Learning about Life from the Desert People

Comments prompted by reading The Desert Smells Like Rain: A Naturalist in Papago Indian Country by Gary Paul Nabham (New York: North Point Press, 1982; fifth printing 1997)

Desert Smells Like RainThis year’s winter bike trip in Arizona began on Ash Wednesday with a four hour flight from Portland’s 55-degree sun to Tucson’s 80-degree counterpart. For reading on the plane I chose Gary Paul Nabham’s 1982 classic The Desert Smells Like Rain: A Naturalist in Papago Indian Country. I first read the book late in the 1990s, when we lived in Arizona, as part of my attempt to understand the history of civilizations that have flourished in North America’s deserts.

Nabham comes from a family of Lebanese descent, grew up in Gary, Indiana, came to Arizona for his college and graduate training, and has lived there ever since. As an ethnobiologist, he has devoted much of his adult life to studying the natural history of desert plants and animals and learning the wisdom traditions of contemporary Papago Indians, the Tohono O’odham or “Desert People.”

When I first read this book, I developed a deep appreciation for the agricultural tradition and wisdom about life in a harsh environment that had emerged in the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona and northern Mexico. That appreciation continues to grow as I reflect upon the increasingly destructive alternatives to living in desert lands that characterize the modern American way.

Since I have just completed writing an extensive literature review of books that detail the emerging crisis over water and that outline alternatives now facing developed societies all over the world, the traditional wisdom of America’s desert peoples provides a moment of respite from the despair I feel.

Their ways of adapting life so that it would flourish in a land of little rain are examples for people who have given too little attention to these matters. They can help us understand the agrarian principles of desert people in ancient times who wrote the Hebrew Scriptures; and they can encourage the new agrarians of our time, like Wendell Berry, who advocate a more natural way of living with nature.

To my surprise, The Desert Smells Like Rain ties in with other topics on which I am reading and thinking these days. In this book, Nabham describes conversations with Tohono O’odham people in their homes and villages, as he has traveled with them on pilgrimages, and when he has been privileged to be present at religious ceremonies usually off limits to any but their own people.

These aspects of the book remind me of features in a longer and more technical book, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder by William P. Brown. In this book, the author compares Biblical stories of Creation like the one told in Genesis 1 with the discoveries and conclusions of scientists from our own time. There are important differences between biblical wisdom and scientific knowledge. What impresses me, however, is that the biblical writer who lived in close connection with the natural world, including the brilliant starry skies at night that few people in the cities ever see, came to insights that have remarkable resonances with technical theories by physicists.

Similarly, I see in desert folklore, as Nabham reports it, insights into the nature of things that in their own way can infuse more technical explanations with wisdom and wonder.

Another correspondence with current reading is quite surprising. A second book that I brought to read on this trip is Susanne K. Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. Although the book was originally published in 1942 (when I was 11 years old), I bought my Mentor Paperback edition (for 75c) on May 10, 1967, in preparation for a nine-month sabbatical leave in Seattle.

This book, which Langer dedicated to “Alfred North Whitehead my great Teacher and Friend,” is second only to Gregory Dix’s The Shape of the Liturgy, which was first published in 1945, in its influence upon my understanding of the nature and purpose of Christian worship. A new edition of Dix, by the way, is scheduled for publication this very month (February 2015).

Langer had studied myth and ritual extensively and understood them as important modes of symbolization. A blurb on the back over of my old Langer says of this book: “For the first time we have a theory which accounts satisfactorily for all forms of art and all art forms…” My previous reading of Langer was within the context of my knowledge of Christian forms of myth and ritual. By reading her theory within the context of Native American myth and ritual, I am helped to understand their wisdom and Langer’s theory.

As I have indicated in recent blogs, thinking about the journey is one of the best aspects of bicycle travel. During this year’s Desert Training Camp, the intellectual diet will be rich indeed. [Thanks to PAC Tour’s Susan Notorangelo who used her smart phone to create the image of Nabham’s book that appears above.]

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