FIELD STUDIES IN WRITING SOUTHWEST

GUEST POST BY ABBY DOCKTER

The Thirty-Thousand-Foot View

When I interviewed Richard Collins, retired Southern Arizona rancher, he asked the first question: “What have you read?”

Specifically, he wanted to know if I was a Sand County Almanac fan or a Monkey Wrench Gang member, and where I fell on the Aldo-Leopold-to-Edward-Abbey scale of ideas about wilderness preservation. “I lean much more towards Leopold and people like Wendell Berry,” he said. “Abbey just wanted it all to himself.” Collins, like the writers he admires, believes there is a way for humans to eat and drink and take up space without wrecking too much. He operated a ranching business for three decades in the Canelo Valley, working first for the Sibold family, then buying some acreage along with grazing permits for surrounding state and federal lands. His background was in epidemiology, which, he said, is the ecology of tiny, disease-causing organisms, so he had a handle on ecological principles. Disease is perhaps the prime example of how humans are part of a broader ecology.

Then an endangered species of fish, the Gila Topminnow, appeared in Collins’ grazing lot. The Fish and Wildlife Service wanted all grazing in the Red Rock Canyon watershed to stop, which would have made Collins’ business a no-go. In many ways, it was a classic conflict between a federal agency and private ranches. But this experience with federal regulation prompted Collins to wonder if there was a way to run his business that also addressed ecological concerns. He and his neighbors formed the Canelo Hills Coalition to see if they could insure the health of the watershed just by adjusting their grazing practices. They brought in George Ruyle, UA’s sustainable rangeland management expert, who set up vegetation surveys. They monitored conditions and put up new fencing and water sources to control where cattle could go in each season. And they were considered successful, says Collins, “by the people who evaluate these things. The federal agencies and the university and my peers in the ranching industry.” Not to say the fish.

Collins reminded me of some of my own family. Retired, but habitually dressed for outdoor work. A busy brain and sturdy opinions. Even his sense of humor and turn of phrase, and the way he pronounced a long period without water “drouth.” But what I liked most about Collins, and so many other people from the Patagonia area that I met during Southwest Field Studies in Writing, was their blend of practicality and idealism. Agriculture is an undertaking with a pretty clear rock bottom. But people around Patagonia think there must be a better way of doing things, and are willing to take a chance to find out.

One evening I wound my way along the Santa Cruz River to talk to Dean Fish, manager at the Santa Fe Ranch Foundation. He situated me immediately: “We’re located about six miles north of the US-Mexico Border, northeast of Nogales, Arizona. The Santa Cruz River bisects the ranch, and so we have what we call uplands on both sides and semi-riparian river valley in the middle. The main ranch is approximately 25 hundred acres of private grazing rangeland and about 65 acres of that is irrigated to provide forage for livestock and wildlife.” He spoke loudly over the hollering goats, and ignored the light rain falling as we sat in front of an adobe wall with peeling whitewash.

Fish is a good communicator, knowledgeable, generous, and extraordinarily nerdy about cattle. Exactly the kind of person you might want at the helm of a foundation that provides not only beef, but also education, a model for management, and even an animal therapy program to the surrounding community. The Santa Fe Ranch Foundation employs people through the Santa Cruz Training Program, which connects developmentally disabled people to opportunities in the county. This ranch is a private business with its own bottom line, but it is operated by people who know how their business fits into something larger. When I asked Fish what principles guide his decisions around here, he talked about “the 30,000-foot view.” From 30,000 feet, this ranch is part of a landscape, these cattle are not the only ones who need the river water, and people who live nearby will always be part of the picture.

I asked Collins and Fish a few of the same questions, and some they answered alike. When asked how they know what to do day-to-day as managers, they both answered, essentially: Go look. Get to know how water moves, how grass responds, how the animals look, and how weather impacts everything. Both Collins and Fish maintained long-term vegetation monitoring programs to make sure they had accurate information for their decision-making. Collins believes “fiction writers and bad movies and songs and all that kind of stuff” that romanticize agricultural life have done real harm to people’s understanding of where their food comes from. But I still find something romantic about this eminently practical, deeply observant experience of a place.

