DR. LAURA JACKSON'S Toyota pickup barrels down Route 87 south of Casa Grande. The young scientist, a sturdy Midwesterner with a thick braid the color of Kansas wheat, has the windows rolled down so she can point out the cancers that afflict abandoned farmland: last year's tumbleweed, black and clotted in the fields; mustards and stork's-bill, ephemeral winter weeds that will dry up and blow away with this summer's heat, leaving baked and cracked clay flats.

If the landscape is monotonous, the commentary is not. There's a couple of mesquite," she says, pointing out an anemic bristle rising above the weeds. There's some creosote...that's a good sign."

She pulls a hard right onto a dirt road. A roadrunner explodes from the undergrowth, flutters frantically in front of the truck and disappears into a hedge of burroweed, a noxious little bush that was once rare to these parts but that now chokes out other local flora.

Jackson, 30, is a research ecologist for Desert Botanical Garden. She's working on a desert-restoration project funded largely by the Heritage Fund. Specifically, she's trying to learn how abandoned farmland can be returned to some semblance of its original state.

Restoration ecology is a promising and optimistic new disciplineÏat least as it pertains to prairie and wetlands. Lowland Sonoran saltbush scrub has always demanded a bit more vision and a higher threshold for heartbreak.

Farmers migrating west early in the century assumed that with a little water, hard work and Yankee ingenuity, they could do with the desert what they had done elsewhere. And so between 1917 and the early 1950s, they planted cotton and melons and pecans in the Santa Cruz flats south of Coolidge. When their finances and enthusiasm dried up with the water supply, they moved on, leaving the land to return to its natural stateÏexcept that Sonoran desert scrub, once tamed, doesn't make the ecological round trip so readily as the prairies or boreal forests of the farmers' experience. The climate is too harsh, the soil too arid, the seed sources too far away. Instead of reverting to scrub, it falls victim to opportunistic weeds that steal the spring rains, then burn out with the summer heat, leaving the soil exposed and at the mercy of the wind, and leaving the native animals without the food or habitat with which they evolved.

Of the 300 square miles that Jackson surveyed here in Pinal County, at least 60 square miles are abandoned fields; by some estimates, there are as many as 2.2 million acres (about 3,500 square miles) of abandoned farmlands in the five southern Arizona counties. As Jackson points out, It's a mess you can see from space," a barren blotch picked up by Landsat cameras.

It's ugly from the ground, too, flat and monochromatic brown in summer. If it's not prime for farming, it's not good for grazing or animal habitat, either. About all you can do with it is drive through it on your way from one small, depressed town to another. You turn the radio up louder to distract yourself and don't notice the lack of scenery until the wind whips it up into a dust storm. DESERT VEGETATION depends so much on serendipity it's a wonder it exists at all. Wolfberry bushes sprout under trees or wires where a bird perched and defecated undigested berry seeds. Mesquite seeds travel in coyote scat. Creosote bushes advance in slow waves of seeds dropped by rodents, and then only germinate under rare conditions. Saltbush seeds just drop and rot unless they're washed on by floodwaters. Now, with the vast expanse of cultivated fields, sometimes the nearest seed sources of native species are in relict stands miles away, distances they can't travel alone.

In the desert, everything is held hostage by water. Once upon a time, the rains and the rivers went where their momentum carried them, sometimes jumping their banks to wander and whiplash across flatsÏrecharging groundwater and depositing seeds and moisture as they wentÏother times going underground or drying up altogether. They've long been tamed, confined to channels, trained to travel through irrigation canals. In its natural state, every ridge and roll and hummock of the land would route or delay or hold water where plants could take root. But the fields were plowed level, surrounded by ditches that might as well be moats.

This is not to say that farming is an affront to nature, but rather that it changes the circumstances of nature, and makes the accident of germination even more accidental.

Jackson's pickup stops abruptly on a deserted, blacktopped two-lane. Now look to the left, look to the right," she says. North of the road is virgin desert scrub, give or take a few empty beer bottles. The vegetation is thick: chest-high saltbush with rubbery thin leaves wavering in the breeze, greasewood thickets. The soil is sandy, dotted with black lichens and tiny wildflowers. This is how the land is supposed to look.  

Across the narrow road is a field that hasn't been farmed for 20 or 30 years. A few mesquite trees are scattered across a mile's vista, some short saltbushes border the macadam, but the field is clogged with transient herbs and grasses, weeds taking advantage of the open space and the heavy rains. In 30 years, the abundant creosote bushes across the street have not walked more than a few yards into this field.

It could look like this for another hundred years before a saltbush comes back," Jackson says. That's how slowly desert rebuilds itself.

Back in the truck, we navigate dirt roads until we come to one of the two acre-and-a-half lots she planted last year. She cadged the land from a land- development companyÏverbal agreement onlyÏthen ripped and seeded 8- by 100-foot crescents across the drainage. On the downhill side of each plot, she built a low berm, like a dirt curb, to catch and hold the rainwater washing down the field. Some plots she covered with straw mulch to hold in moisture and keep the ground cool; this area registers the hottest nighttime temperatures in the world.

