Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Footprints in the Dirt

photo by Jamie L. Manser/JamieManser.com.
Prehistoric footprints of ancient people including a child and a domesticated canine were recently uncovered in an irrigated field excavated in Tucson, Arizona. Just as incredible are the remains of their irrigation system (dating back 2500-3000 years) with two field cells and parallel channels to redirect water from the Rillito River.

4000 years ago, the first people settled in Tucson for the abundant river water that flowed year round. The Hokokam captured rainwater with rock dams. The Tohono O'odham crafted earthen dams and brush weirs to divert water from washes for crops. They lived in harmony with the desert, gathering its fruits in the proper seasons. They were experts on desert farming, having developed sophisticated techniques to grow sturdy native plants like the three sisters: beans, maize, and squash. Happily, the Tohono O’odham have brought back those traditional techniques by growing heritage crops at the San Xavier coop and by assisting with The Mission Garden at the base of “A” mountain. There is much we can learn from them about sustainability and how things grow in the desert dirt.

The Mission Garden
In my last blog, I commented on how some people see only dirt when they look at our desert, but it is actually brimming with life.  That got me musing about it.  Imagine my delight in watching my friend Elaine Romero’s play, “Dirt!”  Her play beautifully elaborated on that theme by including Tucson’s first settlers and the lost barrio. Her lyrical descriptions conjured up the following images for me.

After the Native Americans, came the Mexicans who built Tucson. Like the mesquite, their roots were deeply embedded in the dirt. Their homes and neighborhoods were built out of dirt and water. Their roads or calle were formed by paths worn in the dirt for generations - paths that connected family and friends in their tight knit barrio community. But their footprints have long been covered over with cement in the name of progress.  Out of the cement grew a big, ugly, lonely concrete monument to both urban renewal and their once vibrant community – the Tucson Convention Center. Dry fountains lined with misplaced boulders are sad reminders of our dry river beds (another causality of progress.) Nothing could grow out of the layers of concrete.

Until… Borderlands Theater reclaimed the dirt under that cement with “Barrio Stories.” The descendants of the neighborhood returned to La Calle to retrace the steps of their displaced ancestors.
Playwright Elaine Romero and Jana 
The company was looking for a way to get Tucson’s Mexican-Americans to come back to the theater. They came up with the idea of doing a play that the whole community could get involved in.  Inspired by the book, “La Calle: Spatial Conflicts and Urban Renewal in a Southwest City,” by Lydia Otero, they gathered oral histories of the people who had memories of Barrio Viejo before the devastating demolition. Playwrights Virginia Grise, Martin Zimmerman and Elaine Romero were tasked with adapting it into theatrical pieces.

When Borderlands producing director Mark David Pinate visited the Tucson Convention Center, he knew he could put his theater education into practice by staging the plays throughout the grounds as a site specific work.  Dispersed around that area were vignettes of life in the old barrio.  Appropriately placed by the dried up, cement fountain was Elaine Romero’s short play, “Dirt”.


If you missed the Borderland Theater’s “Barrio Stories,” it is my honor to share this patch of “Dirt” with you.

DIRT: First, there was me, Dirt, the dirt and the cactus, and the geckos, and the Saguaro, and the locals didn’t bother naming their paths, their streets. Pottery shards at the foot of “A” Mountain, Sentinel Peak, and the Tumamoc Hill date back 4,000 years before any of this mierda started. Before the cement came and laid itself on top of me and tried to make me inconsequential.

First, we looked like nothing fancy. Some adobe bricks. Maybe you know what I’m talking about. Buildings made from the earth, from the ground. And it included everybody. The Hohokam, the Tohono O’odham, and the Mexican Period.

 I remember the day when the demolition crews came. They took something and they turned it into nothing. Some people say it looked like the surface of the moon, or an atomic bomb had come and hit downtown Tucson. And even when they finished, the people didn’t want to walk there. The people didn’t want to go there. The people felt a big hurt, a big hole, in their hearts. Bigger than anyone ever imagined. And sometimes when you’re the dirt, you have the privilege of capturing the people’s tears in your earth. I’ve had that privilege here in Tucson.
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Throughout our history people have left footprints in the dirt. There is much they can teach us about living in harmony with the earth and water. We can learn from our city's mistakes on urban renewal and bad water management - and not repeat them

“Barrio Stories” was more than oral histories or bearing witness to a close knit community torn apart. This was a joyous celebration of a community kicking up some dust and reclaiming the ground that was Barrio Viejo.  


Monday, March 21, 2016

What? Spring already? Time to plant!

Tucson Gothic
Today was the first day of Spring. And, while it's really feeling like Summer already, it's time to start thinking about the first of the two major planting seasons we have here in the Sonoran Desert (the other being the late Summer Monsoon season).