I asked both men what it means for land to be healthy. I am interested in this question both practically and idealistically—the principles that guide decisions, and the practices that create them. I am interested in the 30,000-foot view and the view at the end of a microscope.

Fish said his overarching priority is always to leave the land better than he found it. But he also offered specifics, his picture of ideal rangeland: “I think that healthy land is land that has seen minimal erosion, that has good ground cover and a diversity of plant species on it. And that supports multiple uses: wildlife habitat, livestock grazing, recreation, hunting or camping.”

Collins took longer to answer. He rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully. “You’re talking about health, and it’s a hard term to get my hands around because it’s so broad and ambiguous.”

“Intentionally so,” I said.

He nodded. “But it does convey the sense that like human health, you have to have all your systems working. At my age they’re beginning to break down a little bit, so I understand. Things fall apart. It has that same sense. But how you evaluate it and describe it is difficult.

“I guess in a nutshell, if you want to summarize my view of land health: It’s got to work for the rancher, got to be able to make a profit. It’s got to work for the health and integrity of the watershed, and that means the plants, the water cycle, and the other animals that are using it, including obviously endangered species. And you’ve got to work very hard to do it. It’s not an easy thing to do.”

“Multiple uses” has a dubious history in the U.S., and there is no hard-and-fast line between use and exploitation. But listening to Collins and Fish, I was imagining an ag industry with these priorities. Imagine for a moment that the economy exists to serve quality of life, and not the other way around.

 

FIELD STUDIES IN WRITING SOUTHWEST

GUEST POST FROM GABRIEL DOZAL

“Patagonia Simulator: A Blog Post”

There’s a border arachnid called a vinegaroon.  It looks like a Tarantula mixed with a Scorpion. I asked the students from BECY (Borderlands Earth Care Youth) if they had seen any vinegaroons while doing their work around different Patagonian farms. They said they found four at the community center. And they gave them Disco names: Earth, Wind, Fire, and Donna Summer. 

One of my favorite borderland/Tejano singers is Freddy Fender. His voice sounds like a trapped furry animal. But his songs, a mix of Mexican Country and American Country, represent a lot about the people in Patagonia, as well as in Nogales, El Paso, and other border communities.

As Kate Tirion from Deep Dirt Ranch said: “whether you’re from Mexico or the U.S., country people are country people.”

 

When are you past versions of yourself?

I.

Today we broke rocks with students from Patagonia, AZ 

We also received a chainsaw usage and cleaning tutorial

Later at the Wagon Wheel, while Freddy Fender sang

“Te deseo lo mas bueno pa’ los dos”,

Me and Abby spoke to Paco

about our PC radar and when we go back

to our hometowns (El Paso, Prescott, Farmington)

the country folk are the people we grew up with

And the negotiations of this feeling of hats

we put on: the academic snapback/the folksy sombrero

 

II.

(Are) There (are) hats we can never take off

When should you meet someone where they (   )?

When (   ) you future versions of yourself?

La frontera es un rancho

And these were border people

 

On our second day working in the fields with BECY I met a man from Nogales, Sonora by way of Oaxaca, named Primi, short for Primitivo. Summer, the owner of the farm, would go pick up Primi in Nogales and bring him to her farm to work as a hand. I talked to Primi about his family in Nogales. He has three kids, and one just graduated from college in Nogales. This was the story I’ve heard over and over and one that I’m a part of: A family coming from Mexico/Central America to work harder than most humans, so that their kids could have a better life. Primi had braces, good for him.

 

1.

Si, I came to Patagonia with a project in mind

called the Border Simulator and the poemy/prose/instruction manual

I’m working on for the border simulator describes what it does, what it sees

How this connects to my time in in Patagonia?

I‘m thinking about how my time here in Patagonia

rides the line between reality and simulation

Even now, as you’re reading this, you’re simulating

what my time was like in southern Arizona

near the border of the twin Nogales

 

2.

Today was the 4th of July and we watched a simulated parade

A parade that simulated water fights

A parade that simulated water fights by not having any

A 4th of July that simulated a parade

 

3.

Karaoke was a big part of our saturday

at Southwest Field Studies

It was something we had looked forward to

I sang Okie From Muskogee and Rocky Racoon

I’m not Merle Haggard or Paul McCartney

Raquel sang Proud Mary and Lovin Touchin Squeezin

Raquel is not Tina Turner or Steve Perry

but here we were simulating these voices

their songs flowing out of us

 

*

The project I’m currently working on is about simulations on the U.S.-Mexico border.

