It’s the 21st Century — B.C. The Epic of Gilgamesh is being formalized into written Akkadian during the Third Dynasty of Ur. Yu the Great spends thirteen years stemming the flooding of the Yellow River, gaining him enough supporters to take over the domain of Xia. Mentuhotep II reunifies Egypt. In one of the driest corners of North America, archaic peoples begin planting Mesoamerican corn along the Santa Cruz River.
Though arid regions are typically thought of as antithetical to human development, the harsh conditions of the desert have historically proved not as a barrier to the assembly of a civilization, but rather as an accelerant. Just like their peers around the world, ancient Southwesterners originally gravitated to rivers for sustenance but were forced to develop technologies and techniques to even out the boom and bust cycle of the water’s flow. In the same period that saw the first settlements of the Santa Cruz, similar practices were being used to establish farms along the Rio Grande, Colorado, Gila, and Salt, but only in Menlo Park, a neighborhood just across the Santa Cruz from downtown Tucson, is the full, 4,000-year expanse of the region’s agricultural history still being traced thanks to a preserve called Mission Garden.
When I visited in late August, the plots of Mission Garden were unusually verdant thanks to the bands of rain that had been pushed from the Sea of Cortez up through Southern Arizona for weeks as one of the strongest monsoons in years did its best to rejuvenate the parched Sonoran Desert. Even Sentinel Mountain, which sits just west of the preserve, was coated in a layer of shrubs so thick that they were beginning to infringe on the bright white A at its pinnacle — that’s for the University of Arizona, whose students have maintained the 160-foot-tall letter since 1914. The plots of Mission Garden are organized chronologically, so I began in the one devoted to the so-called First Farmers and proceeded from there to gardens planted with typical crops from the periods when the Hohokam, Tohono O’odham, Spanish, and Mexicans were the dominant cultures in the region, culminating in a collection of gardens representing the contemporary city.
All the pre-colonial plots are separated from the Spanish era’s expansive orchards of quince, pomegranate, and apricot trees by an acequia, the sort of traditional irrigation channel found throughout the Southwest. A fat meadowhawk dragonfly flitted over the water as I crossed the acequia, steering clear of a spiny fern where two yellow-and-black spiders had spun their webs. On the west side of the channel, the Hohokam garden was spread underneath a branching palo verde and a shady cottonwood; at ground level, squash and corn were planted, along with leafy Sacaton cotton, which a laminated pamphlet explained was first domesticated in Central America 7,000 years ago and made its way to what’s now Southern Arizona around 1,000 BC. Along with weaving its downy fibers, the Hohokam became expert at cultivating the plant for food — its seeds were roasted and then ground with mesquite beans to form a meal that could be baked into hearty cakes. Both practices were maintained by the Hohokam’s descendents, the O’odham, through the 19th Century, when Anglo farmers displaced both them and their Sacaton plants with a breed of higher yielding Egyptian cotton. Sacaton wasn’t reestablished in the region until 1984, when Gary Nabhan, an ethnobiologist at the U of A, found six seeds cataloged by the university and shared them with a colleague named Amadeo Rea. “Between them, they succeeded in growing and preserving the seed,” the pamphlet explained, noting that Mission Garden received its first donation of the plant in 2014.
I read all of this while cooling off under a ramada that had been conveniently placed adjacent to the Hohokam garden. Before the name became associated with the hotel chain that started in Flagstaff and was once headquartered in Phoenix, ramadas were known solely as the light, wooden shade structures that had been erected for millennia by indigenous peoples across the Sonoran Desert, their open walls and slated roofs allowing plenty of air flow in order to prevent heat from becoming trapped. The Spanish were enamored of the ramada, and they became a common feature of buildings in the colonial era. In the late 20th Century, modernist architects in the region — most notably Tucson’s Judith Chafee — adapted the principles of the ramada into their work to combat desert heat, but the old fashioned versions available at Mission Garden perform their purpose just as well. As soon as I took shelter, the morning’s scouring heat seemed to drop away completely, allowing me to drink some water and focus on plants instead of the sweat dripping down my neck.
