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Earth Day in a Restored, Restorative Place

Guest post by Jennifer Fermon, GreaterGood.org Board Vice President 

It’s a quiet Sunday and I’m sitting in Benaroya Hall in Seattle, listening to Italian concertos played with humor and joy. Seriously skilled soloists are playing ferociously both with and against the ripieno strings around them. It makes me think about the last time I was privy to a group of passionate and knowledgeable individuals come together in a gorgeous place to work, both independently and with and against the orchestra of each other.

Sonora, Mexico, April 2017

Cajón Bonito Landscape

We’re celebrating Earth Day in the Cajón Bonito.

We’re in great hands here. The expedition is sponsored by GreaterGood as part of larger work to catalog the Madrean Archipelago, hosted by the Cuenca Los Ojos foundation, attended by la Comisión Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP), and organized by the kind and knowledgeable Tom Van Devender and Analilia Reina.

We travel via Agua Prieta at the border crossing, east along Highway 2 almost to the state of Chihuahua, and finally along a curving, rutted road to Rancho Los Ojos, one small part of the Cajón Bonito. A house and some outbuildings are nestled near a now year-round stream shaded by big cottonwoods and willow; deciduous riparian forest that has energetically claimed space in just the past two decades thanks to the restoration of water to this area.

Cajón Bonito

As our motley caravan of trucks, jeeps, and rental cars pulls into the property, we’re barely parked before teams of biologists and botanists, “herpers” and entymologists, photographers, educators, and students from both sides of the border spill out, stretch, breathe in the quiet and a gorgeous, fragrant dry wood smell; maybe crack a beer or have a small snack, and immediately begin exploring and setting up the myriad bug traps and other specimen collection paraphenelia they’ve brought along.

We’re here to learn and observe, collect and catalog, and ask questions, one of the highest and best uses of this opportunity. Curiosity and systematic collection is the order of the day. Some finds here will be firsts for Western science, and that’s a hot hot place to be in 2017. We’re kids at the Disney World of biodiversity; sugar junkies at a Willy Wonka candy store — there’s so much to do and take in and we’re so, so lucky to be here.

Perched on the back of a jeep, batrachologist and aquatic insect guy Eric, who will later take skin scrapings from local frogs to test for chytridiomycosis disease, is showing me a tiny, dormant freshwater snail in the palm of his hand and telling me about it, patiently and kindly answering my questions.

Eric shows off a freshwater snail

It’s a big theme here, generosity and patience. The expedition team has a precious, short amount of time for collection and recording, and they’re eager to disappear into the bushes and cienagas and slot canyons and focus on their individual interests and expertise. But they are educators and citizens, too, and realize how important it is to share their work with others. In solidarity with the March for Science happening all over the world this day, we film a short video about the expedition and why we’re here.

We’ve peeled off in groups to wander through dry grasses–the rainy season won’t start until August–stopping every few feet as knots form around one botanist pointing to the insect variety in the purple filigree of a stunning thistle; and around another pointing out an Apache fox squirrel perched high in a nest, stock still and staring boldly back at our party gazing at it. We’re all just a bunch of earthlings on Earth Day, curious and unafraid.

Just twenty years ago, the Cajón Bonito was typical of giant swaths of the state of Sonora — overgrazed cattle land. Through assiduous, methodical, sometimes experimental placement of thousands of small rock dams, the building up of large berms, and about 50 strategically placed larger gabions, the yearly rains that once washed away topsoil and any life that struggled to take root again were slowed and gentled, allowing silt and land to build back up, and the hard-baked earth to return to its prior sponge-like abilities. Over the course of twenty plus years, the water stayed more and more. Grassland was allowed or encouraged to recover, cienagas (wetlands) reformed, and riparian forest sprung up with vigor. Plant, insect, and animal life returned with a will. All this lies in stark contrast to neighboring areas of dry dirt and a relative poverty of species. This restoration model could help surrounding ranchos rest and recover the land.

I drift toward two students from la Universidad Hermosillo talking animatedly about an ambitious project they’re pursuing, one that will simultaneously fatten the record of a natural area near their home and, if they’ve anything to say about it, protect that same area from a mining interest that will be disruptive to the same plants, animals, and insects they’ll catalog. Within short order we’ll hear a more formal presentation by this young, bright duo and then fund their work for over a year and in its entirety on the spot. This enthusiasm, boundless but focused with intelligence and wit, is exactly what we’re all keenly interested in nurturing.

