Gary Paul Nabhan, The Desert Smells Like Rain

I don't remember when I first heard of Gary Paul Nabhan: possibly something Keith Basso said or wrote, possibly in one of Michael Pollan's books, I don't know anymore. His most recent books have focused mostly (though not entirely) on food in the modern world, so I'm really pleased that I started instead with The Desert Smells Like Rain: A Naturalist in Papago Indian Country. Reviews like this one, of his Coming Home to Eat, come across as awfully naive when Nabhan's comments are read in relation to their original context, so I'm pleased to have accidentally started at the beginning.

This short book, only an overture and ten brief chapters, manages in spite of its brevity to comprise a few different books. Nabhan's a very perceptive naturalist, so in the discussion of oases, for example, we get enough detail about bird counts (both species and individuals) to understand his point about the relationships between birds and humans: there are more birds where there's some human use of the land, because humans generate additional diversity both in landforms and in vegetation. But he's also a talented ethnographer, so he offers up some nuanced comments from children, from elders, from outsiders, and from insiders. But then again, he's outside his home space, so he's got to take us travelling with him, getting the thorns into our own sleeves, so to speak.

Dating from 1982, The Desert Smells Like Rain feels a little bit dated now, but it's a gem of a book. Nabhan's description of the ceremonial drinking and vomiting of saguaro wine carries particular weight, encapsulating and complicating as it does so many stereotypes of First Nations peoples, but I was also really impressed by his description of how the traditional Papago diet may connect with Papago genetics to predispose these people toward diabetes.

Through it all, though, I felt like I was kind of there. Nabhan's experiences there remain inaccessible to me, and I can't imagine I'll ever be fortunate enough to have enough time on my hands to do what he did, but Papago country - materially, psychically - is within my imagination now, and that's the mark of a really good nature writer.


theresa said…
I wonder if you've read Ellen Meloy, Richard? The Anthropology of Turquoise might be an interesting companion to The Desert Smells Like Rain.
richard said…
Thanks for the reference, Theresa. I haven't read Ellen Meloy yet, though she's been on my radar for a while, much like Nabhan has been. I'll see if I can find The Anthropology of Turquoise to add to my summer desert reading!
Anonymous said…
Hi - Jasmine here, a student from the department. I found your blog by way of Yeltnuh's Twitter (I used to work for her when she taught E147). I hope you don't mind if I embark on an ongoing reading of your blog - it's very good.

I liked your Maps and Dreams post, for example. Have you seen: It has some ongoing news and stories from and for the same Nation that Brody worked with.
richard said…
Read on, Jasmine! I'm always glad to see someone reading (or interested in reading) what I've been working through.

And yes, I do know the Virtual Museum site -- it's got some pretty great stuff, definitely.
Anonymous said…
Bon, merci! (What's life w/o a little code-switching?)


Popular Posts