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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.

“What?”

“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.

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21 Comments

  1. This is so exciting. I wish college would require a year of sustainable living to graduate. What a great history lesson this swale building would make.

  2. Nice! I went and saw those guys 2 years ago and found the big daddy on that trip too. Most of the other swales are slightly off contour so they don’t do a good job retaining water, but they make a difference compared with the rest of the landscape. It’s terrible that we don’t have the CCC any longer…

  3. This is so cool. Brad would know about things like this in Arizona. Love the guy and what he has done for so many people and places! )

  4. Thanks for taking us there Geoff, Brad, Frank. You have captured the behind the scenes surprise well in this article, and beautifully on film. Everything is possible to save one desert at a time…this proves it.

    1. Hi Gary, Yes, in a permaculture system livestocks could be, and often are — as I have seen at Zaytuna farm — allowed to graze inside the swales. However, one should be careful not to allow large animals on the swale mounds.

  5. Saw a video couple years ago of Bill Mollison visiting the same site.
    Quite amazing how well it works.
    Pity they did not build it much much bigger.
    With a big enough swale we can change the world.

  6. Hi,
    it’s really amazing what nature can do with only a little bit help by man. It’s not even necessary to plant trees middle in the desert. It only takes some years longer to convert desert in to a green lush place.
    Here’s the link to the episode of the Global Gardener Series with Bill Mollison (the swale is visited from about 02:00min):

    Dryland Permaculture Strategies – Part 1
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4w2-dgPBZs

    I mention this video in a Blog article which i want to publish since about two monts. ;-/

  7. Marvellous! Especially timely when you consider the drought in California. How many California farmers have even heard of swales? There’s an article about the drought in this month’s National Geographic and I don’t think it mentions them. I wonder how the trees in Village Homes in Davis (a well known example of swales) are doing during the drought.

  8. Another great video that will inspire thousands of people. Thanks a lot for that.
    One criticism, if I may.
    As usual, the music in the background is bad, completely off topic. It is usually annoying in the other videos, but this time it is frankly disrupting.. Why the suspense/fearful/Spaghetti Western atmosphere in such an wonderful video ??

    1. We like to have fun, if you are not having fun then you have got the design wrong and you need to reassess your design.
      This kind of fun with the music we like and we make the videos and most people like having fun with us.
      Believe me I really know it is a serious subject but as my mother used to say to me as a child “if you did not laugh you would cry”, so I invite you to also have a laugh with us.

  9. It is worth observing, though, that there was a tremendous amount of energy — in the form of hydrocarbons and human labor — that was necessary to move the tremendous amount of materials that make up the berms. Ten tons, a typical truck-load makes a very small conical pile about 4 feet high. A berm this size would run well into the thousands of tons of material, moved by truck and perhaps Caterpillar or such, or *many* hundreds of man-hours. No environmental engineering is free!

    1. The pollution of construction is only relative the lifetime of the product which in this case could be more than a 1000 years, so the pay back time comes very quickly if you consider the potential production gain against the energy used in construction, permaculture energy auditing.
      A 25 ton machine can move 3,500 tons in one day, for big swales you use big machines and small swales small machines and you can average about a meter in length to a minute in time, it is very quick because the mound is only shaped and not compacted.

  10. so just a comment, im about to start doing a greening the desert project in northern AZ area. if anyone has any inputs or ideas, please feel free to email me. any help would be appreciated

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