Fall 1995, Volume 12.3
Philip J. Davis
Soils, Seeds, and Secrets
Philip J. Davis (M.A., University of New Mexico) is the author of Soils, Seeds, and Secrets, and is currently working on a collection of essays titled, Terrenos: Landscapes and Lives of New Mexico.
The reservation of the Zuni Indians, located on the southeast edge of the Colorado Plateau, occupies some four hundred and twenty thousand acres, nearly all of them in northwestern New Mexico. Mesas, buttes, and headlands, many of them rainbowed in reds, whites, and grays, dominate the reservation. Dense woodlands of piñon and juniper cover the region's slopes, while grass and sagebrush carpet its valleys. The occasionally-running Zuni River meanders through the heart of the reservation before connecting with the Little Colorado River in eastern Arizona.
At one time, Zuni land was far more extensive. When the tribe became a sovereign entity of the United States in 1846, it claimed dominion over some fifteen million acres. On two million acres, the Zunis grazed thousands of sheep. On twelve thousand more, they cultivated corn, beans, onions, and cotton—no small achievement considering the region annually receives only twelve to fifteen inches of rain. The productivity of the land was perfectly suited to the tribe's needs, and the tribe understood and respected the land's limitations. As a result, the Zunis—identified as "Pueblo," or village-dwelling, Indians by Spanish explorers—were one of the most successful and stable societies in the region.
When the United States Government annexed Zuni territory, it promised to protect it, but that promise was not kept. Immediately, the government encouraged Anglos to develop millions of acres of tribal land. So, in the forests and meadows of the Zuni Mountains, the tribe's precious watershed, they ran hordes of cattle and built huge sawmills. Fed in large part by the mills, a railroad line penetrated Zuni territory in 1881. By 1885, it was apparent that the heavy logging and grazing were causing erosion in the mountains. The Zunis, meanwhile, had been squeezed onto their current reservation on the lowlands west of the mountains. Thus confined, they, too, overgrazed the land.
The rampant development of aboriginal Zuni territory continued well into this century. Non-Zunis, Navajo Indians among them, introduced more livestock and cut more timber. Dismissing the Zuni tribe's traditional methods of water management as primitive, the United States Government constructed a number of large dams in the region, all of which failed with sometimes disastrous environmental consequences. By the 1940s, erosion and siltation from overlogging, overgrazing, and breached dams had devastated the reservation and its watershed.
Today, it is evident that the meadows and majestic ponderosa pine forests of the Zuni Mountains have greatly recovered. Erosion on the reservation below continues, however. As a result, some eleven thousand acres of once-productive agricultural land have been lost. As part of a 1990 out-of-court settlement, the United States Government, conceding a century and a half of mismanagement of Zuni territory, awarded the tribe twenty-five million dollars, and the payment was placed in a permanent tribal fund. Interest on the fund now pays for a tribal program whose primary goals are the repair of Zuni land and the development of a plan for sustained-yield agriculture and ranching. Established in 1992, the program is known as the Zuni Conservation Project.
* * *
To learn more about the project and its director, I pay a couple of visits to the reservation in 1994. The first occurs on a gray day in early February, when I drive to Zuni, the reservation's most populous village, where modern trailer homes share the land with sandstone dwellings many hundreds of years old.
The project's offices are located in a small sheet-metal building at the east end of Zuni. Inside the building, men and women, many of them in their twenties, move about the cramped rooms and hallways. In the front office, one wall features, in various shades of white, brown, and black, a mural depicting a flute player and a jackrabbit. Taped to another wall is a small poster—a picture of a young woman accompanied by the message "Drinking and Pow Wows Don't Mix—Choose Tradition not Addiction." A stuffed squirrel and an onion sit atop a file cabinet. Throughout the building, personal computers occupy numerous table tops.
