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Local Genius Award Interview with Brad Lancaster

What does the Local Genius Award mean to you?

It is an honor and an affirmation on multiple levels.

First, I’m personally honored that I’ve been recognized for my 20-plus years of pioneering work researching, innovating, implementing, teaching, promoting, and writing/publishing books about water harvesting, passive sun & shade harvesting, the growing and use of native perennial wild foods—and how I’ve strived to maximize the positive effect of these strategies by integrating and implementing them through individual and community efforts that build on and support one another. The award is a wonderful affirmation of and spotlight on the value of these efforts, their results, and the growing potential of ever more people doing likewise and beyond.

Secondly, I love that this award honors many aspects of Tucson and its genius loci or distinctive “spirit of place.” Tucson is unique in that it is the longest continuously farmed place in what is now the United States. People have been continuously farming here for over 4,000 years, despite the fact that this is a dryland environment that receives an average of only 11 inches of annual precipitation. Tucson’s farming legacy was made possible due to the Santa Cruz River’s flowing year round until the early 1900s; the groundwater table’s being much closer to the surface, feeding many springs; the 400+ native wild food plants that grow here; and a rich history among Tohono O’odham of harvesting rainwater throughout the Tucson area. Such water-harvesting practices neither degeneratively drained the rain away, nor over-extracted the groundwater with mechanical pumps, but instead regeneratively planted and invested the rain in our soils and food-bearing vegetation in a way that also helped recharge our groundwater and rivers while controlling flooding. This history, and these water-harvesting traditions, have greatly influenced me and many of my Tucson-community mentors.

Thirdly, I feel this award also recognizes the global accessibility and applicability of these practices and traditions. My work began with thriving experiments planting the rain and native food plants around my home and neighborhood just north of downtown Tucson, then celebrating and sharing the bounty. Soon thereafter, my work expanded to include designing, consulting on, & implementing on-site strategies for individuals, institutions, and cutting-edge developments to harvest and enhance resources. My award-winning book series, “Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond,” was written to document and promote the incredible effectiveness of such work (by many) here and around the world. None of this is new; these were ancient practices tweaked and reformed to work within the context of the modern built environment. Traditional ak-chin runoff farming practices that grew crops along desert arroyos informed new practices such as the planting of native perennial food forests along arroyo-like neighborhood streets, and the cutting of the street curb to allow the stormwater flowing along the street gutter to enter street-side basins and freely irrigate the street trees.

This work spawned the creation of the non-profit Desert Harvesters, which I helped co-found to shows others how to plant rain, wild native-food plants, and then harvest, enjoy and celebrate the bounty growing where they live.

Additionally the work helped inspire and inform the city of Tucson to legalize, incentivize, and require these strategies in new road and neighborhood construction via its Green Streets Policy.

The bulk of this work can be done with a shovel, so the cost to get started is no more than the price of that shovel. This means anyone can do this. And it works! Thus, I’ve been invited to speak, teach, and consult around the world. I was recently teaching farmers and NGOs in Malawi. And as I travel I continually learn from others likewise enhancing their own health and that of their place and people by working in cooperation with natural processes that enhance the ecological systems upon which all our lives depend. Its a blessing, this on-going cross pollination / sharing of ideas and practices from past, present, and Place—and it is evolving our future now.

What’s been your inspiration?

1. A desire to find and be part of solutions, rather than a contributor to problems.

2. An aim to pull those solutions from what we already have freely at hand—accessible for all.

3. Living and learning with the living systems I help to thrive. I experience what works and what does not, then evolve things accordingly. And I observe how these systems get better with time, while enhancing the health of the people interacting with them, and the place where they grow. That feels great!

Any anecdotes about what you do that you can share?

So often we already have what we need to soar. We just need to learn to see it and partner with it. This seems to be the case everywhere I go.

For example, while in Zimbabwe last week [April 2016], I worked with farmers who were struggling—seemingly due to drought. Yet what we found was that the farmers (and agricultural extension agents advising them) were unknowingly draining valuable rainfall out of their fields, rather than infiltrating that rainwater. In the process, they were also losing valuable topsoil and fertility. Thus, the farming practices in use were making the drought far worse. I experience the same thing on farms, parks, and home landscapes in the United States and throughout the world. In this case in Zimbabwe, we flipped the situation by showing the farmers how to beneficially harvest and infiltrate rainfall and runoff within their fields. And we illustrated these lessons by pointing to local water-harvesting innovators, such as those associated with the Muonde Trust, who are about to harvest their second crop of the season, while nearby farmers who are not harvesting their rainwater are still struggling just to produce their first crop of the season. Those who infiltrate their rainwater, rather than drain it, are thriving. This pattern holds true in wet years, too, as those not harvesting rainwater experience severe erosion due to unchecked runoff, while those infiltrating rainwater retain their soil.

