Sustainability by Karie Luidens

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How can we as a species come back from the brink of destructive over-consumption, and turn instead toward more sustainable systems, systems that allow us to obtain the resources we require as part of a balanced ecosystem that can continue to replenish itself (and therefore us) in perpetuity? 

How can we learn to live in harmony with the world that sustains us? 

That is the question. 

And the answers aren’t terribly mysterious or impossibly difficult: we can find them in the lives we humans led for thousands and thousands of years before industrialization threw us into overdrive and drew us away from the land and spiraled us out of all balance. To quote Roxanne Swentzell in her introduction to The Pueblo Food Experience Cookbook:

If our economy dried up tomorrow, if the stores closed, what could you make to eat with the resources you have now? This thought has always led me back to my ancestors, who were the true permaculturalists of this arid Southwest. They figured out how to live sustainably in this environment for thousands of years. I look to them for answers. (p xiv)

Harmony by Karie Luidens

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Farmer and writer Wendell Berry says it so well, I’m just going to let him sum things up for me today. 

If our war against nature destroys the health of water and soil, and thus inevitably the health of agriculture and our own health, and can only lead to our economic ruin, then we need to try another possibility. And there is only one: If we cannot establish an enduring or even a humanly bearable economy by our attempt to defeat nature, then we will have to try living in harmony and cooperation with her.

By its adoption of the healthy ecosystem as the appropriate standard of agricultural performance, The Land Institute has rejected competition as the fundamental principle of economics, and therefore the applied sciences, and has replaced it with the principle of harmony. In doing so, it has placed its work within a lineage and tradition that predate both industrialism and modern science. The theme of a human and even an economic harmony with nature goes back hundreds of years in the literary record. Its age in the prehistoric cultures can only be conjectured, but we may confidently assume that it is ancient, probably as old as the human race. (Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food pp 177-178)

Survival by Karie Luidens

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Humanity’s rampant destruction of ecosystems isn’t just ugly and toxic in the short term, it threatens the long-term viability of the human race. 

What happens the day that dust storms choke our overheated, drought-ridden cities? That entire watersheds dry up or are rendered undrinkable by leaching toxins or pipeline leaks? That blights wipe out hundreds of miles’ worth of a monoculture crop in a single season? As the saying goes, civilization is always only ever nine meals away from anarchy. 

Understanding, respecting, and conserving balance in the world’s ecosystems isn’t a question of setting aside a few gardens for pleasure and pristine parks in which to hike and camp.

It’s not even a question of acknowledging that other animals have as much of a right to life as we do and protecting their natural habitats alongside our urban sprawl. 

It’s recognizing that we humans are ourselves animals within the ecosystem. We are not a species apart, capable of engineering our way out of every crisis simply because we’re armed with a certain degree of scientific understanding. Our living bodies evolved from the natural world and remain deeply dependent on its delicate cycles. Oxygen, water, food: we cannot conjure these vital ingredients for all of humankind; they must come from the ecosystem.

Our survival depends on the health of the land. 

Imbalance by Karie Luidens

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When we look at the realities of humanity’s rampant extraction and consumption of resources, we see that as a species within the global ecosystem, humanity is taking far more than it’s replenishing. 

Once all humans lived in direct relationship with the land and understood that our lives depended on its health. Now, our artificial isolation has allowed us to collectively forget that our species only survives as a member of delicate ecosystems. In our false senses of superiority and security, we’ve come to treat dirt as just so much empty ground to traverse and develop, assume water and food are just another economic product that will be available for purchase in perpetuity, and dismiss the byproducts of our lifestyles as if they can just be whisked away without consequence when we’re through with them. 

When this attitude shapes our decision-making as a species, we feel free to create urban seas of asphalt that bake in the sun and force rainwater into wasteful flash floods. We divert streams and reservoirs away from the environment into bottling plants and golf courses, and pollute water tables with toxic wastes from mining and fracking. We farm endless fields of monoculture crops soaked in pesticides and synthetic fertilizers that strip and poison once-rich topsoil.

