Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land

book cover for "growing food in a hotter drier land"

We just got our hands on Gary Paul Nabhan’s newest book, Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land: Lessons from Desert Farmers on Adapting to Climate Uncertainty. It couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I heard about this book on the grapevine a good while back, and requested a review copy from the publisher because we’ve met Gary and like his work. Getting free books once in a while is one of the perks of blogging. This book, though, I would lay down cash for in a heartbeat.

At the time I made the request, I merely though it would be an interesting read. In the wake of the Age of Limits Conference, and my subsequent reading about climate change–and the depression that resulted from that–its fortuitous arrival this week has given me much to think about, as well as a much needed infusion of hope.

I leaned a terrible word at the conference: hopium (Hope + Opium). This is a doomer term for any practice or philosophy that would give us false hope, or perhaps any hope at all. It has a satirical counterpoint: despairoin (Despair + Heroin), which speaks to the seductive nature of despair.

Nabhan’s book is neither hopium or despairoin. It’s sublimely realistic. He’s looking with clear eyes at a future which is going to be hot and dry (except when it’s flooding, of course.).

This hot, dry future is not limited to already hot dry places, like Los Angeles. He points to recent droughts in places which usually receive generous rainfall. Right now it seems as if this tendency toward drought is occurring on a global scale and will worsen in coming years.

Unfortunately, conventional, large scale agriculture is not only adding to the problem, it will also not be able to deal with the changes in the making. It is ill-suited to chaotic weather. In sum, if we don’t start growing food in different ways, we’re not only looking at a dry future, we’re looking at a hungry future.

To solve this puzzle, Nabhan takes a look at at existing desert agriculture, from the Sonoran desert to China to Oman. From the ancient past right up into the present, humans have been cleverly managing their water, soil and plants to gather harvests from some of the most inhospitable places on the planet. We have much to learn from them.

Over and over he points out that we’re not meant to replicate the exact methods of these desert farmers, but learn from them and adapt them to our own particular situation and climate.

To help us do this, he breaks down the methodologies into conceptual chunks, like catching runoff, using efficient water delivery systems, easing heat stress in both plants and animals, tips on orcharding in uncertain climates, choosing stress tolerant and/or quick maturing plant varieties, etc.  All of this information is supported with helpful tables and plant lists.

While some of his information is only going to be useful to people with large-ish parcels of land, I found plenty of inspiration in here for my tiny yard.

Woven between this practical information is separate body of information which he calls parables. A parable is story he tells us about a current dry land farmer, or stories from the past which can be pulled from history or the archeological records. These parables provide a sort of emotional bolster to the otherwise “dry” information, giving us a glimpse of the lived experience and philosophies of people who have thrived in difficult climates.

Some of the key positive characteristics of a dry land farmer are adaptability, resilience and persistence. What worked for us in the past is not always going to work in the future. We must know our land intimately, make good guesses, and be creative about developing  strategies to distribute risk.

Gardening is hard enough, heaven knows. The bad news is that it is going to get harder. The good news is that you can work your way through the challenges. Their are tools, techniques, and plant varieties that can help you weather the changes. Better to start learning these skills now than to wait for the squeeze.

A Vision for the Future

The part of the book which really set me on fire, though, was a talk Nabhan had with a Sufi visionary, Aziz Bousfiha, who lives in the dry outskirts of Fez, Morocco. There, he’s built a dryland paradise, lush with heat adapted fruit trees, like pomegranates, mulberries and jujubes. He also grows olives, agave, citrus and poetic herbs like lavender and coriander.

Bousfiha has built an oasis in a difficult climate and envisions of chain of oases spread around the world: oases for both nature and humanity. These oases are not carefully preserved bits of paradise, but rather are reclaimed from degraded spaces:

For me, the idea is to go somewhere into the desert [to find a place share with others–one severely degraded over time by neglect, depletion of water, a perhaps climate change]. We’ll proclaim that yes, this place has been desertified, but now we’re going to make it into a living oasis, one where we will respect and nurture a diversity of life.