Once restored, I proceeded through the O’odham garden, which featured more Sacaton cotton along with some hackberry and a Seussian screwberry tree. The entrance to the Mexican garden was formed by an arching arbor hung heavy with a white flowering vine that smelled like honeysuckle. At the other end of the plot, past the pomegranate trees and a massive prickly pear cactus, was another archway, this one with thick, white squashes hanging through the holes in the arbor. Before heading to the more contemporary gardens, I paused at the plots of medicinal plants that were arrayed around the mudbrick wall of the preserve. The mingling scents of all the shrubs was as overwhelming as the breadth of an apothecary’s pantry: there was verbena, jojoba, white brush, ragweed, and scarlet betony; catclaw, kidney wood, and sand sage. As I peered down at all the carefully labeled bushes in their infinite shades of green, a sly gecko scurried past, making a break from a cloud of yellow flowers into the shadow of the Mexican skullcap.
Rather than focus on the cash crops that Arizona became known for before tourism replaced agriculture as its principal industry — citrus, cotton, alfalfa — the American flank of Mission Garden focuses on the diversity of peoples who have come to call the Santa Cruz River Valley home. There’s a Chinese garden featuring bitter melons and a trio of tall jujube trees that had just begun to fruit, their purple and white orbs like miniature eggplants or enormous grapes; the pamphlet for this plot explained that many immigrants from rural Taishan settled in Menlo Park in the late 19th Century, and connected that first foothold for the community in Tucson to the later grocers who set up shop among Mexican neighborhoods across the westside, many of whom maintained expansive personal gardens where they grew long beans, water spinach, and Chinese broccoli. Next door, the just-added Africa in the Americas plot included crops like okra, sorghum, and cowpeas, and was centered on a shimmering bottle tree.
After relaxing in one of the beach chairs that had been set up in the shade of the huge mesquite that overhung the Africa in the Americas section, I meandered my way out of the gardens, passing a thick wall of corn and a kid who peered into the acequia, pointing into the water and yelling at his parents, “Look, real tadpoles!” I paused to have a gander and there looked to be hundreds of the little larvae zipping around in the murky water under a skein of algae that wasps and dragonflies kept alighting on.
Even as I recognized I had caught Mission Garden during the season when it was at its height, I was still struck by how completely the place refuted the notion of the desert as fundamentally inhospitable. Instead, I came away with a sense of how generation after generation of different peoples had adapted to scarcity, learning to utilize a far-from-mighty river to the extent that they could. This, I suppose, is the undeniable magic of agriculture. No matter their proportion, if you’ve got access to any formula of dirt, water, and sun, you can make food. And once you’ve got food, 4,000 years of history can follow.
Looking forward to the midterms in two weeks? I’ve got some reading for you. As I was traveling around the Southwest this summer doing research for the book, I was also talking to politicos from the borderlands about why some Mexican American voters have so thoroughly embraced Trumpism. My report for New York Magazine was published last week, and focuses on congressional races in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona that may prove crucial to determining the control of Congress come November. Late last month, I also wrote an essay for The Baffler about the public hearings of the January 6th committee, which don’t seem to have had much bearing on the public opinion even as they represented the breakout TV hit of the summer.
It’s been many moons since I tore through a book as voraciously as I did Hua Hsu’s new memoir, Stay True. Hsu is a professor at Bard and is best known for his music writing in the New Yorker, but the book focuses on his undergraduate years at UC-Berkeley in the ‘90s, particularly his relationship with Ken, an unlikely friend who is killed in the summer between their junior and senior years. Though the story is tragic, Hsu’s focus is as much on the shock of Ken’s loss as the beguiling spell of friendship, particularly for college students whose self-concepts are so indefinite. “At that age, time moves slow,” Hsu writes, “You’re eager for something to happen, passing time in parking lots, hands deep in your pockets, trying to figure out where to go next. Life happened elsewhere, it was simply a matter of finding a map that led there. Or maybe, at that age, time moves fast; you’re so desperate for action that you forget to remember things as they happen. A day felt like forever, a year was a geologic era. The leap from sophomore to junior year of college suggested unprecedented new heights of poise and maturity. Back then, your emotions were always either very high or very low, unless you were bored, and nobody in human history had ever been this bored before. We laughed so hard we thought we’d die. We drank so much we learned there was a thing called alcohol poisoning. I always feared I had alcohol poisoning. We stayed up so late, possessed by delirium, that we came up with a theory of everything only we forgot to write it down.”
That’s all for now. Thanks, as always, for reading and subscribing — hopefully I’ll be able to get this newsletter back on a more regular schedule now that I’m mostly through my outstanding freelance work and able to turn to the book full-time. You can find me on my website, or at a kettle lake in the White Mountains, watching the reflection of the leafless trees shimmer in the cold, cold water.