In a New World grown old, near the end of the eastern Arizona winter and under a giant sky, the 1.8 million acres of the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation spread into outer Sonoran Desert, alpine forest, and grassland. The reservation was once just 40 acres — called “Hell’s 40 acres” and “the world’s first concentration camp” — though the vacant fields a few miles uphill from Peridot suggest no such history of crowding. They suggest no history at all. No history but of plants and animals, rocks and seasons.
The suggestion changes when two Apaches stalk into the hinterland. A dirt road once rutted by horse-drawn wagons splits the open field, and prickly pear sprawls through the sparse grass west of the byway, where the two hunters drift, moving away from the road.
They move like heat off of a cook fire, out through the land where wild food has the healing power of medicine. They move with weapons, keeping silent as the moment nears. Eyes sharp, fingers loose, they seem to be the breathing embodiment of an old Apache proverb: “It is better to have less thunder in the mouth and more lightning in the hand.”
Twila Cassadore halts, lifts a pebble from clay soil grown with purple flowers and wild onions.
“Pick a pebble, any pebble,” the 52-year-old woman says to the other Apache hunter, a lean young man, the two flanking a dying prickly pear and holding 6-foot-long salt cedar sticks. “In your own way, say thank you, Mother Earth, and know that because we’re going to take his life, throw a rock in. It’s just a way to say, you know, respect for the species.”
Cassadore tosses her pebble into the cactus. The ancient hunt begins.
She and the younger Apache start jabbing their sticks. Above her sun-bleached boots and fraying blue jeans, her baggy T-shirt whips with her precise, jerky movements. She and the other hunter aren’t aiming for the prickly pear, flopped over on its side. Rather, they’re targeting the mound of sticks and cactus detritus that the paddled cactus shoots out from, like an inverted chandelier, spines snaring the morning light of a sun lifted just past 9 o’clock.
The mound is the home of the desert woodrat, genus Neotoma, called “gloscho” in Apache.
With their jabbing, Cassadore and her fellow hunter, Chris McIntosh, are trying to draw out woodrats, stun them, end their lives. By midday or so, they hope to have enough meat for a lunch cooked and eaten on the land. The gloscho hunt is a San Carlos Apache tradition, one that survives almost wholly in tattered memories. Two generations ago, the hunt was more present for many Western Apaches.
“I grew up with it,” Cassadore says. “Me and my brothers used to go hunting and keep the skin. My brothers used to make gloves with it or little bags.”
As she studies sticks and soil, Cassadore looks deeply: for a gray flash, a tiny cursive trail written by rodent legs, a tail whip, a beady eye. And as she visually combs the nests of the immemorial prickly pear field for gloscho, she goes into a kind of practiced autopilot, peering through the cactus spines but also inside of herself.
And she sees herself — herself as a young girl — hunting small game like gloscho, rabbits, and squirrel.
She sees her family’s one-acre backyard garden — the corn, the pomegranate, the pecan.
She sees her freezer so stocked with wild meat that she never knew a hamburger until school. She sees foraged food, the fruit and the herbs, the snacks of “fine, curly dirts” from the sunny riverbed. But she also sees how her family came to be looked down upon as the 20th century waned. She sees how Apaches who culled food from the earth rather than new supermarkets came to be seen as low and poor.
She sees how her young adult life then spun out of control: apathy in school, a closed loop of drug abuse.
And she sees, finally, all the times she attempted suicide.
But as she sees these things, she also sees a gloscho nest, salt cedar sticks stirring and crunching it under a gauzy winter sun.
The two Apache hunters use their staves to disturb the nest. Cassadore and McIntosh push cactus paddles, rake refuse and shards. A strident clatter springs from their sticks and deadens into the vast silence, no other humans or homes visible.
