Steve Paulson (00:17):
If you've been to the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, you've seen the saguaro cactus, it that great spiny plant that can and grew up to 50 feet and live for hundreds of years. In some indigenous cultures, the saguaro is sacred and it's often part of their creation stories. The ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan knows this landscape intimately. He likes to talk about the wisdom of the desert. Think about what it takes to survive in such a harsh environment. And you come to appreciate virtues like frugality and slowness and generosity. Nabhan is also an ecumenical Franciscan brother, and he points out that the desert has inspired mystics throughout the ages. I mean, if you want an uncluttered mind, the desert is the place to go.
Steve Paulson (01:07):
I'm Steve Paulson. And I want to welcome you to the final episode in our series on kinship with the more than human world, this is different from what you normally hear on To the Best of Our Knowledge. It's a single long interview, wide ranging conversation that we just don't have time for on the radio show. My guest, Gary Nabhan has written dozens of books on everything from chili peppers and mesquite trees to desert ecology and sustainable farming. He's one of the pioneers of the local food movement. He co-founded a seed bank that saves heirloom seeds, and he's been active in food politics for decades. Nabhan's also waited into some of the most contentious battles in the Southwest, trying to build bridges between ranchers and environmentalists, between rural and city people. He says you can find common ground in what he calls the radical center. In fact, Nabhan's been involved in so many different kinds of things that I wondered how he describes what he does.
Gary Paul Nabhan (02:05):
I'm a contemplative ecologist, ethnobotanist, and plant explorer.
Steve Paulson (02:12):
Contemplative ecologist. I like that. I have not heard that before. What does that mean to you?
Gary Paul Nabhan (02:18):
It means that I combine my practice of contemplative prayer and deep listening each day with my openness to the natural world and the interactions between species in that wonderful world that we're immersed in. And my practice extends into restoration and conservation of those psychological interactions between plants, animals, and people.
Steve Paulson (02:49):
So Gary, I think anyone who's followed your career would think of you as a man of the Southwest, a chronicler of desert landscapes and the people who live there. Also the food that's grown there, but you actually grew up in Gary, Indiana, which is a long way from the desert. How did you end up settling in Arizona?
Gary Paul Nabhan (03:09):
That's a great question. Thank you. I grew up in the Indiana Dunes, an arid landscape in the midst of the midwest. And I was a grandson of Lebanese Syrian refugees from the deserts of the middle east. So I learned a lot of stories from my grandfather and my uncles about the deserts of the middle east. And I think I always had a pre natural attraction to deserts. And so I quit high school and within a year and a half of that, I landed in the Southwest deserts.
Steve Paulson (03:47):
And what is it about the desert, the landscape and the culture that you like so much?
Gary Paul Nabhan (03:53):
Believe it or not. It's the abundance and generosity of a desert. It's not a barren place that's lacking anything at all for me. And it teaches me the grace of frugality. The way that desert plants can serve water and share resources, generosity, because they do share water with one another and as well as nutrients. And then it's just a place where deep listening is easier than a lot of other landscapes in North America. The silence and solitude of the desert, as you know, has inspired contemplatives of Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, and Hebraic traditions for millennia, and so I really feel that I'm not doing anything new here. I'm just part of those deep ancient traditions of listening in the desert habitat.
Steve Paulson (04:52):
Why do you think this particular landscape, the desert, is so conducive to that kind of listening? I mean, going back to all those contemplative traditions, I mean, why the desert more than, I don't know, more verted landscapes,
Gary Paul Nabhan (05:05):
The desert is a sparse but elegant place. There's not much clutter and it's easy to unclutter our minds, but it's also easy to unclutter our ears, that listening there, sometimes you can hear a sound a mile and a half away, the echoes in desert canyons, just ring through your body, to the deepest place in your soul.
Steve Paulson (05:34):
Can you describe where you live now? What does that landscape look like?