In the words of Jane Goodall:

What are we doing to our planet? You know, the famous scientist, E. O. Wilson said that if every person on this planet attains the standard of living of the average European or American, we need three new planets. Today, they are saying four. But we don’t have them. We’ve got one.

And what’s happened? I mean, the question here is, here we are, arguably the most intelligent being that’s ever walked planet Earth, with this extraordinary brain, capable of the kind of technology that is so well illustrated by these TED Conferences, and yet we’re destroying the only home we have. (TEDGlobal 2007)

We humans have developed the power to throw the planet into a state of such furious overproduction in a few select areas and complete depletion in others that age-old cycles careen wildly out of balance. At our current rates, we’re on track to consume and pollute until we’ve utterly ravaged the very ecosystems that sustain us. 

Balance by Karie Luidens

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If we think of the economy as the human subset of the wider ecosystem, continuously extracting and exchanging resources on our behalf, then the question of whether our current systems can be sustained in the long term comes down to a simple equation: do they operate in balance with the natural world? 

As far as I can tell just by looking around in my day-to-day life, the human economy seems marvelously effective. After all, our elaborately engineered systems of production and distribution have thus far never failed to provide me with water and food. 

This predictability on the receiving end implies to the unquestioning consumer that our systems are working beautifully. 

But what’s happening behind the scenes—beyond the economy, in the ecosystem itself, at the actual source of our vital water and food? At no point am I as a typical consumer faced with the whole picture, or prompted to consider whether what I consume is being processed in sustainable ways. 

Dams, reservoirs, factory farms, feed lots—are these systems as endlessly efficient and stable as they seem? Or are they wreaking havoc out of sight and out of mind, extracting resources for us faster than the natural world can replenish them? 

In other words, as humanity blithely goes about its business growing the economy, are we maintaining balance with and within the ecosystem? 

Economics by Karie Luidens

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Since humanity is just another animal species exchanging materials with the world around us, you might say our economy is a subset of the larger ecosystem. Per good old Merriam-Webster, “economic” means “of, relating to, or based on the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.” Production, distribution, consumption—these terms might sound too dry to relate to damp soil, but essentially they’re synonyms for what moss and mice and all the world’s other wild species are doing outdoors. 

On the other hand, as a city-dweller in a “developed nation,” I can easily come to see the economy not as a part of the ecosystem but as a replacement for it. Unlike my ancestors, who hunted, gathered, herded, and farmed for their food, I no longer need to engage directly with “nature” to stay alive; it seems almost irrelevant to my survival.

Clean air blows into buildings continuously on ventilation systems.

Pure water flows freely from pipes and bottles.

Safe food is perpetually stocked in grocery stores and restaurants.

And frankly, it’s been great for me. I’m utterly dependent on the economy’s systems delivering these vital services, and can only hope they forever remain as reliable as they’ve been thus far in my life. 

...Will they? 

Ecosystems by Karie Luidens

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What do we find when we pay attention to the natural world around us? That everything is interconnected. From minerals and microbes up through herbs and trees to coyotes and cows and humans, we’re all exchanging energy and matter in an ever-flowing dance timed to seasonal cycles and choreographed by eons of collective evolution. 

Air passes through plants as they photosynthesize and through animals as they breathe, filtering back and forth between its vital forms. 

Water trickles and pours across the landscape, hydrating organisms along its path, only to evaporate and blow back in as fresh rainfall. 

Nutrients in our food become living flesh, which in turn passes on so fungi and other decomposers can return it to the soil for plants to take up anew. 

The ecosystem serves as a renewable source of the basic ingredients of life. Remember our bodies’ blessed trinity: oxygen, water, food. There is no way for the human race to live without these, nor is there any way for the human race to obtain them outside these natural cycles. The land around us isn’t merely a scenic backdrop for society, it’s the wellspring of all our sustenance. 

Attention by Karie Luidens

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The word “community” suggests coming together into a unified existence. We tend to understand this in terms of relationships between people within a society, but a truly comprehensive understanding of our existence would also include all the non-human elements with which we interact just by living: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil in which we grow our food, and the countless living creatures and cycles of energy that weave together in the world’s continuous dance of life, death, decay, and renewal.

