The Covenant at Hot Springs Canyon

c 2001 Jim Burklo, minister, Sausalito Presbyterian
Church, Sausalito, CA -- --

From the top of a rocky ridge studded with saguaros,
up a series of washboarded dirt roads in southern
Arizona, Hot Springs Canyon appears below. A lonesome
windmill at the bottom of the drywash is the only
visible sign of human presence on this very hot
afternoon. The canyon is a part of the watershed of
the San Pedro River, which was declared by The Nature
Conservancy to be one of the "Last Great Places" in
America. In 1995, a "militia" group planned to buy a
big tract of land above the canyon and turn it into a
firing range for automatic weapons. The people around
Cascabel ("rattlesnake", in Spanish), a dusty hamlet
along the San Pedro near the mouth of Hot Springs
Canyon, mobilized to stop this proposal by seeking
another buyer who would preserve the property.

Years before this crisis, the seeds of a creative
response had been sown. A group of friends, some
living in Cascabel and others from Tucson, established
the Saguaro-Juniper Association in 1986. This
community was dedicated to land preservation in the
Hot Springs area. Several of its members were Quakers
and others involved in the Sanctuary Movement, which
smuggled refugees into the United States during the
civil wars in Central America in the 1980?s. Most of
these friends had worked together for years on other
environmental and social justice causes in southern
Arizona. The Saguaro-Juniper Association, a ranch
corporation, bought and leased land in and around Hot
Springs Canyon through the purchase of $1500 shares by
its 60-odd members. A few of the members living in
the Cascabel area grazed cattle on the land. The
members of the Association bound themselves to the
land through a document they called the
Saguaro-Juniper Covenant:

The Saguaro-Juniper Covenant Principles
(a bill of rights for the land)

1.) The land has a right to be free of human activity
that accelerates erosion.
2.) Native plants and animals on the land have a
right to life with a minimum of human disturbance.
3.) The land has a right to evolve its own character
from its own elements without scarring from
construction or the importation of foreign objects
dominating the scene.
4.) The land has a pre-eminent right to the
preservation of its unique and rare constituents and
5.) The land, its water, rocks and minerals, its
plants and animals, and their fruits and harvest have
a right never to be rented, sold, extracted, or
exported as mere commodities.

Francis Leitner and Mary Lou Gonzales read an article
written by Jim Corbett (who died in August 2001), one
of the Saguaro-Juniper associates and a cattle rancher
in Cascabel, in EarthLight. Francis was a retired
defense worker who dedicated his retirement years to
volunteer service work. He was a "recovering
Catholic" who was moved by the eco-spiritual writings
of Thomas Berry. Mary Lou was a nurse-practitioner in
a clinic for low-income people in the Tucson area.
They were city folks who wanted spiritual communion
with wilderness in a way that would honor and preserve
the land. They contacted Jim Corbett, who then told
them about the threatened property above Hot Springs
Canyon. They came out to see it for themselves, and
shortly afterward they gave the money to purchase
400 acres of land, including the parcel proposed for
"militia" war games, adjacent to the several hundred
acres already under the Saguaro-Juniper Covenant. The
Saguaro-Juniper associates then bought another 40
acres of adjoining property. All of this
newly-acquired land was put under the Covenant,
as well.

Frances and Mary Lou then joined with a small group of
Saguaro-Juniper people and other friends to form a new
non-profit organization, the Cascabel Hermitage
Association, in order to set aside a place for
solitary contemplation in the wilderness.

"The Cascabel Hermitage Association acquires and holds
real property in trust under the Saguaro-Juniper
Covenant, makes the land available for solitary
meditation, and holds conservation easements. It
thereby provides a Sonoran desert wildlands habitat
for fully interfaith solitary contemplation, as well
as other solitary educational and creative activities
that require sustained concentration and stillness.
It should also be a place where sojourners can learn
to live harmoniously within an untamed community of
plants and animals and to work in community to care
for these lands. In seeking to integrate sojourners
into a wildland community, CHA is guided by the need
to heal the separation between civilized humanity and
the earth." (from the by-laws of the Cascabel
Hermitage Association)

The biblical Greek word for "desert" is eremia -- the
root of the word "hermit" that was applied to the
solitary monks living in the wilderness of the Near
East in early Christian times. The Cascabel Hermitage
Association created a way for city-dwellers to taste
the eremitic experience for periods of up to a few
weeks at a time. CHA members and friends built a
straw-bale hermitage above Hot Springs Canyon and
dedicated it to the memory of Francis Leitner, who
died in 1999. It is an invigorating hike from the
lonesome windmill at the bottom of the wash that is
the nearest drinkable water source. All water and
supplies must be carried in backpacks to the
straw-bale building or to the other hermitage
campsites on the land. Close to the windmill, tucked
away among the mesquites, are two permanent dwellings
for the land's on-site caretakers.