One problem many of us have here in Tucson (especially those of us who aren't native Arizonans) is figuring out what kinds of plants will do well here in our arid climate and when we should plant them. Not to mention, where can we get seed for plants that thrive here in our desert home? The Burpee catalog may be fine for the East Coast, but it's not much help to us here in the Old Pueblo.

Fortunately, we have numerous resources available to help us answer those questions. One of those resources (that is absolutely free!) is the Pima County Public Library (PCPL). Branches throughout the county have Seed Library displays where you can "check out" seeds that are well adapted to Southern Arizona. To help you know what to plant and when, the Seed Library page on the PCPL website highlights which seeds in the catalog are in season and lets you search for a branch near you that has them in stock. You just need to go over to the branch with your library card in hand and you can check out up to six seed packets a month. And, while the Seed Library would appreciate your saving some of the seeds from the crops you plant so other library patrons can enjoy them in the future, you are under no obligation to return the seeds. When you are ready to dive into seed saving, the library and Native Seeds/SEARCH can get you started with a free seed saving class. (I'll talk more about the class Jana and I attended at our local branch library in a future post.)

With the vernal equinox rapidly approaching, Jana and I looked at the Seed Library listings to see what we could plant this weekend. There were a lot of good choices, but we settled on a plant that has been much reviled, but that we've been fascinated with: amaranth.



Amaranth was a staple of the Aztecs and was bred for consumption by indigenous peoples throughout the Americas in the precolonial era. Like quinoa, amaranth seeds are considered a "super food" because of their high nutritional value. When the conquistadors conquered modern day Mexico, they banned the growing and consumption of amaranth because of its connection to Aztec religious ceremonies. But, fortunately, many varieties of amaranth have survived.

The variety most common here in Baja Arizona is Palmer Amaranth - often called "pigweed" or "carelessweed." To farmers in Arizona and to the Arizona Agricultural Extension, it's an undesirable weed and they have been seeking (largely unsuccessful) methods of eradicating it. However, the Tohono O'odham prize the young amaranth leaves as a delicious Spring desert green and collect the seeds of the mature plants to use as a grain. Though small (about the size of poppy seeds), Palmer Amaranth seeds can be roasted, ground, or used in much the same way as poppy seed.

Last year, we transplanted some of the neighborhood amaranth into our garden in hopes of getting some young plants that we could harvest without the worry that they had been sprayed with an herbicide, but, unfortunately the weather didn't cooperate and our second crop of amaranth never came in.

This year, we thought we'd try our hand with some of the cultivated varieties of amaranth, so we got some amaranth seed native to a variety of locations: New Mexico, Mexico, and Guatemala. 

There is a part of our garden that hasn't been cultivated before. It was covered in gravel by the previous owner of the house and is sandy, rocky soil that gets a lot of sunlight. We figured that would be the perfect location for some amaranth, so we spent this weekend preparing our little plot to grow some weeds.

We'll let you know how it turns out!

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Desert Landscaping: Going Native for Tucson's Rivers


There are some things that just drive me crazy! Like...why are there still patches of lawn in the Tucson desert? And those little rocks that get caught in your sandals – gravel!  I understand why people put gravel in their yards.  I don’t want to spend all weekend weeding either. But if you look at the sun cracked, gravel covered plastic we use to tame it, there are signs of life (weeds) breaking through. When some people think of the desert, they think of dirt. But our dirt is brimming with untamed life. 


When I first came to Tucson, I was amazed by all the green in our desert: our famous saguaros, prickly pears towering over roof tops, agaves with stalks resembling giant asparagus, and cholla cactuses lining the horizon like furry puppies glowing in the afternoon sun.  (Don’t try petting them though!) Twisted and gnarled Mesquite and Paloverde trees grow amok. This time of year wild flowers speckle the ground. The desert hums with bees pollinating brilliant cactus blooms. Our tough desert plants are adept at storing water for the long dry spells.

There are seasons when our desert has an overabundance of water. In the spring, icy water bounds down the Catalina Mountains into rushing rivers and streams. During Monsoon season, our washes rage and overflow. Not enough of this water sinks into our aquifer, because the caliche ground has turned hard from inconsistent rain. Instead our precious rain water is collected in city streets to be polluted with automobile oil then left to evaporate on its way out of town. Lack of foresight and understanding have left us with no infrastructure to retain the water for our daily use. Miles and miles of cement aqueducts bring us water from the Colorado River. But we are beginning to see how vulnerable that supply is as poisonous tailings from long abandoned mines leak into Colorado’s rivers reaching as far as our own Lake Powell.