Though shorter than the other hunters at 5 feet, 8 inches, though a grandmother with a graying back-knot of hair and a face that at times wrinkles like an old baseball glove, Cassadore leads gloscho hunts that in the past were led only by men. She is a cultural project assistant with the four Western Apache tribes: White Mountain, Tonto, Camp Verde, and San Carlos (her tribe). Her job is to search for Apache food traditions on the cusp of being lost to time. For this, she gathers knowledge from interviews with tribal elders, forays into Apache wildlands, and attempts to locate the foods of the past. When she finds the bygone plants and animals, she reintroduces them into modern Apache society.
So far, Cassadore has learned of more than 200 traditional Apache foods. She has located all but 40 or so in the wild.
Once she rediscovers these foods, she uses them to teach, feed, and heal her fellow Apaches, who have suffered gravely since their nomadic way of life ended in the 19th century. In the 21st, disproportionate trauma persists: health crises, drug and alcohol abuse, median incomes less than half the national average, and lifespans that, on average for the 573 federally recognized tribes, last 5.5 fewer years than for non-Native Americans.
Cassadore responds by leading students into the open spaces of Ni’gosdzán, Mother Earth. She leads adult Apaches facing addiction and other issues into the wilderness for mornings of digging wild potatoes, cutting miner’s lettuce, hunting gloscho, and searching for the healing that she hopes to find daily. Out in the infinite grasslands, the sun and scenery and whorl of the hunt can scrub the rest away.
Cassadore plants a boot on a ghostly paddle. She braces her stick and levers. Woody bits fly. The salt cedar sticks she hunts with are the same as those of spread-picketed fences back in the town of Peridot, where the San Carlos Apache tribe is permitted to build.
Suddenly, her dark eyes blaze. “THERE he is!” she cries. “He’s on this side! Go on this side!”
McIntosh’s stick whips horizontal. He stalks a quarter-orbit around the prickly pear.
“He’s under this cactus!” Cassadore shouts.
Crunch, crunch, crunch, CRUNCH.
“You want to try to hit him in the head!”
A gray flash shoots under the paddles like the shadow of a bird. “Behind you!” Cassadore shouts. “He ran behind that cactus!” A plump gloscho about a foot long sprints out into the open and vanishes under a second nest. Or maybe, the hunters realize and communicate with their eyes, into one of the hundreds of such nests in the endless land beyond, down-sloping to sweeping valley and mountains on the far horizon.
“A lot of them have two homes for this reason,” Cassadore says. “They’re really smart. They have escape plans.”
A third Apache, Jesse Norman, approaches from the pickup trucks parked on the old wagon road behind. Just off this dirt road, Norman has kindled a cook fire. It leaks a thin column of smoke. “He’s pretty fast!” Norman laughs.
A fourth Apache strolls over, Marlowe Cassadore, Twila’s third cousin, stocky in a colorful shirt and straw hat. “They still sleeping?” he asks.
“One ran away,” Twila smiles.
Lightly, the group of hunters steps toward the next nest.
For Twila Cassadore, this March day begins shortly after the late-winter sunrise, when the hunters convene on a shoulder of Highway 60, by the San Carlos Apache Cultural Center. It is close to 9 in the morning by the time McIntosh climbs into the shotgun seat of her pickup, a 2012 Nissan Titan that still shines like white enamel. As she navigates toward the prickly pear fields, loose tools jounce in her truck bed. She starts to tell about a dark, quiet chapter of local and American history, one little-known outside the San Carlos Apache reservation.
“The planes came in that way, and started spraying from here, all that way,” she says, sweeping back her arm, indicating the whole swath of land along the San Carlos River out the window, rich valley and thick drifts of houses.
“I had relatives that remember when the plane used to spray,” she continues, “and they would run under what was sprayed by the river. They were young and thought it was fun chasing the plane that was spraying Agent Orange, but they didn’t know.”