One is a canvas tent under a hand-made ramada of
beautifully peeled and linseed-oiled cottonwood beams.
This is the year-round home of Daniel Baker. In
addition to his restoration work on the land kept
under the Saguaro-Juniper Covenant, he keeps an office
in Cascabel where he is employed by The Nature
Conservancy. TNC has one of its largest holdings, the
Muleshoe preserve, further north and east in the San
Pedro watershed, and it hired Daniel to be its
"community steward". His job is to encourage
ecosystem conservation in the private lands and
leaseholds around Cascabel.

The other dwelling is an exquisitely-constructed
cottage encircled by a wire fence. Inside the circle,
organic garden beds spread away from Pearl Mast and
David Omick's tiny one-room home. Outside the circle,
against the base of the ridge, is a composting
outhouse that reveals David's skills as a former boat
builder and designer of low-cost housing for Habitat
for Humanity in southern Texas. Pearl is a private
tutor-teacher for children in the Cascabel area, and
David is the executive director of CHA, facilitating
the sojourns of the temporary "hermits" who stay on
the land. David and Pearl live centrally located in
the middle of nowhere, but to look at them and at
their immaculate little home and garden, one would not
associate them with any stereotypical images of
Arizona "desert rats".

The CHA board has just approved Pearl and David's plan
to start an internship program in desert -adapted
living skills: solar energy, desert organic gardening,
and preservation and preparation of edible wild foods.
CHA is also seeking funds to enable it to hold
conservation easements on nearby private land.
Landowners can donate or assign rights to the
non-profit CHA in agreements that prevent subdivision,
destruction of natural features or other development
of their properties. In turn, the nonprofit CHA will
be responsible for the legal costs of creating and
enforcing these preservation agreements. The Cascabel
Hermitage Association and the Saguaro-Juniper
associates follow the Covenant by active interventions
such as careful herding of cattle to prevent
overgrazing and building check-dams in the upper
washes to prevent erosion. Native vegetation has
recovered so well that the community is now studying
whether or not to do controlled burns on the upper
parts of the land in order to prevent a future
lightning strike from starting a wildfire that could
kill stands of magnificent, slow-growing saguaros.
The careful practices of the Saguaro-Juniper members
who herd cattle on the land have enabled denser
vegetation to grow in the main wash of the canyon.
This vegetation slows flash floods, reducing erosion
and trapping sediments and nutrients that further
enhance the plant and animal habitat. Refraining from
anything more than minimal interference with the land
has been the most significant practice of these
followers of the Covenant.

'Eremia' has at least two meanings in the context of
the CHA and the Saguaro-Juniper Covenant. The outer
desert has its natural processes, some awful and
others just awe-full, and the sojourning hermit
observes them with minimal interference. It may seem
at first to be a parched and dusty place, but the
longer an alert observer remains there, the more life
is apparent under the saguaro cacti and the scrubby
junipers. Likewise, the inner desert of solitary
silence may at first seem dead or at best a place of
tedium. But as practitioners of prayer disciplines so
often report, a lengthy sojourn in silence will reveal
a rich and complicated inner world of experience that,
like a wilderness, must be negotiated on its own

There are as many views of the Covenant at Hot Springs
Canyon as there are people in the CHA and in the
Saguaro-Juniper Association. As David Omick puts it,
"It's been our observation that the kinds of people
attracted to hot, dusty, bug-infested corners of the
desert like Cascabel tend to be independent and
opinionated cusses." Some come to the Covenant with
views developed through spiritual practice in Quaker
or other religious communities. Others come to it
with a strictly scientific, political, or eco-logical
perspective. There is no one voice for this
community, but somehow the Covenant holds together
this group of rugged individuals with the fundamental
assumption that they belong to the land, and not the
other way around.