Cultivating a healthy community, then, means forming relationships not only with our fellow humans but with the land around us. As Aldo Leopold writes in the 1948 foreword to his book A Sand County Almanac:

We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. 


I believe this starts with simply paying attention to the land and all that’s happening within it. 

In the words of Wilma Mankiller, who served as principal chief for the Cherokee Nation from 1985 to 1995:

Not just indigenous people but all human beings evolved from people who understood their reciprocal relationship to their extended families and to all other living things. [...But many] have lived in an artificial world completely separate from the natural world for so long, they have little understanding of their place in the world and do not seem to understand that everything in the natural world is integral to the continuation of life on Earth. How many people living in high-rises and rushing about in cities even notice that the Sun rises in the east and sets in the west? How can they dream if their bare feet never touch the earth and they never behold the miracle of the stars? (Every Day Is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women p 146)

Community, Continued by Karie Luidens

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Starting a garden in my own backyard is an inherently solitary endeavor. Will I find that, as Roxanne Swentzell noted, it’s “hard and lonely to work in a field without others to talk to and work alongside”? If community is so important in committing to a place and a way of life, where should I seek it out? 

Anywhere, of course. I live in the heart of Albuquerque, and there are all sorts of organizations around that would welcome my participation. For starters, I’m signing up to work in the Resilience Garden at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, where staff and volunteers cultivate a mix of indigenous and post-contact crops as part of the nonprofit’s mission to educate visitors about Pueblo history and culture. What better way to get involved, give back, collaborate with others, and learn even more about the region’s agricultural heritage as I go? 

Community by Karie Luidens

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What does commitment to a place and its well-being actually look like?

Let’s call it the cultivation of community.

As if in direct answer to Rita Swentzell’s reflections on the unsustainability of constantly wandering the world like tourists, and the need to counter that with a renewed “rootedness in place,” her daughter Roxanne went on to invest in an incredibly rooted existence for herself, her children, and many others around her in Santa Clara Pueblo by founding the Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute in 1987. Its mission: “To nurture healthy communities through practices based on Indigenous ways of knowing. Moving with purposeful care for a sustainable future.”

Over the last thirty years, Flowering Tree has grown into a multigenerational food farm, learning center, and conscientious way of life for dozens of participants. Roxanne describes the significance of the community’s coming together in her recent collaborative publication, The Pueblo Food Experience Cookbook:

People tend to think of farmers as men on tractors, but these farmers [at the Institute] sat on the ground touching the soil inch by inch, noticing life up close while singing songs that came to mind. [...]

After working hard mornings, we would stop for lunch, gathering in the shade of the porch and eating [....] We were tired but grateful for the time together, so much so that many times no one  wanted to leave. [...] Everyone was sad when the season came to an end and the gatherings stopped. We had other jobs and school to attend. 

I can’t help but think that a long time ago, when we were a tighter community, these kinds of gatherings happened every day, year-round, because that is how we survived and enjoyed life. We had to grow our own food because there were no stores. We cooked meals because there were no restaurants. During these times, we visited and saw one another often. We learned how to be respectful and grateful for our food because we knew all the steps it took to get to our tables. 

In these modern times, it is rare to think of manual labor and farming as a good life. We hire someone else to do the work so that we don’t have to. Is this because we have forgotten how to be communal? It is hard and lonely to work in a field without others to talk to and work alongside, so it is understandable that we have divorced ourselves from our food. But on a small part of the earth in the summer of 2014, there was a moment of remembering community and the blessings that come from being connected to one another and our food again. (pp 20-21)

Commitment by Karie Luidens

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What was the ultimate harmful hypocrisy of the hippies who washed in and out of New Mexico back in the day? In my assessment, a lack of commitment.

