Desert Smells Like Rain: A Naturalist in O'Odham Country / Edition 1

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Longtime residents of the Sonoran Desert, the Tohono O'odham people have spent centuries living off the land—a land that most modern citizens of southern Arizona consider totally inhospitable. Ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan has lived with the Tohono O'odham, long known as the Papagos, observing the delicate balance between these people and their environment. Bringing O'odham voices to the page at every turn, he writes elegantly of how they husband scant water supplies, grow crops, and utilize wild edible foods. Woven through his account are coyote tales, O'odham children's impressions of the desert, and observations on the political problems that come with living on both sides of an international border. Whether visiting a sacred cave in the Baboquivari Mountains or attending a saguaro wine-drinking ceremony, Nabhan conveys the everyday life and extraordinary perseverance of these desert people in a book that has become a contemporary classic of environmental literature.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“People often find science boring and ill written. Not in this book. Here the reader is lured into botany, ethnology, hydrology, and a couple of million acres by vivid writing, good pictures, and a beautifully produced book. . . . Anyone ignorant of the desert should begin their cure here.” —Tucson Citizen“The humor, spice, charm, insight, and compassion with which Gary Paul Nabhan weaves his tale make for enjoyable reading.” —Rio Grande Sun“Nabhan's point is that we transplanted desert dwellers have a great deal to learn from longtime, environmentally conscious inhabitants if we are not to destroy our fragile home. . . . A remarkably humane essay on nature and respect for it.” —Bloomsbury Review“The Desert Smells Like Rain offers a remarkable insight, sensitive but unsentimental, combining the sound perceptions of a scientist with ecological concerns, matching humor and a sense of human frailty with tentative hope for the future.” —High Country News“His eyes are those of a scientist, his prose and vision a poet's: spare, evocative, respectful of both facts and mysteries.” —Orion Nature Quarterly
Nabhan (Center for Sustainable Development, Northern Arizona U.) lived in the Sonoran Desert with the Tohono O'odham people (also known as the Papagos) for a period. In this series of stories of his experiences, he recounts how the O'odham live in their environment and how they conceive of their relationship with nature, suggesting that there are valuable lessons for all of us. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780816522491
  • Publisher: University of Arizona Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 148
  • Sales rank: 1,441,526
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

A MacArthur Fellow and recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Conservation Biology, Gary Paul Nabhan is Director of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

An earth crack;
an earth crack!
Out of it I'itoi comes.
To the sky he takes me....
Song dreamed by a Papago shaman

We felt watched from the time we began our pilgrimage, one crisp November morning at Ali Cukson, Arizona. That is, Little Tucson, a Papago Indian village five-hundredths the size and fifty miles southwest of its burgeoning counterpart. While metropolitan Tucson is the largest city in the U.S. based solely on groundwater resources, Ali Cukson is the home of desert Indians who distrust the medicine taste of well water, preferring to grow their modest gardens with the runoff provided by sporadic rains.

    So from the start, as a caracara swept above our pickup, trailing down the road with us a while, we felt watched. Not by spectators, spies, or spooks, but by sentient beings. The caracara was just one of our guides along the way, yet it exemplified the rare nature of the biotic community through which we were journeying. The caracara does not nest in too many places north of Mexico, but it does so as a permanent resident near Ali Cukson. Caracaras and two other carrion-eaters, black and turkey vultures, thrive here on the western rim of the Baboquivari Mountains, beyond modern agriculture's assault on the desert with pump and pesticides. Our journey that day was into the midst of the Baboquivaris, to a place so sacred for the Papago that it has been designated as a tribal shrine, a natural/spiritual sanctuary.

    The place is a cave hidden at the base of the cliffs which form the walls of Baboquivari Canyon. It is I'itoiKi:, the home of the Coyote-like character responsible for the Papago emergence into this world. After creating humans, deer, fire, bald-headed buzzards, and much mischief, I'itoi settled down to spend the rest of his existence underground. I'itoi only occasionally comes out of his sanctuary these days — for instance, he helped guide wildlife to safety when the first locomotive roared through Papago Country. Now, the Desert People mostly visit the cave knowing that he is out of sight, but nevertheless watching them, granting children luck, and providing medicine men with the healing power they request.