In the early 1960s, when the U.S. was using Agent Orange on enemies in Vietnam, the federal government was raining similar dioxins on San Carlos Apache land. According to a 1970 Department of Interior report (“Objectives, Methods, and Environment Gila River Phreatophyte Project, Graham County, Arizona”), these herbicides, sprayed from planes, were meant to kill phreatophytes, a thirsty species of riparian plant. The stated logic was that this would increase runoff, which could then be routed to benefit desert cities like Phoenix.
Like the North Vietnamese, the San Carlos Apache didn’t know what was happening.
As she drives past a pack of hooded teenagers and an elderly woman rolling a wheelchair in the dust, Cassadore often glances right off the byway, toward the river. “The number of people who have died from cancer is pretty high, the elders,” she says, tracing the formerly sprayed river in her white pickup. “A lot of them were basket weavers. A lot of them had put that [sprayed plant] in their mouth, you know, to make the baskets.
“Stories,” she echoes, “they keep quiet.”
Quiet stories explain why the San Carlos Apache face so many obstacles today. More narrowly, this specific quiet story — the chemical sprayings that continued on the San Carlos reservation for almost a decade — has rippled out to the present in many ways, and has all but entombed traditional foodways in the past.
One way: San Carlos Apache no longer live close by and with the river. “They all lived along the riverside where these things were being sprayed,” Cassadore recalls. “This used to be a large farming area.”
The cumulative effect of the sprayings, exacerbated by the coming of modern conveniences and generational apathy, has been that the link to ancient Apache foodways, brittle since the forced marches onto the reservation in the late 19th century, has all but broken.
“When they sprayed, people had all their dried foraged food outside, or even their dried jerky, their laundry, their blankets was left outside,” Cassadore explains. “So this stuff was being sprayed directly on them, and on their food source.”
She and many others believe that the sprayed food killed many who lived on the river. “That drove people away from foraging and harvesting and hunting, because they thought it was the food that was killing them,” she says.
Cassadore drives by the stray dogs and tiny houses of town, a few patched with plywood. She motors past rusted trucks, sofas on lawns ripped open and spilling foam guts, past some houses with no roofing or electricity. And then the homes fade. The road bumps, ramps, and widens to two roomy lanes.
Soon, civilization is behind, the trucks are parked on the old wagon road, and the hunters are toting light, sharp sticks into the wilderness.
At 9:40 a.m., with gloscho huddling in their stick dens for winter warmth, the hunters comb the fields. The four keep close. So does a fifth, who has come over from the white trucks with the two other latecomers. The fifth hunter isn’t Apache. Frank Amado is a local from near Globe, a Vietnam War veteran.
At first, Amado stands idly watching, his stick leaning in the dust. He sways in the gentle wind, wearing a baseball cap with an American flag and eagle, and a Canadian tuxedo: denim jacket, denim shirt, denim pants.
Cassadore had advertised her hunt in The Moccasin, a publication out of Globe. The ad hooked Amado, who made preparations to join on a whim, though nobody in town had ever heard of gloscho, eating them, or the hunt. Grinning, her voice with its lilt rising and falling down the octaves, Cassadore teaches him.
“They’re very abundant,” she says to Amado, between adroit jabs at a nest, jabs he begins to emulate. “From their home, I think they live basically in a 25-, 30-foot radius.” She talks about how hunting season is winter, when gloscho spend more time in nests, are less likely to have parasites, and don’t have young. Together, the two probe nests, the three others close by. It sounds like five kids munching Cap’n Crunch, the rolling clatter projecting.
Soon, primed by the bright shocks of cholla across the wagon road, Cassadore and Amado start to talk eating cactus.
Gathering barrel, organ pipe, prickly pear, and other cactus fruit is the kind of daily pursuit that lifts Cassadore. From Apache tribal elders, she learned a panoply of applications for the waxen barrel cactus fruit, a pineapple-like yellow orb used in pre-contact cooking and baking.
“My mom used to go out and get barrel cactus and make candy out of it,” Amado replies, in a detached burst.
Earlier in the day, in a similar burst, Amado told Cassadore he had cancer. He said that the hunt was the kind of thing he wanted to experience with his finite time. She saw that he, though not Apache, could benefit from the healing her foods can bring.