Likewise, on a trip to the Middle East, I visited the country of Jordan and worked with people who were struggling from lack of water because the municipal water system worked only a few hours a week and the water quality was poor. Yet the landscape was peppered with long-forgotten, below-ground, Roman-era cisterns that people would discover when digging a tree hole or a building’s foundation trench. Then one day, a eureka moment occurred, and folks realized they could clean out the old cisterns, direct their roof runoff to them, and then pump the harvested water back out for use within the home. Life dramatically improved. What worked in the past again works in the present with subtle tweakings. I then shared strategies that would make that cistern water go further by showing the Jordanians how to direct their sink and shower greywater via gravity (no problematic pumps or tanks) into simple water-harvesting earthworks around their fruit trees, instead of directing that once-used water to the sewer. This cycles the water many times, instead of wastefully draining it. To enhance that water cycling we then strategized how to place those trees in relationship with the seasonally changing path of the sun, so the trees would shade out and cool the home in summer, but let in the sun and heat the home in winter—the growing of air conditioners and heaters. We also looked to direct more water into the soil itself, using the soil as a cistern and the trees as living pumps accessing that water. Fallen leaves, cut-up prunings, and kitchen compost were added to the soil, making it more sponge-like and fertile. “Wastes” turned into resources. Street runoff was also directed into those sponges, growing more life and making the roads safer in rainstorms.

I did similar work in Italy where Roman-era cisterns harvested runoff from Roman-era roads to irrigate olive orchards and grape vineyards. These systems had worked for centuries, but along the way people in the area had forgotten how to utilize the overflow water from the cisterns. We turned that overflow into a resource and spread it out into the fields and orchards with water-harvesting earthworks. Additionally, the soils lacked organic matter, yet large numbers of people were coming to the farm to learn from such hands-on workshops. So we worked on refining their site-built composting toilets to safely transform human waste into fertile humanure.

I’ve also found myself doing related work in Mexico, Wisconsin, Canada, Arkansas, Iran, Los Angeles, and other parts of Africa, in rural contexts and urban, with citizens, schools, NGOs, farmers, developers, cities and counties, etc. All this is somewhat surreal as I never dreamed I’d be doing this work so wide and far. I did not study how to do this in school, but rather in life. I simply followed a passion to address a need at home, and found help and inspiration along the way from the heritage of this place and its people. Things have just naturally grown and blossomed from there.

So let’s come back to Tucson, and let’s look at what the readers of this interview can do—they can make and be the change they want to see.

For example, when I moved to the Dunbar/Spring neighborhood in 1994 most of the excessively wide streets were full of speeding traffic, while the walking paths beside them were exposed, hot, and barren. The hood had a reputation for high crime. Our neighborhood tried to get the city to reduce the speed limits and encourage bicycling, walking, and the community interaction they lubricate; but we were told the speed limits and the streets could not be changed by the city as they were classified as higher traffic streets. So we neighbors banded together to do it ourselves. We planted life with rain and food-bearing native trees along the streets. This got people to meet, talk, and get to know one another—it built community. We then got funding for, and implemented, traffic-calming strategies that also harvest street runoff to water the plants within, and frame public art of sculptures and murals created by neighborhood and Tucson artists, which tell community stories. We organized community fiestas such as our Mesquite Millings & Wild Food Feasts and Porch Fest. Pride in the community grew. It became joyous to walk, bicycle, and skateboard in the neighborhood. Crime dropped. Speeding cars were greatly reduced. And seeing this, the city reclassified our streets as bicycle boulevards.

We re-imagined what the story of our place could be. Our neighborhood is now known for the Dunbar Project (which remembers the diverse ethnic make-up, history, and accomplishments of the people of this neighborhood, its historic Dunbar school, and how this is a key piece of our community’s larger story), along with the neighborhood’s growing urban forest, pioneering water harvesting, public art, wild-food harvests, and community activists and artists. We began by working with what was already freely at hand: our history, dirt, rain, stormwater, and neighbors. We took on the roles of the change makers, each person working cooperatively from their unique passions or skill sets, and then we strove to make that change in a way that would improve the health of the ecological system upon which all life depends as we lifted our own health and happiness.

How could you go forward?
What for you is unique and special in Tucson?
What could be your role in that?
How will you enhance that which is special and unique in this place?
For resources that can aid you in your efforts, and for more info on my work and the related work of colleagues, see: • • • My award-winning book series “Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond,” and Desert Harvesters‘ books “Eat Mesquite!” and the upcoming “Eat Mesquite and More!: A Sonoran Desert Living Cookbook.