Lee Anne Gallaway-Mitchell


July 21, 2018

“Refugia can be defined as habitats or environmental factors that, coupled with morphological, life history, and behavioral attributes of animals, reduce the impacts of disturbance (Sedell et al., 1990; Lancaster and Belyea, 1997).”
                                                                 From Advances in Ecological Research, 2006

1. Milkweed

Lately, I’ve been reading poetry to my indoor plants whenever I water them. My Black-Eyed Susans and succulents heard the entirety of Maggie Smith’s Good Bones: “Let me love the world like a mother/Let me be tender when it breaks me down” (“Rain: New Years Eve”).

In the two weeks that I was away from my plants and my two young children for my Field Studies residency in Patagonia, I worked with high school students from the Borderlands Earth Care Youth (BECY) Institute. On our first day, we met the BECY students in their school garden where they labored with care and pride. We weeded, we planted, we broke tile and mosaicked a bench. This was home. Their home.

While placing mosaic tiles on a bench, I watched a student gaze down at a milkweed about to flower. She smiled as she brushed her fingertips along its leaves. Her simple action reminded me of the backrubs I gave my kids as babies. I like to think she blessed the plant into growth.

I’ve been thinking about radical nurturing as something the world needs, about home, about a safe place to land, about a flowering plant that makes its own welcoming world of bloom. The seeds of the milkweed are made to migrate, too. Silky strings attached to the seeds allow them to be better carried by the wind. It grows, can survive even, in poor soils.  

The milkweed provides a home for monarchs at their most vulnerable. When it flowers, the milkweed becomes a whole world of care. It is the only plant monarch butterflies trust to keep its eggs safe and sound. Perhaps it is the milkweed’s entire life cycle—one adapted to adversity and equipped to thrive– that makes it a safe haven for the monarch. Most importantly, the milkweed shares its gifts of survival. The larvae munch on the milkweed’s leaves, which provide not only nourishment but also a chemical toxic to the monarch’s predators. The butterflies carry this defense in the white spots on their wings. What a thing to be armed and marked by care.

2. Cienega


I’ve heard this word, usually in the names of places or high schools; however, I hadn’t actually seen one much less been curious about it until I walked the trails of the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, the first project of The Nature Conservancy in Arizona. The Cienega Loop is short enough to be circled quite a few times. It also joins up with the very short Spring Trail before returning to the Railroad Trail.

A cienega is a desert wetland and looking for one uninjured by human interference is a fool’s errand. The cienegas of southeastern Arizona and Sonora, México, “contain an estimated 19% of endangered, threatened and candidate species within 2% of the regional area.” [1] . A cienega is a cosmos of care, too, a refugia especially for migratory birds. The entire region of Patagonia was once covered with these wetlands, but it’s now a remnant, a shrunken world carpeted in soft black loam, yerba mansa, and wild mint. The cienega in the preserve was saved by the protective berm of the railroad, an unlikely rescue. The railroad is now gone though the cienega remains.      

I am reminded of playas, small wetland ponds, in the Texas South Plains where I grew up. Like cienegas, playas provide a habitat for endangered and threatened species, but unlike cienegas, playas can be full of water one day and dry the next. They can appear, disappear, and reappear. Just add water. Ranchers in Arizona once drained cienegas in order to free up land for grazing much in the same way that farmers in Texas tried to level playas to make more room for crops. Once a cienega has been drained and goes dry, recovery relies on recognition of the endangered wetland. The survival of these havens is most precarious when we refuse to see them.

The cienegas that remain are salvageable, but we’re outpacing restoration with our destructive tendencies. Nature deploys all these small refugia of protection, all vulnerable in their own way.

III. Albergue, or Shelter

Wheelchairs built at the Arizona-Sonora Border Projects for Inclusion, which trains people with disabilities to build customized and all-terrain wheelchairs.

 After a very long day exploring Nogales, Sonora, I used every remnant of concentration I had left, digging deep to understand the man in front of me, speaking slowly and thoughtfully in Spanish about the shelter he had started for migrants 36 years ago. Francisco Loureiro Herrera directs Albergue para Migrantes San Juan Bosco. With the Border Community Alliance (BCA), we had visited DeiJuven, a youth program, and the Arizona-Sonora Border Projects for Inclusion (ARSOBO). This was our last stop.

            My Spanish, neglected in the last fifteen years of sporadic use, did what it could. I am reminded to do better. Still, I understood every other sentence and was thankful for our faculty advisors’ thoughtful and tender, almost whispered, translations. I gathered what I could, piecemeal, in my notes:

            It’s time to live our values: Humility. Solidarity. Respect.

            We have the values in our hearts. We need to let them loose.

            We can’t buy what our heart needs.

            We learn a lot from those who have the least.

            Philanthropy is not by accident.

            We must know, must study before we can help.

            We have to know before we help or we will hurt.

            You tell your children by what you do, not just what you say.

I wondered if Francisco’s carefully considered service to others had been informed by more than half a lifetime of caregiving and parenting. He raised his children and grandchildren to be doctors, lawyers, social workers, and psychologists, all supporting, in some measure, the family business of helping those in need build resilience and work towards recovery.

After talking with Francisco, we made our way to the chapel where we listened to migrants tell us of their journeys, of their captures, of hands shoved into mouths and other violations, of their desire to work if only for a year, just one year. We could do nothing but listen, and I wondered about the differences between witnessing and spectating. Spectating is a one-and-done thing. It is an experience consumed and collected. Witnessing requires learning and synthesizing information before application and practice. As Francisco said, Philanthropy is not by accident. We do not set out to fix what is broken. Rather, we learn what others require to thrive and we respond, we give tools and provide resources, we believe and we love.

While we listened, I watched one family in the front row. They had three children. Two girls, aged about six to ten (my children’s ages), flipped through a single blue spiral-bound notebook, lined but blank. One girl would flip through all the pages and pass it to her sister. Her sister would repeat the action. They passed that empty notebook back and forth. I listened to the stories around me and started to dig in my bag for all of the pens I carried. Through drawing and words, even scribbles only they understand, children give shape and meaning to experience, especially disturbances and traumas. When they are at their most vulnerable, children build a shelter for themselves made from art and play. What tools did these girls have to make sense of their migration? As we were leaving, I gave the two girls all the pens I had.

[1] Minckley, T. A., Turner, D. S., Weinstein, S. R. (2013). The relevance of wetland conservation in arid regions: A re-examination of vanishing communities in the American Southwest. Journal of Arid Environments, 88, 213-221.  

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