle of Hispanic men who control the local Democratic party politics; the yearly cycles of chopping firewood, slaughtering livestock, managing April floods. Though Jacobo's waning years are ther centerpiece, it is deBuys' insight into how this man embodies the fickle nature of the land he tends that eventually becomes the story.

Only a storyteller in love with his subject and at temporary peace with his own wanderlust could discover the old way and tell it. "(The old ones) had been born and a land where time was not confused with money and where money, by itself, was not considered unequivocally good.

Their generation was the last to tend its ideas, like its sheep, in valleys remote from the markets of the world.

Jacobo, I eventually learned, may not have been exceptional because he spoke feelingly of the bygone days—there were many who did that.

But he may have been exceptional because his good health and vigor enabled him to live out their values for so long." The elegant production by University of New Mexico Press—thick, semi-glossy pages from which the text and the photographs shine—mirrors the luminous portrait these two artists have created in remembering Jacobo Romero.