She cheers his family tradition. “Yeah!” she exclaims, beaming.
“The recipe came from Mexico,” he says, churning a nest. “The new generation, they don’t know what the hell it is.”
She nods in agreement, palming her hunting stick. “It’s a new generation of people.”
Five hunters flank a prickly pear as the sun lifts toward 10 a.m., raking and spearing at a gloscho nest with long salt cedar sticks. Cassadore, her cousin Marlowe, Jesse Norman, Chris McIntosh, and Frank Amado work beyond the bounds of an idle salt cedar stick that Cassadore placed at the end of her previous hunt, marking which nests have been checked recently. As they attempt to disrupt the woodrat — who may not even be home, who may be in any of the field’s countless nests, whose three-to-five-year natural life is under graver threat with each voluminous crunch — the teamwork of the hunters calcifies. They swap observations and strategy, re-angle to obstruct tiny rodent escape lanes.
Nothing in this nest!
“If we look around, he’s probably at his other home,” Cassadore says.
The four Apaches and one Vietnam vet relax their grips, move to another stick den.
With Cassadore and her cousin joking in Apache, the five start to prod a nest in a massive prickly pear about six feet long. As the hunters work the black rubble around the cactus, the clean smell starts to more resemble soil, moist soil. As the hunters pulp cactus and strike clay, the odor of deep earth infuses the cool morning air, almost like a teabag does hot water.
Nothing in this nest, either!
So far, the gloscho haven’t been home. Or have been, but have been too quick to bolt. Much of the difficulty that ancient foodways face stems from how they predate the fast magic of grocery stores, machine-cooled ice, and modern supply chains. Wild foods follow the slow wheeling of the sun and stars. They track the subtle rhythms of the living earth. Scarcity can be abundant, and true abundance takes time.
Given the dearth of gloscho and the unseasonable warmth, Cassadore fears the gloscho season has passed earlier than she has ever seen. So the hunters fan out, dividing to multiply the number of nests they can reach. After a few moments, the party condenses again on a wide gloscho nest, one marked by an ancient Sprite can. Right away, Cassadore spies fresh scat.
And then McIntosh freezes. “I see him!” Amado, the Vietnam vet, cries. “RIGHT THERE!”
All hunters ready their sticks.
“Wait, wait — hold on,” Cassadore calls, lowering hers. “I think he has a baby. Look at him,” she points. “He’s carrying his baby. See him? Leave him alone.”
“Ah, yeah, little baby,” Amado rasps. The hunters walk away.
When with students, Cassadore will lunge in for the kill anyway. This is to teach children of the digital age the ways of nature. She especially enjoys teaching traditional foodways to Apache students and to troubled younger adults. The latter can use them as a parachute, roadmap, just lunch, or all three.
Cassadore knows that, given the recent and remote past, the deck is heavily stacked against younger Apaches from the earliest days of life. Cassadore herself is proof of the obstacles, and openly talks about them so that others may learn, or simply draw the courage to speak.
She talks about her drug abuse. Soon, too, she talks about more. “I was sexually assaulted before I even attended kindergarten,” Cassadore openly says, her luminous optimism dimming. “This is something we never will talk about. Many on the rez have gone through this.”
For 40 years, she didn’t tell anyone about her sexual abuse, which continued “throughout her childhood.” Today, she takes younger Apaches to hunt and harvest, many with trauma not unlike hers. Today, she goes door-to-door through the reservation representing Native Mothers Against Meth Use, an entity she founded, offering to talk and sharing dry-climate seeds, which gracious recipients have planted into fledging backyard gardens. But once upon a time, her own scars had her down on her life. Dark times came.
