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The Desert Smells Like Rain

A Naturalist in Papago Indian Country

by Gary Paul Nabhan

148 pages, paperback, University of Arizona Press, 2002

In The Desert Smells Like Rain, ethnobiologist Gary Nabhan describes his visits with contemporary Papago Indians, the Tohono O'oodham or "Desert People". Drawing on his extensive scientific research and study of Papago folklore, as well as his years of work among the Desert People in village gardening and nutrition programs, Nabhan portrays a desert- adapted way of life that has persisted despite the pressures of modern civilization.

Praise for The Desert Smells Like Rain

"Gary Nabhan's compassionate observation of Papago land ethics is important work, capable of broad application. He is a naturalist in the full sense of the word, because he has not forgotten the people."--Barry Lopez

"He manages, in a series of spare and sometimes tantalizing selections, to convey a real sense of people and their environment."--The Village Voice

"His eyes are those of a scientist, his prose and vision a poet's: spare, evocative, respectful of both facts and mysteries."--Orion Nature Quarterly

Quotes from The Desert Smells Like Rain

"The Papago farmland in [Organ Pipe Cactus National] Monument was condemned without Congressional order, and without consultation with the Papago Tribe. By 1962, the National Park Service had destroyed all sixty-one structures remaining at A'al Waipia and the Growler Mine, wiping away most of the signs of human history in the Monument.

"Bob Thomas of the Arizona Republic later commented on the Park Service's superficial commitment to its mandate of preserving '. . . various objects of historic and scientific interest.' In a 1967 article entitled 'Price of Progress Comes High, ' Thomas wrote:

Near Quitobaquito on the Organ Pipe National Monument a few years ago a government bulldozer knocked down the home of the late Jose Juan, a Papago Indian who lived there all his life. In doing so, workmen churned up the only known stratification of human habitation between Ajo and Yuma.
" He added that the Papago:
. . . distrust the government's promises to protect the park's treasures. In the past, the government has unknowingly or unfeelingly destroyed historic and prehistoric artifacts in the area.
" By this destruction, the Park Service gained a bird sanctuary to provide tourists with a glimpse of wild plants and animals that gather around a desert water source.

"Or so they thought. For an odd thing is happening at their 'natural' bird sanctuary. They are losing the heterogeneity of the habitat, and with it, the birds. The old trees are dying. Few new ones are being regenerated. There are only three cottonwoods left, and four willows. These riparian trees are essential for the breeding habitat of certain birds. Summer annual seedplants are conspicuously absent from the pond's surroundings. Without the soil disturbance associated with plowing and flood irrigation, these natural foods for birds and rodents no longer germinate.

"Visiting A'al Waipia and Ki:towak on back-to- back days three time during one year, ornithologists accompanying me encountered more birds at the Papago village than at the 'wildlife sanctuary.' Overall, we identified more than sixty-five species at the Papago's Ki:towak, and less than thirty-two a the Park Services' A'al Waipia. As Dr. Amadeo Rea put it, 'It is as if someone fired a shotgun just before we arrived there.' The conspicuous absences were more revealing than what we actually encountered.'

"When I explained to Remedio that we were finding far fewer birds and plants at the uninhabited oasis, he grew introspective. Finally, the Papago farmer had to speak:

" 'I've been thinking over what you say about not so many birds living over there anymore. That's because those birds, they come where the people are. When the people live and work in a place, and plant their seeds and water their trees, the birds go live with them. They like those places, there's plenty to eat and that's when we are friends to them.'

"I think that Remedio would even argue that it is natural for birds to cluster at human habitations, around fields and fencerows. I'll go even further. It's in a sense natural for desert-dwelling humans over the centuries to have gathered around the A'al Waipia and Ki:towak oases. And although they didn't keep these places as pristine wilderness environments--an Anglo-American expectation of parks in the West--the Papago may have increased their biological diversity.

"So if you're ever down in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and visit the Park Service wildlife sanctuary of Quitobaquito, remember that an old Papago place called A'al Waipia lies in ruin there. Its spirit is alive, less than forty miles away, in a true Sonoran Desert oasis. There, the irrigation ditches are filled with tules, and they radiate out from the pond into the fields like a green sunburst. Ki:towak.

. . .

"In the late 1950s, a Sonoran Desert ecologist tried to simulate the gentle winter rains in an attempt to make the desert bloom. Lloyd Tevis used untreated groundwater from a well, sprayed up through a sprinkler, to encourage wildflower germination on an apparently lifeless patch of desert. While Tevis did trigger germination of one kind of desert wildflower with a little less than two inches of fake rain, none germinated with less than an inch. In general, production of other wildflowers required more than three or four inches of fake rain.