The office of the Project Leader is located in a corner of the building. The room is small and unpretentious. A framed, autographed print of a painting—stylized "Corn Ladies" by Hopi-Tewa artist Dan Namingha—hangs on one wall. The room's two large bookcases are loaded with volumes bearing such titles as: Range Economics; The Tao of Power; Socialism, Communism, and Liberation Theology in Brazil; Prescribed Fire for Burn Bosses; On Directing Film; and Who is Who at the Earth Summit. On top of a large wooden desk are a Compaq computer and numerous piles of papers. Behind the desk, Jim Enote (Eh-NO-tay) sinks comfortably into an office chair, and we talk.
"I hope we get some snow," says Jim, glancing out one of the office's small windows. "We need it. It's been a very dry winter. Water is very important to us. We are always keeping our eyes to the skies. Already we are looking toward farming season."
Jim is a single, thirty-six-year-old Zuni. A runner, he is around six feet tall, lean, and broad-shouldered. His straight, dark hair is gathered into a pony tail that hangs halfway down his back. His glasses—wire-rims with large lenses—give him a mild, learned look. He is dressed casually—a buttoned shirt, jeans made of dark-green denim, and hiking boots. He thinks before answering my questions and asks few questions of me. By his own admission, he is a storehouse of energya fifty-to sixty-hour work week is routine for him. Yet, it is not at all a nervous energy: a profound calm pervades him.
In his quiet way, Jim Enote is thrilled to be alive now. "It's a very decisive time for us," he says, "us" referring to indigenous people all over the world, including the Zunis, to whom Jim maintains a fierce allegiance. "The opportunities are coming thick and fast, especially in the areas of environment and development. We've gone through this century almost unaware of what's happeningor just sort of letting things happen. But suddenly, in the past five years, we've been slapped on the side of the head, and we're saying, 'Hey, there's a very big potential for society changing in a very short time.'"
Jim knows that increasing attention is being paid to the world's indigenous people. As the last of the planet's pristine hinterlands—their homelands—disappears beneath the blade of the bulldozer and the tooth of the chain saw, the cameras, microphones, and correspondents are there to capture it all. Some say the attention is merely nostalgia. Others, like Jim, believe that it represents a collective call for a more sensible and sane way of living, a recognition that indigenous people have much to teach about living lightly on the land while still developing a lasting economy and a rich culture. Certainly, Jim is pleased with the settlement. Yet, whether people regard the settlement as an admission of past guilt or as support for a new vision of the rural Southwest seems to be of little concern to him. What matters to Jim is that his tribe "has a whole new capability, and what's working here people are recognizing."
Eliminating widespread erosion on the reservation, and learning how to avoid it in the future, are the project's two most daunting tasks. Breaks in dams and reservoirs are being sealed. Supplied with data relayed between Department of Defense satellites above and portable electronic receivers born across the landscape by technicians below, computers are generating maps that determine patterns of erosion to within inches. Such information ensures a more effective placement of fields, berms, dams, and ditches. Meanwhile, the project is examining the erosion that results from the Zuni tribe's regular efforts to collect firewood—the road-building and the extensive off-the-road pickup truck traffic. The reservation's various soil types are being studied to determine what role they may play in erosion. In addition, the project is evaluating the latest methods of livestock management and crop irrigation.
To perform these tasks, the project employs about forty people, most of them tribal members. "Our staff is very young, but very capable," says Jim. "We're getting a lot of very bright Zunis coming out of school and the military, and they're rarin' to go, so we're training them to fill professional and technician positions. They know the reservation and they know each other—they're all related somehow. Plus, they speak Zuni, so it's easy for them to go out and talk to the land-users. Some of us know how to use computers; some of us are very good with numbers."
Of course, Jim is describing a very modern approach to land restoration. Yet, it is essential to him that the project make use of traditional Zuni technology as well. As he points out, today one can manufacture a bow for a bow-and-arrow out of, say, carbon composites. "But there's also traditional technology," he says, "where you can go out and know what kind of tree to select, what kind of branch, and then how to cure the branch and how to shape it to the right size. That kind of technology still exists, too." Jim places his hands together in his lap, interweaving his long, slender fingers. "If we only try to solve our problems with math and science, we're not utilizing our full capability."
