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Gardening and foraging with the ancient Mimbres.

The large cobbles are scattered along the margins of an empty rectangular area on the ground; they do not seem to belong to this part of the desert scrub. A solitary Velvet Mesquite tree stands sentinel over the plain like a palace guard protecting an entrance into time. Lithic cores and debitage litter the ground; a unifacial hoe here, an obsidian cutting tool there, intermingled with corrugated red, and black on white vessel-shaped pottery chards. One can imagine a woman kneeling beneath a thatched ramada, facing the metate now lying before me, mano in hand, grinding the mesquite pods that will transform into flour for the evening family meal.

Our family home was not the first on this land. Long ago a people that we know today as the Mimbres foraged, hunted, and farmed on the alluvial plain east of Cave Creek canyon in southeast Arizona. When they abruptly left around 1130A.D., a litany of physical evidence was all that remained to document their existence. Yet artifacts are a valuable legacy that leads to greater understanding of the anthropological characteristics and environment within which a people lived, and just as a coin has two sides, so do legacies. One side contains the data and the other the interpretation of that data. Additionally, all historical human events hold the promise of making us more knowledgeable if we are willing to closely observe the habitat, ask questions, and apply the revealed insight to modern usage. That is the wisdom that I have sought while attempting to live a modern Mimbres' lifestyle.

When my wife and I first purchased the vacant land that we now call our second home, we had noticed the cobble piles that seemed to form a building shape. Initially I disregarded them as the remains of a cowboy line shack from the recent past. However, upon closer inspection there were clues that left that theory in doubt. One would have expected to find cans, glass fragments, and tack debris lying about the surrounding area. Instead we found an abundance of pottery chards. I had long known that this was the land of the Chiricahua Apache, although it seemed unlikely that a nomadic tribe such as they would expend the time and energy to build permanent structures. No, this seemed more the work of a sedentary people, an agrarian people. With this limited knowledge at hand, I contacted an archaeologist with the (now closed) San Simon research project.

Mrs. Kris Dobschuetz, a Registered Professional Archaeologist (RPA), visited and documented the features of the site in April of 2007. She described the site as solely Mimbres, as opposed to being occupied by other cultures as well, based upon the pottery and lithic debris as well as the construction of the building that she referred to as a "field house." In her estimation, the site had been occupied between approximately 970 A.D. and 1130 A.D. with the peak occupancy between 1060 A.D. and 1110 A.D. Armed with this newfound information, I began to perform research of my own to discover more about this culture. What I discovered influenced how we tend to our own garden and how we forage the natural plant life that surrounds us.

Three invariable conditions influenced Mimbres' agricultural decision making: Wind, soil, and water. A millennium ago there were seeps and artesian springs along the desert floor due to a high static subterranean water level. The Mimbres built their homes and farmed the land close to these water sources. Those seeps, however, no longer exist due to the significantly receded water table. The other two constants though, remain as much of a concern today as during the Mimbres' time. Arroyos, or dry-washes, are deeply cut watercourses that act as natural wind breaks and storm drains. Furthermore, they provide the greatest mineral nutrient content and soil loam for growing. By planting within these arroyos and the swales adjacent to them, ancient farmers obtained the essential requirements needed to grow beans, squash, and maize while also mitigating damage from the merciless wind. From the Mimbres' wisdom we have, with but few changes, adapted these techniques to use in our current garden. The biggest changes are that we currently use well water and have realized much greater success growing root crops rather than the surface crop staples of our predecessors. Additionally, we add manure from a neighbor's horse rescue ranch as an amendment to increase the organic matter in the soil. This latter addition is necessary due to serious overgrazing of the area's native grasslands during the late 19th century.

Problems have arisen over the years with our adaptation of the Mimbres' design. Perhaps the biggest has to do with location. While planting in an arroyo has advantages, it also has some disadvantages. Arroyos, as previously mentioned, are nature's way of siphoning off excess moisture during storms, however, when too much water comes down the stream at once it causes flash flooding. Flash flooding scours watercourses and uproots all plant life from dry washes. Fortunately, the heaviest rains only occur during the summer monsoon season, which lasts from Independence Day to Labor day. We have adapted to this inconvenience by planting two crop rotations per year; the first goes in between March 1-15 and is harvested as late as we dare before July 4. The second seeding is commenced on August 15-30 and harvested by November 30, allowing the arroyo to remain fallow during the period between plantings. This technique has, for the most part, worked effectively for us. The Mimbres, in all likelihood, used a double cropping method similar to this.

The second problem has to do with insects, specifically the Lubber (or Horse Lubber) grasshopper. The first summer rain brings these voracious eating machines out in droves. During our initial year of planting they ate every single leaf off of our Tepary bean crop. It was very disappointing. There are two things that play in our favor, however. The first is that the hoppers growth spurt coincides with the summer monsoon downtime and, secondarily, the grasshoppers are natural cannibals. I discovered this latter phenomenon by reading an Audubon insect book and then observing the varmint behavior. Subsequently, I deployed the trial and error technique and yanked a leg off of one and threw it in a jar. Within an hour several other hoppers were in the jar happily munching away on the disabled, nearly dead one. The jar also served the additional purpose of trapping and killing the newcomers, which, in turn, prompted more hoppers to jump in to feast on the newly dead ... perpetual killing, so to speak. We now have 25-30 empty glass pickle jars standing just outside the garden perimeter and, at the first sight of the critters, I disable 25-30 and throw one into each jar. My educated guess is that the Mimbres developed pottery with a decreasing diameter neck and used them in the same manner as we use our pickle jars.