"Tevis was then surprised to see what happened when less than an inch of real rain fell on his experimental site in January. He noticed in the previously sparse vegetation 'a tremendous emergence of seedlings. Real rain demonstrated an extraordinary superiority over the artificial variety to bring about a high rate of germination.' With one particular kind of desert wildflower, seedlings were fifty-six times more numerous after nearly an inch of real rain than they were after the more intense artificial watering.

"The stimulating power of rain in the desert is simply more than moisture. Be it the nutrients released in a rainstorm, or the physical force of the water, there are other releasing mechanisms associated with rainwater."

. . .

"Concomitant with the resurgence of interest in rainfall and floodwater harvesting is a new appreciation of the value of desert-adapted crops. Yet many of the traditional drought-hardy crop varieties fell out of use and became extinct when commercial agriculture based on pumping and hybrid crops was initiated earlier in this century. Papago, leaving their floodwater fields to work for wages in irrigated fields, lost many of their bean and corn varieties as the life of the remaining seeds expired while they were away. At the same time, their water control structures deteriorated, and the washes which fed them were disrupted by new roads and livestock ponds.

"As Daniel Janzen points out, 'What escapes the eye . . . is a much more insidious kind of extinction: the extinction of ecological interaction.' Not just crops were lost--whole field ecosystems atrophied. Roughly 10,000 acres of crops were grown via Papago runoff farming in 1913; by 1960, there were only 1,000 acres of floodwater fields on the Papago Indian Reservation. Today, Papago sporadically farm less than 100 acres using floodwaters.

"While the remaining acreage is minuscule, it is all that is left of an ecologically sensitive subsistence strategy that has endured in deserts for centuries. Here, not only a rich heritage of crops remains, but also co-evolved microorganisms and weeds, as well as pests and beneficial insects. Amaranths, for instance, are hosts for insects that control corn-loving pests. Papago fields harbor nitrogen-fixing bacteria which naturally associate with tepary bean roots. A species of solitary bee has been found visiting annual devil's claw in Papago fields, but despite a thorough search has not been found on wild annual devil's claw elsewhere.

"Moreover, there is a mutually beneficial relationship between these plants and their Papago stewards; the Papago have evolved field management skills that have allowed them to sustain food production for centuries without destroying the desert soils. The plants have evolved the ability to grow quickly, root deeply, disperse heat loads, and provide nutritious seeds for those who harvest them. These durable functional relationships between humans and other life forms are the products of a slow evolution and cannot be remade in a day. No amount of academic research on water harvesting and drought- hardy crops can replace a time-tried plant/man symbiosis such as that in which the Papago have participated."

. . .

"The most important soil amendment for Papago fields is not something the People themselves carry into the fields--they merely encourage floods to haul it in. By properly locating their fields "at the mouths of washes,' and by constructing low, water-spreading fences of woven brush, they help floodwater to dump its load of debris within the fields. Drifts of this material, called wako'ola, are left behind the water- spreaders after the flood has moved on.

"Rummaging through a foot-high drift of wako'ola that had been deposited on a field near Topowa, I was surprised at the organic richness of its contents: rodent dung, mesquite leaves, mulch developed under trees, and water-smoothed twigs. The farmers at Topowa take this flotsam, spread it, and plow it into their soil. Enough of this humus comes into their fields to add an inch of organic matter to the cultivated surface each growing season, reducing soil alkalinity and increasing moisture- holding capacity.

"The significance of this technique is obscure until one realizes how typically impoverished desert soils are in organic matter. Remedio's new field, before it had even been worked, had an organic content of less than one half of one percent, and this is typical of arid lands. The Topowa field, having gathered flood detritus and drift for at least a century, had an organic content of five percent, comparable to that of good Grain Belt soil. And whereas Midwestern farmlands are annually losing forty or fifty tons of topsoil per acre and millions of dollars worth of nutrients to erosion, some Papago fields are gaining good soil."

Table of Contents of The Desert Smells Like Rain

  1. On the Trail of I'itor--a Pilgrimage into the Baboquivari Mountains
  2. Throwing Up the Clouds--Cactus Wine, Vomit, and Rain
  3. What Do You Do When the Rain is Dying?
  4. Changos del Desierto--Growing Up on the Reservation
  5. Raising Hell as Well as Wheat--Papago Indians Burying the Borderline
  6. Plants Which Coyote Steals, Spoils, and Shits On
  7. Where the Birds Are Our Friends--The Tale of Two Oases
  8. Gathering
  9. Given Over to Santos and Spices--Magdalena's Fiesta
  10. You Make the Earth Good by Your Work

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