April showers bring May flowers. A saying we all learn as children, repeated to each other when spring rains keep us indoors. A phrase so benign and simple that it rolls off our tongue without commanding a second thought. In reality these five words reflect an incredibly complex and important lesson in ecological systems thinking. These April showers are a herald of life, the rain falling from the sky announcing its intent and ability to bring forth this life with each soft thump against the soil. The molecule of water is what sustains our entire culture and way of living. So much of the water on earth is experienced as rain yet today we seem to shun this gift from the clouds. When it begins to fall we shut our doors and try to find a distraction from the “gloominess” outside. Instead we should strip down and burst forth from our homes ready to revel in our planet’s lifeblood. We should dance around as the rain mats our hair and beads up on our nose until it falls to our feet. It wasn’t until I spent some time on the Hopi reservation in Northern Arizona that this realization came to me.
On my Wild Rockies Field Institute course I got to stay on a small farm nestled against the Mesa of Talahogan Canyon within the Hopi Indian Reservation. This farm exists within the Colorado Plateau, an area spanning much of the Southwestern states that is primarily a desert. Because of this it doesn’t receive much rainfall, less than ten inches in a year and the April showers are the difference between life and death out here. More than May flowers rely on the falling moisture, trees, shrubs, grasses, birds, rodents, mammals large and small, reptiles, and of course homo sapiens and our crops all need water to survive.
The indigenous Hopi tribe are the epitome of adapting and using what is available to them in order to live in the Plateau. Having the oldest continuous settlement in on the continent, approximately 900 years, they have spent almost a millennia perfecting the art of farming in the area. Our host on the reservation Dorothy Denet showed us around her farm pointing out traditional techniques being practiced all around us. At age 73 she led us college kids up the hill and through the bushes to the spring that sustains the farm. While sliding down the sandy soil surfer like, she pointed out the terraced gardens built by her ancestors, mostly out of commission now these beds were originally created to provide enough surface area to collect water for plants to grow.
Throughout the tour we gained an appreciation for how important agriculture is to the Hopi people. Dorothy explained that it is central to their way of life, indeed their entire culture is based around it. Most of their ceremonies are intended to produce a good crop and just about every waking hour is dedicated to tending the plants. I found myself wondering how it was possible for such an agrarian society to exist in this land so devoid of rain. The spring we had seen brought some water to the land but surely it wasn’t enough, and what of the other Hopi families not lucky enough to have such a solid source of ground water? Later that night Dorothy answered all of these questions while we chatted around the fire.
A testament to the Hopi’s adaptability and resilience they practice something called dry farming. Dorothy told us that because there isn’t enough water for irrigation in the area they simply don’t do it, instead they omit from watering their plants at all. Pointing towards a plot of land sanctioned for this practice she explained that when we planted corn there the next day the seeds would rely solely on the water in the soil and the precious little rain that would fall on it over the season.
The morning before planting the corn Dorothy pulled out a bag of corn seeds and explained the second part of dry farming, generational seeds. The seeds that Dorothy held were passed down in the traditional Hopi method from one generation to the next for the entire family’s history. Each crop the strongest seeds are saved and preserved to be planted the next season. Because of this only the plants most adapted to growing in the barren landscape and most adjusted to a lack of water continue to grow. Swinging a mattock to make a hole for the corn seeds a few hours after Dorothy’s lesson I realized just how special a process I was becoming a part of. The corn going into the ground behind me represented hundreds of years of Hopi practice and tradition, hundreds of years of their adaptation to the land around them.
It seemed fitting that while we were staying on such a rain dependent land a big storm rolled in the night before planting. It dumped on us from 6:00 PM that evening until 5:30 the next morning then off and on throughout the day until a final demonstration the next afternoon. The first night of the rain I found myself sitting in an outhouse without a roof or door to keep out the elements. Getting soaked in a bathroom is not something that I am used to and I wasn’t particularly keen on the raindrops falling down on me. As I sat there I began to realize how important this rain was for not only Dorothy’s farm but also the whole area of the Colorado Plateau. In my group’s four and a half weeks out here this was only the second time that it had rained and in between the rains were long stretches of hot days that baked the moisture out of the land.
At the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River the federal government has classified the last fifteen years as being in drought conditions. This statement is reflected in the increasingly lower and lower surface level in the Powell Reservoir, the manmade lake behind the dam. Despite this current level of drought people still use water in wasteful ways, sprinklers can be seen popping up to water perfectly green lawns in some of the hardest hit cities in Southern California and Big Ag and other companies use and waste incredible amounts of water every day.
These water abusers could learn a thing a thing or two from Dorothy and her farm. In a much less consumptive and wasteful manner she uses what little water she has to grow a good amount of food. Interestingly enough, by her calculations, the drought has only been around for seven years, half the time the government says! This speaks strongly to her water use practices and the sustainability linked in with them. Spending time on her farm has given my hope that America as a whole can adopt similar practices and begin to address the issue of prolonged drought in the southwest.
Walking back to my tent with all this on my mind with the rain falling heavy around me I now saw the drops as a blessing, not an inconvenience. When the rain stopped the next evening the blessings took on a different form. The sun peeked its way out from the clouds after a twenty hour sabbatical. With a fine mist-the only remnant of the storm- hanging in the air the low level light reflected off every angle of the water drops and basked Talahogan Wash in a beautiful light. The vibrant orange and yellow and rich purple in the sky complemented the green land perfectly. And what a shade of green! Every leaf, clump of moss and blade of grass was rejuvenated by the water in the land and rejoiced in the setting sun.
I observed all of this from atop of Dorothy’s Meas. My vantage point allowed full view of the wash below me and it was easy to see why the Hopi love this land so much. Still I know this place can only exist in such a state due to the rain. As I walked back to the campfire I began to anticipate the next storm to come through the area. How long until the rain kissed the land again? Might it water the corn that we had planted? Will it come soon enough? What will happen if the drought were to continue for too long?