Gary Paul Nabhan (05:39):
I'm on the desert's edge and the edge between Mexico and US, the border that's been in the news so much the last couple years. And so I'm at 4,000 feet in a little Hispanic town called Patagonia, Arizona within a 15 mile drive of the US Mexico border and the Sonora desert iconic plants, saguaros, are also within about 15 to 20 minutes of where we live. But I happen to be in foothills that are Mesquite grasslands in Oak Savannahs, where I can see from pines on the mountain tops above me, down into the desert floor.
Steve Paulson (06:24):
You have said that biological diversity and cultural diversity are intimately connected with each other. And how do you see that where you live in this Sonoran desert right along the US Mexico border?
Gary Paul Nabhan (06:38):
The deserts of the Southwest overall retain more biological diversity than any other place in North America, than perhaps some of the Sierra, Nevada and California and Great Smokey Mountains National Park. And it's because of those edge effects or eco tones of tropical, arid, and temperate coming together in one place. But because of that range of natural resources of foods and medicines, it attracted an enormous number of indigenous cultures who were among the last to give up nomadic hunter gathering and ancient agricultural practices of all the cultures in North America, and their ceremonial lives and their connections to plants and animals are still strong. It's not a thing of the past. It's very alive. So to me, my connections with Native Americans are almost daily and intimate. And my connections with the plant and animal life that they've drawn upon and nurtured for thousands of years is also daily.
Steve Paulson (07:52):
I'm so interested to hear you say that there is all this biological diversity in the desert. Well, I guess that's what I assume there was. Why is that?
Gary Paul Nabhan (08:02):
Well, we're in a part of the desert, that again, is an ecotone. And even-
Steve Paulson (08:07):
What does that mean? Ecotone.
Gary Paul Nabhan (08:10):
An ecotone is the contact point between different geological landscapes and vegetation types. And as a result of that different wildlife, the rivers in our area serve as migratory corridors for about 80% of all the Neotropical birds that come into the US and Canada, they're north, south corridors, the same corridors, by the way, that Central American and Mexican immigrants take on their journeys up to the United States. We have four different kinds of wild cats, mountain lions, jaguars, bobcats, and ocelots within our watershed within five to 10 miles of where I live.
Steve Paulson (08:59):
Of course, one of the great challenges for anyone living in the desert, animal, plant, or human is how to survive with so little water. What have been some of the strategies for living in environment that is so dry?
Gary Paul Nabhan (09:15):
Well, people, like the desert itself, are very frugal with water. They know how to store water. They use probably a 10th of the water that people do in big cities like LA and Phoenix per capita, by growing drought tolerant crops, by harvesting water, not only off their tin roofs to put into cisterns, but harvesting water on the slopes above them, as I do in our orchard, to funnel into their fields and orchards to avoid over pumping groundwater. And then even in the preparation of food, many of their culinary preparation techniques use very little water. Sometimes you're grinding seeds down to fine talcum like powder much finer than most wheat and corn meals, and then adding water or juices from cacti, but using a 10th of the water that we might use to make oatmeal or a cornbread better or something like that.
Steve Paulson (10:26):
Well, so what are some of those drought resistant crops?
Gary Paul Nabhan (10:29):
Well, the most interesting thing is that our perennial agriculture looks unlike anything that farmers in temperate zones would understand as agriculture. It includes dozens of species of prickly pear cacti in the [inaudible 00:10:48] cacti, like saguaros that I think many of your readers have seen in westerns and other movies.
Gary Paul Nabhan (10:56):
It also has a lot of sensory plants or agaves, which is something that I've studied and gardened with and loved. I grow 55 species of agaves, mescal, or century plants on our land. I've recently finished a contemplative garden where there's the iconic Mandela symbol, but 50 different species of that genus make the composition of the garden. And they use about a fifth to a half of the water that any of the major contemporary, conventional crops that most Americans eat each day utilize. So they produce more biomass on a decade old scale than any fruit tree or corn or wheat variety, but you have to wait 10 years before you harvest them, of course, where you live in an impatient society. So adopting a slow agriculture to get your slow food from is something that not many Americans have as part of their present. But I think it'll be part of our future.