Rebelling against the status quo was easy enough and an attractive fad. Committing to a new way of life was something else entirely, and before long a majority of the West’s counterculturalists burned through the last of their original idealism and enthusiasm. They rolled in when the getting was good, and receded when times got tough—when the novelty of a new place wore off, when drug-induced highs bottomed out, when free love turned costly, when group dynamics grew tense. When all that intensive farming started to seem more menial and difficult than it was worth.

In the absence of a real connection to place—deep roots and relationship—it was all too easy for bands of young drifters to pull up the tepee stakes once more and truck back into town in search of a supermarket.

Rina Swentzell of Santa Clara Pueblo writes of her own semi-nomadic years at the height of hippiedom in her memoir “In the Center and on the Edge at Once.” Here she reflects on some of these dynamics:

Instant communities of the hippies were hard to maintain and sustain because rootedness in place is long term. Sustainability takes intimate knowledge of soil, water, and wind. Life in fast motion and short-term commitment to any place are pure consumption. We were all tourists, in effect. And we do change and affect any environment with our simple presence. Those hippies and other newcomers wanting pure air, direct communication with nature, and simplicity of life helped change that which they desired. Yet we keep moving fast and easy, without commitment to place. (Voices of Counterculture in the Southwest p 151)

So in the spirit of hope that I can transcend the failures of so many of my forebears, both actual and adopted, here’s my commitment.

I’m not originally of this place. And frankly I can’t promise that I’ll put down permanent roots and remain here for the rest of my days.

But I commit to get to know this place and form a meaningful relationship to it.

I commit to being fully present and involved in the well-being of this piece of earth for as long as I am here, stewarding it for whoever comes after me.

I commit to caring for the health of this soil, receiving whatever rains fall and ensuring they aren’t wasted, cultivating ecosystems of worm and seed and microbe in which each creature nourishes the others (myself included), and guarding against the many modernday threats to these interconnected lives.

Hope by Karie Luidens

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Who are my cultural forebears in this life I’m pursuing far from family and my childhood home? I admit that, as a middle class white newcomer to New Mexico who’s launched a back-to-the-land gardening project, I have some in common with the migrating hippies of yesteryear. At least in their earliest ideals, they were motivated by concerns about unsustainable consumerism and visions of a more meaningful way of life, concerns and visions that I’ve come share.

Now, how can I pursue those original ideals without recreating their movement’s harmful hypocrisies—the ethnocentric sense of entitlement, the invasion of others’ homeland and resources, the disruption and appropriation of others’ cultures? 

The obvious first lesson: Acknowledge the long, rich history of indigenous peoples in this region. Reject old Anglo-American fantasies that the West is a pristine wilderness here for the taking.

From there: Respect the rights and heritage of those who have been here long before I arrived, and approach this place graciously and humbly, as a guest and an apprentice. 

Just as importantly: Know that others’ cultures are sacred to them, and are absolutely not mine to attempt to adopt, especially in the context of this region’s painful legacy of conquests. Remind myself that no matter how eager I may be to learn from everyone I encounter, I have no right to force myself into others’ communities; I am not entitled to practice their ways in part or in whole.

This is my starting point as I set out in search of ancient knowledge and guidance to help my garden thrive. I’m sure I’ll stumble as I go, accidentally offend or overstep my bounds, and continue to adapt.

But I think there’s hope yet that, “hippie heritage” aside, I can do this well. 

Harm by Karie Luidens

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Is hypocrisy inevitably harmful? Well, let’s look at what became of the “hippie invasion” of northern New Mexico fifty years ago. Most of the rebellious outsiders who rode the wave into the region looking for a new (old) way to live... ultimately swept back out again within a decade. And in their wake they left a swath of detritus both physical and figurative.

Many hippies eventually gave up trying to live off the land and left. Some were able to sell at a profit properties cheaply purchased from locals, who then watched the prices escalate exponentially with every subsequent turnover. Some went into business and reverted to a middle-class lifestyle mildly inflected with New Age values. Ultimately bohemia was absorbed into hippiedom, which, like every other sector, is discernibly stratified by class. Even today hippies remain a prominent part of Taos’s social landscape. Taos gradually gentrified and attracted new waves of postmodern hippies, affluent amenity migrants, and retirees.