It wasn’t always like that. Tucson is one of the oldest settlements in the country.  Native Americans and Mexicans settled here for the abundant Santa Cruz river water. The Hohokam, expert desert farmers, created an elaborate irrigation system connected to the river. They captured rainwater with rock dams and storage tanks. The Tohono O'odham crafted earthen dams and brush weirs to divert water from washes to crops. There was a riparian habitat with abundant trees and animals. It wasn’t that long ago that our rivers and streams flowed year around. Old time Tucsonans still reminisce about playing in the river as children.

This was before bad management, over-pumping and drought depleted our ground water and turned those rivers into dry river beds. It was before cement and gravel covered the earth. While our city council commits time and money into redeveloping downtown, they neglect to invest in our dearest resource –  rainwater harvesting and management.


Hope is budding around the desert like native wild flowers. Nestled in nearby neighborhoods are shady desert oases boasting colorful native flora and fauna.  Some are nourished with rainwater runoff from roofs or gray water from washing machines.  Water is diverted into the yards using berms and rocks to direct the flow to catchment basins where water soaks into the ground to nourish plants.

Tucson’s own Watershed Management Group is inspiring local homeowners and businesses to develop more sustainable landscaping. All this might seem overwhelming, but the WMG is here to help. They offer free classes on rainwater and greywater harvesting. You can learn more by taking their field studies courses. You can get started on creating your own desert oasis by joining their coop and working on other people’s yards. When you accumulate 19 hours, the volunteers will work on your yard for free (not including the cost of materials and consultation/supervisor.) Dan and I have started the process by taking classes and joining WMG's coop so we can transform our own yard using rainwater and greywater harvesting.

 Organic mulch and native grass in catchment basin allow water to seep into the ground.

One of the most incredible things we learned in Watershed Management Group’s classes is that we can all play a part in refurbishing our ground water so the Sabino and Tanque Verde Creeks will flow into the Santa Cruz River once again!

There are signs of positive change throughout the city. Tucson Water offers rebates for homeowners to install rainwater harvesting and graywater systems. The city is taking baby steps towards better water management. While there are still patches of grass by the Old Courthouse, there are also curb cuts to water native trees outside of the new County Public Service Center.  The city recently planted desert landscaping around the Old Courthouse. But instead of berms and catchment basins, they use emitters to water it.  We found two of the emitters watering decorative boulders. Well, they're trying. They need to hire WMG as a consultant! 

emitters watering boulders
If we dig up all that boring gravel and enhance our rustic desert landscape with rainwater harvesting, we can play a part in replenishing Tucson’s groundwater so we can enjoy flowing rivers surrounded by flourishing Cottonwood and Willow trees.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Spilt Tomatoes

I was in the flow - waxing poetic about the lushness of our Arizona landscape for my sustainability blog. 9 o’clock! And we hadn’t eaten. I peeked into Jeremy’s room. My apathetic teenager was finally at his homework. It was up to me to procure dinner. I rushed out of the house, leaving a yapping dog in my wake. Ideas whirled in my head as I strolled to the store. When I arrived, I asked the cashier if she had a pencil.  I quickly jotted down my (no doubt brilliant) musings on a slip of receipt paper, then went about my shopping. I scooped several varieties of bulk trail mix into plastic bags. (Note to self: don’t shop when hungry.) Then I grabbed a bag of tomatoes for our spaghetti sauce that night.

As I unloaded my groceries on the conveyor belt, I realized – Doh!  In the midst of writing a blog on sustainability, I had forgotten my reusable bags. Again! I already had all those plastic bags full of tomatoes and trail mix. I would just carry them without a grocery bag. I announced to the bemused sales clerk, “This will be a guilt free walk home.” Then, just as I finished crossing the street, I felt something bounce off my toe. I looked down and saw tomatoes rolling to the curb. ARGH! I motioned, “One moment” to a car at the corner and scrambled to pick them up.

For the rest of the walk home, I thought about the ten (count ‘em ten) plastic bags I was carrying. I made a mental note to look up where all that plastic came from. I racked my brain, trying to concoct a trick to help me remember the reusable grocery bags – as if going to the grocery store wasn’t reminder enough.
Grocery store – grocery bag, grocery store – grocery bag. Not that complicated. Sustainable thoughts flashed through my mind: turn the water off while brushing teeth, switch off the light (in my dad’s voice…), the cereal box goes into the recycling bin, onion peels in the compost box, feed The Pooh... The Pooh! That’s it! Our dog! She always followed us to the door yipping to go with. Yip! Yip! Yip! Perhaps I could imagine her as a yipping grocery bag!

Boy, do I need something to eat.