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Vagneur: The ‘primitive’ life

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

The disappearing sun is my cue to head to the horse pasture and change my irrigation water for the end of the day. There’s quietude, a stillness in the air that not even dawn can find, a feeling of treasure that pulls you in, much like a loving woman does to provide comfort to your senses. The biting bugs are gone, and the water shows its course, as sure and unswerving as you’ve directed it. The horses, enjoying the same encroaching ink against the canvas of the dying sun, take you in, unselfishly sharing their inner sanctum, however fleeting. It’s a peace of mind the horses and I enjoy.

After receiving an explanation and demonstration of flood irrigation on his land, the new owner replied, and I quote, “How primitive.” Primitive comes in all forms, and I suppose the above bucolic scene could be considered primitive, but somehow it doesn’t ring true. As the gossamer veneer of the midnight shadows falls across the rumpled covers of his king-size bed, does the new owner consider the positions he and his paramour adopt during lovemaking to be primitive? Or is today’s sexual activity a step up, a contemporary invention of our free will, not primitive, but maybe a utopian, utilitarian or romantic act that mankind has been engaging in since we resigned the Garden of Eden? Flood irrigation started about the same time, and if you ask me, we’re talking bait out of the same bucket, just tied with a different ribbon.

However “primitive” some may think, flood irrigation (for watering grass, hay and other crops) is still the method of choice for most of the farms and ranches in Colorado. Drive to Grand Junction or Paonia, and witness the massive aqueducts used to move irrigation water. Or drive north of Denver, and view the thousands upon thousands of acres of farmland that still rely on flood irrigation. Just like peace of mind or sex, it’s really not going out of style and is not exactly primitive, either, although many men, especially those raised in the shadows of tall buildings, find it difficult to understand the intricacies of flood irrigation.

The Romans were good at irrigation concepts and moved water through canals of immense proportions, not only for irrigation but for drinking and drainage. Such ideas probably originated in Greece and Egypt, but I mention Roman because the people of Aosta, Italy, brought flood irrigation to the Roaring Fork Valley. They grew up with a mindset that understood the relationship between aqueducts and successful farming practices and put those principles to work almost immediately.

In 1902, my great-grandfather, Jeremie Vagneur, was hired as superintendent of construction to build the Salvation Ditch from above Aspen to the “lowlands” of Aspen Valley Ranch. This after an engineer of non-Italian descent had platted the ditch to run uphill, a mistake my great-granddad promptly corrected. Italian men — digging by hand and with horse-drawn machinery — got the job done in 1903, and the canal is still a critical resource to those living on McLain Flats and in Woody Creek.

Current government thinking would have us believe that irrigation with sprinklers is far more effective, uses less water and covers the ground in a more efficient manner. To tell the truth, open-air sprinklers for agricultural purposes can be quite effective in sandy soil, but as you likely know, we live in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. And let’s face it — if you live in the mountains and have to run a pump to get live surface water to sprinklers, it’s kind of like, to use another term of liquid endearment, pissing up a rope: not very efficient. OK, I’ll leave lawns and gardens out of this — small ones, anyway.

Henry Stein and his Mill Iron Ranch on McLain Flats had about the only truly effective agricultural sprinkler system I’ve ever seen in the upper valley. Henry got his water out of the Red Mountain Ditch high above his ranch and stored it in a deep pond overlooking the hay meadows down below. He lined out two rows of sprinklers, served by aluminum pipes, top to bottom in his hayfields and opened the valve. Constant water 24/7, the pressure provided by gravity, only being shut off long enough to move the sprinkler lines to the next set.

Go stand in the middle of a meadow under a sprinkler system, and tell me it provides the same soul-invigorating feeling that standing in flood-irrigation water does. Your horses won’t come talk to you, and your sense of place becomes miserable and wet. There’s no gurgle from the dead metal sprinklers, only an opaque hiss. You can tell me a lot, but don’t try to B.S. me with the idea that flood irrigation is primitive.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.


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