The Healing Playa

It has been nearly a year since I’ve returned to the project site where we have been working to mend the broken ecosystem of the Lordsburg playa. The playa, which was once an inland lake surrounded by a lush landscape of flora and fauna has a fascinating natural history with a disheartening demise. Today, that once natural state of a lush playa is a long forgotten and discarded place which has for many decades, been treated disgracefully as a mere wasteland of a desert.

The playa was also once an important place for Apache natives to hunt and forage. Remnants of metates and manos (grinding stones) still can be found at random, all about. However, the playa’s once lush landscape also invited colonizers to settle and graze their cattle. With a seemingly endless supply of lush grass to graze, it seemed like a grand idea, and in the meanwhile, colonizers could fearfully kill off any wandering Apache. The displacement, by the way, extends far beyond the invisible boundaries of the playa and into the greater southwest region with countless more colonizers, settling and displacing Native peoples and Nature, far and wide.

Completely out-of-step with a way of life and livelihood of Native reciprocity, they (clueless colonizers) began undoing Nature’s bounty. That is why I now work there. To attempt to repair the massive damage. This will be year three on this massive restoration endeavor; one of the most meaningful restoration projects I have ever worked. 

As colonizers continued to graze over the course of around 200 to 300 years, or more (a mere four to six generations worth of ranching), they caused massive destabilization of the Pleistocene shoreline which eventually gave way creating two massive breaches. The breaches of this eroding shoreline is where we have put our main focus in our work to attempt to assist the playa’s healing. A tremendous gaping wound. Oftentimes it feels as if we are desperately trying to patch a major bleeding artery with insufficient bandages, bandages that keep bleeding through, yet, we continue to aid…

The lake that existed long before, now exists as a crackled silt bare bottom. Surrounding historic wetlands, stripped of nearly all its native, grassy vegetation and topsoil, exists now as delicate as eggshells underfoot. Existing vegetation crushes into powder with every step, and any amount of rainwater simple bleeds through the porous sediment, due to the loss of spongy, microbially rich soil. Now, whirlwinds of dust sweep and swirl across the playa’s body in the form of dirt devils and dangerous haboobs (intense racing clouds of dust). Storms which have led to blackouts and annual deaths of travelers on the nearby highways. 

I’ve seen these impressive dust-storms firsthand. Pointing to our radical mistreatment of Nature, they are incredibly telling in and of themselves. These great dust-storms tell us that, to continue following suite, ensures our great undoing… That, the status quo of our modern livelihoods is clearly, blatantly, inadequate and must make a radical change of course if we are to thrive on Earth. Yet, as so many decades before, humanity ignores the signs. 

There is however, a silver lining, which sits at the core of our work. It is but a sliver of hope, but tremendously meaningful. Two years ago, we took our first go at what seemed like an monumental task in the realm of restoration. It still feels that way, and rightfully so. As I mentioned before, we focused on the areas nearest the breaches. Which seems like a bold, but necessary move. With multiple sites of active erosion throughout the massive watershed, a great challenge continually becomes where to focus our work next. And with, hopefully, years of renewing contracts, we carefully inch our way forward assessing and surveying new areas in need of our work. 

In our first year, while the DOT worked with the BLM to removed grazing cattle (which is always a key first moved in restoration work especially in the southwest and western US), we paired our work with an expert in regenerative soil, who prepped and seeded the landscape above eroding channels with massive imprinting heavy equipment; while the company I work with both surveyed and implemented intricate heavy equipment earthwork following the earth’s contours, and built by hand, muscle, grit, sweat and smarts, erosion control structures in the main incised channel leading down to the breach (this is the work that I do). We worked with our fingers crossed. All we could do, is inch our way through each structure at a time. Only in time, in the form of years, could we tell if the work amounts to any success. 

The second year, we repeated the same procedure. Seed, build; seed and build. As we became more familiar with the quirks of working with the playa’s native ground, we were able to fine tune our techniques to better suite its needs. And with that, we finished up our second season and walked away… 

Until we returned this year, to not only conduct vegetation surveys of the greater area, but to assess the many worked sites, we had no idea what we’d find. With the last monsoon season being one of the most intense, we were curious to see if the structures held. 

My mind and spirit were overwhelmed by the success!

Many of our structures not only agraded conspicuous amounts of sediment, but were also home to newly established native annual and perennial grasses. Pools of water collected in between many of the structures as well, where several species of wildlife left their tracks. And most of the structures nearest to the breaches were brimmed with thick growth that nearly concealed structures from view! Which is always something we strive for in our work. A true invitation for native wildlife and migrating birds. The thick growth calls out to the wild world ~ Habitat, here. Habitat, here! Come, drink and forage. Walking amongst the thick growth, I watched as toads swam in the small pools, charmed with the new breath of life around me, I was truly in awe, reminded why I loved so much, the work that I do. 

It is clear, that it would take many decades before the greater Lordsburg playa area can heal, perhaps even lifetimes of work is necessary to aid in Gaia’s healing, by not taking, as grazing and pillaging has ultimately done for hundreds of years, but by both giving back and allowing space for healing to ultimately occur. But what our work has shown, is that if we remain on this course, rather than the destructive course majority of humanity follows, great healing can happen.

To follow previous stories of this restoration endeavor, and to support my writing, please consider becoming a patron at Thank you for visiting and learning with me.

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