While she was in the grip of them, Cassadore was taken by a band of tribal elders to sacred places in the mountains on the San Carlos and White Mountain reservations, to Mount Turnbull and Mount Graham, Mount Baldy and the Aravaipas. There, they told her that she was Apache, that she belonged. Moved, she reshuffled life’s priorities, embracing the old Apache foods of her youth, the time when she knew the most joy. She soon learned that this joy was a reservoir that timeless foodways allowed her to plumb. Cassadore says she has been drug-free since 2002. “Listening to elders helped me get back and understand who we are,” she says. “It made me proud of who I am — being Apache, being indigenous.
“Foraging,” she says, “is what helped me heal.”
As the hunters move along probing nests that envelope paddled cactus, Cassadore halts. Heedless of the dirt painting the knees of her blue jeans, she kneels a few minutes after 10 a.m. on red soil with rampant growths of wild onions.
In the soil, she traces a stone around a tuft of onions. Dirt parts as she inscribes a tight circle, a task once done with mesquite branches. It parts the way the ghosts of the past can part for her when searching for the three wild onion species that grow here. Carving deep, she plucks the tuft, each head the size of a small garlic clove.
Cassadore learned of new wild onion species through elders. The Elders Cultural Advisory Council, an entity of Apaches who realized their culture was eroding, formed in 1993, has logged more than 100 oral interviews with elders from the four tribes of Western Apacheria. Cassadore has access to these records, and a Centers for Disease Control grant has given her the financial oxygen to dive into her work full-time. (Since 2014, the CDC has granted $78 million to 35 tribes to help combat Native health crises.) Cassadore prefers to study interviews with elders raised by their grandparents, which provide a more direct link to the deep past.
She compares Apache food traditions to a 5,000-year-old Emory oak tree, the kind that grows on Apache land. “In the early 1800s, everything was healthy,” she says. “There was no climate change. There was no pollution. Today, you’re looking at development, pollution, mining. They’re taking groundwater. The Emory oaks are dying.”
“Alcohol, drugs, addiction,” she says. “One hundred years in the future, we’re not going to have our identity.”
She believes that San Carlos Apache foodways have fractured because of three primary disruptors, each so entwined they can’t be fully extricated from the others: colonization by the West, spraying along the river, and generational apathy.
When studying the written interviews, Cassadore looks for wisdom about Apache foods on the event horizon, customs on the fringe of present memory. When possible, Cassadore cross-references knowledge she uncovers with elders still living. In follow-ups, she seeks factual confirmation, stories, and all details she can.
Based on what she learned from tunneling into two elder interviews in particular, she went out among the prickly pear and gloscho nests, discovered onion species, and now shares them with those she teaches. Similarly, she learned of a purple flower from the White Mountain elders, one that Apaches once ate raw or in stews. She learned how to gather certain acorns from certain trees, and which acorn trees to avoid. She learned about the time and place of spring mountain strawberries. She learned when to harvest the tall stalk that sprouts from agave, to be sliced thin and fried into chips or baked into pie. And she learned about red grass seeds milled for oatmeal-like mush or bread, a seed now her favorite grain. From studying interviews, she has learned the secrets of plants and animals, roots and bark, sun and rain.
“My job is to infuse that knowledge back into the culture before it’s lost,” she says.
Cassadore plucks another fistful of onions. These will be charred over the fire with the gloschos, once caught, if caught. Brushing away dirt and denuding the bulb of its scraggly fibers, she drops one full bulb into her mouth. They have a slow-rising, grassy pungency high in the throat. It sizzles in your nose a little, almost like wasabi.
“There’s a little more than 240 wild food species that you can eat throughout the seasons,” Cassadore says.
“There’s never Taco Tuesday out here. You can imagine people a long time ago just sitting out here doing this all day.”
A shout bursts her reverie.
Cassadore stands. She rushes a few dozen feet to the noise. McIntosh issues another truncated cry, thrusting his cedar stick into a nest wrapping a prickly pear, silent as a phantom, looking coiled with speed in his black sweatshirt. Cassadore pokes from the plant’s other side. “I saw him hop almost like a rabbit!” she shouts.
