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Working With Nature and Singing for the Rain

Book Review: The Desert Smells Like Rain: A Naturalist in O’odham Country

Gary Paul Nabhan’s 30-year-old observations about traditional farming practices in drought-stricken areas seem exceptionally pertinent to the state of farming in 2012. His conclusion: work with what you’ve got, and sing for the rain to come.

The Desert Smells Like Rain is a series of 10 episodes, each depicting an aspect of desert life. Nabhan’s deep relationships with members of the Tohono O’odham (formerly known as Papago) affords him keen insight to the Native American peoples’ delicate interactions with the Sonoran Desert. He journeys to sacred caves and thriving oases, participates in rain-bringing ceremonies, and talks shop with sustenance farmers who cultivate lands in political protest. Throughout these adventures, he weaves a commentary on sustainable farming and ecological awareness, cross-cultural exchange, and spirituality.

photonamePhoto by Jasper NanceIn a series of 10 episodes, each depicting an aspect of Sonoran desert life, Gary Nabhan weaves
a commentary on sustainable farming and ecological awareness, cross-cultural exchange,
and spirituality.

The secret to the O’odham’s longevity, Nabhan posits, is their symbiotic relationship with the land. Farmers rely on rainwater and flashfloods to water their fields, believing that well water contains chemicals that aren’t good for crops. They replenish the soil by mixing different types of dirt, organic material, and animal droppings. They position fields at the mouths of washes for easy, natural irrigation. They plant according to weather patterns, waiting for the ground to soak up cool rainfall so seeds can germinate. Volunteer plants are allowed to spring up beside their domesticated cousins. By working the soil and cultivating the land naturally, the O’odham make it good.

These practices are a stark contrast to the massive single-crop farms that are slowly but surely turning areas of the Midwest into a drought-stricken pile of dirt. If only the hydrologists and crop scientists, scratching their heads in offices an hour away from O’odham floodwater fields, would venture out to see the real thing, Nabhan bemoans. They would find higher nutritive value in crops, and a natural cycle for recharging soil with nitrogen.

At the heart of Nabhan’s novel are the O’odham themselves. His characters are tricksters, jokers, and medicine men. They enjoy a good party as well as a solemn pilgrimage. But their lives – just like the crops they so dedicatedly tend – are inextricably tied to rain. “Rain – that’s the main thing in the desert,” says Julian Madrugrada, a 70-year old farmer. “You can’t plant anything – without the rain coming – without those washes running…”

In is season of extreme heat and dust, hope we all know the right old songs that will bring down that rain.

Nicky Ouellet
After teaching English for three years in Russia and on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Nicky now writes for the Earth Island Journal.

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