He goes on to speak about the importance of bio-diversity, and how this chain of oasis-like farms could promote this, and serve the larger community. Then he says,

We will generate solidarity between people on and off the farm, who will begin to walk the long road of ancient wisdom together. They will bring back the old grains of the region as symbols of the seeds of wisdom that we must plant. Over the centuries, these ancient sees have adapted to place. It is just not just a natural ecosystem, but a cultural ecosystem as well.

At the end of the conversation, he’s asked how he thinks his vision will fly in the face of climate change. He laughed gently and replied,

I can’t waste time worrying about whether or not this will work. There is a proverb in Arabic–and [probably] similar ones in other languages that may say it all: If it looks like the last day of the world is upon us and the end of life may be coming…and you realize this moment while you are planting trees, well, don’t stop planting.

If this is hopium, give me more.

Los Angeles is a sad and degraded space, and the Root Simple Estate is already an oasis of sorts, but Nabhan’s book has inspired us to max it out, to do as much as we can to capture and recycle water, to improve our soil, to start breeding out tough-as-nails annuals, to develop more effective “guilds” (in Permaculture speak). In regular talk that means we plan manage our landscaping wisely, so the plants support one another.

I’d encourage you to think of your own little patch of the world as an oasis too. How can you help make it more resilient to the shocks of strange weather?  How can you forge links with other oasis keepers?

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  1. Thanks for reviewing this book and reminding me to update my reading list. 🙂

    I like to think of myself as terraforming this little piece of rocky, dead grass that’s surrounded by asphalt and concrete. Each year I can manage more diverse plants and less irrigation.

  2. Thanks for the review, I’ll keep an eye out for this book at my library!
    The last couple years of growing food on a third floor balcony have given me a small idea of water conservation, and the struggle to make something grow. Some plants are successful in pots (sugar snap peas, strawberries, herbs) others have been successful one year and not the next (tomatoes) and others have failed (an eggplant a coworker gave us). But each year we learn and try to adapt to our unique location.

  3. I have read nearly all of Nabhan’s books and look forward to reading this one. I recently made a purchase from his Native Seed Search for seeds that should do well here in the desert. I lived for 6 years outside of Tucson near the Tohono O’Odham Reservation and saw how they are bringing back their native seeds and using the rain fall that they get to grow lush fields in short seasons. This gave me the inspiration to begin my own Paradise/Oases here in Apple Valley. Most of the desert here feels like a neglected waste land but there are patches where with proper planning it is producing beautiful food and flowering plants.
    I once told myself that I ‘could never live in the desert’ but now I see the beauty around me and know that from seeing lush areas carved out of the Sonoran Desert that it can be accomplished here in the Mojave Desert. And I have HOPE.

  4. I enjoyed your review, and look forward to reading the book. The Arab proverb inspires me to not give up trying, even if it feels as though my efforts are small. I feel joy when cultivating plants and young trees, even with the issue of environmental destruction hanging over me.

    Saving seeds (and having a seed bank)is one way to make our food crops sustainable in case of bad weather, crop failure, etc. We can also select for hardiness and preserve the heirloom varieties. I save seed now, and think that using mulch to conserve moisture would also be a good idea if our area became drier (currently have lots of rain in zone 5, but have also had some dry growing seasons).

    Here is some ‘hopium’ concerning trees:

    I’m not sure if it is fiction or fact, but a good story either way. It was also made into a beautiful short animated film by our Canadian National Film Board.

  5. Sounds like a great mix of information and inspiration. Timely for me as well as I just read an article in World Ark, Heifer International’s periodical, about the Sahel region in Africa and the traditional pastoralists who raise herding animals there. The region has become so dry that their whole way of life is threatened. That phrase masks so much suffering. It’s heartbreaking. Here’s a link to the article:

  6. This is perfect timing! We are always worried about water here in NM, but I’ve found myself more and more anxious about our future prospects. I believe this book will be incredible helpful as I look toward the future. Thank you!

  7. I purchased and read this book on your recommendation. It was terrific. I am inspired by the practical ideas and the hopeful tone. I can’t wait to put them into practice. I found the e-version to be buggy (not always displaying correctly), but the content was so great I’m going to buy it AGAIN in print version.

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