Steve Paulson (12:10):
Now you mentioned that you have a contemplative garden, which sounds fascinating. What does it look like and what do you grow in there and what do you do there?
Gary Paul Nabhan (12:19):
Well, let me back up for a moment and say that I've gardened with plants since I was about eight or nine. And then I started a seed organization that grows out 1200 different annual plants, but two things have recently happened to me that affect when I grow. One is having suffered four concussions that created traumatic brain injuries that threw off my vision, my speech, and my capacity to write as I've done for over 50 years. And so I thought I need something that gets me out interacting with plants and animals on a daily basis and gets me off computers. So I begun doing contemplative garden design under mentorship of a Buddhist garden designer, Martin Moscow, and on using the themes of my life as a Franciscan brother to enrich the garden design. So being out every morning, interacting with those plants, listening to them, seeing how they're growing is part of my contemplative practice. But so is the designing of those gardens.
Steve Paulson (13:37):
You mentioned that you are a Franciscan brother and of course, St. Francis was said to have been able to talk to animals, maybe plants too. I don't know. Do you talk to animals and plants?
Gary Paul Nabhan (13:51):
I do. And I probably feel more comfortable talking to plants then I do people. I just feel this affinity. I don't know why. And a lot of my scholarly research now is trying to figure out the lexicon of floral and herbal fragrances that plants use to communicate with one another, with pollinators, predators, and herbivores, and with us. And so a lot of my contemporary research goes back to my first book where a little eight year old indigenous child said to me, for me, the desert smells like rain. And most people from the desert immediately know what he means, that when a rain comes, there's this enormous feeling of elation, because at least two dozen volatile oils from dozens of different plants are released into the air. And it's because the plants are communicating with each other and with animals, spadefoot toads and other animals that have been buried during the dry season, all emerge with those fragrances and the change in humidity and ozone content in the air. And so I'm trying look at those different fragrances almost as letters in the alphabet of how plants communicate with their pollinators and with us.
Steve Paulson (15:21):
Do you have personal relationships with any particular plants?
Gary Paul Nabhan (15:27):
I feel such deep affinities with some plants that sometimes I worry that I'm polygamous.
Gary Paul Nabhan (15:37):
I mean, I wrote a book on my love affair with mesquite trees, where after my first concussion, I was just so disoriented. It really stripped me down and worked me over. I would just get so fatigued because of the visual disorientation that I would sit down below a mesquite tree and begin to meditate and fall asleep. And I just felt I was absorbing through osmosis, the spirit of the mesquite tree, it cradled me. It was a nurse and a friend and a mentor. And it was really, without words, of course, teaching me lessons of how to live at this point in my life. And it helped me savor silence and the quiet wrestling of leaves and the quiet interaction between beings more than I ever had a chance to do in our overly busy lives. And so I'm just so grateful that at the time when I was most broken, the mesquite trees rescued me.
Steve Paulson (16:49):
No, that's just lovely to hear you describe that. Now you mentioned that you have known a number of the Native Americans who live in this area. I mean, you are not native yourself, but I know you've worked closely with some of the indigenous people in that area who've been there for thousands of years. What have you learned from them?
Gary Paul Nabhan (17:08):
Well, I have to say that I stumbled into working in agricultural fields and orchards with indigenous elders when they needed a hand. And I had just lost my era of grandfather, who was a storyteller and guide in my life. And they quietly accepted me, despite all my wrinkle and bumps, and I've learned some of their language, but then they would just open opportunities for me.
