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A Piece of My Mind: Gary Paul Nabhan

Gary Nabhan at his home outside of Patagonia, Arizona.

Gary Paul Nabhan is an ecumenical Franciscan brother who does cross cultural collaborations for environmental and social justice and caring for creation. He is known as a pioneer in the local food movement and has lead the effort to save heirloom seeds.

An Arab American, he has a great love for desert environments and lives in the desert overlooking the Santa Cruz River Valley near Patagonia, Arizona.  The Santa Cruz is a binational river near the U.S. – Mexico border and supports a rich diversity of plants and animals as well as human cultural life.

“I have such respect for people who are meeting daunting challenges with humor, love and determination rather than giving up. We have to buoy each other up so that the whole world floats to a higher level.”

“It seems on the surface that the U. S. is more divided than any point since the Civil War, but at the same time, there are places like farmer’s markets that the right and the left, the secular and the sacred, rural and urban come together for dialogue and shared values.

And I think more than ever before, we have to find those eco tones or ecological edges that can bring people together to see what they have in common. And one of those things is often that they want safe, healthy food for their kids, and that they want that food to be grown in an environment that doesn’t deplete its food producing capacity, but sustains it.

Since I wrote one of the first books about the local food movement 20 years ago, we’ve seen exponential growth of farmer’s markets, community supported agriculture, urban food justice projects, collaborative conservation, alliances between ranchers, farmers, consumers, and environmentalists, and a sea change of understanding where our food comes from and the hands that work to bring it to us. The hands, hearts and minds that nourish us.

I’ve been part of a collaborative conservation movement that grew out of what we called the Range Wars that happened in the 1990s that were fueled by the writings of one of my favorite environmental authors, Edward Abbey. But at the same time, Abbey was stoking the fire of divisiveness between ranchers and environmentalists even though he had a long history of interacting with many of those people.

His friends like John Fife and Jim Corbett began to bring ranchers, environmentalist and social justice activists together for dialogue. Front porch meetings. And what grew out of that was the Sanctuary Movement, something that 2000 churches and synagogues and mosques across the U. S.  took part in.

John Fife and Jim Corbett came across New Mexico and Arizona borders with undocumented political refugees from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, and the ranchers were enough compassionate to understand that while they wanted a secure border from drug cartels, there was no reason that they couldn’t help religious organizations bring people who would be killed in their own country to sanctuary at the same time that that happened.

The environmentalist rancher collaborations began to form the Malpai Borderlands Group on the Arizona New Mexico border, right where these first discussions took place. The Diablo Trust in, northern Arizona around the grand Canyon and now 12 other groups are safeguarding lands, wildlife diversity and livelihoods on more than two and a half million acres in the United States.

So these initial conversations of getting over what divides us and walking towards the radical center hit paydirt. Ethical pay dirt. Pay dirt that saved lives, saved land, saved endangered species.

I was in on a three-day retreat in Hawaii 20 years ago where we wrote something called the Radical Center Manifesto with again, ranchers, range managers, environmentalists, poets, Western writers. More than 4,000 people signed onto that, to walk towards the radical center.

Our rancher neighbor, a county over, Bill McDonald started to use that term for this walking towards what he called the radical center. And that term has been around since the 1920s. And it’s saying that the most radical thing that we can do is to listen to one another. To let our hearts be touched by people who we once perceived as the other. (And keep in mind that that whole concept of the other came from a great Lebanese American writer, Edward Said originally.) And that when we listen to each other and are touched by their own stories, love emerges out of us. And that is transformed into compassion for people unlike ourselves. And we find through that love that they’re more like us in values than we originally imagined, though they may talk, dance and sing differently than we do.


One of the great academic discoveries of the last 20 years is something that was right before our eyes all along. And that’s the places with the richest diversity of wildlife and plants on this planet often are the places where there’s also the highest cultural and linguistic diversity. I happened to be with an Australian architect, where he wants to put up two maps from two issues of Atlantic monthly that came out eight or nine months apart. And he said, look at this coincidence, that where there’s the greatest human upheavals, forced migrations, urban refuges…It’s almost a perfect match of where those areas of human disruption are with where we have the highest number of endangered species.

Where we lack cultures who have long tenure on the land and understand the dynamics of the plants and animals around them. if it’s all newcomers who are refugees or immigrants or Sunbelt snowbirds, trying to figure out the desert for the first time, it’s unlikely that we’re going to get it right.