    The cave, in legend, is an antechamber of a large labyrinth winding within the Baboquivaris. Papago basketmakers weave a design to signify this — a small man standing at the beginning of a circular maze. This design, also known as I'itoi Ki:, is allegorical, too — they say it is the Papago searching for the deeper meaning of life. The real cave is still a spiritual touchstone for these Desert People today. Because Baboquivari Peak towering over the cave can be seen from nearly every village on the reservation, this place is literally and figuratively at the heart of the Papago universe.

    Our truckload of Papago and Anglos was driven by many desires — to ask I'itoi for blessings, to feel the excitement of searching for a place we had all heard of many times, and to be in the beauty of a canyon known for its wildlife and strange plants. With a special permit on the dashboard, we turned off the paved road to Topawa and headed thirteen miles east through the restricted-access range of the Papago Reservation. Salvador, still celebrating from the night before, passionately sang Papago songs "handed down from I'itoi" as the dust cloud flowed in around us in the back of the pickup. High above the peak, a soaring Harris' hawk watched a white streak of dust stir up and lengthen toward the canyon. A bobcat stood in the road for a moment, puzzling at the pickup looming larger and larger, then bounded away into the brush.

    We reached the road's end where an old stone cabin and a floodwater field stood abandoned. There was something tropical about the canyon at this point — the northernmost remnants of thornscrub vegetation characteristic of western Mexico. Among the creekside desert olives, mesquite, catclaw, and hackberries, some tropical elements crop up: kidneywood, Arizona sapote, white flowered plumbago, bloodleaf amaranth, and wild chile bushes. There are other, rarer plants — desert dogbane and an elephant tree — that are only known in the U.S. on the western edge of the Baboquivaris. The canyon is one of the few localities in the U.S. where five-striped sparrows nest, and that the raccoon-like coatimundis frequent. These relic plant and animal populations persist in the midst of an other-worldly landscape: volcanic outcrops studded with giant cactus.

    As we piled out of the truck, Salvador and his seventy-four-year-old mother, Mona, anxiously pointed towards the base of the cliffs hundreds of feet above us. In their native language, they discussed the landmarks that would guide us to the cave — the color and pattern of weathering on the rock just above it, the zigzag that the trail was supposed to take, and the direction that the cave was said to face. Neither of them had been to the cave before, although the many descriptions heard around lifetimes of campfires had impressed images in their minds.

    Yet, both knew the canyon well. Mona had camped on its edge with her family more than half a century before, when they would gather cactus fruit on the surrounding slopes. She remembered that one of her cousins, while out hunting javelina for meat for the camp, had come upon some ancient ruins on the top of an adjacent mesa at dusk. Among them, he found several intact pottery vessels, which he brought back down to the makeshift ramada shelters under which the family slept.

    Suddenly, a wind whipped up out of the canyon and roared through the camp, knocking down the ramada where the stolen pottery stood. The young man's family made him take the vessels back where they belonged, and Mona has since maintained a fear of disturbing "the gone ones."

    When younger, Salvador had hunted in the area with an uncle who spent years prior to that as the only big-game hunter in their village. Not everyone was allowed to hunt, and those who did observed strict taboos, and lived like ascetics for weeks at a time while on the stalk. Salvador had also gathered wild chiles, onions, and edible roots in the higher elevations of the Baboquivaris.

    Now, however, Mona was too old and Salvador was too hung-over to join us; Baptisto, his younger brother, would guide us up. Salvador repeated all he remembered of descriptions of where the cave should be, and left us, saying, "I will sing for I'itoi to make you a path."

    As Salvador resigned himself to staying, Mona became apprehensive about my wife Karen and me.

    "You can't just go in there, you know, you got to leave him any little thing. When you go into the cave you just give whatever you have — a penny, a hair barrette, a cigarette.

    "There was a Catholic Sister who took some Papago boys up there. She went in with them, but she didn't give anything, thinking that nothing would happen because she was a Sister.

    "Then the boys who had each left something went back out and she turned around to go too. But it looked all dark and where she came in just kept getting smaller and smaller until she couldn't fit through. Then the boys yelled 'Give something, Sister!' and she finally left her rosary beads so it would open just enough to let her get out of there."