Gary Paul Nabhan (17:41):
And one of the most deeply moving realizations that they offered me was their sense that plants have personhood, like the saguaro cacti, that in their stories, the first saguaro was a child that sank into the earth after neglect of his community. And then reemerge as a saguaro cactus to remind them that they cannot neglect their children or the plant life around them. And recently I've worked with seven transborder tribes, that's indigenous communities on both sides of the border, who saw tens of thousands of saguaros, which they consider sacred, and that they use in sacraments in their own ceremonies, tens of thousands bulldozed with the building of the border wall. And we work together to pass a resolution that is now moving tribe to tribe, but was unanimously supported by the Tomahawk, to grant saguaros legal, personhood equal to that of humans. And to put people on notice that they cannot treat the life of saguaros as something expendable or as a commodity, and that they will prosecute people who damage or kill or mutilate any saguaro cacti in their Aboriginal homeland.
Steve Paulson (19:19):
So what does it mean to see a saguaro cactus as a person? And I don't mean just as a legal concept, but as something more than that,
Gary Paul Nabhan (19:28):
Well, I have to say right off the bat that it's not anthropomorphism, it's not making a saguaro into a human because they have arms. And sometimes because of old wounds, it looks like they have mouth and eyes. It's really more about their stature, their dignity, their austerity, and that their elders, the saguaros around my office on [inaudible 00:20:00] Tucson are 180 to 300 years old. And so if you live around them your whole life, you begin to respect them as elders of another kind.
Steve Paulson (20:13):
It's so interesting to hear you talk about the age of the saguaros, because I've had the experience among when I've been in old forests, around old trees and most noticeably around the giant sequoias, just trying to imagine what they have witnessed during all that time. And I don't know if this is anthropomorphizing or not, but they've seen so much and presumably they are sensing what they have seen. And I'm wondering, I don't know how that feels for you being around these old saguaros.
Gary Paul Nabhan (20:47):
Well, you pinned it. That's exactly how I feel. And even when I go back to Lebanon and Syria and see 300 to 500 year old olive trees and some of my relatives, orchards, I just feel like their woundedness is worn on their sleeves. There you can see the scars of lightning strikes and drought and windstorms, and the saguaros offer that to us too. That there's no way we can get out of this world alive without suffering, but they wear their suffering as a badge of courage.
Steve Paulson (21:31):
My guest is Gary Paul Nabhan, an ethnobotanist, food activist, and the recipient of a MacArthur genius award. This conversation is part of our series on kinship with the more than human world. Gary, you have been a leading figure in sustainable agriculture and in local food movements for decades. And my sense is that you see healthy food production as the key to healthy culture and a healthy environment. Why is food so central to your thinking?
Gary Paul Nabhan (22:05):
I have to use a negative example to heighten that relationship, but the way we produce, transport, and process our food is the largest contributor to greenhouse gases on this planet. So there's more calories embedded in each bite of food that we fossil fuel and agrochemicals and transportation, then the calories we get out of that food. And so if we're going to heal this planet and make it more resilient in the face of climate change, we need to adapt the way we produce food to each place where we're growing it, rather than wholly remaking the environment to fit the crop. And so desert agriculture should use the plants like agaves and prickly pear and mesquite trees that are exquisitely adapted to surviving the extremes of 120 degree heat and extended drought rather than coming in with center pivot irrigation and greenhouses, and thinking that because we can produce more food per square foot that way, that somehow that's sustainable.
Steve Paulson (23:28):
So this is the argument for why local food so important.
Gary Paul Nabhan (23:32):
Yes, I'm focused on the plants that we should have in the repertoire of healthy food systems here that are selected because they also deal with the most pressing human needs. In our case, in the Southwest of Northern Mexico, there's an epidemic of diabetes and childhood obesity that is still killing more people than COVID. And so if we don't have an agriculture in any region in this country that's simultaneously addresses land health, human health and community economic health, we're missing the boat.
Steve Paulson (24:10):
Why is there this epidemic in obesity and diabetes?