In addition to subsistence farming, necessity dictated that the Mimbres forage the desert flora for sustenance as well. Two desert plants, the velvet mesquite tree and the soaptree yucca, were the most useful to the Mimbres and grow in abundance on the local range. Another useful plant is the devil's claw. Eaten primarily as a snack, the seed of this plant is high in protein, tasteless, and teeth shatteringly hard, although it can also be ground and added to mesquite meal to increase protein content. Wild rhubarb is yet another example of a useful forage plant. It is an early spring herb that when ground to powder can be used as an anti-inflammatory agent on surface wounds and burns. At this point however, I will concentrate on describing the two primary foraged staples of the Mimbres.

Velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina), a member of the pea family, provided an easily obtained source of protein from the beans that grow on its branches. When the pods were ripe in early summer, the Mimbres would collect them continuously for weeks. At the same time, others would grind the beans on a "metate" into meal from which were made thin, tortilla-like breads. Mesquite bean has a rather sweet taste, makes excellent flour, and stores well. I have experienced the grinding process using a modern mortar and pestle, and learned that it is a time-consuming, tedious process that requires an abundance of physical effort. It is no wonder that anthropologists consider foragers to be 33 % more aerobically fit than farmers. Additionally, mesquite wood is an excellent source of firewood with even the roots being used for this purpose.

The soaptree yucca (Yucca elata) is useful in three ways. The root is high in saponins and can be harvested--again, with great difficulty--dried, ground to a powder, and used as soap. I recently made a batch and tried to imagine how the ancients might have made and used it. I found that it is far easier to obtain the roots from immature plants than from well-established ones. The digging process, using stone tools, is quite laborious (it's nearly the same using shovels and axes). After I dehydrated the roots I ground them in a mortar to a fine powder. When done I placed it near a sink, wetted my hands, and dipped them into the yucca powder. The result is a slightly foamy, gritty soap that seems to work more by abrasion than by emulsification.

The yucca stalk, which grows anew yearly, is the most easily friction-combusted wood after balsa. A fire-starting apparatus can be made by splitting a one-foot long section into three pieces, setting one aside, and tying the other two together (spaced apart by two thin rocks) with yucca rope. Dried grass or other easily combustible material can then be placed in the crack between the two stalks. The third stalk is then held perpendicular to the other two and drawn back and forth with pressure, creating friction and eventually a spark that will ignite the dried grass.

Yucca leaves can be collected and used in basket weaving, rope making, and sewing garments. After the leaves are collected they are soaked in water to loosen (or rot away) the outer layer. The inner fibers are then stripped away, dried, and braided into rope of different diameters. The rope had several uses; it was used to lash poles together when constructing "ramadas," for attaching projectile points to spears, and for litters (or other carrying devices) used to make work more efficient. I have also read that some archers consider the braided material strong enough to be used for bowstrings, however, I believe this is best done by master craftsmen rather than laymen. Catastrophic failure of bowstrings can cause blindness and other physical damage.

As you may have already surmised, life during the Mimbres' time involved a great deal of hard manual labor. This was a time before metallurgy, before animal power, and before medicine. Garden plots were turned with a hand-held stone hoe. Water was carried in pots to individual plants during dry periods. Insects were squashed by hand. Animals were hunted with an atlatl or rudimentary bow and arrow. Flint knapping, grain grinding, hauling water, pottery making, and weaving were daily chores. Yet some problems encountered in the past are similar to those we experience today. The Mimbres arrived in Cave Creek canyon because the Mimbres River valley, where the civilization originated, had reached its maximum carrying capacity for the population that already existed. In order to survive, various small groups left to explore the more marginal, but less populated, agricultural areas within a week's walking distance. This plan was fruitful for many years; however marginal areas are marginal for a reason. There are unpredictable times of drought, wildfires, and depredations from neighboring societies. Some individuals, although harboring key skills to group survival, became homesick and returned to their former villages, others died from accidents and disease. Why the Mimbres eventually failed to over come these obstacles is a mystery to archaeologists. Nonetheless, the skills that they employed to survive have taught future generations vital tactics for living in a harsh environment.

Today there remain a few wilderness survival experts who recognize and embrace the wisdom in reviving and employing the base skills of our ancestors. For most mainstream Americans it will continue to be, in Robert Frost's words, "The road not taken." Yet, for those individuals who acknowledge the risk yet seek the reward in a hard-earned, physically fit, and self-sufficient lifestyle, it will be the one, "... that has made all the difference."

David Stanton is a retired postman from Arizona. He has lived in the Sonoran desert most of his life and enjoys following his curiosity wherever it leads. Currently he and his wife are carving a homestead out of the northern Chihuahuan desert and applying wilderness skills honed over a lifetime.
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Title Annotation:The garden
Author:Stanton, David
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Mar 1, 2013
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