Kate adds extra salt to the fresh duck eggs we fry for breakfast in the outdoor kitchen. Like four times more salt than I usually use, and I am not on a low salt diet. This daughter of a Welsh farming family traded her verdant wet birthplace for the desert long ago, and her body craves salt to help her retain the precious moisture sucked out by the dry desert air. Kate has been on a mission to conserve moisture and live resiliently in the desert for more than three decades and her 30 acre property in Patagonia, Arizona serves as a demonstration site for ecological restoration, food production, water management strategies and dancing with the sacred feminine.
The duck eggs are a great example of the abundance that comes from thoughtful integration with the environment. The ducks thrive on the plagues of grasshoppers and other insects that would destroy the tender garden plants if not kept in check. They weed and fertilize as they play and, contrary to the concept of 'work', reward the gardeners with eggs in exchange for the priveledge.
Standing on a ridge overlooking Deep Dirt Farm and the broad watershed in which it is nestled challenges my preconceived notion of 'desert'. The ridges and valleys form a ruffled pattern that has obviously been created by the forces of water and erosion over millennia. Clumping native grasses cover the land in soft green waves that blur in and out of focus as they rustle in the breezes beneath the thin shade of widely spaced oak and mesquite trees.
September is lush after the summer monsoon, which provides most of the annual average of 18 inches of rain to support this incredibly diverse ecosystem known as the Madrean Sky Islands. Ecologists have observed that there is greater diversity along the edges of different ecosystems, and the Sky Islands are all about edges. Spanning the borderlands between the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico and the Rockies in the USA, where the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts overlap the edges of the Great Plains and the neotropics, the area is a stopover oasis for migratory birds, as well as full time home to endangered jaguars and ocelots. The incredible assortment of dry-lands plant species supports (and is supported by) the highest diversity of pollinators in North America including more than 600 species of native bees, 300 different butterflies and moths, 14 types of hummingbirds and 2 nectar feeding bats.
Although sparsely populated, the impacts of clumsy human activity like mining and ranching tear at the fabric of this landscape threatening its resiliency. "The type of damage caused by outdated ranching practices is largely avoidable, and reparable. We now know how to finesse the limited water resources and manage grazing in harmony with natural systems so that the landscape supports production that is restorative rather than extractive," says Kate. Indefatigable, her motto is 'Restore the land, restore ourselves', and she shows us how in the realization of her Deep Dirt Farm.
"We are part of the ecosystem, not apart from it", says Kate, "and once you understand the difference you make decisions from an entirely new perspective."
One of the most talented Permaculture designers and teachers I know, Kate rarely uses the permaculture lexicon to describe her work. She approaches the world from a deeply emotional place dedicated to honoring the sacred feminine, our earth mother, and gracefully healing the wounds inflicted upon her by our carelessness. "The young people really get it," she says. "When they relate to the land from their hearts, the hydro-geology just falls into place."
The property is home to hundreds of water management structures including check dams, gabions, and other simple rock structures that serve to "slow it, spread it, sink it." In order to soften the landscape this energetic 70 year old woman heaves heavy chunks of 'urbanite' around and waits for the rainy season floods to come and do the work of raising the stream bed to repair the damage of erosion and prevent runoff. A single large rain event could carry enough silt to complete the task. Given that there hasn't been a large rain event in the past 12 years due to the ongoing drought, these structures represent HOPE with a capital 'H'. "It is simply a matter of volume or time", says Kate. "Once the silt fills in behind the rock dams, we will build another layer to raise the land even more until this eroded streamed is healed and the water flows gently across and into the landscape."
In addition to the wild plants and animals, this landscape can support food production for humans with proper water management. Kate hosts gardening workshops that help participants understand how to grow healthy organic food while building soil and revitalizing the landscape. Her gardens and orchards are tucked in among the native plants along her "Path of Least Resistance" that winds through the valley and take advantage of different soil types and microclimates around the property.
Fruit trees are supported by planting them among the native mesquite trees and using raised pathways to form a waffle-like "net and pan" water collection system that doubles the amount of water available to the thirsty trees by capturing the runoff during the rainy season.
The greenhouse was intentionally sited along the most badly eroded stretch of the stream bed. "We want to make sure we pay a lot of attention to this part of the property, so we center a lot of our daily activity here to keep it top of mind."
During the week we take care of ducks, garden with women from the community, harvest seeds, build a "two rock dam", and bake an organic pear galette that raises $110 for the Patagonia Community Garden at the annual Pie Auction. We meet with people from other groups and organizations within the Patagonia community. Borderlands Institute, Wildlife Corridors, Borderlands Earth Care Youth Institute, United States Geological Survey scientists and Deep Dirt Farm are all approaching the healing and revival of this unique landscape from different, yet complementary angles. All are essential for the success of the others. An undeniable interconnectedness brings ranchers and ecologists together to create synergies that support healthy human activity and community building within an increasingly resilient ecosystem.
I could go on and on about Kate, her husband Richard the blacksmith, and their wonderful place, the homemade bread made from freshly ground spelt, the cultivation of community, and the endless ideas for living lightly on the land. As my week in Patagonia comes to an end, I find I have added many new techniques and ideas to my earth repair toolbox, from water harvesting structures to organic gardening with ducks to valuable relationships. But more important is the beautiful feeling of inner peace and happiness that inspires me not to lose heart. Kate's got it right. For in thoughtfully acting to restore the land, we can indeed restore ourselves...and our communities, and our mother Gaia.
Find out more about the diverse programs and workshops at Deep Dirt Farm that will help you develop your own relationship with the land:
Deep Dirt Farm - http://deepdirtinstitute.org ; https://www.facebook.com/DeepDirtFarmInstitute/
Borderlands Restoration (and BECY) - http://borderlandsrestoration.org