Fed by water 

The art of eating upstream

Saturday morning, five minutes past seven. I am alone on the farm. Down the pot-holed drive lurches the white delivery truck, bearing a delicate cargo of dawn harvest lettuce, new potatoes, carrots, broccoli, chard, cilantro, buckets of brilliant lupine spears, scales and bags and bundles. It is Market Day—the farmers have gone to town with their vegetables and their child.

The sun climbs out of the Sapphire range and does not need to remind me that I have work to do. Now begins the puzzle. This morning I will move a battered array of aluminum pipe into a careful network, following the instructions scrawled on the box top I hold in my hand. My job, to irrigate the fields, sounds simple. It is not.

Before the morning is out I will no doubt be drenched, bedraggled, muddy and mystified. Balancing two 60-foot-long, four-inch-diameter pipes (barely) on my shoulders I will oh-so-gently graze the electric fence and receive a not-so-gentle shock. Or, I will forget to fasten an end plug, flooding the corn and losing an hour to re-alignment. I will watch two rainbird sprinkler heads blow out at once, two faithful geysers at opposite ends of the seven-acre field. Pipes lost in the pasture, pump failure at the pond. And yet, by the end of the morning, I will stand right where I am now watching the steady, obedient water arcs feed dusty lettuces and thirsty onions. Until the next blowout.

Irrigation makes me nervous, all that mountain water and the pressure behind it. Understanding where the water comes from only makes me more uneasy. The water sprinkling benignly over the perennial beds gathers to the west in the Bitterroot range, on the other side of a nebulous “wilderness boundary,” in the late-spring, high peak snowpack. I’ve seen the dams, the 1930s monuments to public works and government subsidy. I’ve swum with joy in stump-skirted reservoirs, hiked up and down the Bitterroot drainages by raucous creeks and traced ditches to irrigation ponds. Well, I tried to trace our irrigation ditch back to the Bear Creek headgate, but I bogged down in the feedlot swamp. Knowing the water, its path and swell, knowing that this water feeds me and other people in this valley who rely on it to shape a living, I still quake a bit in my irrigation boots.

I come from a place where it rains, where the rains are as regular as spring robins, not the famine or flood of this region, where one summer stretches on into an unbroken, cloudless heat wave and the next washes away roads and flattens houses with the dense force of its storms. To live in a place that depends on borrowed water, to work on a farm that requires this loan to survive, shakes my sense of what’s right.

After two summers in the valley, fully complicit in the water politics of this place, I begin to recognize my ritual patterns for atonement. Often, warm evenings after work, I hike up Sweathouse Creek with a fellow farm-hand friend. We are two dirty, determined young women walking the trail to the waterfall. When we arrive, first we lodge the beers into a chill moss creek nook. Then, where the water scours out a bowl before chasing pell-mell down slick rock, we dip our bodies and send alluvial silt through irrigation ditches back to the valley floor where it belongs. Baptized, we sit on the rock lip sipping stout, eating huckleberries, watching the wedge of valley kingdom darken between the crown of pines. Richard Hugo once wrote from Sweathouse: I found a virgin forest with a moss floor./You and I can love there. Pack the food. We carry out our Sweathouse hikes solemnly, and return to the dusk trailhead cleaner for it.

Go to the Hamilton Super One supermarket and look up. At the end of each grocery aisle hangs a sign: Sweeney, Bass, Kootenai, Bear, Sheafman, Blodgett, Tin Cup. The drainages of the Bitterroot march, in their proper north to south orientation, through the sterile, jumbled landscape of the convenience supermarket. Someone has commandeered the drainage names to use them as markers for commercial goods, the symbol of a culture severed from its sources. Each aisle spews out canned pineapple and imported pasta, salmon paste and beef-a-roni, all food once watered by an unnamed, unknown source. The drainage signs create a meta-landscape where Bitterroot inhabitants can hike up the wild, landmark canyons to fetch their chocolate chips and frozen crab. Is this a marketing scheme, capitalizing on regional landscape to increase sales by encouraging a subliminal sense of exploration and hearty recreation? Or is this an honest, if bizarre, attempt to acknowledge the cultural and economic importance of these mountain creeks?

