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Sonoran Desert 2011

Thirteen Conway graduates, students, and friends of the school, along with Conway's director, Paul Cawood Hellmund, are spending a week in the Sonoran Desert on a service-learning trip. They are being hosted by the International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA), an organization with which Conway has a multi-year memorandum of understanding for cooperation. 

The mission of the Conway group on this trip is to work with ISDA and community members in developing and assessing future projects (food security, site design, open space planning, urban design, economic revitalization) for Conway graduate students and other designers and planners. The trip is also a great opportunity to learn about Ajo, Arizona, and the people, plants, and animals of this former mining town and the Sonoran Desert. Because trip participants are both seasoned professionals and recent graduates just starting their careers, mentoring is also happening. 

You can read trip background here. (Drawing: saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) by L. Martin).

Sunday, March 27, 2011: Tucson looks sad.

Something doesn’t look right in Tucson. Sure it’s a desert city and a certain amount of brown is natural and beautiful, but there is much more brown around town than my last visit. It turns out there was a major freeze here in early February and pipes burst and frost-sensitive trees and shrubs were killed or damaged. Damage to the trees is particularly obvious as we drive around.


DAY 1: Tucson, AZ

Late afternoon: Pale visitors from more northern climes happy to simply sit outdoors.

We are sitting in the motel courtyard and every few minutes a new trip participant walks by and greets us. The fourteen participants are coming in from around the country. One—trip co-organizer Gary Bachman ’84—lives here in Tucson. Most of the folks are coming from much colder climates and everyone seems to be enjoying sitting outdoors just now, basking in the sun and feeling the breeze. I notice small groups of birds coming to sip at the top of a small fountain on one side of the courtyard. Doves are cooing somewhere nearby and I am instantly taken back in time to childhood visits with my grandparents in Phoenix. There is considerable shared and palpable contentment as we sit here, the group slowing accumulating to its full size.


Evening: Our first time hearing the story of Ajo told by someone who has been a key player in developments there.

It’s time for dinner and Gary takes us to his favorite Mexican restaurant, a modest place serving Mexican and Michoacan Tarascan Indian food.  He explains the culinary influences of southern Mexico and also the Tohono O’odham Nation. Very tasty! I see mini-class reunions going on during dinner, with several graduates from the Conway classes of 1984 and 2009. Other graduates and friends of the school are falling into easy conversation as they discover shared interests in plants, design, history, hiking,… Jim Wilcox has joined us from the International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA), our hosts in Ajo, Arizona, our ultimate destination. He tells us about the amazing successes ISDA has had in redeveloping surplus buildings in Ajo, particularly the Curley School, artisan live-work apartments in a former high school building.  We talk about plans for the next day and people seem ready and eager to pitch in and get going.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Morning: The Sonoran Desert Museum is like no other museum you have ever seen.
Our first introduction to the plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert is at the amazing Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum, which looks like anything but a museum. Some information is displayed like in a museum, but this is an artful combination of botanic garden and progressive zoo and it feels like a condensed version of the ecosystems of the vast Sonoran Desert. We arrive early in the morning and wonder why there so many docents everywhere and why the (well-designed) parking lot is so large for the number of visitors. By the time we leave later in the morning, we understand, as we see bus-loads of school children and carloads of people from other places pouring into the entrance. This is a very popular and successful place.

Lunch: The Desert Rain Cafe and TOCA (Sells, Arizona) serve up traditional Tohono O'odham foods with a contemporary flare.
Chef Ivalee Pablo is an artist with food, and not just any food. Her palette is largely the traditional foods of the Tohono O'odham (People of the Desert). When she comes out from the Desert Rain Cafe kitchen to greet us, we all gather around one Conway table where folks are already eating lunch and Ivalee tells about her approach to designing tasty and nutritious foods. She points to the beautifully presented dishes in front of us: cholla cactus salsa and hummus made from tepary beans (left: photo by R. Bechhoefer), and today's special: squash enchiladas. She mentions her years working in the kitchens of well-regarded restaurants in Tucson and she tells of her her experiences cooking with her grandfather, starting when she was a child. We think about coming back later for what Ivalee says just now in the oven: squash pie with saguaro cactus whipped cream. As we all sit down to eat we find the food is delicious with unexpected flavors. We sip drinks like agave lemonade and prickly pear smoothies. 