As part of the repair of Zuni Reservation, therefore, Jim wants renewed attention paid to the tribe's traditional methods of agriculture, which conserve resources while respecting the land. Dryland farming, for instance, involves growing crops that require very little moisture. Some varieties of these crops are able to thrive on the scant rainfall that comes directly from the northwestern New Mexico sky. Others need greater quantities of water, so they are often planted in a field transected by a gully. Swollen with rain, the gully is an excellent source of irrigation water, which is diverted to the plants by means of low rock walls—"spreaders"—that zigzag through the fields. Why deplete precious underground aquifers, asks Jim, when surface water is available?
Traditional farming also involves development of seed banks, knowing precisely when to plant, choosing the right seed for the right soil, and planting the seed properly in the soil. Unfortunately, says Jim, today's Zuni farmers, through no fault of their own, are missing out on much of this important knowledge, and he explains why. At one time, a single Zuni household commonly contained not only parents, but grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Thus, in this extended family, knowledge about farming was not only abundant, it was freely disseminated. Today the extended Zuni family is largely a thing of the past. Immediate families, for instance, frequently purchase mobile homes and establish their own separate units. As a result, the education of the land-user suffers. "We will have to grow our farmers, too," observes Jim.
The more I listen to Jim, the more I realize that the Zuni Conservation Project is not only about restoring the land, but the tribe's most basic tradition as well. Farming is important to the Zunis, says Jim, "because it's a way of life for a lot of people here. It's not necessarily a priority for people to be getting rich off it, although it's nice if our people make any kind of money. Land is always talked about by my grandparents. They say soils and seeds are the most important thingsif you have your soils and seeds, that's all you'll need to survive. Zunis have been farming for a long time, and it makes them feel good. In fact, farming is not just a way of life, it's part of our religion. That's why input from our religious leaders is an important aspect of the conservation project." Indeed, for Jim, cultural values are an integral—perhaps even inseparable—component of land-use issues.
Jim has spent most of his life on the reservation, where his occupations have included farming and sheep herding. But he has lived in other parts of the West as well. The son of an Air Force airman, he attended high school in California. In his twenties, he lived in Colorado, where he performed wildlife research and worked as a cowboy. In Wyoming, he was a logger—"cut down trees," he says with an ironic smile. The first in his family to attend college, he received a Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture from New Mexico State University.
His family is proud of his degree, and so is Jim. "But I always remind myself," he says in reference to this achievement, "that it is only a part of a life's education, only a very short education." While Jim took a definite interest in a curriculum offering such courses as organic chemistry, plant physiology, and genetics, he feels that his college education was mainly "an exercise in problem-solving." The consummate education he continues to pursue extends far beyond the walls of the university and lasts a lifetime. Two of his ultimate goals are to understand "different interpretations of reality" and develop "a philosophy of life."
An intriguing psychic composite is Jim Enote: utterly fluent in the language of science and modern technology, he is nonetheless skeptical of a system of knowledge based solely on rational thought. "The scientists sure don't know everything," he says. "There are secrets out there, other things happening, that people don't see. There is more to the world than just Western logic. I have other senses that help me. There are ways to close your eyes and still see things." To illustrate, Jim describes a Zuni farmer studying the land: "He may look at the grass and notice that it's a different color. Or he may notice that the soil compacts in a certain way and blows a certain way. Or the snow feels different. Or the four-wing saltbush hasn't made seed for the past three years. Or the snakes and other animals haven't come out until the fourth moon after some spring event."