I’m trying to define what a border simulator does/would do, and what kinds of questions a border simulator can answer.  Here’s a poem I wrote toward that project during my time in Patagonia:

 

nationalism in the border simulator

 In the border simulator you spend all day

with the Salvadorans who’ve crossed/made it past talk

about how hormones in pollo make gueros jotos

 

In the simulator dialect/intuition are immigrant

As you crossed the border you were slimmer and

with debt you think in an accent

and with death you think in accent

 

My work has been about the border for a long time now. When I started writing poetry I didn’t want to explicitly write about El Paso/Juarez, where I was from. I felt that other writers used stories about the border as a crutch, while at the same time I felt that my border community wasn’t progressive enough. I don’t feel that way anymore, but I still keep a discerning ear for stories that complicate standard narratives of the border. Being from there, I knew I could offer perspectives about the life and language of the borderlands because I know these people deeply, I am that community, that multiplicity of selves. I am rural person and a city person. I am a type of Freddy Fender and a Vinegaroon.

 

 

FIELD STUDIES IN WRITING SOUTHWEST

FIELD STUDIES SOUTHWEST

The University of Arizona Creative Writing Program is pleased to announce the pilot project for its Field Studies in Writing Southwest Program made possible with support from the Agnese Nelms Haury Program Environment and Social Justice and under the leadership of Alison Hawthorne Deming, Haury Chair and Regents’ Professor. Like our Field Studies Grand Manan project, yhis initiative is intended explore how the literary arts can create humane responses to climate change, environmental, social justice and border issues.

The new southwest project will be coordinated by recent MFA alum Paco Cantú; Associate Professor Susan Briante will serve as faculty facilitator. Ethnobotanist and Patagonia resident Gary Paul Nabhan also serves as consultant. Participants will spend two weeks in southern Arizona, working in collaboration with the Borderlands Earth Care Youth Institute. This program, sponsored by the Borderlands Habitat Network, engages marginalized youth in hands-on restoration work of the local ecosystem while providing leadership and educational opportunities. In March two MFA participants joined with graduate students from the Wake Forest University School of Theology, under the leadership of Fred Bahnson, author of Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith, to visit the Native Seeds/ Search farm in Patagonia and the Kino Border Initiative in preparation for the summer program.

2017 FIELD STUDIES SOUTHWEST AWARDEES

Abby Dockter is an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction from Farmington, New Mexico. She spent a few years following field and lab science jobs up and down the Rockies, and has written as a science communicator for UA’s Institute of the Environment. Her most irresistible interests are (pre)history and ethnobotany, how we change our surroundings and how they in turn change us. She enjoys long, dry archaeological reports, and usually hikes with poetry.

Gabriel Dozal is an MFA Candidate in Poetry at the University of Arizona from El Paso TX. He is concerned with defining the extreme code-switching, camouflage, and chameleon nature of the culture of the borderlands.

Raquel Gutiérrez is a bilingual poet and essayist pursuing an MFA degree in poetry at the University of Arizona. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she writes about language, history, space and institutionality and publishes chapbooks by queers of color with the tiny press Econo Textual Objects, established in 2014. Her work has found homes in Huizache, The Portland Review, Los Angeles Weekly, GLQ: Gay and Lesbian Quarterly and Entropy.

 

GUEST POST FROM RAQUEL GUTIERREZ

July 12, 2017

I Pledge Allegiance To *THIS* Flag: Arivaca Riding with Humane Borders

by Raquel Gutierrez

I have been living in Tucson for a year now. Friends, acquaintances, and strangers from near and far tell me they love the images they see on my various social media feeds of this mysterious moonscape-like desert surrounding Tucson. Many of “my followers” live along both coasts so of course it is gives me great pleasure to be able to ignite an awe for the uncontainable beauty of the Sonoran Desert even if it is from afar. For me being in this desert on any given morning or early evening means being given over to the expanse of possibility the landscape offers. It has been the way to get new perspectives when stuck on a writing project—to step out into any number of trails and parks that surround Tucson and take it all in. Whether it’s the way the light moves across the shallow valleys of Gates Pass before sunset or the way the temperature surprisingly drops ten degrees when your trail takes you into the shadowy parts that sit below Pima Canyon, the infinity of surprise that lives here is hard to deny.