Now, a year later, the saltbush is knee-high and as big around as a garbage-can lid. Globe mallow pokes through here and there. And even though the creosote Jackson planted never sprouted, she can barely contain her delight. The agri-enthusiasm is perhaps hereditary.

JACKSON GREW UP at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, a school for sustainable agriculture" founded by her parents, Wes and Dana Jackson. Among other things, the elder Jacksons are trying to develop perennial grain crops from prairie plants, crops that don't need to be replanted every year, suited to the prairie soil and naturally resistant to prairie plagues.

Wes was also the protagonist of a memorable chapter in William Least Heat Moon's best seller, PrairyErth, a natural history of Chase County, Kansas. Wes wants to mimic the prairie to feed people without also endangering them and eroding and poisoning the earth," Least Heat Moon wrote. What can farmers learn from the prairie? Do ariculture and environment have to be at odds?

Laura Jackson, the daughter, takes umbrage at comparisons to her parents' work, but she following a logical outgrowth when she asks how farmers can clean up the land after they're done with it. Recently she wrote: If this were a road cut, a mine spoil or a wetland, laws would require restoration. But it is assumed that these agricultural lands will `go back to nature' on their own, and of course there is some basis for this assumption."

In more temperate climates, the ecosystems are more resilient. Eastern and northern forests creep easily back into farmers' fields. But desert, unassisted, could take hundreds or thousands of years. And it may not move much more quickly with help.

Jackson worries that her study will not be long enough to prove anything.You can't use two years' study to gauge what will happen over the next 30," she sighs.

This year's research plot lies along Route 87 between Casa Grande and Picacho Peak. The City of Mesa owns 11,606 acres there that it leases to farmers and will eventually Ômine" for groundwater to be pumped back to the city. They've given Jackson 20 acres (with an option on 20 more), which she's planted with three species of saltbush, two species of wolfberry, Indian wheat (an indigenous grain), mesquite and creosote, native grasses and wildflowers.

Some germinate in spring, others after summer rains, and what Jackson's trying to figure out with her various combinations of mulch and irrigation is just what to plant when and how. What can compete with the weeds for water? How small a planted area will give enough toehold for the surrounding fields to recover on their own? After all, seed and mulch are expensive, weeding is impractically time-consuming, spraying endangers the native species and water is scarce.

Mesa also donated 80 acre-feet of water for irrigation, and that is the problem of the day. Jackson and her volunteer helpers have unrolled a couple of hundred yards of two-ply plastic a foot wide and sealed along the edges. When hooked up to a sump pump, it becomes a disposable pipe (it decomposes in sunlight), and the task is to pump water from one irrigation ditch to another that borders Jackson's project.

They didn't teach me how to do this at Cornell," Jackson says, and so the local irrigation district has sent a man to help. He's a friendly fellow from Casa Grande, and as he primes the pump, he says, If we don't use this water, California's going to get it."  

THE PIPE STRAINS to fill, slowly, a foot at a time, like a long, thin balloon that's too tight to be inflated. Jackson walks the road bordering the field and a railroad siding. There's a long hedgerow of mature wolfberry bushes along the tracks, and she pulls off a couple of berries, fruit the size of a raisin, red-orange and smooth like its distant cousin the tomato. It's alarmingly tart, and there's a green wildness to its taste, like acorns or those berries you weren't supposed to eat as a child.

An Amtrak train rolls by and the engineer waves, and then a pickup heads toward us, trailing a cloud of dust. Inside is the farmer who leases the cotton fields just to the south. He's a heavyset, stony-faced fellow who doesn't get out of the truck and barely makes eye contact. But he's come to see that Jackson has gotten the water she needs, and when he finds out she hasn't he promises to open another sluice gate and shoot through all the water it will take. Then, without ceremony or small talk, he drives off.

The local farmers, they don't smile much," Jackson comments, but they support what I'm doing."

What will be the upshot of what she's doing? The land has proved too costly to farm, near-worthless for grazing. It has no evident role in the ecosystem, such as the water-scrubbing function of wetlands. It has no flora so spectacular as a saguaro cactus. It is wildlife habitat, but not for any glamorous and bankable endangered species. It has a natural aesthetic that you have to learn to love. Subtle, perhaps. You can appreciate `subtle' coming from Kansas," Jackson says.

Then she gets serious. I think this habitat is important because we're part of it. No one species is going to be the downfall of the ecosystem." But then, she explains, it's a chain effect like popping rivets: First one goes and then the next. The image has been used before and it's passed from metaphor to cliche, and she apologizes for that. But it's still apt.

Wes is a fine talker," Least Heat Moon wrote of Jackson's father. Laura Jackson's a pretty good talker herself, as she points out a more intangible argument, the right for things to exist even if we haven't yet figured out what they're good for. She's got a mild case of indignation. We've used it for 30 years and screwed it up for 300 years," she says. What would your mother say?"


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