"The things I learned in college," Jim continues "those are just some tools. Anybody can learn them. Anybody can sit down at a computer, learn how to write and how to balance budgets. But it's not easy to learn how to be strong emotionally. The reason I can do the kind of work I'm doing is because I get strength from my respect for the people of the past. I know that all Zunis, including thousands of people in the generations that came before me, are thinking similar things, like wanting rain and good crops. I know that power and energy come from parallel feelings. It's the strength of my home here. Zuni is a very powerful place."
In addition to an understanding of and respect for the past, another element of a good education, says Jim, is visits to other places. At times with the support of private foundations and international development groups, at other times with his own resources, he covers much of the globe, observing the land-use practices of other cultures. While he finds the highly-developed countries of Europe interesting, Jim prefers travel to places that are still undergoing development, such as Mexico, Guatemala, Bolivia, Brazil, Tibet, and Nepal. "What's happening in developing nations is very similar to what's happening on the Zuni reservation," he observes. Jim lectured at the publicized 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. On several occasions, conferences have taken him to New York City—where, during his free time, he especially enjoys exploring Greenwich Village.
And when Jim is not visiting the world, the world is sometimes visiting him and his fellow tribal members. In 1993, some three dozen indigenous people from various countries—members of the International Union of the Conservation of Nature—visited Zuni for a symposium.
"That's something," I remark.
"It was," Jim chuckles, "because there are no hotels here! They were all put up in Zuni homes."
No, there are definitely no hotels in Zuni. Or motels. Or such monuments to American consumer culture as Wal-Mart, McDonald's, Blockbuster Video, Nissan or Chevy dealership, and the supermarket as vast as a sheep pasture. To find such businesses, one must travel a minimum of forty miles north to the city of Gallup, New Mexico. Furthermore, the two-lane highway that heads west through Zuni goes into only more undeveloped lands in eastern Arizona, and thus carries a minimum of through-traffic. Only within the past four years has cable television, which Jim coolly characterizes as "the worst distraction," come to the reservation. And although aware that television floods Zuni homes with seductive images of consumer goods, Jim optimistically maintains that "access to them is another thing." For these various reasons, he believes that traditional Zuni culture remains intact. "In a sense," he concludes, "our remoteness has saved us."
But, I ask him, can mere physical separation continue to shield Zuni culture?
"Well," Jim responds, "it's important that we not be too idealistic, either. We're realistic." Nonetheless, he feels that the tribe should be ever-cautious of "powerful images of the American Dream." "Zunis should be very careful of what that dream is," says Jim. "Without us being aware, we could suddenly wake up with three cars in every garage and a television in every room, and then it may be too late. Zunis should have their own dream. We have to move into the next century, but we always have to be aware of who we are. Tradition separates us from other peoples, keeps us together and happy."
In this age of cynicism, political and social division, and a disturbing coarseness in human nature, I am continually struck by Jim's generous spirit and open-mindedness. While he certainly has his opinions, he will not be prodded into making judgments. For instance, he will not, as is the wont of many of New Mexico's environmentalists, issue a blanket condemnation of ranchers who graze cattle on the state's public lands. "I'm sure there are some ranchers who take very good care of these lands," he says, "and maybe some others who don't give a damn. Still, it's a way of life for them, too." Similarly, if another tribe wishes to make extra money by operating a gambling casino or storing nuclear waste, that, says Jim, is the tribe's own business. "Maybe its priorities are economic development," he says, "and that's important."
I ask Jim if he "thinks globally."
"I think in global terms," he answers, "in the sense of realizing that almost everything is sacred, connected, important." Yet, in spite of this sentiment, it is clear that Jim would like to see a degree of separation maintained between the Zuni people and their surrounding world. Cultural preservation is, of course, one motive behind such separation. Then, as we wind down our afternoon conversation, Jim reveals, in the form of a prediction, another, more ominous motive:
"Within a hundred years, the reservation will still be a safe place, a place we may need to protect even more than we do now. Now we're protecting some wildlife and cultural resources. We may need to protect even ourselves from the influences of the cities—the dangers and the violence and things like that. If something happens to the United States economy, as it always does, we want to have something to fall back on. And that may mean continuing to use wood for fuel and continuing to raise sheep and use their wool for clothes. We've been here thousands of years, and if the rest of the world's societies fall apart, we'll still be here."