  

But as the temperatures increase, as they have this summer with every indication of the 110-117 degrees pointing to a climate change that may not be reversible in years to come, there is another thing one cannot deny—any slight carelessness on your part and the desert will kill you. And that fact made itself clear on a recent ride-along outing with Guillermo and Stephen, two volunteer truck drivers for the Southern Arizona organization Humane Borders/Fronteras Compasivas. As soon as we—Abby Dockter, Gabriel Dozal and myself, a trio of Creative Writing grad students from the University of Arizona currently engaging in a Southwestern Field Studies program sponsored by UA’s Agnese Nelms Haury Program—climbed into the water replenishment truck we were told that if we broke down in Arivaca, an hour and fifteen minutes south of Tucson, we would be exposed to the same conditions as the Latinx migrants we were trying to help. I looked at both my comrades and shook off any doubt that we would not be okay. We were the lucky ones after all traveling with over 100 gallons of water into the harshest topographies in the Southwest. At the worst, we would be sweaty and uncomfortable, changing the imaginary flat tire in my mind’s wandering to worry—but we wouldn’t die. That’s how I made contact and peace with the privilege I carried into different parts of the valley that blanketed the infamous border town of Arivaca. If there was anything to do with the privilege it was to risk it.


According to their website, Humane Borders maintains a system of water stations in the Sonoran Desert on routes used by migrants making the perilous journey to the North mostly by foot. Getting into the truck at Green Valley, we were promptly driven to the first water station situated behind a pecan orchard. The orchard looked strangely out of place and time with its trees lined up tightly towering above a few acres covered by bright green grass, an indication of the obscene amounts of water it must have consumed on a daily basis for it to look that way. But I was thankful nonetheless for its existence and hoped it was there to offer some shady respite to the men, women, and children who made the orchard a part of their journey.


As soon as we got to the water station my heart swelled with a convergence of emotions. I may have quietly gasped at sight of concrete blocks, a quartet of 2×4 wood planks, and a 55-gallon plastic blue barrel sitting stoutly but bravely above the dried out arroyo behind it where I imagined weary travelers would emerge. In the distance, I continued imagining that I could hear a chorus of sighs of relief at the sight of a purple flag whose color had been made dull by the daily solar pounding it takes while waving intrepidly in the hot summer wind.

After surveying the water station for cleanliness, potability, visibility, and instances of possible tampering, we moved on to the next water station destination in Arivaca proper, Elephant Head. But before heading out of the pecan orchard Stephen asked Guillermo, who was driving, to stop by a peripheral section of the orchard where he spotted empty water bottles and a spectrum of detritus of migrants past. Plastic bottles that were empty but still intact signaled recent passage. However, there were old, discarded backpacks that like the life they carried inside them looked as desiccated as any living creature that succumbs to the harsh conditions of a merciless desert. It was those bits of human evidence that made the area seem anachronistic—to travel by foot in a time saturated by every imaginable technology is maddening, if you think about it for too long.

Over the course of the next nine hours I would be mad and quite maddened. It is this affective drive that impels volunteers like Guillermo and Stephen to make this trip every 2-3 weeks for the last two years. When we arrived at Elephant Head I noticed something that wasn’t on the first blue container.

La Virgen de Guadalupe. I should clarify that it was just a glossy sticker with her likeness.

All of my twelve-years’-worth of nostalgic Catholic School hackles went up at the sight of the feminine deity that made her debut on a hill in Tepeyac, Mexico. An apparition that only an indigenous man re-christened Juan Diego could witness. Stephen noticed me noticing her and said it’s hopefully a way migrants can understand that the water station is there to help. I nodded approvingly, but behind my sunglasses and smile I bit my lip and pinched the muffin top peeking over my belt loop to keep from crying.

