In Other Words Food From the Rad­i­cal Cen­ter by Gary Paul Nab­han

Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER -

It’s easy to pic­ture Gary Paul Nab­han as a hu­man tele­type ma­chine. As quickly as thoughts come into his head, it seems, words flow out of his fin­gers, fill­ing book after book after book. The au­thor, co-au­thor, or edi­tor of around 40 books pub­lished be­tween 1982 and 2018, Nab­han’s pro­lific pro­duc­tion is even more im­pres­sive when we re­al­ize he is not only an aca­demic — most re­cently hold­ing the Kel­logg en­dowed chair in Border­lands Food and Wa­ter Se­cu­rity at the Univer­sity of Ari­zona’s South­west Cen­ter — but also an ac­tive field eth­nob­otanist who has plunged his hands as well as his mind into the soil, forests, rivers, and sheep pens of the United States and Mex­ico. He has won more than a dozen na­tional awards for his work and his writ­ing, in­clud­ing a MacArthur “Ge­nius” Grant and the Lan­nan Lit­er­ary Award.

An eigh­teen-year-old in­tern with the first na­tional Earth Day cel­e­bra­tion in 1970, Nab­han, now in his late six­ties, has writ­ten ground­break­ing, thought­pro­vok­ing trea­tises on place-based (or lo­cal) food, the link be­tween the loss of bio­di­ver­sity and the loss of cul­tural di­ver­sity, wa­ter har­vest­ing, dis­ap­pear­ing pol­li­na­tors, and heir­loom seed-sav­ing. He is the founder of Na­tive Seeds/SEARCH, a non­profit ded­i­cated to bank­ing and dis­tribut­ing seeds na­tive to the arid south­west­ern United States and north­west­ern Mex­ico to en­sure crop di­ver­sity and food se­cu­rity.

Food From the Rad­i­cal Cen­ter is one of two new books by Nab­han to be pub­lished this month (the other is Mesquite: An Ar­bo­real Love Af­fair, out from Chelsea Green). The sto­ries the book tells are based largely on ini­tia­tives Nab­han has worked on and writ­ten about in the past, such as the re-es­tab­lish­ment of her­itage tur­keys and chick­ens, the pro­tec­tion and re­gen­er­a­tion of agave plants, and the re­open­ing of range­land to bi­son herds.

The term “rad­i­cal cen­ter,” first used in the 1990s to de­scribe the “fer­tile mid­dle ground” cre­ated by a con­sen­sus-seek­ing ap­proach to re­solv­ing con­flicts be­tween en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and ranch­ers in the Amer­i­can West, came back into play in a liv­ing man­i­festo pub­lished on the web­site of the Santa Fe-based Quivira Coali­tion in 2003. In this book, Nab­han uses the term to de­scribe a “move­ment for bio-cul­tural restora­tion … that unites rather than di­vides.” The need for col­lab­o­ra­tive con­ser­va­tion is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant now, when, as he writes, com­mu­ni­ties and demo­cratic tra­di­tions are suf­fer­ing from deep left/right, red/blue, rich/ poor, and ur­ban/ru­ral di­vides.

There are enough facts and fig­ures cited here to sat­isfy those cu­ri­ous about the ac­com­plish­ments (and fail­ures!) of the past half-cen­tury of en­vi­ron­men­tal activism. But at its heart, Food From the Rad­i­cal Cen­ter is nei­ther about the num­bers nor the stud­ies that re­port them; in­stead, it is an up close and per­sonal look at the lo­cal peo­ple who have de­fined what “col­lab­o­ra­tive con­ser­va­tion looks like on the ground.” Writ­ten in the first per­son and of­ten di­rectly ad­dress­ing the reader, it is also some­thing of a life re­view of the work to which Nab­han has been pas­sion­ately ded­i­cated for the past 50 years.

A chap­ter that opens with a sur­vey of farm­land soil ero­sion fol­lows the de­vel­op­ment of the lo­cal co­op­er­a­tive that be­came the gi­ant dairy pro­ducer Or­ganic Val­ley be­fore mor­ph­ing into the an­cient prac­tice of plant­ing liv­ing fencerows to hold soil in place. An­other tells how tra­di­tional stone­ma­sons from Gua­na­ju­ato have built more than 40,000 tra­di­tional check dams on steep moun­tain ridges at the Ari­zona-New Mex­ico bor­der so that wa­ter can be re­turned to the land­scape rather than di­verted.

The At­lantic stur­geon stars in one chap­ter about wa­ter­shed restora­tion and fish re­cov­ery, while an­other tells the story of ca­mas lily bulbs, an in­dige­nous food of Pa­cific North­west First Na­tion com­mu­ni­ties that has the ca­pac­ity to com­bat adult-on­set di­a­betes. Navajo churro sheep, Carolina Gold Rice, White Sonora wheat, New­town Pip­pin ap­ples, Black Sphinx dates, bees, but­ter­flies, and lesser long-nosed bats also get their due.

Nab­han was one of the prime movers be­hind the ini­tia­tive to have UNESCO des­ig­nate Tuc­son as the first City of Gas­tron­omy in the United States in 2015, pre­vail­ing over such food­cen­tric cities as New Or­leans and Port­land. In the last chap­ter of Food From the Rad­i­cal Cen­ter, wist­fully ti­tled “You Can Come Home Again,” he doc­u­ments the process, the in­di­vid­u­als, and the mul­ti­cul­tural grass­roots or­ga­ni­za­tions that helped win that des­ig­na­tion for Tuc­son, and how he sees hope for the fu­ture in the ben­e­fits the food-based ini­tia­tive is bring­ing to the city.

“By 2016,” he writes, “we be­gan to see some pos­i­tive trends in Tuc­son’s food busi­ness sec­tor for the first time in al­most a decade. The re­gion’s bio­di­verse foods were trig­ger­ing most of the fi­nan­cial re­cov­ery in an oth­er­wise-lag­ging lo­cal econ­omy … and not just in the gift shops of re­sort ho­tels or fancy restau­rants.” Most Tuc­son res­i­dents, he con­tin­ues, “are now be­ing nour­ished by food from the rad­i­cal cen­ter, per­haps be­cause they are re-en­gaged with many of their neigh­bors who are also tak­ing the mid­dle path.” Food From the Rad­i­cal Cen­ter may not be the best book Nab­han has writ­ten, but it is cer­tainly the most wide-rang­ing, of­fer­ing les­son after les­son from com­mu­nity-based projects that are qui­etly win­ning small, lo­cal bat­tles to heal and sus­tain the lands and wa­ters that pro­duce our food.

— Pa­tri­cia West-Barker

Gary Paul Nab­han dis­cusses his lat­est work at Col­lected Works Book­store (202 Gal­is­teo St., 505-988-4226) at 6:30 p.m. on Mon­day, Sept. 24.

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