This is a question I get from family and friends, and even myself. Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest of the United States of America, I thought I had no interest in an area that has little water, endless sun, and ridiculous heat. I've never been a sun worshipper and I actually like rainy days.
Well, Katie and I just finished a five-month stay in the community of Cascabel this spring and we loved it, but how to convey why is what now puzzles me. I use the term community, because there is no town, no post office, no services other than electricity and phone, and even the rumor of a ghost town is basically non-existent. It is a collection of residents who live along the 30 miles of the lower/middle San Pedro River Valley and in Hot Springs Canyon. Others have written about its quirkiness (see: The Exotic Birds of Cascabel
), but that isn’t necessarily the attraction for me.
I've come up with two main points:
- The Land: The role of the San Pedro River watershed in the western American continent.
- The people who live there.
It is the combination of both that makes the place so compelling.
The San Pedro River
is considered the last major free-flowing “wild” river in the American Desert Southwest. It runs south to north with its headwaters in Sonora, Mexico and empties into the Gila River near Winkelman, AZ. Many areas of the river are intermittent and only flow during monsoon season or if there is melting snow in the mountains.
The Upper San Pedro River in Arizona (from the border with Mexico to Benson) has been recognized for its role in the migration and nesting of neotropical birds with the establishment of the San Pedro River National Conservation Area (SPRNCA) in 1988. Much of that area currently has water year around and is well known for its spring migration.
The Lower San Pedro River Valley runs from around Benson north through San Manuel between the Rincon, Galiuro, and Santa Catalina mountains. “Cascabel" makes up about 30 miles of that stretch.
Cascabelan Daniel Baker helped author a paper (See: Lower San Pedro Habitat Connectivity Paper
) that digs into the characteristics of the Lower San Pedro River Valley that foster biodiversity while still supporting a limited human population. The south to north run of the river valley provides a well used migratory pathway for numerous avian species. The unfragmented landscape, as defined in the paper, helps connect the diverse mammal and avian populations of the various sky islands
such as the Rincon and Galiuro mountains. It is also an ecotone (a region of transition between two biological communities) between the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. The combination of all of these characteristics create a rich ecology of biodiversity that will only increase in value, as our world continues to change, by providing a place for so many forms of life to continue to flourish.
From our first weeklong visit four years ago through our two longer stays over the past three years, we continue to meet more and more of the people who have lived in Cascabel most of their life or have fallen in love with this desert land and made it their home (or one of their homes). It is a very diverse population, at least in perspective, if not in race. From ranchers to those trying to escape the toxicity of modern life (both mental and physical). From the well-to-do to some with little to their name. Researchers, botanists, artists, writers, builders, medical professionals........the list goes on. As a friend put it, “We’ve got one of everything here.” The common thread, though, is the land. While there is a wide range of opinions about the land, the land ties them together.
That thread that connects so many of the residents up and down the 30-mile stretch results in a very different community than I’ve experienced. As someone who has visited three times--granted two of them were for weeks or months at a time--I know a majority of the folks who live along this stretch. This has happened through the various organizations such as the Cascabel Community Center
(hosting many events like talks on rattlesnakes and local fauna, discussions of end-of-life issues, movie nights, music, etc...), Cascabel Conservation Association (CCA
) (running the community garden, hermitages, and other conservation efforts), and the Saguaro Juniper Ranch
(raising sustainable beef and practicing regenerative agriculture). But mostly through the multiple coffees and potluck events that happen each week. Like all small communities, there are factions and feuds and hurt feelings, but that thread still ties them together.
Many of the residents recognize the value the area has in itself without resorting to the extraction of resources or capitalizing on real estate "gold mining" to create value. This was demonstrated through the recent acquisition of the Cascabel Confluence
property by the Cascabel Conservation Association. Once the word got out that the CCA was raising money to purchase the property, donations were rolling in before an official appeal letter was sent out. While not everyone saw the need for CCA to take this action, many others saw the value the parcel already had in fostering local biodiversity, and putting it under CCA management makes it accessible to the community while allowing it to continue in that role.
Wildlife is generally welcomed and even encouraged on people’s property through such things as wildlife watering stations. A video of a bobcat shared on the community email list will be greeted with enthusiasm instead of fear. Even after the acknowledgement that someone's goat was probably taken by a mountain lion it is seen as part of life there. Many follow the Saguaro Juniper Covenant
, whether officially or not, who’s preamble is:
In acquiring private governance of land, we agree to cherish its earth, waters, plants, and animals in a way that promotes the health, stability, and diversity of the whole community. This entails attentive stillness to meet and know the land as an active presence. It entails study, observation, shared reflection, and cumulative corporate experience to increase and bequeath our understanding of ecosystem health, stability, and diversity. It entails symbiotic naturalization into the land community - a communion of actual nurture and shelter. As elaborated by these entailments, fully accountable governance - stewardship - is the distinctively human way of bonding into one society with all who share in the land's life, which is the foundation for instituting a biocentric ethic among humankind.
It’s the Land and the People
It is the congruence of the land and the people, personal bonds with the community, and the chance to explore low-impact living that will keep us coming back to Cascabel. The community has welcomed us in and even though we are still “outsiders” we don’t feel that way while there. There are a number of changes that are in process there and we hope to stay involved whether or not we are physically there at any one time. We value the role of the land in the broader ecosystem and want to work towards promoting that by continuing to work with organizations like Saguaro Juniper and Cascabel Conservation Association. We value the people and look forward to our continued communion with them from near and far.