    "Don't worry, Mona," my wife interjected. "We'll give what we have and leave something for you too so he'll know you're down here."

    "Oh really? That sure would be good!"

Baptisto, Karen, and I started up the canyon on a trail through the dense riparian undergrowth. At one point, I came to an opening just as two white-tailed deer exploded into the brush on the other side, driving uphill over a knoll and out of sight.

    I'itoi had made the first deer by overstuffing a desert mouse, leaving the white stuffing showing on the belly underneath. As I saw the last flap of the white tails dip over the knoll, I guessed that we had come across I'itoi's own privately run herd.

     The flight of the deer caused a ruckus in the brush, with Mexican jays, Gambel's quail, cactus wrens, and phainopeplas noisily fleeing, too. Judging from the indignant voices, I felt as though we had busted up some kind of illicit activity hidden in the dense thicket.

    This far up the canyon, we saw Mexican blue oak, mulberry, and huge jojoba, thriving in the more humid narrows of the canyons. Here, we encountered potholes full of standing water along the otherwise dry creekbed. The red flowers of desert honeysuckle and hummingbird-trumpet still brightened the way this late in the fall.

    Baptisto guessed that we should make a turn away from the creekbed and begin our way up the steep scree of the slope. We left the musky shade to trudge the sparse, exposed incline. Each semblance of a series of trail switchbacks we saw ended up a bum steer — a mere cow trail leading no further than the next patch of grass. So we did what any decent upstanding citizen would do when faced with chaos — we bushwhacked.

    Or rather, the bushes whacked us. And we didn't remain "upstanding" too long either. We downshifted into a three-point crawl.

    The upper bajada slope was armed to the teeth. Thorns, spines, and stickers of every kind came with the sprawling ocotillo, wait-a-minute bushes, Palmer's century plants, desert spoons, cholla, prickly pear, barrel, rainbow, and saguaro cactus. I looked uphill and into the future — nights at home pulling the desert's vestiges out of my skin with tweezers. A white-necked raven flew over us, laughing.

    As the going got tougher, we were presented with a greater view and stopped often to savor it. We could scan all the small dendritic drainages weaving down from the western slopes and draining into Wamuli Wash, an intermittent stream that fed Papago fields for centuries. And to the east we could see just the top of the granite obelisk known as Baboquivari Peak.

    Or Waw Kiwulik, as the Papago say today, "rock drawn in at the middle." A name destined to be mangled by every foreign tongue that ever tried to shape its sound. To confuse matters more, the Papago word for rock cliff has changed its sound from "Vav" to "Waw" over the last two centuries. Around 1700, the explorer Padre Kino first wrote the name down as Baggiburi, using it to describe a village of 500 between the range and Wamuli Wash. By 1771, the Sierra del Babuguiburi was registered on maps, afloat in the tierra incognita of Papago Country. Even today, Baboguivari sits awkwardly on some U.S. maps, just as remote from the original Papago words as the official United States Geological Survey place name of Baboquivari.

    The Papago description of the rock "drawn in at the middle" refers to a time when the peak was twice its size, shaped like an hourglass. The Papago farming along Wamuli Wash were many, and they felt they needed more farmland in the valley. So four elders went to visit I'itoi in the cave to ask him to move the mountains back so that the valley would be bigger.

    I'itoi said that they must make cactus wine in four days. Then they must drink it, dance, and sing over the next four. Each day they drank and carried on more wildly, and the mountains began to soften and teeter. On the fourth day near dusk, the peak rocked until the top fell over, and the whole range moved, making Wamuli Valley wider.

    Cloud Man, who lived up in the mountains, did not like this earth-shaking change, brought about by the greed of the people. He had to carry water from the mountains and did not appreciate that he would now have to travel further. In addition, he refused to bring more water to supply the additional land. The Desert People were never able to bring their newly gained land into cultivation, for without more water the land was useless. And the mountain that had looked like an hourglass had lost the shape for which it was named.

We finally turned our backs on the panorama, to climb the last stretch to the cliffs. Coyote's tobacco, coral bean, four wing saltbush, and hopbush grew in pockets above the thornier scrub. We reached the base of the thousand-foot cliffs and looked down again. We were now a thousand feet above the desert floor.

