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A restoried land.

Find me the first vermilion flycatcher sallying out from newly leafed cottonwoods and willows, picking off recently hatched insects, and I will warble with delight: Spring has come once again to the Sonoran Desert. Tut-tut tiddly-zing, and it flutters out like a butterfly from a catkinladen branch. The flycatcher dives to spear its prey, then whips back to the same branch.

Such a sight cannot be seen everywhere across the desert floor. It is restricted to the ribbon-like riparian corridors that roll out of the volcanic and granitic ranges to meander across otherwise dry basins. Here the lushness of greenery is splotched with the reds, yellows, and oranges of warblers, orioles, tanagers, and flycatchers. This mosaic of color enlivens eyes grown weary of the grays and the drab, subdued greens of a desert winter.

Down in the Mexican part of the Sonoran Desert, the first flush of foliage on cottonwoods and willows has added significance. It means, to a Sonoran floodplain farmer, that the new cuttings for his living hedgerow have taken root. Following the torrential floods brought by the summer monsoons and the late-fall down-pours, the untamed river has shifted course and wandered across the edges of his land. It has dumped not only fertile silt, but tree trunks, gravel, and leaf debris, leaving his fields a mess.

A few years before, he had planted a hedgerow along the riverbank, weaving brush between the saplings to slow the force of any water that spilled over. Last year's flood did surge high, and uprooted a few of the willows in his line of defense. In January he trimmed branches off the survivors and planted them above the newly formed bank. By late February they had rooted, and leafed out soon after. Now, in mid-March, the farmer sees the birds perching in the new growth. They forage over his field for bugs (which he sees as pests), and return to the brilliant green canopies to gobble down their insect harvest. These floodplain cottonwoods give southwestern riparian habitats the highest densities of breeding birds ever recorded in North America. The farmer's work has been well-placed.

If you walk with an elderly Sonoran farmer along the floodplain near his village, each curving hedgerow will prompt a story. The farmer will rattle off the years of the great floods that have come within his own life-span and, sometimes, that of his father: 1887, 1890, 1905, 1915, 1961, 1977, and 1983. He can point to trees that were planted after each inundation, reading the growth on the floodplain as if it were a history book. Learning to read those rows of cottonwoods and willows is what makes a Sonoran farmboy literate.

Years ago I heard of an Apache work crew that was told by its Anglo boss to cut down all the water-guzzling cottonwoods on the flood-plain near the crew's village. When the foreman went to check on the crew a few hours later, he was disconcerted to find the men smoking and chatting in the shade of the trees, not a single one cut. Angered, he demanded an explanation. "Apaches can't cut down all the cotton-woods by this river," one of the workers finally replied. "Something bad would happen to us."

The land stays with the Apaches; they cannot pass a particular place without remembering the parable that goes with it. "You won't forget that story," Apache elder Nick Thompson once said. "You're going to see the place where it happened, maybe every day if it's nearby. Even if we go away from here to some big city, places around here keep stalking us. If you live wrong, you will hear the names and see the places in your mind."

What links the sensibility of the Sonorans with that of the Apaches are the stories that connect each culture with its homeland. Their landscapes are inhabited not just by other creatures, but by parables and myth as well. Stories are the way we encode values in our culture; ritual is the way we enact them.

We plant the cottonwood poles in winter; we share the sight of vermilion flycatchers in spring. When we restore a degraded habitat, we re-story the landscape; indeed, habitat restoration may be among the most vital rituals in which we can participate today. When we heal the damage--man-made or otherwise--we become part of the regenerative process. And then, as Nick Thompson puts it, "You remember how to live right, so you want to replace yourself again."
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Title Annotation:habitat restoration
Author:Nabhan, Gary Paul
Date:May 1, 1992
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