Back in Albuquerque, I finally found a 1st edition of a book I've been searching for the last year, River of Traps by writer William deBuys and photographer Alex Harris. When it came out in 1990, the book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize but both author and photographer weren't very well-known. deBuys had written one other New Mexico-centric book, Enchantment and Exploitation, and Harris had just founded the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University after years of photographing native Alaskans and living in New Mexico. Today, deBuys has published widely on the topic of desertification and conservation and Harris' work is in collections like MOMA and the Getty.
River of Traps has become something of a quiet cult classic (it was reissued in 2008) because it is so unusual: loosely-connected observations about a New Mexico farmer, Jacobo Romero, who was a neighbor to deBuys and and Harris on their own farm in northern New Mexico, accompanied by black and white photographs. Much of the book follows Romero through his fields and village as he cryptically explains the complexities of irrigation or fence-making. He didn't necessarily have revolutionary ideas or major accomplishments to his name. He wasn't even well-known during his lifetime beyond his small village. It's just that over time, he has become a representation of a way of life and a kind of deeply-indigenous knowledge--the product of generations of stewardship of the land--that has become so rare it is nearly extinct, even in New Mexico. His significance has become clearer and more urgent over the years. .
I think some of the best passages from River of Traps are descriptions of Romero's brutally pragmatic relationship to death, an attitude born of survival and utilitarianism, even when it was the passing of a horse that had carried and toiled for him for over 30 years only to die in a fairly tragic fashion during a flood.
"Alex never photographed the red horse, and the red horse never had a name. Like much else in the history of small places, the horse epitomized something basic about the land that nourished it. It was an embodiment, literally, of the valley's grass and water, and a relic of its weather. LIving, it had been a definition of local horsiness, ridden by an old man and plodding as slowly as the change of seasons down the dusty village road. The red horse passed its years, stalwart and unique, then dropped from sight, and eventually will drop from memory too, as slowly, without it, the place changes... The virtue of namelessness was that it made the unforgettable easier to avoid. Jacobo never mentioned the red horse. Nor did anyone. As the dead had no name, no one spoke of the dead, and its presence could not intrude, unwanted in conversation. Memories were locked away. Jacbobo's sense of loss--and everyone's--became as personal as fingerprints."
One more on the subject of death:
"In the mountains the touch of death was never far away. An animal died or was killed somewhere in the valley nearly every day. You shot the cow, or in the old-fashioned way, clubbed it with an ax or a maul, you did it with dispatch. But never with grace. No cow or hog ever fell in the right position, and the aftermath of its death, the turning and bleeding and lugging around, was invariably messy and difficult. Killing a sheep was different. A sheep does not struggle or even protest its own death and accordingly does not merit a bullet. YOu straddle its back, grasp it by the lower jaw, pull back the head and slice the throat deeply with a knife, cutting to the spine if you can to be sure of severing the arteries. A chicken's death, meanwhile, was scarcely noticed; you simply swung it round by the head, casually, like a toy."