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The Desert Smells Like Rain: A Naturalist in O'odham Country

4.20  ·  Rating Details  ·  165 Ratings  ·  19 Reviews
Longtime residents of the Sonoran Desert, the Tohono O'odham people have spent centuries living off the land—a land that most modern citizens of southern Arizona consider totally inhospitable. Ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan has lived with the Tohono O'odham, long known as the Papagos, observing the delicate balance between these people and their environment. Bringing O'odham vo ...more
Paperback, 148 pages
Published April 1st 2002 by University of Arizona Press (first published 1982)
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Sep 13, 2015 Joel rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Published in 1982, this is a book which primarily investigates the agricultural practices of the Tohono O'odham people (Papago Indians) of southern Arizona and the adjacent area of Mexico; practices which are well-adapted to desert conditions, but which are dying out in modern times. There are also sections of the book which explain other aspects of Tohono O'odham life, particularly religious practices; Nabhan visits and explains the meaning of a secluded cave shrine where people leave offerings ...more
Apr 01, 2008 Mariah rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The desert can be sustainable for those with the old knowledge. It is sad that the border of the US and Mexico have divided an ancient people who survived before any government help. Don't want to give too much away. This is non-fiction and a good consistent read.
Howard Mansfield
Gary Nabhan knows the Sonoran desert and the Tohono O’odham. He respects the privacy of his O’odham friends by presenting composite characters. He stays away from their very public woes – drinking, domestic violence -- and does not make a fetish of their old ways as he writes about traditional farming and ceremonies. He avoids the traps that other writers fall into when they make Indians a “social problem” or solely a bearer of a pure ancient past. I would have welcomed more depth, but The Deser ...more
Katie Hutchinson
I loved the natural first-person narration of this book. The stories are a mix of old and new, myth and science, but all are so meaningful for those of us living in the area.
Aug 23, 2014 Priscilla rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A wonderful introduction to a native peoples and their way of life, adapted to living in the desert for centuries and centuries. Fascinating scientifically as well as wonderful stories. Very well written.
Feb 13, 2012 Nancy rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed reading this one. It was written in the 1970's and so has a style that kind of takes you back. What I found quite sad is that instead of moving closer to this impressive body of knowledge, this understanding of how to live well in this beautiful, fragile, if unforgiving desert of ours, through the years we have so clearly stepped farther and farther away from not just the practice but interest of living in sync. Remeber that old folk song that has the refrain, "When will we ever ...more
Charlie Miksicek
Nov 18, 2015 Charlie Miksicek rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
Gary is one of the best natural history writers active today.
Mar 23, 2009 John rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Read this on a spring-like afternoon while staying up in the Catskills last week.

A short, beautiful book of vignettes exploring aspects of native Papago desert agriculture, from traditional harvesting of unpredictable floodwaters to food preparation practices. There's a running note of shame and sadness throughout, as Nabhan writes of the how the once large and interconnected Papago lands have become 'enclosed' and Papago health suffers as it becomes ever harder for them to maintain their tradit
This is me giving Gary Paul Nabhan his second chance...and he did beautifully. Perhaps it's because he wears his anthropological hat better than his natural science one, but this beautiful little volume gave off a genuine glow of affection for the landscape and the people in addition to his (indispensable and important) points. And there are PICTURES! Finally, someone who gets it!

So, Mr. Nabhan, I don't know what to say. Get that anthropological hat back out, I guess.
The last time I read this book was the last time I moved to the desert. It's a good place to start when learning to understand the desert. If you've experienced rain in the Sonoran Desert, you'll know exactly what the title of this book smells like.
Jun 17, 2008 Ann is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
I live near the Papago res now and of course I love this book since it's written by a naturalist. Unfortunately it was written in the 70s so many of the traditions mentioned are already history.
Molly Varley
Dec 27, 2007 Molly Varley rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Beautiful painting of the lives of the Papago Indians. I really enjoyed the rain ceremony where they make an alcoholic beverage out of saguaro fruit (the ultimate boot and rally).
Dec 20, 2011 Sarahandus rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
I'm always interested in how other folks live. Nabhan tells us a bit about the Papago culture and life, it is also a telling of the desert life.
I enjoyed this book very much.
I was hoping for more info on how the Papagos actually farmed and collected water in the desert but it was still enjoyable with many stories on all aspects of life there.
Ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan has written a beautiful prose poem of a book about the ecosystem of the Sonoran Desert and how it might be approached and appreciated.
Jun 08, 2010 Jennifer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
read this for environmental literature class. so much richness in native tradition, food, medicine. interested in more!
Angela Joyce
Jan 18, 2012 Angela Joyce rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nature
I think everyone who lives in America should read this, for starters. And then the rest of the world should as well.
Aug 09, 2011 Cyndi rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'd probably give this 3.5 stars, but I can't...
Jan 12, 2009 Julie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Offers remarkable insight about the Tohono O'odham people of the Sonoran desert. Nabhan writes in such a fluid and eloquent manner that you forget you're learning.
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Gary Paul Nabhan is an internationally-celebrated nature writer, seed saver, conservation biologist and sustainable agriculture activist who has been called "the father of the local food movement" by Utne Reader, Mother Earth News, Carleton College and Unity College. Gary is also an orchard-keeper, wild forager and Ecumenical Franciscan brother in his hometown of Patagonia, Arizona near the Mexica ...more
More about Gary Paul Nabhan...

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“I heard a young city boy ask an elderly Papago woman if, lacking a harvesting pole, one could ever collect fruit off the tall cacti by throwing rocks at the tops to knock the fruit down.

'NO!' Marquita replied with a strain of horror in her voice. 'The saguaros- they are Indians too. You don't EVER throw ANYTHING at them. If you hit them on the head with rocks you could kill them. You don't ever stick anything sharp into their skin either, or they will just dry up and die. You don't do anything to hurt them. They are Indians.”
“A Sonoran Desert village may receive five inches of rain one year and fifteen the next. A single storm may dump an inch and a half in the matter of an hour on one field and entirely skip another a few hours away. Dry spells lasting for months may be broken by a single torrential cloudburst, then resume again for several more months. Unseasonable storms, and droughts during the customary rainy seasons, are frequent enough to reduce patterns to chaos.

The Papago have become so finely tuned to this unpredictability that it shapes the way they speak of rain. It has also ingrained itself deeply in the structure of their language.

Linguist William Pilcher has observed that the Papago discuss events in terms of their probability of occurrence, avoiding any assumption that an event will happen for sure...

Since few Papago are willing to confirm that something will happen until it does, an element of surprise becomes part of almost everything. Nothing is ever really cut and dried. When rains do come, they're a gift, a windfall, a lucky break.”
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