Gary Paul Nabhan (24:14):
Because people who had evolved with diets high in soluble fiber, the slow release carbohydrates and other secondary chemicals that protected them both from nutrition related diseases and from viruses and bacteria, those were replaced dramatically over the last century with globalized commodities that could easily be transported that do not have these chemo protective chemicals in them. And so we really have put all indigenous peoples whose bodies are literally adapted to their place and the diets that are possible there at a disadvantage by bringing these cheap foods, and those have caused the diseases of Western civilization.
Steve Paulson (25:13):
So all of this sounds so important. It sounds so good, but I do wonder if it's possible to feed 7 billion people using sustainable farming methods.
Gary Paul Nabhan (25:26):
I think we have to break that down and say, how can we feed the people in the desert without bringing water 500 miles across a desert in canals with high evaporation to create a 10 to 20 year temporary artificial oasis, if we don't get our agriculture so it produces more nutritious calories than empty calories, in a way that does not deplete the land of its nutrients and water, we're fooling ourselves than any other way can feed seven billion people. It will just not be possible if we wear out the land, the water reserves and the very people who bring us our daily bread and farm workers are now the profession in the United States, most likely to have to get food from soup kitchens and food banks. And so we have to take care of the people in agriculture, as much as we take care of the land.
Steve Paulson (26:31):
Now you live in the Southwest, of course, and there has also been a lot of tension between ranchers and environmentalists there. And I know you've been looking to find common ground between these groups. How do you go about doing that?
Gary Paul Nabhan (26:46):
We step into the middle path, the radical center, where we look at our shared values rather than our differences. And so for over 30 years, I've been in discussions, sometimes very tense, because there had been litigation of one group against another, between ranchers and environmentalists. What emerged out of that is one of the most powerful grassroots movements in the United States, the collaborative conservation movement in western lands that involves hundreds of nonprofits, government agencies, farm and ranch businesses, and tens of thousands of rural and urban dwellers that are bridging the urban rural divide. And my book Food for the Radical Center is case studies of those successful attempts that we've had to find way ranchers and environmentalists can find common ground.
Steve Paulson (27:48):
Can you give me an example of that? How let's say particular groups of ranchers and environmentalists were really furious at each other and how they managed to come together? I mean, what happened in, I don't know, one of these cases?
Gary Paul Nabhan (28:02):
Let me give you a beautiful example from where I lived for 10 years up near the Grand Canyon, where my wife and I raised Navajo-Churro sheep, a rare breed of livestock, but there were cattle ranchers all around us who were being sued by environmentalist groups for their impacts on wildlife or perceived impacts on wildlife. Friends of mine started first, a group called Six Six, of six ranchers and six environmentalists that would go out and look at the condition of range lands together and interpret it to one another and find common ground. And then that emerged into 14 different rancher environmentalist collaboratives around the west and Diablo Trust was one of the first two.
Gary Paul Nabhan (28:50):
When they started the National Wildlife Federation state chapter was suing them for causing depletion of antelope herds on their ranches that included federal lands like forest service land, and BLN lands, after going out on the land together for a dozen years and restoring vegetation and gullies, and studying the pronghorn.
Gary Paul Nabhan (29:15):
They realized that most of the pronghorn that had been killed were not by range conditions. They were being killed on the highways there, as they tried to cross. And then they rewired the fences and worked together to move the antelope herds to places further away from the interstate highway. And at one meeting I saw National Wildlife Federation officer say, I'm here to apologize that I misread your intent, that I said that you were damaging wildlife when you weren't. And on behalf of all the wildlife conservationists I work with, I want to sincerely to apologize to every rancher here. And a rancher got up weeping and said, I don't know if you remember it, but we went to high school together.
Gary Paul Nabhan (30:09):
And he said, I want to apologize to you for thinking that you were the enemy because you're an ally. And the whole room wept. And I've been in the same thing between Israeli and Palestinian farmers. And I've been in the same thing between indigenous people and environmental groups. And I've even been in the same thing with people that wanted border security and people who wanted free access to their pilgrimage sites and their sacred springs on borders. And when they come together, it's the deepest satisfaction I've ever felt in my life. It's more important than anything I've done because kinship did it. No single ego did it.