Imagine a grocery store stocked with grains and produce grown in the Bitterroot valley. Winter wheat, foothill barley and Sunset Bench peppers. Potatoes from the alluvial flats, apples grown on the skirts of glacial till at the base of each canyon. Local yogurt, beef, turkey. Then imagine the same signs marking each aisle. The connection would be obvious and profound: these creeks make this food possible. Instead we are faced with a jarring gap between the symbol and object. The signage points out only the irony of the relationship. Most, if not all, of the food at Super One originated far from the arid farming belt of the Bitterroot. The signs should rightly read: Colorado, Sacramento, San Joaquin. These are the rivers sacrificed daily for the creation of this food. We displace responsibility for distant very real rivers into a capitalist no-man’s land. If we do not know where our food comes from, how can we expect to be held accountable for the effects of its production?

From the fields where I work we have a clear view to the domed south face of St. Mary’s Peak, a dominant Bitterroot presence. While harvesting early June lettuce, Steve, the farmer I work with, looked up at the snow-slabbed peak and casually passed on the local wisdom of an old rancher. The Bitterroot rancher had told Steve that if a certain stripe of snow stayed on St. Mary’s south ridge until the Fourth of July, then the valley would have enough water for the entire summer.

Enough? Barry Lopez comments: “The more superficial a society’s knowledge of the real dimensions of the land it occupies becomes, the more vulnerable the land is to exploitation, to manipulation for short term gain. The land, virtually powerless before political and commercial entities, finds itself finally with no defenders. It finds itself bereft of intimates with indispensable, concrete knowledge.” Steve’s knowing where to find the telling band of snow is perhaps one indicator of the health of a community, a grounded awareness of limits and balance.

But is the stripe of snow calibrated to 1990’s irrigation load, or 1940’s? Does it take into account stream levels required to prevent fish kills in the creeks? Unanswerable questions, though important. At any rate, the laminated drainage signs in the supermarket represent the inverse of Lopez’s local knowledge: names severed from the places they describe, drained of their use and significance.

So I shuttle irrigation pipe on a 10-acre organic truck farm in a valley that receives on average less than 14 inches of rainfall a year, wrestling with the implications. I’m tempted to say that it is enough to pay attention, to know where the water begins, to let yourself be uneasy in your irrigation boots and to use the water with this awareness in hand. Is it? We need the metaphor of the grocery store drainages to bring us around. Every time a farmer in the arid West of this country irrigates a field, she establishes a connection with the source of her water. Too often these water sources are distant and abstract, separated from the irrigator by elaborate regulations and miles of pipe. The rivers and habitats that pay the price lie far beyond mountain ranges and fences of political red tape.

In places like the Bitterroot, the connection between the farmer and the source can be literal and immediate (so immediate that the ditch-rider responsible for allocating water rights thinks it wise to carry a shotgun in the dry month of August). The valley’s health depends on the health of its contiguous wild space. Dams built in the thirties by Civilian Conservation Corps workers hold back reservoirs, mimicking the role of old glacial moraines. Does the fact that these dams now lie in designated wilderness areas erode the “wild” quality of the land? If yes, it is only because “wilderness” is a slippery and fluid concept to begin with. Our definitions cannot contain wilderness without these boundaries any more than we could stop the melt water from running downhill. Maybe, if farmers and others use water resources carefully, the monolith dams and their late-summer bathtub rings actually do us a service by making visible the reciprocal relations between human settlements and the uninhabited land they depend on. The dams are a compromise, a reminder of our responsibility to practice restraint, and care.

In the end, I water the fields because I am hungry, because I live here now, because I am trying to hold up my end of the bargain. When we harvest the potatoes, turn each spud out of its home in the loose, dark soil, I will remember that the ruddy, delicate skins cover stones made of the water we fed them. I will know how much water it takes to swell a potato. I will say thank you by eating the tubers in a cream sauce with fresh green peas.

Sometime Missoula resident Caitlin Desilvey is currently studying historical geography in the UK. This essay first appeared under the title “Wild Water” in Staying Home: Reflections on Food, Farming, and Place, published by Garden City Harvest.

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