After a week of intense emotions in which the Aponiente team and members of Salarte have been invited by the Comcaac – Seri Community, Borderlands Restoration Network and the University of Arizona to share knowledge and knowledge of the sea and the estuaries, our extraordinary host, Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan has written this interesting article, in which part of the scientific-technical-human collaboration that has just been born on both sides of the planet is condensed, thanks to the perseverance of the Comcaac Community, the effort of the University of Arizona – Borderlands Restoration Network and the unprecedented commitment of Aponiente for a gastronomy committed to the planet, egalitarian, sustainable and inspiring.
We return to the sea, humbly, not with answers but with important questions.
Our eight-meter-long boat enters the emerald waters of the Sea of Cortez in the twilight that precedes sunrise. We begin to search for answers to the big questions that will occupy the minds and hearts of eight of us as we traverse the waves at full speed over the next week.
Just before the sun rises over the desert mountains of Sonora, Mexico, hundreds of frigate birds rise above us, spiraling up.
Are frigate birds a forecast of a change in the air, a change in barometric pressure, an alteration of weather patterns, or a concern about the state of the oceans?
As we enter the Infiernillo Channel, the strait that separates the landmass from Shark Island, the sky darkens. It starts to rain. The gray fog blurs the gaps between islands and peninsulas. The sun’s rays pass through the darkness and create a rainbow in front of us.
Are the sight of this rainbow and the smell of rain signs of a coming storm, or one that has quickly passed by? Is the sudden arrival of untimely rain – a rather rare occurrence in the month of May – an indicator of the acceleration of climate change? Are these few raindrops enough to break the severe drought that is devastating more than four-fifths of Mexico’s land and waters?
As we navigate the currents and enter a thirty-thousand-hectare stretch of shallow shoals that are home to ten thousand hectares of sea grass meadows, we realize that we are glimpsing the best remaining example of the most threatened marine ecosystems on the planet. The global loss of sea grass meadows is occurring at a faster rate than the loss of rain-forests.
Is it possible that we can better protect and more fully restore one of the last stands of sea grass on the western shores of the Pacific Ocean, so that it survives for the benefit of future generations of humanity and wildlife?
With these questions in mind, we prepare to let our hearts and hands do the work our heads will never be able to do:
Collect the seeds of all patches of sea grass that disappear quickly;
Sow them in patches where they can come back to life; and transplant their vegetative rhizomes to safer sites where they can take root.
Is it possible that these very insignificant tasks are carried out in such a way that people from diverse backgrounds come to share the same urgent mission: to prevent the Ocean Planet from becoming the Desert Planet, where marine life is exhausted, dissipated and tragically interrupted?
Our group of eight team members includes Indigenous, Spanish, Mexican and American scientists and culinary artists who have come together for a common cause: to respect, protect and restore the living riches of Mother Sea, not just those of Mother Earth.
We strive to know how it is possible that this remote place – preserved as sacred by Mexico’s Comcaac (Seri) indigenous community – has continued to be home to most of the sea grass meadows that survive in the Sea of Cortez, even though eighteen other habitats in which sea grasses flourished have disappeared.
We hear with salty tears in our eyes how one of the leaders of the Comcaac offers us this explanation: “The roots of our culture, our stories, are embedded in these sea grass meadows, as are our songs and our prayers for the bodies of our fishermen lost at sea. Each one remembers the place names that our ancestors taught us to be able to navigate and feed from these underwater sanctuaries.
Our songs are maps that guide us to the secret gathering places of sea turtles and other wildlife. They are as sacred to us as sacred springs and mountaintops are to people who practice other religions. We have nourished and fed on the seeds we call xnois, just as the fish and seafood we eat have fed on the stems of underwater grass we call hataam.
How is it possible that, until recently, no other culture in the world has seen the value of feasting on the nutritious grains of sea grass, even though it was described shortly after the first Spanish explorers arrived in this vermilion sea in 1539?
Once we picked up a large mound of sea grass that had been floating in the ocean, we give it to the most capable old ladies who remember how their grandmothers had prepared it. They beat the mound of grass with sticks until it releases its seeds. With trays they separate the seed from the straw to save the edible grain.
In a matter of days, they separate and clean by hand more than a kilo of seeds. They take half of it and mix it with boiling water and honey to make a delicious cereal or porridge to share. They invite the community to celebrate the rebirth of this gastronomic tradition.
A dozen members of the community quickly come forward to taste an ancient grain that no one had prepared on such a scale for more than fifty years.
How can we collectively “pay our debt” to the only known culture in human history that has harvested this delicious and nutritious grain from the sea?
Our efforts during just one week in May seem minuscule compared to those of a fishing, forage and seafaring culture that has kept knowledge of this valuable grain alive for centuries, if not millennia.
However, we do what any coastal dweller who lives near sea grass beds can do for themselves:
We raked the piles of sea grass floating in the banks, sorted them, and secured several hundred viable seeds that we sowed back into the ocean.
We place ten sea grass seeds in each of the ixtle bags we have sewn by hand, and anchor them in open areas of the ocean floor where they can recolonize the soil.
We separate the healthiest “roots,” called rhizomes. We dive with them to the bottom of the channel. We put five at a time into a hole we dig along the ocean floor. We do the same thing every few meters along a line in the sand, so we can follow its growth.
Isn’t it with small steps like these that we come to heal the sacred land and its sacred waters?
Isn’t it possible that these salt-tolerant, rice-like grains can feed future generations when fresh water becomes painfully scarce?
Is it possible that its dietary fiber and anti-diabetic properties can save the lives of Comcáac women and men suffering from nutrition-related diseases caused by malnutrition and poverty?
We watch as the sun cascades through the emerald waters to recharge the energy reserves of these resilient plants. They dance delicately in the water while the winds and waves move to the rhythm.
How can we use this gift from the sea to recharge the energy of our own societies, to return this ancient food to its rightful place in our salty world?
Sometimes we say to our pets or our children, “Don’t bite the hands that feed you.”
Now the remaining sea grass meadows seem to tell us, “Don’t waste the sea grass grains you’ll soon need to feed your children.”