By 1980, most of the communes were gone and the Plaza was a theme mall for tourists. Its old social, commercial, and political functions were now scattered in new constructions along the highway south of town. Real estate prices for old adobes on land with irrigation rights skyrocketed. For every native who emigrated for work or school, two more affluent and educated newcomers arrived. [...] Resentment simmered. In another decade marijuana was still popular but driven increasingly underground. Hallucinogens became hard to find and were slowly replaced by cocaine, heroin, crack, methamphetamine, and prescription drugs. Alcohol consumption remained ever popular, constrained only by an open-container rule on the Plaza. (Sylvia Rodríguez, “Countercultural Taos: A Memoir,” Voices of Counterculture in the Southwest p 114)

The ultimate irony: many if not most of the hippies of the sixties who had hoped to find a pristine place to create a more sustainable lifestyle than consumerism... ended up consuming the region’s resources and then leaving their communes and in-town communities to collapse, unsustained. In a way they perpetuated the very harm they had originally sought to escape or avoid.

Hypocrisy by Karie Luidens

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So maybe I’m a little hippie-ish.

But.

After that initial burst of self-recognition in the opening lines of Kopecky’s memoir, I continued to read and found myself recoiling. Pretty soon I had to conclude that he was pursuing a fantasy in his mind’s eye all those years ago, one that blinded him to the reality of the place he was headed. A couple paragraphs later:

From there we set our sights on the warmer Southwest. One day Pepe said, “Load the tipi,” and our little troop, about ten people, headed south to find adventures in the Land of Enchantment. [...] I was soon running deer trails up and down the sides of the valley through piñon and juniper trees, through desert sage and chamisa, in a landscape that could have existed ten thousand years ago. [...] I had traveled from the canyons of New York City to the canyons of New Mexico, where nature reigns in all its beauty.

In his framing, the Southwest offers a sunny playground for adventures, a perfect wilderness seemingly preserved in an Edenic past. Is the land passively awaiting his discovery and ready to serve his needs? Or does it have a long and rich history already? How will the arrival of wandering outsiders affect the local environment and the people who are in fact already at home here, not counterculturalists but practicing their own age-old cultures?

Sylvia Rodríguez offers a different perspective on that era as someone who grew up in northern New Mexico:

The hippie counterculture arose among boomers during the Vietnam War on the heels of the civil rights movement and concurrently with the Black Power, Chicano, and American Indian movements. [...] The early hippies were communitarians. They were environmentalists, primitive back-to-the-landers, drawn to mysticism, supernaturalism, and Oriental religions, longings all abundantly nourished by hallucinogenic or psychedelic drugs. The whole swirling phantasmagoria came with a rock’n’roll/Ravi Shankar soundtrack.

The Great Taos Hippie Invasion started in the summer of 1967 and went on for about four years. [...] Thousands of mostly white, mostly middle-class, young people began to pour into northern New Mexico, fleeing the corruption of cities and suburbs in search of a pristine altiplano utopia replete with Indians, earthen architecture, and the promise of spiritual awakening. Taoseños reacted to the sudden influx more or less according to socioeconomic position and age. Hippie displays of excess, transgression, and abandon shocked and threatened businessmen like my father. [...] Proper middle-class Hispanos willing to tolerate a few beatniks were aghast at the spectacle of hippie dress, drug abuse, loose morals, poor hygiene, sin verguenza (shameless) violation of sexual norms, and flagrant use of food stamps and free clinics. (“Countercultural Taos: A Memoir,” Voices of Counterculture in the Southwest pp 110-111)

There’s a word we’ve heard before about this place: “invasion.” A “hippie invasion.”

Did these hippies consider that by descending on the West in droves, they were encroaching on others’ lands and waters—even as they criticized their government for its own encroachment on lands and waters around the globe? Did they find it ironic that they idolized the concept of pristine places, then “polluted” them with their very presence, rumbling in on diesel buses armed with foreign drugs and disruptive behavior? Surely some of them must have recognized that their communes were superficially fetishizing indigenous cultures by setting up tepees and taking peyote, whether or not they had any sense of such practices’ context or significance.