* * *
Early one morning in August, I return to the Zuni reservation, planning to accompany Jim out into the field—literally—to see the conservation project in action. In my car, I head south on the highway out of Gallup.
The Southwest's generally reliable summer rains have arrived, ending the dry spell that for months had concerned northwestern New Mexico's farmers and ranchers. Pale and worn much of the year, the region's grasslands are now a shaggy, lustrous carpet of green and gold. Weeds, wildflowers, and shrubs proliferate. Normally aloft on wings of rock, the plateau country experiences an unusual languor in late summer. As iron-gray, lightning-etched curtains of rain sweep daily over mesa, bench, butte, and valley, even this harsh land ripens in its own unique way.
I pass a small billboard urging one to "accept Jesus into your life." The sign is likely the work of the Pentecostal Church, which for decades has vigorously courted the membership of the Navajos, whose own reservation bulks just north of Gallup. As for today's Pueblo Indians, Historian Joe Sando has noted that most of them have been "nominally Catholic" for some three centuries. This Catholicism, furthermore, coexists with, yet remains distinct from, the Pueblo people's traditional religion, which emphasizes, in Sando's words, "continuity of a harmonious relationship with the world" in which humans live. Driving on, I recall asking Jim if he had ever been a practicing Catholic. "No," he simply answered. Then, referring to Zuni's Old Mission Church, built by the Spanish in 1629 and still standing, he said, "It wasn't anything Zuni culture needed."
Leaving the Puerco River Valley, still north of the Zuni reservation, I climb into the western foothills of the Zuni Mountains. High in the rugged hills, I am startled by the sight of cornfields. They climb slopes, wander between shadowy woodlands, and skirt rocky ridges. At this altitude, far from any major watercourse, the cornfields, ragged and stunted at their edges, seem strangely out of place.
Rainwater has gathered in large ponds along the highway through the village of Zuni. A half-dozen corn plants grow on a patch of ground in front of the conservation project building, which I enter. Jim, his head and shoulders backed by a waterfall of hair, greets me with a warm smile. We go to his office, where he narrows his mane into a ponytail, and then tells me what he has been up to.
Several weeks earlier, Jim's travels took him to Washington, D.C., where he attended a three-day conference entitled "Indigenous Peoples and Mountain Ecosystems." Jim and thirty Ph.D.s from around the world—ecologists, anthropologists, and biologists—sat at tables arranged in a horseshoe. "It was quite a think tank," he recalls. "I looked at these people and I thought, 'They are very bright, very worldly, very knowledgeable people.' They had all the right things to say. They were articulate and debated very strongly—loudly, sometimes. But they were also courteous with each other, very diplomatic."
The conference was also quite a challenge for Jim. Ironically, he was the only indigenous participant, so his opinions were the object of much attention and scrutiny. One opinion he rendered was that, in dealing with the sustainability of a mountain ecosystem, Western scientists often do not consider the cultural attitudes and practices of the indigenous people who live in that very ecosystem. It was an issue with which Jim had been well-acquainted: he had reviewed and then rejected both United States Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land restoration models for the Zuni reservation for this very reason.
In any event, Jim had introduced a human element into what many at the conference felt was essentially a non-human equation. In so doing, he was attempting to appeal to feeling as much as to intellect. Yet, he knew that he had to get his idea across. "And it was really interesting," he says, "for me to be involved in something like that: to have to assert myself to make a point and back up what I wanted to say with more than just feeling and emotion—that is, with things that were very reasonable and logical, things that the other participants could relate to. So, I was taking things that I felt were important and putting them in a form that could be interpreted by them as important—in their terms. It was good for me."
