PSTX Seal

An Overview

Thank you. I've really looked forward to moderating this session and to working with this distinguished panel in talking about such a vital subject—the land.

I wanted to set the tone for today's discussion by telling you a personal story about my own understanding and awareness of the land. I began my career as a cultural anthropologist, and I worked in northern Arizona among some of the Indian tribes there. And in 1982 I moved from Flagstaff to Phoenix, which was a huge change for me.

I don't know how much you know about Arizona, but Flagstaff is at 7,000 feet in a beautiful pine forest. It's a great place to live. Those of us who lived in Flagstaff thought of Phoenix as essentially the hellhole to the south. Phoenix was in the Sonoran Desert, and in our language the word "desert" tends to mean an empty and barren place. Having grown up in the Midwest, that's essentially how I looked at the desert.

When I moved to Phoenix,  my job was to put together a major exhibition at Phoenix's museum of anthropology called the Heard Museum, and my specific assignment was putting together an exhibit called Native Peoples of the Southwest. So as a part of that process, I began to talk to and interact with a number of people from that region.

One day I was sitting around a table with a group of elders from the Tohono O’odham tribe and talking about the exhibit we wanted to prepare. I kept saying that we wanted to describe "how you all survive in the desert," and I used that phrase several times. Finally, one of the elders looked at me very sternly across the table, raised his hand, and stopped me. "Dr. Breunig," he said, "we don't survive in the desert. The desert is our home. We live here."

Well, at that moment I just wanted to slide under the table. But it was one of those moments when you really come to understand something more profoundly. What I then understood was that the Tohono O’odham are people of the desert, and this is reflected in their very word for themselves—Tohono, desert; O’odham, people. They had lived for a thousand years in that desert, and they had a deep and intimate understanding of the land of the desert. To them, it was not an empty, barren place where they had to "survive," but a rich and beautiful place. In fact their word for desert is "bright and shining place."

They knew of 300 species of plants that they could use for food alone. And when we think of people who come out of hunting and gathering traditions, we think of them simply wandering around the environment, grabbing something here and grabbing something there.

But that is not the case. Their knowledge was much more intimate, and they had to know how to be at exactly the right place at the right time. Certain foods became available within a very short frame of time. They also had to know exactly how to get the food and how to process it. This was knowledge that was accumulated over a very, very long time.

I thought about the fact that I now was living in the desert too, and I thought about the implications of that concept on my own life. I thought about my upbringing in Indianapolis, Indiana, and what I learned about that land when I was growing up. Now, don't get me wrong. I went to a very fine school. I took biology classes, and I learned some basic things. But I have to admit that I did not have any intimate knowledge of the particular landscape in which I grew up.

I think that's also true for most of today's young people. We are living in a culture that is essentially disconnected from the land, one that does not have a particularly deep and intimate knowledge of the land. I'd like to suggest that this is a problem because it leads us to make bad decisions about the land, and it causes us to look at the land in ways that may ultimately be damaging to it.

This comes across to me in simple little ways. For example, I'm working with some people here in Austin on a development project, and I always recoil somewhat when they start describing the land as, “Well, that's the dirt out there, and we're going to put so many units on the dirt.”

That particular land that they're talking about is essentially critical for the quality of the water for the city of Austin. That land is alive, and does a lot of basic things. It performs what we call ecosystem functions. If the land is disturbed, damaged, or destroyed, it can't do those things for us. Then we have a decline in the water quantity and water quality, and we're subject to more flooding.

So we've got to see the land in a different way and understand that it does things for us that have fundamental value. These things are so basic, have gone on for so long, and are so much a part of everything around us that we don't even see them anymore. And, therefore, we don't value them. We have to recognize that value and bring it into our equations and into our understanding.

I actually have a great deal of hope for the future because, in my work at the Wildflower Center, I see that young people, in particular, have an enormous amount of interest in the land and in interacting with it. Some of our young staff at the Wildflower Center—Steve Windhager, the director of our restoration program, was mentioned earlier—see the land as something to be interacted with, to be actively involved with in terms of restoration, not something to be simply preserved or set aside.

I want to predict that in the last half of this century a major part of the activity of this culture will be in restoring and rehabilitating land that we have lost and degraded because it will be essential to do so to restore the ecosystem functions and to maintain the health of our land, our economy, and ourselves. So I'm hopeful for the future.

I'd like to close my remarks with a quote from my friend Lady Bird Johnson, who has this to say on the last page of her book Wildflowers across America: "Saving our legacy of wildflowers"—and I would add the grasses in which the wildflowers grow—"is something that I am convinced can be accomplished with the right combination of workable ideas and citizens with spirit. How much poorer our world would be without this bounty." And how true that is.

"I think of the words of an old Texas Ranger, written in 1875, 'All of western Texas was a real frontier and for one who loved nature and God's own creation, it was a paradise on earth. In the springtime one could travel for hundreds of miles on a bed of flowers. Sometimes they came up to my stirrups. Oh, how I wish I had the power to describe the wonderful country as I saw it then.'"

Then Mrs. Johnson goes on to say, "For my seven grandchildren and everybody else's, I hope we can keep a part of that vision in our public and private landscapes. In our quest for a better future, I have faith that an appreciation for the values of the past and for the beauty and health of this natural world we all share will be high on our agenda." And I too hope that it is high on our agenda.

One of the things that I hear a lot here in Texas is "We Texans love our land." I've been wondering exactly what that means. So we invited Laura Jackson, who has thought a lot about this question and is also an old friend and colleague from my days at the Desert Botanical Garden, to address us on the subject of what it means to love the land.