Yes, I can recognize a bit of myself in the hippies of fifty years ago: as Rodríguez put it, I’m white, middle-class, and young. I’m an outsider who’s rejecting some elements of the mainstream and attempting to act more or less like a back-to-the-lander in my backyard. 

But I hope it’s possible to pursue a “countercultural” life here without all these harmful hippie hypocrisies.

Hippie by Karie Luidens

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Now that I’ve ended up moving south to New Mexico, I hope to honor this place and the people who have been here for thousands of years by humbly learning how they’ve lived in harmony with the natural world and cultivated crops to nourish themselves. They know this land, its climate, its species, and its interrelationships; they know how to lead the sort of healthy, sustainable life here that I’m seeking to lead myself.

At the same time, I recognize that I am emphatically not an heir to the region’s ancient cultures. I was raised elsewhere with a radically different worldview. I’ve only recently relocated here, and more recently still begun to learn about this place’s rich and complicated history, including its agricultural traditions. 

Given my status as a newcomer, not to mention my rather naive “back-to-the-land” project, I think it’s fair to say that the cultural forebears I’ve ended up emulating these days are twentieth-century hippies. 

Ah, the hippies...

While the housewives of Betty Friedan’s studies were suffering from a “problem with no name” in the 1950s, by the end of the 1960s counterculturalists had plenty of names for society’s problems: consumerism, capitalism, industrialism, militarism. Hippies renounced the flashy lifestyle that the era’s Mad Men were selling, left behind suburban America’s cookie cutter houses and gleaming appliances, and hit the road in search of a fresh start. Their mission: a life not of mindless consumption but of substance and meaning. Authenticity. Community. Sustainability. Within a few short years of their westward migration, communes had sprouted up across the mountains and deserts from here to the Pacific. 

Reading the first-hand accounts of those who took part in this great hippie wave, I sometimes feel a deep sense of self-recognition. Take Art Kopecky’s introduction to his memoir about living in a commune outside Taos in the 1970s:

Once when I was about twenty years old, I was in midtown Manhattan about 5 p.m., surrounded by a gigantic flood of people as the office towers disgorged their occupants. “How precarious is our civilization, how precarious these people’s lives,” I thought. They get everything they need with money, and if that money stops flowing into their account, they are almost immediately desperate, truly desperate. Our society is almost hysterically, continually trying to grow when it is already too big, to keep the money flowing, finding something for all the people to do.

These thoughts, among other things, propelled me to step onto and into the near pristine, wide-open spaces of northern New Mexico. (“A New Buffalo Vision,” Voices of Counterculture in the Southwest p 95)

Yes, I can relate to this sentiment about modern society’s superficiality and unsustainability, as well as this motivation to rediscover a simpler, stabler way of living. In this sense, at least, I can accept that I’ve become a bit of a hippie myself.

Hopi by Karie Luidens

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Books will never come close to the sort of learning I anticipate getting from hands-on experience, both working in my own patch of land as well as talking with more experienced gardeners, visiting their farms, attending more workshops like last month’s vermiculture presentation, participating in seed swaps, and so forth.

But… I’m still a book nerd at heart, so I’ve already gathered a stack of titles on the subject of agriculture in the region. Most recently I finished Kevin Dahl’s Native Harvest: Authentic Southwestern Gardening, which focuses a little less on my particular locale in New Mexico than on the peoples of Arizona like the Hopi, but offers this sweeping overview of the whole Southwest in its opening chapter:

In this arid country, Native farmers developed a number of water-wise ways to ensure a successful harvest. Along the major rivers in central Arizona, canals and irrigation ditches brought water to the fields after spring snowmelt raised the river level, ushering in the first warm-weather crop. Later, during the summer rains, the canals and ditches brought a second growing season to the people living in places such as Central Arizona. Elsewhere in the Sonoran Desert, farmers planted fields at the mouths of foothill washes so that seasonal water flows could irrigate their plots. Zuni farmers grew plants close to their village in gardens that were sculpted with waffle-like indentations, making it easier to water the plants with pitchers of creek water. Most Hopi corn fields look like sand dunes. Beneath the sandy topsoil, layers of clay soil retain snowmelt that nourishes plants during the summer growing season.