Time seemed to be marked by how close or far we were to the curious mountain peak known as Baboquivari, a sacred place for the Tohono O’odham nation as the home of the creator, I’itoi resides in a cave at the base of the mountain peak. For the Tohono O’odham Baboquivari is where it all begins. Throughout our ride-along Guillermo would stop for all of us to take in the scenery, snap photos and stretch our legs. It felt like Baboquivari was looking out for us as we


did our best looking out for others. Gabe asked what would we do if we encountered a migrant to which Stephen quickly replied we’d give them food, first aid, and water.

As the morning progressed and the sun’s rays intensified, I felt the sweat pooling in and around my body’s various concaves and then disappear. The desert was taking its rightful tithe of moisture from me. We snacked on sweet baby peppers and threw the ends out the window to which Guillermo would say it would be a few hours tops before the desert consumed our biodegradable trash. We could all be untraceable. It would be so easy here traversing Arivaca’s desert veins and arteries.

I started thinking about the ways in which the untraceable is made evident. Or how the migrant’s journey has been represented to me throughout my life as both reader and writer as well as the 1980s child of Latinx immigrants from El Salvador and Mexico and the one in the here and now—the adult child. In prose we have writers like Rubén Martínez and Reyna Grande rendering the experience of crossing over, their portraits of others or selves desperate to reunite with family in the North, all of whom in various pursuits of better economic stability. As a reader, these literary voices have meant to me finding the language to illustrate the ways these migratory traumas continue to haunt families both constituted by and torn apart by inhumane border policies. But my parents’ migration took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s—they were essentially crossing an imaginary wall with nary an agent policing those boundaries. Dare I say they came to the North in the innocent hey-day of border crossing on par with episodes of The Brady Bunch? Or the golden age of border law breaking when detention centers meant nothing more than a bus ride to Ciudad Júarez or Tijuana while Los Tigres del Norte sang earnestly about contraband and betrayal in a drug deal between lovers gone wrong.

But here in the desert the migrant’s journey is represented to itself and to strangers like me who witness that representation, making the experience of being here that much more urgent. Take the work of Alvaro Enciso’s monuments to fallen migrants for example. These are colorful crosses affixed to coordinates that mark where a migrant lost their life during the journey through Arivaca and other parts of Southern Arizona. Seeing these crucifixes made unique in color and metal details in complimentary colors in their intended habitat allows the spectator—whether another migrant, a border agent, or someone engaged in humanitarian aid—a profound empathic encounter that enables a communing with the recently deceased while bringing to the mind’s fore the realistic circumstance of future migrants dying in the desert nearby.

It is these kinds of artistic representations that operate as both homage and reminder that we need each other to get by. We need each other to remember. We need each other to witness.

Being out in Arivaca—as we traveled at 3mph towards the water stations at Rocky Road, Cemetery Hill, Soberanes, and the last station closest to the Mexican border at Martinez Well—as the mesquite trees like night sky constellations took every shape possible in each of the landings where we stopped, I kept thinking of the work by Salvadoran poet Javier Zamora. Javier’s poetry focuses on his own experiences as a child who bears witness in his poetry to what it means to endure passage in the desert and what it means to be one of the lucky ones. As we checked for the frayed flags and water levels at each stop, I thought about the young man named Chino remembered and made flesh again in Zamora’s poem “Second Attempt Crossing.”

For Chino

In the middle of that desert that didn’t look like sand

           and sand only,

in the middle of those acacias, whiptails, and coyotes, someone yelled

           “¡La Migra!” and everyone ran.

In that dried creek where 40 of us slept, we turned to each other

             and you flew from my side in the dirt.

 

Black-throated sparrows and dawn

             hitting the tops of mesquites,

beautifully. Against the herd of legs,

 

             you sprinted back toward me,

I jumped on your shoulders,

             and we ran from the white trucks. It was then the gun

ready to press its index.

 

             I said, “freeze, Chino, ¡pará por favor!”

 

So I wouldn’t touch their legs that kicked you,

             you pushed me under your chest,

and I’ve never thanked you.

 

Beautiful Chino

 

the only name I know to call you by

             farewell your tattooed chest:

the M, the S, the 13. Farewell

             the phone number you gave me

when you went east to Virginia,

             and I went west to San Francisco.

 

You called twice a month,

             then your cousin said the gang you ran from

in San Salvador

             found you in Alexandria. Farewell

your brown arms that shielded me then,

             that shield me now, from La Migra.