    Searching for over half an hour, we came upon nothing that looked like a shrine. There were small overhangs and caves, but none of them were I'itoi's. The sun was nearly down. Scratched, tired, and frustrated, we decided that we should head back down the forty-five degree slope and try another time.

    Then Baptisto stopped us.

    "Do you hear that?"

    We listened. It was Salvador's voice, hundreds of feet below, singing to I'itoi. Down in the canyon, we could see a campfire he had made.

    "Did you look on the other side of those white streaks on the cliff?" Baptisto asked.

    We scrambled back along the base of the cliffs, eastward, toward the peak. We checked out three or four possible spots with no luck. Baptisto listened again. "He's singing us a path."

    Suddenly, behind a jojoba bush, the last rays of the day's sun flashed on an opening in the rock. Then the sun was gone. A vertical slit beginning waist high allowed passage through a vein of brecciated porphyry. The entrance was only a foot and a half wide; we had to slide through on our sides.

    Our eyes adjusted to the darkness. There, hanging above our heads from the cave ceiling, were rosary beads, chains with rings on them, and shoelaces. At our feet were a jar of saguaro cactus syrup and a green frog figurine — an effigy found even in prehistoric desert shrines. The walls of the cave had medallions, bullets, chewing gum, and cigarettes stuck in little niches. We placed some coins there, and then I decided to leave my cap, remembering a story of an entire Civil War uniform, cap and all, found there in the 1930s.

    The cave was at least twenty feet long, but we couldn't really tell how big it was — it didn't matter. We were on the edge of a place, a being that was larger and deeper than we were.

    And that was it — recognizing that even though we had found the cave, it was still largely unknown to us. We were standing in the cool musky air of a sanctuary that was saying to us:

    "There is always something hidden in this world, that you can't just realize from the outside. You need to make contact with it now and then, to nod your head in knowing, to receive its blessing."

    We stood in the darkness, panting and shivering. Taken in by the mountains. Taking in the breath of I'itoi.

Excerpted from The Desert Smells Like Rain by Gary Paul Nabhan. Copyright © 1982 by Gary Paul Nabhan. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

O'odham Sounds
The Desert Smells like Rain: An Overture 1
Ch. 1 On the Trail of I'itoi - A Pilgrimage into the Baboquivari Mountains 11
Ch. 2 Throwing Up the Clouds - Cactus Wine, Vomit, and Rain 23
Ch. 3 What Do You Do When the Rain is Dying? 39
Ch. 4 Changos del Desierto - Growing Up on the Reservation 49
Ch. 5 Raising Hell as Well as Wheat - Papago Indians Burying the Borderline 65
Ch. 6 Plants Which Coyote Steals, Spoils, and Shits On 75
Ch. 7 Where the Birds Are Our Friends - The Tale of Two Oases 87
Ch. 8 Gathering 99
Ch. 9 Given Over to Santos and Spices - Magdalena's Fiesta 111
Ch. 10 You Make the Earth Good by Your Work 121
Notes 131
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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 18, 2007

    A reviewer

    The Desert Smells Like Rain, by Gary Paul Nabhan, is a humorous and captivating book that had me eagerly turning the pages throughout every chapter. The book focuses on the Papago, or O¿odham, a small group of Native Americans on the border of Mexico. It was very interesting to learn about how they grow crops without modern irrigation and their high level of respect for nature. Nabhan includes intriguing and witty Papago stories of the desert, and equally clever down to earth short biographies about the people themselves and how they survive as a minority group of people. One cultural aspect I learned about the Papago was their annual saguaro drinking ceremony. Papagos from all different areas gather to drink saguaro wine, their version of a rain dance. Another Papago tradition is the belief is that the coyote is their creator, which puts them in conflict with cattle ranchers who want to shoot coyotes. This book taught me about an out of the ordinary group of people each Papago depends on the other and relies on the ecosystem to provide them food in an almost inhabitable barren desert. I thoroughly enjoyed The Desert Smells Like Rain, not only for it¿s amusing content, but also for its descriptive style. I highly recommend this book for anybody wanting a fast, fascinating read.

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