We stop briefly in the adjacent gift shop and meet another artist: basket weaver Terrol Dew Johnson (left, photo by P. Monro). We learn that the Desert Rain Cafe and the gift shop are run by the Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), a grassroots community organization that Terrol co-founded in 1996. In 2002 he received national recognition: the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World Award. He has received much other recognition. He is one of the top Native American basket weavers in the country.

With both Ivalee and Terrol we notice a kind of modesty with ebullience, if you can call it that. They speak without much ego, but their words are powered by what they are doing and the difference it is making in the world.

Afternoon: Ak-chin agriculture on Cowlick Farm
Our next stop is a farm where TOCA raises some of the food served at the Desert Rain Cafe. Our guide is Nina Altshul, who recently joined the TOCA staff, but who has been working on food issues in the area for several years. (She and her husband started the first CSA (community supported agriculture) organization in Ajo, where she lives.) At first we wonder why we are driving so many miles out of town to get to a farm that to our untrained eyes looks not that much different from what surrounds the town. Then Nina starts to explain. TOCA's Cowlick Farm is located at the confluence of two major desert wash drainage systems. (Don't think of the typical dendritic drainage patterns you may know in less arid climates--where streams feed into successively larger streams. Instead, imagine a braided network of waterways whenever the rains come, which doesn't happen very often.)

Cowlick is a grand experiment, Nina explains in very vivid language. It is TOCA's attempt to explore traditional desert wash (ak-chin) agricultural techniques, relying only on rainwater to irrigate crops. That rainfall is coaxed and encouraged to reach ponds and eventually the fields by modest up-swellings of land that funnel water to where it is need for agriculture. (Photo by R. Bechhoefer.)

You can watch Nina on Youtube.

Late afternoon: The Tohono O'odham Cultural Center & Museum is a dramatic, modern building complex in a site deeply significant to the O'odham.

Bernard Sisquieros (above, left; photo: P. Monro) weaves stories for us at the Tohono O'odham Cultural Center and Museum, where he is curator of education. He tells us about Baboquivari Peak, which has a looming presence over the museum (right; photo: R. Bechhoefer). Bernard tells us that all people have a story of how they came to be and for the O'odham that is centered on Baboquivari. The museum is sited here in a somewhat remote location because here it is relationship to the sacred mountain. Clearly Bernard excels in telling stories of his culture and we are riveted and we learn. Among other things he tells us of the times after rain when caterpillars are plentiful and can be popped into the fire and then eaten (middle, drawing by P. Monro).

Evening: Ajo at last
As we travel the final miles into Ajo, a place we have been preparing to visit for many months, the tailings piles of the mine loom ahead and seem of unbelievable proportions. We round the bend and come into the town and decide to start with a visit to the mine pit, but get can't find the road. Instead, we drive through the historic Ajo Plaza as our town-welcoming experience. One trip participant exclaims, "it is even more beautiful than in Google Maps!" We are warmly welcomed by Tracy Taft , ISDA's executive director, and our other hosts from ISDA and enjoy a festive meal at a restaurant across the street from the plaza.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Ajo, AZ

Ajo, Arizona, is where it is because of minerals. The town's infrastructure was created to support the removal of copper and other minerals from the giant pit that is in town. But, the mine has been closed since 1984. The town is no longer a company town, with most of the houses and other buildings now owned by others.

Morning: Ajo and ISDA's tremendous successes
This morning after a quick breakfast and introductions to ISDA directors and other community members, we head out for a "walk and talk" around the Curley School, ISDA's shining redevelopment success, and future nearby projects, especially the Ajo Plaza. We set the objectives for our time in Ajo: explore potential town planning and landscape design prospects in and around the Curley School and the plaza, especially ones with which future Conway students might help.


Above, left to right: 1) Lorraine Marquez Eiler, a member of ISDA's board of directors and a Hia C-ed O'odham elder describes important aspects of O'odham culture, as represented in a mural by Tohono O'odham artist Michael Chiago. (Photo: J.P. Monro.) 2) The Conway team poses in front of the Curley School, on the grand axis with the school's tower, the flag pole in the Ajo Plaza, and a cross on a distant hill. 3) The Ajo Plaza is at the heart of the town and one of ISDA's newer projects. Conway graduate students will be aiding ISDA with planning the plaza during the spring term.  (Photo: J.P. Monro.)