Just then, a fat gloscho shoots out like a shaky missile.
“He ran toward you!” she calls to the Vietnam vet, prodding that nest. “That way!”
The gloscho scuttles downhill toward the stick nest by Amado. As the woodrat darts under, the Vietnam vet strikes one blow.
“I got him!” Amado calls.
“All right!” Cassadore shouts. “You got him!”
But the gloscho is pinned to the earth alive. Silently, McIntosh circles to Amado, who is locking his arms to keep the rat under the stick. “Just go ahead and hit his head, Chris,” Cassadore says to McIntosh. “You’re gonna smash his head down.”
McIntosh gets into position beside Amado, who stands still as a monument. The young Apache deftly raises his stick, aims with his eyes, and strikes, strikes, strikes, strikes, strikes. Crunches of dead sticks, dry cactus. The skull caves.
The hunters retrieve their first gloscho, dragging him out from under wavering spines.
By the time the hunters cross the old dirt wagon road and start in the other field, it is past 11 a.m. The field on this side has more yucca and dwarf mesquite trees. Close to the ground, the yucca blades are the jade color of the semiprecious stone peridot, some 90 percent of which comes from San Carlos mines. Once again, the men and Cassadore are fanned out, spread wide. Some hunt things deeper than meat.
Back on the old dirt wagon road up from the San Carlos River, a truck raises dust.
Seeing its approach, Cassadore makes for the road. The truck nears and stops. Had it kept going past the hunters on the wagon road, as its driver often does, it would have traveled on toward Cassadore Springs, named after local San Carlos Apache leader Chief Cassadore, Twila’s great-great grandfather.
“Hey!” Cassadore says to Irene Martinez, the young Apache woman who emerges.
Martinez steps into the field. “Hi, it’s so beautiful out here!”
“You doing okay?” Cassadore says. “You got water with you?”
She does. As a forester for the tribe, Martinez stays ready. Cassadore hands her a stick and she joins the hunt.
Leaving the dirt road, Cassadore and Martinez assay nests in prickly pear and yucca stands. Cassadore believes that the hunt and other timeless food practices can guide the Apaches of Martinez’s rising generation.
“It brings a sense of purpose, a little bit of a connection to something,” Cassadore says. “And that’s what a lot of young people are missing. It makes them feel like they belong.”
The restorative power of traditional foodways, Cassadore believes, stems from deeper belonging, immersion in nature, and other factors less tangible than the chemical nutrients in plants and animals. Part of their medicinal magic comes from plugging your twanging life back into natural, nonhuman life cycles. “Every living thing has purpose in our life,” Cassadore says. “Human beings have forgotten about the rest of this whole life. Life is every being.”
As the two Apache women hunt, the teaching and healing components braid. In educating about ancient plants and animals, Cassadore offers wisdom, belonging, restoration, and hope — not only to those with tragic ailments and trauma, but also to Apaches who simply need respite from the ravages of everyday life.
The quiet and neglected plight of the San Carlos Apache can be traced to the first disruption: colonization. A young, hungry United States started to expand southwestward in the wake of gold rushes and railroad-laying in the 19th century. Linguistic evidence (Western Apache’s closeness to the languages of tribes in Western Canada and Alaska) suggests that the Apache migrated to the Southwest about a millennium ago. In any case, they were in the path of Mexican and American expansion. As the 19th century marched on, Mexico put a bounty on Apache scalps (100 pesos per male 14 and older), and the U.S. forced the Western Apache onto the San Carlos Reservation, created in 1871.
“Before contact, people were very balanced with the land with hunting, eating, and foraging,” Cassadore says. “They followed various seasons all throughout the year. When the reservation was developed, that minimized the ability to go out and forage and things. People weren’t allowed to hunt, because if you passed a certain boundary, you would be shot.”