Steve Paulson (30:59):
You call that the radical center. Why is that radical?
Gary Paul Nabhan (31:03):
In three ways, it's at the root of who all of us really are. We're not ideological beings by evolution. We're loving, tender, vulnerable beings. And when we move toward middle ground and embrace one another, I think it reaffirms what's at root of our human experience. Secondly, it's radical because it goes to the root of the problem.
Gary Paul Nabhan (31:36):
We all have different perceptions and we can defend those perceptions or we can learn from other people's. So being radical, isn't being on the fire right or the fire left, it's being right there in the middle because you get beat up on both sides by people who still don't understand that. And it's radical because it takes us back to the roots of our relationship with planet desert, this lonely little peace of earth that's being flung through space. And it reminds us that the earth is more important than ego satisfaction. It brings us to a more humble place by participating in those collaborative processes.
Steve Paulson (32:22):
That's beautiful. And so we've been talked about some very big ideas and I want to bring this down closer to home for you, going back to where you live in Patagonia, Arizona. Can you just tell me about your homestead, what you grow there and what daily life is like for you there?
Gary Paul Nabhan (32:43):
Thank you for that. Because I think every one of us who shares these values that we're talking about in the kinship series really has to have a daily practice, a contemplative practice, what ballet dancers do each day, get out on your toe shoes, stand up next to that bar and do your forms. And so I think my daily practice is propagating things in two greenhouses that I set out on the land, not only on my own property that I give away, I grow 140 different varieties of heirloom fruits and nuts. And I've probably just become one more fruit or nut in the whole pack.
Gary Paul Nabhan (33:24):
I grow 50 kinds of agave, 31 kinds of pomegranates, 15 kinds of cacti. And then we have endangered fish, two species, in our pond. And in the larger landscape around us, there's a 1400 acre wildlife corridor, soon to be larger, that is one of the richest places for threatening endangered species in the United States. And my wife and I jump started a program that others are carrying on called Earth Care Youth Corps that takes kids 14 to 17 years of age, girls and boys, out to do the work of restoring that land for five weeks every summer.
Steve Paulson (34:11):
Now you mentioned the importance of a daily practice. What do you do and what is your daily practice or at least part of it?
Gary Paul Nabhan (34:21):
It's first trying to get attentive to the world. Whether I wake up before dark and look out through the windows and the mesquite canopies through the whole landscape around us, or whether I wander out with our Australian shepherd dog and sit for 20 minutes in the contemplative agave garden. And then after having breakfast, I go down to the greenhouses, water seedlings or tree cuttings that we're using for grafting, and I work in the morning until I get tired. And then I come in and do the emails and the dirty dishes and little things that are part of every one of our lives. And that anchors me, all those quiet, interactive solitary actions anchor me for the rest of the day.
Steve Paulson (35:18):
Hmm. Now it's just lovely to hear you talk about that. Thank you. This has been such a pleasure to talk to you about well, about your life and what you do. Thank you.
Gary Paul Nabhan (35:29):
I am so grateful for what you do, what this program does and what the Center for Humans in Nature do. We humble ourselves to be in service to others, and better off we all are, so thank you so much Steve, and Mark, your engineer.
Steve Paulson (35:48):
That's Gary Paul Nabhan, an ethnobotanist, nature writer, and food activist. This interview is part of our podcast series on kinship with the more than human world, which is produced by To the Best of Our Knowledge in partnership with the Center for Humans in Nature and with support from the Calliope Foundation. Our sound designer is Sarah Hopefl and I'm Steve Paulson. If you want to find more in our kinship series, go to TT book.org/kinship, where you'll see all our podcast episodes and also a lot of great essays. Thanks for listening.