Clockwise, from above: 1) Laura sketches one of the two churches that define the plaza's edge. 2) The former elementary school courtyard is being converted into an orchard and already varieties of pomegranate are being cultivated (photo by R. Bechhoefer). 3) A second church on the plaza cuts a dramatic profile against the sky. (Photo: J.P. Monro), 4) The now-closed mine pit sits behind a fence on the edge of town, a powerful visual reminder of what created and sustained Ajo.  
Above: A range of pomegranate varieties has been planted in the courtyard of the former elementary school. Pomegranates have been grown in Arizona since the 1600s. (Drawing by R. Bechhoefer.)

Afternoon: Hiking in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
After lunch we drive twenty miles south on Highway 85 through the town of Why and into the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which borders the Mexican border and is home to major stands of multi-trunked organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thuberi) and single-trunked, multiple-armed saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantean). The monument is also of intense interest and federal activity because of its situation on the border.


Left to right: 1) Because of recent very dry conditions, we have to search for spring blooms, which in other years might be dramatic and extensive. Here we are walking up a desert wash, finding fascinating desert plants, such as jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis), greasewood (Sarcobatus vermiculatus), and saltbush (Atriplex polycarpa). 2) We pose for a group shot in front of an natural arch. 3) Giaco examines one of the few cacti we see in flower in the wash, a 
golden hedgehog cactus (
Echinocereus nicholii).

Evening: BBQ in the Monument
Baiza, superintendent of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, welcomes us to the park and talks about its special resources and management challenges. Approximately twenty-five percent of the park is currently open to public use and the National Park Service organizes occasional trips to other special areas, such as the fascinating Quitobaquito Oasis. 

Lee walks us around the group camping area, talking about park design and planning issues ad then it is time for a cookout and ranger talk. 

We stay until the sun sets to watch the first stars come out and then head back to Ajo.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Morning: We start to focus on specific projects.
We form groups to examine the design issues related to specific places around the Ajo Plaza and the Curley School, as well as larger topics, such as the importance of the three nations (US, Mexico, and Tohono O'odham) to design and planning.

Late Morning: South to Sonoyta, Mexico, just across the border.

Driving south again through Why and Organ Pipe National Monument we continue across the border into Mexico, where we meet up with ISDA board member Eric Alegria. Eric owns a store here in the border town of Sonoyta (2005 population: 10,061). Sonoyta's name comes from the O'odham words for "base of the water" and Eric remembers a time when there was much more water and green. He shows us the dry river bed of the Sonoyta River and we wonder outloud what it would take to regain some of the river's past abundance (above and below, photos by P. Monro and drawing by R. Bechhoefer).

Lunch: Mister Pancho serves seafood.


Eric takes us to a local seafood restaurant, Mister Pancho's, and we are treated to a vast array of well-prepared fish and seafood. Here Giaco (left) mugs it up with what is left of a delicious fish (
photo by R. Bechhoefer).  In Sonoyta there is a monument to the three nations in the area: Mexico, Tohono O'odham, and US. The border fence is quite an imposing backdrop to parts of the town, but the tallest part ends abruptly.  (Drawings by L. Martin.)

Late afternoon and evening: Back to Ajo and our projects and then an enchanting evening.
After a few more hours of work on our projects, we head over to Mimi's house for dinner, which includes Gary's special recipe mole sauce. There are new people to meet and time to talk with others we have meet over the preceding days. The cool desert air makes for a very pleasant setting for lively conversations (and some disbelief when we hear of the major snowstorm forecast for New England two days from now!).

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Morning: Learning to paint the desert with Michael Chiago

Michael Chiago  is teaching us to capture the desert with watercolor paints. Here Laura, Lucie, and Karen look on as Michael demonstrates (above, bottom left, photo: R. Bechhoefer). We are surprised at what this master teacher can help us achieve (above, bottom right, photo: P. Monro). (Paintings above, left: C. Fine, right: N. Antonetti.) Michael is one of a few Southern Arizona Indian painters to achieve national recognition.