With that, we leave the building, go out into the sparkling morning, and climb into Jim's Toyota pickup. A cassette—"James Brown's Greatest Hits"—sits beside the stick shift. Jim lowers a brown corduroy cap onto his head, and we leave the building parking area. We briefly negotiate a wet and rutted dirt road before gaining the highway.
Mud showers out of the truck's wheel wells for a quarter of a mile as we head east. Soon we are back on another dirt road, heading north into one of the Zuni reservation's typically wide valleys, part of an area known as Nutria. Spanish for "beaver," the name has also been given to a creek, several small lakes, a spring, and some small villages. Located at the foot of the Zuni Mountains, Nutria contains a number of the reservation's major watershed accesses. It is also the site of substantial erosion.
Dense four-foot-high stands of sunflowers line the road. A coyote with reddish fur skulks through a sagebrush flat to the west of us. For a number of miles, Jim fixes his gaze on the road ahead and, other than providing brief answers to my questions, has little to say. He exhibits this remoteness now and again, and it takes some getting used to. Yet, it also makes me recall Thoreau, who once suggested that such distance in an individual most likely indicates an admirable unwillingness to engage in idle chatter.
We pass a sheep camp: a small wood dwelling and a number of corrals on a stark hill. At the foot of the hill is a flock of perhaps one hundred and fifty sheep tended by a young man clutching a portable radio. Jim informs me that the typical herder is hired right off the reservation or out of Gallup. He lives alone in a camp and is paid three or four dollars a day plus food. "It's a nice living," says Jim. "Get up, hang out, walk around, listen to the radio. But he has to stay alert."
"But doesn't it get lonely?" I ask.
Jim ponders for a moment. "I don't know. Not really."
"But how would you occupy your time?"
"Thinking," Jim responds immediately, smiling to himself. "Thinking about all sorts of things. You see a jet fly by, and you wonder who's in it and where they are going, and what they are going to eat when they get there. Then you walk around a little more, pick up some pottery, find an arrowhead. You can pick tea or discover lots of ruins. You can discover things you didn't know. You see some coyotes run across a place one day, and you wonder if they'll do it again. And they do. Loneliness depends upon yourself, I guess."
After several more miles, Jim and I arrive at the prow of a low, wedge-shaped ridge. The ridge separates two grassy valleys that slope down from wooded foothills to the north and east. Although the road continues to the top of the prow, we get out of the truck and walk the rest of the way.
The ridge-top is crawling with activity. In addition to the conservation project's geographic information systems coordinator and two agricultural specialists, there are some two dozen young men equipped with sledge hammers, chisels, and pry bars. The young men are quarrying the buff sandstone that caps the ridge. Originally deposited in layers measuring a few inches to a foot thick, the sandstone is now being broken into manageable blocks, which are then piled onto a nearby flatbed trailer towed by a pickup.
Cutting through the center of each valley is an arroyo some fifteen feet wide and as many feet deep. Left alone, these arroyos would only get wider and deeper, devouring more of the valleys' precious grass and topsoil and further choking the lakes below the valleys with silt. The Zunis are stopping this erosion, however, with the construction of check dams, one of whose components being the sandstone blocks.
Restoration of an eroded landscape generally begins when a project hydrologist thoroughly studies a threatening arroyo, walking its length and measuring its myriad dimensions. This information is fed into a computer, which then produces a printed model of the arroyo that indicates the most advantageous places to erect the dams. While not necessarily stopping the rain water that runs through the arroyo, a dam does reduce the water's velocity—the essence of its erosive power—thus preventing the arroyo's further expansion. Meanwhile, the dam traps silt, which eventually fills the entire arroyo. Thus, the erosion is stopped and the landscape slowly heals. Soon these valleys on either side of us, encompassing some four thousand acres, will provide forage for a hundred head of Zuni cattle.