But indigenous cultures that have had long tenure on the land, we have learned from their mistakes and encoded stewardship messages in all their stories and songs and prayers. And so that’s why, where we have a high level of extant cultural diversity, we often find that the wild biodiversity of plants and animals remains high there, and that on top of that, these people have contributed through domesticated plants and animals, even more diversity, the thousands of varieties of maize or rice that indigenous farmers—not plant breeders—have selected over millennia.

And what we really have to look at is how we can support those caretakers who already have this ethic to fend off threats. Right now we’re in one of the poorest counties in the United States, where the levels of poverty is twice that of the average County in the U. S. and yet, this is one of the richest, most biologically diverse counties in the entire United States. Right across the highway is a wildlife corridor that has movements of jaguar, mountain lion, ocelot, and bobcat. One of the few places in North America where we have four wild felines moving through the landscape, as well as black bears and a rare subspecies of turkey and pronghorn antelope.  Fourteen rare and endangered plants in the same corridor between the Mexican border and the peak immediately behind your head.

And my question is, how can we deal with that juxtaposition that we have this rich biodiversity here and yet we have incredible poverty that is forcing people to leave this county who been here for centuries and move to Phoenix or Tucson to find jobs. How can we create jobs with livable wages here that draw upon their skills and talents so that they can remain part of this community and guide us in land stewardship practices that go back to Hispanic and even to indigenous residents.

The question for me is how do we support the indigenous caretakers who are still paying attention to what my friend, Melissa Nelson calls the original operating instructions for caring for this continent.

I’m not a Native American, but I’ve worked in Native American communities for 40 years. The godmother of one of my children was a Native American singer and artist. Native American kids have lived in our house. We have another house in Mexico where the community basically invited us in to help with community development projects. It’s not that I’m an Indian wannabe. They respect me for having my Arab roots. They find it fascinating to deal with someone from another desert culture. So they don’t expect me to think like them, to pray like them or sing like them.

But we found common ground, what Wallace Stegner calls, the angle of repose, where we lean into each other. And that’s what we all need to find with people who grew up differently than us. The point is, we know that we’re losing a lot of that [knowledge], and it’s not going to be top down solutions that take care of all of it. We need to have cultural caretakers in place that are respected by federal and state agencies, by international treaties, and a whole range of other mechanisms for doing that work that they and their ancestors have always done.

The U. S.- Mexico border is a laboratory of the future for North America, where we see how planet earth is turning into planet desert. But we also see what desert cultures through the ages, in every desert in the world, have done to define peace and comfort in the desert. Those people have an incredible amount of traditional knowledge to teach to the rest of North America about living under desert conditions. By 2050, it’s estimated that 60 to 80 million Americans will live with hot, dry conditions, much like what we suffer or thrive in here every year.

And so we need to find that wisdom of the desert. Every culture in the desert has found ways to adapt in the desert so that they not only survive but thrive. And so my most recent book is called The Nature of Desert Nature, saying if half of North America is going to face hot dry conditions that now most Americans only associate with deserts, how do we convince people that deserts aren’t impoverished empty spaces, but these incredible landscapes where everything fits and that they have integrity. They’re not abused places that have been diminished, but they hold their own integrity and resources of value and that what they call emptiness, we call spaciousness.

What they call water scarcity…we say isn’t too much water in a place just as problematic as a paucity of water? And can’t you learn to live with each of those? People that are on the Mississippi Delta have learn to live with much more water than I ever want to see in my backyard. The wisdom of the desert is about patience, tolerance, long views, accepting uncertainty because desert rainfall patterns are the most uncertain in the world. And, and that’s encoded into the languages of the indigenous peoples here. They anticipate rain as the biggest gift that could be given them, and they meet it with the light, but they don’t tell it when to come. They don’t demand that we cloud seed to bring a gift to ourselves.

They accept with patience, dryness, and they delight when the rain comes and they make the best use of it. The, the farmers of the Tohono O’odham just to the West of us, were probably the most water use efficient farmers in the world, according to Bill Mollison, the guy who coined the term permaculture. So the people of the deserts who are now the marginalized… blessed are the poor who can lead us out of our troubles. The people who’ve been marginalized, they’ve accepted the frugality of living in the desert for decades, are now the ones who can teach others in North America how to live a dignified, sustainable life in these conditions.”


A Piece of My Mind: Gary Paul Nabhan

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