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How agriculture destroyed the Salt River Valley


If you're a hiker, or a tree-hugger like me, and live in Phoenix, Arizona, you try to visit areas of beauty. It can be mountain views, or preserved desert land, it might even be gardens. In my life I've tried to be open-minded about buildings, and parking lots, and plowed fields, and fences, but even though I do go "urban hiking" I much prefer being away from man-made stuff. Luckily, I live in Phoenix where that beauty can still be visited, right nearby.

But I understand the need for the land to be put to better use than just beauty. Every view can't be set aside, people need places to live, to drive, to shop, to eat. If the neighborhood where I live had remained original desert, I wouldn't have a place to plug in my computer.

But I try to imagine the desert before here before it was put to practical use. My house is on the edge of the original Bartlett Ranch, now called the Sahuaro Ranch, in Glendale, which goes back to the 1890s. Before that, of course, it was virgin desert. But it was all cleared away over 100 years ago to make room for crops to be planted, or for domestic animals to graze. And the desert was destroyed here, and erased forever.

I was just reading about a pioneer in Scottsdale, Arizona in the 1800s who "cleared away the greasewood" to grow citrus. If you've ever gone hiking in the desert, you've seen greasewood, and you've especially smelled it after a rain. When I see some, I take a tiny bit of it and crunch it up to smell it, and it's wonderful. To the pioneers, it was just a weed to be cleared away. I call it creosote, and every plant you see is a clone of the original plants that formed over 10,000 years ago, making it at the same time one of the most common and one of the most exceptional plant on planet earth. You can't transplant it, it doesn't grow by seed, and when it's destroyed it's gone forever. When you see it, you're seeing an original plant of the desert which hasn't been destroyed. I have friends with gardens that integrate it, but they have to work with what's there, the plant can't be moved.

When pioneers like Winfield Scott took a look at the Salt River Valley, they saw opportunity. They saw a place where they could grow crops that would be ripe before the competition in California, and could be shipped back east quicker. They set about to destroy just about every square inch of desert that they could, to raise things like raisins, which were quite valuable at the time. Whether they saw any beauty in the desert I can't say, but I doubt they did.

If you get a chance to, talk a walk in the desert after a rain. That wonderful smell is creosote, the weed that the pioneers were anxious to clear away. That's a pic of it at the top of this post.

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