Back at the camp, Tom Van Devender is expertly handling a Bullsnake and letting students and others hold her. The snake is gentle, winding endlessly to try to get away from us but not threatening. The students murmur when they feel the scales of her belly and compare them to her back scales.

Anays holds a Bullsnake

In the late afternoon, the comical gobbles of wild turkeys reintroduced to the area a handful of years ago make me smile.

Although we’re remote, we’re not roughing it. CONANP has brought in stellar cooks, and breakfasts and dinners are excellent — grilled carnitas and nopales, delicious dripping refritos, stacks of blistered tortillas, and a creamy, roasted pepper and corn dish that makes me want to weep and never get up from the camp tables. I’d happily live off the fiery pico alone for the rest of my days.

During the nights, a generator hums, keeping a strong wash of light going all hours against a stretched white sheet, an alluring canvas against which hundreds of moth and insect species helplessly plaster themselves, ripe for collection. We take black lights into the hills to hunt scorpians to send to colleagues in Mexico City who couldn’t join us this time. A star-studded sky and the quiet wake up my city-sluggish heart.

Scientists emaine insects at night

The next day we go farther afield, crossing a denuded ranchos to explore other creeks, washes, and cajones in other parts of this giant restoration project. Within an hour one scientist has collected almost 20 species of dragon and damselflies, and another has collected over 70 species of beetle. As we bump along a winding track we encounter a dizzying array of plantlife — Juniper mistletoe, ocotillo in flower, bear grass, agave, evergreen sumac, little leaf sumac, rainbow cactus, salt bush, real verbena, soap berry, penstammon, mountain oregano, Artemisia (sage), mesquite and horehound (signs of old grazing); non-native tanglehead grass, kidney wood used medicinally south of here, prickly poppy with lovely white flowers, juvenile juniper, manzanita, Arizona madrone, apache plume. . . I’m swiping notes into my phone as fast as I can and still missing half of what the walking encylopedia of botanical knowledge I’m driving with is pointing out inches from our lurching jeep while turkey vultures and red tail hawks wheel in blue sky overhead.

When we stop for a snack and another opportunity to continue collection, the woman who has devoted indefatigable decades to this land sits with me beneath a giant [maple???] tree and talks about her vision for this area and what she’s still hoping to accomplish. Valer Clark wants this area to serve as teacher and classroom both. Not just neighboring ranchos, but those around the globe wishing to restore disturbed and eroded land can use the simple (though grueling) methods of the small check dams, the berms, and the larger gabions to slow the onslaught of water, when it comes, and build back up the land. Students and scientists and artists from both sides of the border and around the world can come here to study, to learn, to figure out the important questions. How to put a value to this work, this result, so that others want to replicate it? So that the restoration work of twenty years is not undone in a year or two by immediate needs or desires for grazing land? How much is the air improved by what’s happened here over such a short time? How many more pollinators are now present, and what are the implications to food shortages? What’s the increase in bird populations now that riparian areas are restored? What are the important questions? What can we do with this model; what can it show as a learning lab and how to communicate good practices to restore degraded land? We talk about The Long Now foundation, international seed banks, and how GreaterGood can help both now and in future. It’s the kind of blue sky thinking that, with the methodical and dedicated effort that went into the restoration itself fueling it can mean the difference between an ecological blip on the radar and the replication of a working model on a vast scale that could touch life at all strata hundreds of years from now.

Bee In Thistle

Too soon, my small part in this expedition is done. On the way back toward the border we stop briefly at a restored cienaga at San Bernadino. Grebes serenely paddle the waters that weren’t here a short time ago; a road runner keeps smartly ahead of us, and jack rabbit and deer stop to peer at us from the greenery. We hear the full-throated call of an invasive bullfrog. The old with the new both live here, and before we can figure out how that can happen with any kind of harmony, we have to know what’s here first, and how to get it back and foster it in other areas where it’s already been wiped out. We’ll need virtuoso soloists in the field and bright spark ripieno accompanying; everyone together making sure that someone hundreds of years from now is sitting in a beautiful space, taking it all in.

By Jen Fermon

Board Vice President

Jennifer Fermon is VP of Strategic Development at Seattle-based CharityUSA.com, LLC, where she leads interdisciplinary teams to push lean startup initiatives. Jennifer is keenly interested in the creative intersection of on and offline technologies with big-picture problem solving and policy in order to resolve pressing humanitarian and environmental concerns. Jennifer holds a BA in Literature from Millikin University, with high distinctions in African and Australian literatures from the University of Adelaide in South Australia.

by wpengine, May 17, 2017