Today, the San Carlos Reservation has expanded to 45,000 times its original size. It ranges from alpine to desert to grassland, harboring the ponderosa pines of the southern Rockies and the saguaro cactus, thumbprint of the Sonoran. Some 15,000 Apaches live on the reservation, where the poverty rate is 40 percent to the rest of Arizona’s 15 percent, and where capitalism forced people to get jobs detached from the land, including Cassadore’s parents. Cassadore estimates that today some 80 percent of San Carlos Apache have been affected by methamphetamine, a figure that includes her family and most others.
For Western Apache, life has been difficult. Addiction. Poverty. Health epidemics. Identity crises. Stories that keep quiet. A present divorced from the past.
“I am a seed carrier,” Cassadore says. “And as a seed carrier, I can’t blame society. But me, how do I transfer that knowledge to my children and the people in the community who want to learn? So, we’re planting seeds.”
She plants them by continuing to add to a database of Apache foods that began with the formation of the elders council, building on the efforts of like-minded Apaches who came before, like tribal botanist Seth Pilsk. The database is open to members of the four Western Apache tribes.
She also takes her children and grandchildren on gloscho hunts in the winter, as her parents once took her, and to gather desert mulberries and cactus strawberries in the spring.
And so Cassadore plants more seeds as they hunt on this March morning, teaching Martinez that hunters once tied slain gloscho to their hunting sticks using yucca fibers. She talks about the Apache of old, who dried locust tree buds and flowers, worked acorns into jerky, harvested lamb’s quarters and pigweed, and stuffed deer with wild onions. She talks about her best hunter, a young girl who was abused similarly to the way Cassadore once was, a girl who can bag 10 gloscho in a single morning. She talks about the need to look beyond Western medicine to what she can find in places like the gloscho field, beyond the pill capsule and to the steady doses of sun and plants and primordial land.
In turn, Martinez notes that the flowers shouldn’t be blooming so vividly just yet. Alarmed, the forester says that the jojoba shouldn’t be budding in the earliest days of March; climate change has buffaloed plants into monsoon season behavior months ahead of time.
Quietly and alone, a dozen yards from Cassadore and Martinez, Chris McIntosh bags the day’s last gloscho. On the whole, the party has slain just two desert woodrats. Cassadore posits that our warming planet may have a shorter gloscho season.
Cassadore hoists the lifeless rat by the tail. “Here, Irene!”
Martinez takes the rodent.
“You put it in the pot just like that,” Cassadore says.
Cringing, Martinez hurries away. “You’re getting braver every time,” Cassadore grins after her.
Martinez keeps walking in the direction of southern mountains, peaks still clinging to a recent snow, but, more closely, toward the cook fire 40 yards distant — into the smell of wood smoke that hits like an ashy wave.
The cook fire is half-ringed with a horseshoe of stones. The flames are healthy, leaping from a pile of salt cedar sticks and cactus parts under a warm midday sun. Flames bathe an iron grate, heating wild onions laid on one half, boiling water on the other, fire licking up the pot sides, turning them matte black.
The two gloscho hang immobile at the water's surface, bobbing with the boil.
“You know how people buy frozen turkey, and it has that little red thing on it that pops up when it’s done?” Cassadore says. “Well, for us, it’s when the tail falls off. That’s when it’s done.”
It takes 30 to 40 minutes for the tail to fall off. In the meantime, the hunters stand by metal chairs placed between the fire and the dirt road, enervated from the hunt and the rising heat of the day. They face — over a stretch of prickly pear, yucca, and dwarf mesquite — a saguaro-serrated mesa blotting out the eastern horizon.
Standing away from the group, Cassadore rakes the fire with her hunting stick. She crunches smaller sticks and adds them and stirs again, clattering tinder, raising flames.
“You gotta smell this onion,” she calls to Martinez. “They smell so good roasted.”
She passes an onion, char mottling its white bulb. “You can eat the whole thing,” Cassadore says. “It’s good in a pasta dish.”
Soon, the first tail pulls off.