Songs, ceremonies, and hard work accompanied all aspects of Native farming. Trading seeds and stories, farmers adapted plants over time to help them feed their families under a variety of conditions. They also cultivated crops for use as containers, rattles, and utensils (gourds), basket-making material (devil’s claws), and fiber (cotton), as well as cooking and medicinal herbs.

Fortunately, traditional southwestern gardening is a living heritage. Though not nearly as widespread as they once were, gardens planted by American Indian farmers are tended and harvested annually. O’odham farmers grow huuñ (a short corn that fully matures in 60 days) and bav (protein-rich tepary beans) using the summer thunderstorm runoff that reaches their fields in southwestern Arizona. Hopi farmers tend their spring-fed garden terraces below the high mesas where they live in northern Arizona. Like their ancesotrs centuries ago, Santa Clara Pueblo farmers in present-day New Mexico clear out irrigation ditches so that Río Grande water can support fields of corn. The sprawling Navajo nation—the largest Indian land in our country—has both commercial tribal farms and small plots tended by individual families. (pp 5-6)

History by Karie Luidens

Cultural Education staff forms adobe waffle beds in the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center’s Resilience Garden, April 2017

Cultural Education staff forms adobe waffle beds in the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center’s Resilience Garden, April 2017

Let’s see: my backyard’s garden area has now been cleaned up, tilled, and demarcated; I’ve got a vermiculture bin and a compost heap going in hopes of helping the soil grow ever healthier as time passes. The weather has been unseasonably warm as I’ve worked outdoors these last couple of weeks, but the ground still gets frosty at night, so it’ll be at least another month before I plant anything.

Which is great, because I’ve still got so much to learn about how to care for these future crops.

Especially given that I’m making my first foray into “farming” here in the arid Southwest. From the coarse plains east of Albuquerque, to the forested mountain slopes up around Taos, across scrubby desert to the western mesas of Acoma and the Hopi, the region’s topography is incredibly diverse. But in the eyes of an outsider like me—someone who grew up in a comparatively lush northern climate, and who associates agriculture with endless, dense green fields soaking up several rains a week—it all shares at least one trait: it all strikes me as pretty inhospitable to cultivating plant life.

That perception only reveals my ignorance as an outsider. Over the course of a history going back thousands of years, the people of this place have developed a deep understanding of the vibrant relationships between sandy soils, snowmelt, prevailing winds, mesa-top pools, runoff in the rainy season, riverbeds’ ebbs and flows, and the many different seeds that can thrive when cultivated in these conditions.

That is to say, thanks to the region’s rich agricultural tradition, I’ll be able to draw on centuries of well-established knowledge and techniques as I learn how to tend my garden. I’m just starting to scratch the surface of all this historical wisdom, but I’m excited to delve deeper in the months ahead.

Fences by Karie Luidens

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Although on principle I’m not a fan of cutting up land with artificial boundaries, before I plant seeds this spring there’s an obvious need to keep my dog out of the garden. It’s time to figure out what sort of fencing makes sense here.

While I work out the dull details of material and installation, here’s a more meaningful meditation on the subject of fences, courtesy of Chumash cultural educator Tima Lotah Link:

So the Spanish came, and then the United States, and they swept over the land, and when they were done it was cut into tiny little pieces and they put fences around those pieces. We live in a world of fences today. And those fences are boundaries between us and the landscape. I respect boundaries, I think we all do in this world today, but fences—borders—dams—some things were never meant to be.

(On the other hand, dog poop was never meant to be in my food garden...) 

Journey further with Tima as she explains her relationship to the land and fences in episode 3 of KCET’s program “Tending the Wild.”

Poop by Karie Luidens

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The rich, fertile “castings” my new worm herd promises to produce in the weeks ahead: excellent. 

My dog pooping in the recently dug-up garden area this morning: not great.