• U.S.

In New Mexico: Desert Healer

8 minute read
Gretel Ehrlich

| Allan Savory pads across the New Mexican desert followed by 30 ranchers, cowboys and range conservationists. We’ve come to Albuquerque for an intensive six-day workshop on the holistic management of natural resources: land, water, livestock and wildlife. Savory’s special genius is combining high-minded idealism with thoroughgoing practicality, and he has a nose for generating profit in the process. His penchant for common sense is constantly fired by an indignation at how we have neglected our lands. “Nobody seems to care,” he says, “and all the remedies have fallen short.”

Slim and lithe in khaki pants, he moves like a deer over the desert floor — not surprising since he spent his first 40 years in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) as a wildlife biologist and tracker. “I slept on the ground most of my life,” he told me. “No tent. Only a tarpaulin in case it rained. One night I woke up with a rhino sniffing my body. I just lay quietly. Another time I found a lion had eaten a whole cow next to me while I lay sleeping.” He looks at his students and instructors, then out across the dry landscape. “Over 223 million acres have suffered from severe desertification, and more are threatened,” he says. “Deteriorating grasslands create all sorts of problems. Plant species die out; erosion occurs; watersheds dry up; animals, birds and insects go elsewhere because there’s nothing to eat, and so the earth is no longer replenished by their nutrients.”

Stopping to touch a clump of dead bunchgrass, he looks up at us. “Only the whole is reality,” he says. Thunderclouds wheel over the Sandia Mountains but bring no rain. It is 95 degrees F in the shade. We’ve been brought to a piece of land on the outskirts of Albuquerque and asked why very little is growing here. We measure the distance between plants, look for new seedlings, identify animal tracks, examine the watershed. The soil surface is hard-capped and smooth — no water can penetrate. The anthills are empty, and under the ground there are no worms. Only the tracks of jackrabbits and kangaroo rats mark the land. We’re told this was once a cow pasture knee high in grass. The owners hunted antelope and quail here, and their steers were taken to market fat. Then we are told, “The city set aside this land 30 years ago for urban development and took the livestock off. It suffers from too much rest. The ecological functioning of water, minerals, plants and animals has been disrupted.”

Only the whole is reality; every act has a consequence in nature.

Gradually, the riddle of how grassland becomes a desert unravels. It is most often believed to be ruined by overgrazing, but it can be abused by no grazing at all. “Grazing, like the use of rest, fire or technology, is only a tool applied by a human. You must look at the context, understand the landscape as a whole, observe keenly day by day and change your plans accordingly.”

Looking pensive, Allan sits on a sandy mound and puts his feet in a dry gully. He presses his hands together in a solemn way, though he’s well known for what he calls his cutting Rhodesian humor. He’s stirred up purist environmentalists as well as diehard “ag-biz” academics with his paradoxical proposal to restore desertified lands with the very creatures who overgrazed them in the first place, namely cattle and sheep. “Overgrazing is a function of time, not numbers of animals. One cow can overgraze a 1,000-acre pasture just as badly as 1,000 cows can, if left there long enough.”

Savory proposes continually moving dense herds of livestock over the land. We are shown the beneficial effects at another site: how trampling breaks up the soil and breaks off dead growth from plants, creating a “litter,” or mulch, for seedlings. Plants are grazed only once, not over and over, and recover easily.

“But holistic management isn’t a grazing system, for god’s sake, and I’m no guru!” Allan exclaims, driving back from the field trip on a bumpy road. Later he looked a big-buckled rancher in the eye and said, “We spend too much time on all this bull about grazing and fencing. We’re at the end of the rope here. We’ve got to start thinking in different terms, something beyond production . . . it has to be about caring.”

All week we talk watersheds and financial planning, plant physiology and human creativity, mineral cycles and animal populations, species complexity and energy flows, transects and solar dollars. It becomes clear that the real crisis in agriculture is not high interest rates and low market prices but a damaged and diminishing resource. “Unsound resource management is universal,” Allan says. The 2-in. by 3-in. plastic card we’re given, called the Holistic Resource Management Model, is a memory aid in helping us think out daily management problems. Using it, we have no choice but to change our goals from the usual quick fix to ones that refer to and reflect the basic processes of the ecosystem.

“The model is elegant and simple,” says Chris Block, a student from Gilroy, Calif. “Very quickly you see that if you take a reductionist view toward a problem, you’re apt to improve one situation to the detriment of others. It begs us to think of each part in terms of the whole.”

Thus disciplined, Allan Savory would have us walk in the direction of life: toward biological fecundity, toward intimacy with the land, and away from the idea of human dominance over nature. During a question-and-answer period, Lani Benz, a strapping blond who runs a yearling outfit in eastern Colorado, asks about moving cattle through pastures where she has noticed birds nesting on the ground. “I’m afraid those nests will get tromped, and I don’t want that,” she says. Not the kind of concern one would expect from people whose livelihoods are at stake, but with Savory’s encouragement, no detail in the natural scheme of things is overlooked. “We’re managing for ecological complexity,” Savory reminds us.

During the week, a unique warmth quickly develops among us, because we’re here to save our skins as well as the skin of the world. If we marveled at the idea of successional complexity — plant and animal vigor, variety, and regeneration — we’re just as pleased to find that same quality among ourselves. In a get-to-know-one-anot her session, Juan Davis, a cherubic ranch manager from West Texas, reveals that a bout with childhood cancer made him aspire to be the best at his work. John Nino, the great-grandson of Italian immigrants to central California, runs a large Brahman cattle ranch by himself and for fun ropes four nights a week. Mohammed Talbi, a Tunisian villager educated in France, works for the Arid Land Institute in North Africa. Ron Lister arrived in Arizona three weeks before the workshop began with $40 in his pocket and a flat tire, and had never cowboyed. Mary Caldwell, sixtyish, has whittled a piece of wood into a horse during the week, and says she does all the riding on her ranch while her husband stays at home. Savory’s Center for Holistic Resource Management also works with the U.N., the Navajo nation, the countries of Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Mexico, Zimbabwe and Algeria and, over a crisis hot line, a group of farmers in Texas.

Late in the day, sitting in the backyard of his adobe house, Savory is by turns fierce, edgy, raw and soft. His hair is graying, his eyebrows growing shaggy, and recent personal sorrows are taking a toll on his face. “Those eight years I was in Parliament in Rhodesia, I had a house in the bush, and I’d fly home between sessions. The house had no doors or windows. Didn’t believe in them. Animals came and went as they pleased. My children and I lived quite wildly there.”

He stops to rub his shoulder. A racial egalitarian in his own country and the veteran of African wars, he was shot earlier this year in an incident of racial violence while camping near Albuquerque. He shrugs. “I once said I’d shoot every bloody cow and rancher I came across. I thought unless we got rid of them, the whole world would become desert. But that kind of solution was wrong and counterproductive. Simplicity is the only thing I defend. I’d like to live with just a tin plate, a knife and a rifle in the African bush . . . knowing that the earth and all the watersheds were healing . . . I could die happy then.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com