Sundog’s Letter: The desert is one of my favourite places. Every year, I attempt to get to the Southwest from my humid home: Tucson, Santa Fe, Joshua Tree, and St. George. I’m thinking of relocating there. Is it, however, wrong to relocate to a location where there appears to be insufficient water to support the existing population? —Dry Inquisitive
Dear Mr. Dry:
To begin, we must recognise that not all desert communities are created equal. Many have managed to keep their water use and growth in check with nature, while others, such as Phoenix and Las Vegas, have continued to grow even as their present water supply runs out.
While delivering water to millions of people is difficult, the ecological culprit in this location is clear: grass.
Sundog enjoys running his toes through a lush green lawn just as much as the next guy.
Even if it’s become emblematic of a kind of golfy prosperity in Sedona and St. George, the modern American lawn—the half-acre of Kentucky bluegrass sprayed daily, mowed weekly, and petro-fertilized seasonally—has no place in the desert. According to the EPA, 60 percent of residential water use in the Southwest is used to irrigate the outdoors. To put it another way, six gallons of water are used to prepare the croquet course for every four gallons used for cooking, cleaning, and bathing. Another way to look at it is that a year’s worth of water with a lawn would last two and a half years without one.
Lawns are a European import, first brought to the parched American desert by pioneers from the Scottish Highlands and southern Germany, where grass grows natively, and then by a wave of 20th-century snowbirds from regions like Virginia and Michigan, where grass also grows naturally. Why must the white man transform Scottsdale into Scotland, even if it hastens the desert colony’s demise?
In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond tells the narrative of the Vikings, who colonised what is now Greenland four centuries before Christopher Columbus arrived on the continent. They brought cows and cultivated their European crops, which did not fare well in the strange terrain. Food was scarce during the hard winters. The settlers saw the Inuit hunting seals and then burning blubber to heat their dwellings and eat the meat to survive. The Norse, on the other hand, thought this slimy meat beneath their dignity and the Inuit to be wretches. They were adamant about not eating it. As a result, they went hungry and fled across the sea, bringing an end to their four-century presence in the Americas.
Couldn’t we say the same thing about the desert grass farmers, Dry Curious? They have a look at the water bills. They are affected by the ongoing drought. They’re aware that the artificial lifelines from Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which have only been in place for a geological blink of an eye, are filling up with silt and reaching dead pool. They continue to sprinkle.
Despite the fact that the vast majority of these settlers were born in the United States, Sundog believes that their devotion to turf is a psychological legacy from the Motherland of moors and meadows. Their colonies are based on the idea that their predecessors discovered an uninhabited dry wasteland, which they watered to create their own Eden.
However, this is not the case. Indigenous peoples along the Salt River, the Rio Grande, and the Colorado River constructed intricate, irrigated agricultural civilizations that lasted thousands of years longer than our current one. You won’t find many lawns on a reservation or in a town inhabited by the Spanish before the Anglos arrived—think Santa Fe, Old Town Albuquerque, or Barrio Viejo in Tucson. Cactus, pions, junipers, native shrubs, rock work, and occasionally just plain dirt: a type of xeriscaping that predates the phrase xeriscaping.
Natural considerations made these places viable long before the arrival of gringo water projects: Santa Fe had a cool high elevation and a snow-fed river, Tucson had rich summer monsoons and the perennial Santa Cruz River, and Albuquerque had good soil along the Rio Grande. To be sure, Native people do not despise flora; in fact, they were stripped of most of the desert’s foliage, as well as their water rights. It’s also worth noting that modern Americans of all skin tones enjoy a wet lawn: it’s not simply a white thing. The point is that the people who have lived in the desert for millennia are still there, demonstrating how it may be done to others.
But for today’s turf fighters to admit all of this would be to call into question the American petro-short-sighted state’s premise, which has lasted less than a century. Instead of ripping up the sod and replacing it with natural shrubs and grasses, they tighten their tanned fists even tighter on the garden hose.
To continue the Collapse comparison, Anglos can observe Natives eating the fish (conserving water), and they have the ability to eat fish (to stop watering lawns), but they would rather become extinct than give up the lush leas that Mel Gibson famously charged across in Braveheart.
The capacity for being hot is the next factor to consider while moving to the desert. The modern Southwest was created with inexpensive electricity to drive air conditioning, in addition to cheap water. It’s only going to get hotter. According to a ProPublica analysis, six Arizona counties, including Maricopa, which is home to 4.5 million people in and around Phoenix, are at risk of being uninhabitable in the next 30 years as the world heats. Is this an indication that people will flee? Obviously not. To keep their houses and cars cool, they’ll simply use more oil and electricity. Let’s face it: Phoenix was never a viable haven in the recent past. Its century-long growth has been fueled by electricity generated by Navajo territory coal burning and a huge nuclear power plant, as well as cheap gasoline for driving five miles to buy a cup of coffee.
Sundog envisions a future in which all desert people live in dwellings with foot-thick walls constructed of natural materials such as straw bales and adobe, where solar panels on the roof power swamp coolers, rainfall is collected in barrels, and native flora are irrigated by drip lines. While that future has arrived in some places, the vast majority of desert dwellings are leaky mash-ups of drywall, fibreglass, and pine sticks that drain precious water onto a square of sod and burn hot coal to blast chilly air at the perpetual sun. It’s insane to warm the earth in order to keep our homes cool.
In general, moving to the desert is ethical, as long as you don’t plan on cultivating a green grass and can withstand the 100-degree summers without cooling your home to 72 degrees. Keep in mind that you’ll be moving to Indian Country; be a supporter of tribes who are defending their land, water, and sovereignty. Avoid Phoenix, Las Vegas, and St. George, which have put themselves on a one-way route to disaster due to the drought. Small is lovely in the desert, yet there are still plenty of shaded creeks flowing down the canyons, sustaining life for small bands of folks and allowing you to establish your own future. Sundog won’t tell you where they are, but you might locate one if you look hard enough.