The ring of hammer against chisel nearly splits my ear drums. Girdled in lower-back supports, the quarry men wear jeans, colorful tee-shirts, gloves, and work boots. All Zunis, their average age is perhaps twenty. They recently completed work in the mile-and-a-half-long arroyo in the valley to the east, erecting eighty-two check dams in six weeks.
The young men display a strength and vigor that an aging fellow such as myself can only envy. "They're real manly men now," one of the agricultural specialists, smiling with approval, says of the workers. "But if their wives could see them, they'd ask, 'So how come you don't wood for us like that?'" With this playful jab, laughter erupts from the ridge-top.
Jim and I return to his truck and head south toward another valley—Burnt Timber Draw. We pass more sheep tended by another sheep herder, this man equipped with binoculars and a rifle and accompanied by several dogs, one of whom apparently wants a chunk of the Toyota's front tire. After we drive through Lower Nutria Village, Jim points to a check dam in a gully by the road. Built five years ago by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, this dam consists of rounded rocks—granite, perhaps—bundled in wire mesh. Cattails and sunflowers grow in profusion in the four feet of silt that has accumulated behind the "gully plug." Driving on, we spot another coyote.
Three pickups containing Jim and me, the information systems coordinator, and the two agricultural specialists pull into the mid-section of Burnt Timber Draw. This valley is bordered on the east by a range of lightly-wooded, hogbacked mountains—the Nutria Monocline. Located at a slightly lower elevation than that of the two valleys we just visited, Burnt Timber Draw has a gentler slope, as suggested by the shallow gully that runs down its center. In addition, this draw is greener and wetter, better suited to farming, although I am told that it is currently being grazed.
Snaking through the field, the five-foot-wide gully contains maybe six inches of still, coppery water. The water has backed up behind a traditional check dam—according to Jim, the kind of dam Zunis and their ancestors have been using for seven thousand years. The dam consists of an eight-foot log bolstered by two sticks staked into the mud. Behind the log is a modest pile of rocks, limbs, and branches. Constructed in March, this loosely-assembled barrier looks, if not wretched, trivial.
Until one steps back and gets the bigger picture, that is. Fanning out and up-valley from the dam, to a length of twenty yards and a width of fifty, are mounds and mounds of Zuni Mountain detritus: oak leaves, pine needles and cones, grass, twigs, branches, and pieces of elk antlers—the copious baggage of floodwaters, the stuff of rich soil. So, not only is this simple check dam preventing erosion, it also appears to be raising the level of the land while improving its fertility.
A trivial barrier? The softest thing in the world can dominate the hardest, say the masters of Tai Chi, the ancient martial art. In fact, if anything seems trivial at this moment, it is all that hardware and software—the flotsam of modern technology—back at the project offices.
Jim and the others take a few minutes to pick the mint leaves that grow in abundance on the gully banks. The Zunis use the leaf to season elk meat, potatoes, and rabbit stew; chewed as is, it also sweetens the breath.
It is nearing the noon hour. Before going our various ways—I must soon head back home to Albuquerque—we all gather around the bed of one of the pickups. Convinced that this valley was once farmland, the men toy with the idea of returning it, with the tribe's permission, to such a state. Jim wonders if the gully and some rock spreaders could join forces to one day cover this field with crops, perhaps corn or alfalfa. "It's just a wild idea," he says. Maybe. But with tall, ripening grass at our feet and white clouds beginning to billow overhead, presaging more afternoon storms, it certainly doesn't seem so wild.
We joke, we laugh. Then, for no apparent reason, we all become momentarily silent. Piñon jays cry from the woodlands to the north; a jet plane roars high overhead.
"K'shi Ts'ana?" Jim utters softly. "Are you ready to go?"
"Yeah," says one of the men.
"Yeah," says another.
We return to the trucks.
NOTE (Grateful acknowledgment is made to Mr. E. Richard Hart of The Institute of the North American West. His Congressional testimony provided much background information for this piece.)