Daniel Baker once studied at McCormick Theological
Seminary in Chicago and later owned a successful
printing business. He came to Cascabel in 1994
seeking a faith-based community life that would
integrate humans with wildlands. He bought 40 acres in
Hot Springs Canyon on which the windmill and his
homestead are now located, and put his land under the
Saguaro-Juniper Covenant. A tall, quiet fellow whose
smile flashes brightly out of the sunburnt creases of
his face, he is one of those rare individuals who
pause to think for a moment before answering

"I think of 'hermitage' in the original Christian
context of 'eremitism' where people retreated alone
into the desert for religious purposes. I say
'religious' in the root meaning of the word, that is
'rebinding' --from the same root as ligament -- to our
greater connectivity.

"Some environmentalists have called for a move away
from our anthropocentrism to a biocentric perspective.
While this is instructive, all too often this seems
to be a reactionary view: that instead of exploiting
nature we need to separate humans from nature entirely
so it can be protected. This seems to me just as
dangerous as it is impossible, and is simply the flip
side of the domination model. The lesson of ecology,
if anything, is that everything is connected..... I
believe it is necessary to see another way of being,
another reality. We must deconstruct our society and
de-socialize ourselves to some degree in order to
see that our family is wider than humans. Being alone
in wildlands apart from language and other social cues
allows the earth to speak to us in a more primal way.
Take away what props up our socially conditioned
perception of reality, and the earth itself will be
allowed to speak. It is like a conversion experience.
It is what all mystics and eremites have claimed:
become empty, and something more profound will fill
you up. Perhaps from that voice we will discern a new
direction of peace and harmony with each other and the
earth." ((from a letter by Daniel Baker))

Jim Corbett was a rancher with a master's degree in
philosophy from Harvard. He was a beloved member of
the Pima Meeting of the Society of Friends. He was
the co-founder of the Sanctuary Movement, a
confederation of church and secular groups that
smuggled Central American refugees across the Mexican
border into the United States in the 1980's during the
civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador. It helped
that he was fluent in Spanish and that he knew how to
make secret border crossings, since he had been
herding cattle and goats in southeastern Arizona for
decades. He was the author of Goatwalking (Viking
Press, 1991), his memoir of the Sanctuary Movement,
theology of early Israel, treatise on nonviolent
social change, and detailed primer on following goats
in the desert and living off their milk.

In his unpublished manuscript called "Cowbalah",
Corbett shared some of his unique views of living out
the Covenant. Cowbalah is a term coined by Daniel
Baker, who light-heartedly suggested it in response to
Corbett's idiosyncratic view of the connection between
the medieval Kabalah mystical system of the Spanish
Jews and the herding of cattle in the desert. Corbett
looked back to the origin of the biblical Covenant
between YHWH and the people of Israel. The 'hapiru'
were semi-nomadic herders who escaped the tyrannies of
Egypt and Babylon to live off the land in the hill
country of Palestine. Corbett called them 'cimarron'
people, using the Mexican Spanish word for cattle that
go feral in the desert wilderness. Theirs was a
'sabbatical' way of life -- one lived in harmony with
nature, interfering only minimally in the natural
order, honoring the sacredness of all life. Later,
the 'hapiru' became the 'Hebrews', an ethnic group
that settled on the flatlands, practiced peasant
agriculture, and began to build cities and kingdoms.
The Covenant, the Sabbath day, and the sabbatical and
jubilee years were established to preserve and restore
the connection of the people of Israel to their roots
in communion with God and nature.

"Poetry and prophecy tell of a land where human
livelihood is, was, or will be communion: Arcadia,
Eden, the Peaceable Kingdom. Cowbalah is written to
open an entryway for explorers. The land itself must
then teach the way.... Cowbalah is about grazing on
the San Pedro's Cascabel watershed that is practiced
as sabbatical livelihood. The primary meaning of
sabbath is cessation from all activity that is
'melacha', which is usually translated as 'work' or
'labor'. 'Melacha' is any work to master or manage
nature.... 'Sabbath' means ceasing to do whatever
desacralizes the Creation -- ceasing to act as though
we were the owners and rulers of nature.