Discovering an Oasis in the American Desert
We’re out in the hot Sonoran Desert, somewhere near Tucson, Arizona. It’s hot. Very hot. I’m down to a small amount of water in my bottle and it’s disappearing fast. I’m starting to think one could go crazy and possibly die of thirst out here filming this stuff. Luckily I’m with Geoff Lawton and Brad Lancaster, both experts in water harvesting. Geoff, however, has abandoned me under the shade of a desert tree with my camera gear to go wandering off with Brad into the desert, searching for something rumored to be out there.
A mythical Moby Dick for a permaculture enthusiast – a big mother swale. It was meant to support an oasis but very few people had ever seen it. Untouched and eighty years old, it was supposed to have been built by men with carts and horses during the Roosevelt years in the 1930s.
Bill Mollison visited these swales in the Global Gardner TV series twenty years ago. He thought they were superb and should have been extended everywhere in drylands. But they’ve been now largely forgotten and abandoned.
Until now, that is. Geoff was on a mission to track them down.
Various Permaculture students had reported online to have photographed a few of these swales and said it was all over-hyped. The growth spindly and sparse and nothing looked too extraordinary, in their view, from the rest of the desert environment.
Looking at the harsh surrounding desert environment, I was beginning to believe they were right.
I crawled up onto the ridge of a big swale, it was the size of a small hill, to get a better view, looking for Geoff. In the distance, dust devils swirled in the afternoon sun. Above me, a buzzard circled. It was only a matter of time before they would pick through my bones, I thought.
Then in a spot of green spiky scrub I saw Geoff’s hat bobbing up and down. He was returning. I can still hear his excited voice, calling out to me.
“I found a diamond!” he yelled.
“The big swale is out there. About a kilometer away!” he said.
I grabbed my camera. Renewed with energy. Geoff’s face looked flushed and red. But his eyes were shining bright.
“I never doubted you’d find it Geoff!” I lied.
I now know how explorers feel to have discovered something new.
Geoff explained that he had seen this larger oasis on his laptop, using Google Earth software. It’s just that nobody had picked up on it before.
Geoff led the way and in minutes we were scrambling over the edge of the mother swale and down into a majestic field of green lush grass. A microclimate of cool, shady, trees and a field of open grass lay before us. It was untouched. A magnificent thing to view. The contrast between the outside blistering desert and this cool calm environment was extraordinary.
We took a moment to let it all sink in. The soil was springy and spongy when you walked on it. Like an uncompacted garden bed it was full of mulch captured by rain water. Eighty years of humus was deposited here during flash floods, without any help from mankind.
The trees were all self seeded.
I asked Geoff, how come it was a rich verdant grassland in the centre? He explained it was a water basin. Any tree that took hold here would be uprooted in the next downfall of rain.
But the potential was amazing.
Geoff plunged his hands into the soil and went down 8 inches of moist, black, rich, composted soil. It was still damp.
“You couldn’t make better soil than this.” he said. “You could plant all sorts of fruiting trees here on the swale mound.”
It was pretty impressive as a natural oasis.
“No one will believe this is for real.” I said to Geoff.
“Thats why we’re filming it.” he smiled.
It’s all there — done before by our grandfathers. We just have to have the will and the training to do these kind of things again.