Agricultural ecologist and ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan, considered the father of the local food movement and a pioneer of the heirloom seed-saving movement, has authored more than 30 books. His two most recent books, reviewed here, were published in September. Nabhan, the Kellogg Endowed Chair at the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center, lives in Patagonia.
Food from the Radical Center: Healing our Land and Communities, Gary Paul Nabhan. Island Press. $28
Feed thy neighbor. Although ours is an increasingly fractious society, improving the lives of others is a concept everyone can get behind regardless of politics, faith, or viewpoint. Gary Nabhan identifies the place where consensus exists as the Radical Center, the fertile ground where community members put aside their differences to share the work of restoring the biocultural landscape and the nation’s ability to produce nourishing food. This is an insightful narrative by a life-long conservationist who understands that conservation works best from the ground up; when communities make decisions that support — rather than hamstring — local stakeholders and share the work to heal the land, everyone thrives. Each chapter begins with a question that invites the visualization of an ideal scenario — the flutter of hummingbirds at nectar-rich plants, the ambrosial flavor of an heirloom date, fish leaping in a restored water hole — and goes on to explain how these ideals were achieved by restoring the soil, replenishing water, creating environments that reinvigorate near-extinct species like bison and sturgeon, and bringing back heritage plants and grains. Local readers will especially enjoy Nabhan’s shout-out to Tucson, detailing how grassroots efforts of Tucsonans, from seed libraries to rainwater harvesting and beyond, led to the Old Pueblo’s designation as a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy. — Helene Woodhams
Mesquite: An Arboreal Love Affair, Gary Paul Nabhan. Chelsea Green Publishing. $22.50 hardcover, $15.03 Kindle
Consider the lowly mesquite tree. Not mighty like the oak nor majestic like the redwood, the spindly mesquite was long considered good for nothing — not for food, not for shade, just a ‘devil with roots … scabbing cows and spooking horses.’ They were chopped down, bulldozed, and got no respect. But that was then — these days awareness is growing of the importance of prosopis velutina to arid landscapes and desert people, and with this enlightening and highly readable book, Gary Nabhan is leading the charge. Culturally and ecologically, the mesquite is a keystone species, unmatched in its ability to provide nourishment, nitrogen, and habitat, and Nabhan explains the science behind this botanical wonder with the enthusiasm of a true believer. Really, he’s such a fan of the mesquite that he’d like nothing better than to metamorphize into one, and his gradual transformation— complete with roots and bark — is a theme he periodically revisits throughout the lively narrative. The result is a blend of scholarship, ethnobotany and rollicking humor, rounded out with some mesquite recipes you won’t want to miss. After all, if you’re coming home to eat in the desert, mesquite is definitely on the menu. — Helene Woodhams