Afternoon: Working on our projects
We are working in project teams and team members are busy drawing, interviewing community members, visiting various spots around town on foot, by bike, and in the van. We hear that there will be about 25 visitors tomorrow to help us review the design concepts we are developing. That helps us focus on the tasks at hand. Teams are looking at the area south of the plaza that might serve as a town entry, the courtyard where a pomegranate orchard is being established, various aspects of ecotourism and recreation, and how the stories of three nations are or could be presented. There is a bee hive of activity.

Evening: Grilled dinner in the desert.

Driving north from Ajo the flatness gives way to short, but jagged volcanic hills (above, photo: R. Bechhoefer) and our convoy turns into a narrow road and proceeds through a gate onto the Barry Goldwater Bombing Range. Earlier in the day we had completed special training to be allowed to access this special area. We find petroglyphs (below, top left, photo: P. Monro; top, right, photo: R. Bechhoefer) at the bases of many of the slopes and sense that this place has been special to people for many thousands of years.

After a grilled dinner (above, bottom right, photo: R. Bechhoefer) and the sun setting it is story time and three master storytellers start to transfigure us with fables of coyotes and quail and life in the desert. But, first they warn us that this is really the wrong time of year for stories, that winter is for stories. The storytellers are two people have have met along the way this week: Lorraine Eiler and Bernard Sisquieros, and Joe Joaquin, a Tohono O'odham elder from Sells. With all of our lights turned out, the night sky becomes emblazoned with a billon stars.

Late that night after we get back to our motel and as we get out of the van at the end of this very full and rewarding day, we realize we will have to pack in the morning. The trip is coming to an end. But first there will be a big celebration of all the things we have seen and learned and wondered about here in Ajo.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Morning: Mad dash scramble to finish drawings and prepare presentations for the community presentation
We are back at work this morning -- in charrette mode -- with guests coming in a couple of hours to hear about our ideas and give us feedback. (Below, top: left to right: Peter, Bob, Laura, Cyndy, Nina; bottom: Susan, Peter, Giaco, Tom, Lucie, Cyndy.)

The four teams present their work and take questions (left, photo: P. Monro). Layering (palimpsest) is an overarching concept of what is being presented, with special concern for threads of stories from the three cultures: O'odham, Mexican, and American.

After all the teams have presented, we circle the chairs for a larger discussion of the ideas and the future for collaborating in Ajo. 

Afternoon: A bit of free time and then departure to Tucson and home the next day.
After fond farewells extended to our new Friends in Ajo, we are back in the van headed for Tucson, one last dinner together and then to the airport the next day.

It is obvious something very positive has been accomplished with this trip and that many lasting memories and friendships have been made. Already some concrete steps have been outlined for Ajo and as soon as next Thursday Conway will have a graduate student team in town (to helped plan the plaza area).

Team members have started to send back messages:
  • "What an exciting, inspiring week and great group of traveling companions!"
  • "It was one of those pinnacle life experiences for me, introducing me to a new place, amazing people (both among our group and at ISDA), and opening up new ways of thinking about place and nature." 
  • "It was a powerful reminder of what the Conway community means to me to see graduates of very different years and current students all working together with shared perspectives."
  • "Imagine my surprise when checking out of the hotel [in Tucson] to hear from the receptionist that she's reading [the trip] blog and wants to do a capstone project in Ajo." 
  • "The food was wonderful.  I especially enjoyed the Desert Rain Cafe and the feast at Mimi's home."
  • "The hospitality of the ISDA folks was outstanding. "
  • "I loved working on a focused topic and presenting / sharing ideas."
  • "Thanks for the wonderful time. I truly enjoyed myself."
  • "[The food was] incredible. Not only was everything absolutely delicious but each new dish came with a story. The food culture, once lost, is gaining momentum."
  • "I got a little tan, less sleep, and a deep initiation into that remarkable people and land. I would like to return." 
  • "The trip was absolutely flawless from my point of view (and I'm pretty critical usually!)."
From our hosts in Arizona:
  • "It was an energizing week,....for all of us......and we are glad that it was for all of you as well!  Thanks so much for coming and for being so intensely tuned in to our organization, culture, community and land.  We look forward to the ongoing ripples, connections, and project unfoldings!"
  • "We too (of course!) are very pleased with how last week went."
  • "We do feel we made a dozen new friends and that all sorts of things as yet unanticipated will probably develop from that reality."
  • "There was so much that happened during the week you were here that it is probably impossible to really recap it all.--so many positives, thank you."