Cassadore pours water into a metal bowl. She transfers the first woodrat to the water. With her fingers, she shimmies off its wet fur, which slips away like a tight coat. She then gently breaks off the head, tosses it aside. As she separates the gloscho into its parts, the clear water turns turgid, the color of ramen broth. The group, now eight after a late arrival, hungrily gathers around.
Cassadore lays a tiny, pearlescent leg on a cutting board.
“Korean barbecue!” somebody jokes.
Martinez speaks, “I think pack rats get a bad name from —”
“Colonization?” Cassadore interjects. “If I ever open a cafe, I would actually serve this.”
She places a second leg on the board. She places two more legs attached to thighs.
“Shirley,” she says to Jesse Norman’s mom, who recently parked, “did your family eat this?”
“Yeah,” Shirley answers. “My boys did, Jess did, when he was smaller.” She adds, “The way Trump is doing things, we’ll all be eating this.”
Martinez nods. “We’ll be healthier, though.”
“I think that this is what gives you a long life,” Shirley Norman says, the jest gone from her tone. “Did you know that some of the native foods we eat increase energy?”
“Yeah, I believe so,” Cassadore says.
Somebody says something about people in their 50s and 60s having more disabilities than older people who grew up eating wild foods. Somebody else chimes in with an observation that settles in with a chill: Nobody used to die until they were old.
“This stuff right here, with the energy she was saying?” says Amado, the Vietnam veteran, bounding into a pause. “We ought to get a bunch of them and give them to the Phoenix Suns, so they could win some games.”
Cassadore doles out the gloscho. She usually serves it with salsa she crushes from barrel cactus fruit, nopales, wild onions, and desert sumac. But not today, as the early morning got away from her before she could blend a sauce. So the hunters eat the gloscho plain, without even salt. They gnaw at tiny limbs, picking pale-pink flesh from dainty bones. It tastes like dark-meat turkey with an echo of snake or alligator, but leaner than dark poultry parts and longer-lasting. The flesh is hot and tender, with a vibe of chicken soup but transmuted to the eastern Arizona grasslands. Once, in metro Phoenix, Cassadore cooked gloscho as one of the vendors at a 300-person event. She had the longest line.
The fire leaps with less energy now. Prickly pear is visible in the shimmering air over the pot, which throws off a wide, continuous tube of smoke that spills in the wind. Black climbs up the steel. People chew, laugh, and talk. Smoke tilts and pours away so thickly that it casts fleet, dancing shadows that tumble over the raw clay and thin grass.
All gloscho eaten, some hunters say goodbye. Some get into their trucks, pull away. But a few stay to pick wild onions, back across the dirt road, miles beyond the river valley and riparian town once sprayed by U.S. planes, west of the now-low fire, where the wild allium grows like grass in a purple-flowered field.
But first, Cassadore walks back to the fire.
“My job is to infuse knowledge back into the community before it’s completely lost,” she had said earlier, driving her white truck to the hunting ground. “It’s a lot of work. It takes away from my family. And that’s where it’s kind of hard — because I love what I do, and I see the importance of it, and seeing more people catch on to what to learn is really good, because they can help the next group of people.”
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With Martinez and McIntosh looking on, Cassadore dumps turgid water onto the fire. It splutters out with a violent hissing, pluming thick smoke curtains. When the smoke thins some, she stirs the cauterized wood and cactus matter with her hunting stick, working within the burnt bounds of the rock parabola, the cinders now hissing low.
At last, Twila Cassadore lifts a pebble from the earth. She raises it to her forehead. Holding it aloft at breast level, she shuts her eyes and speaks: “Thank you Mother Earth. Thank you for the food.”
She tosses the pebble into the ashes.
Later, Cassadore will scatter the arc of stones. Later, she will move the stick marking the bounds of the latest gloscho hunt forward, reflecting today. And then the land will be, this wild part of it at least, but for global warming, quiet stories, and loud ghosts, just as it was 1,000 years before.