The Original Stewards

~ Chase Voirin


As I take a break at a vantage point along a

desert mountain range of southeast Arizona,
my mind begins to wander. The chill from the

morning has faded into a pleasant afternoon,
where the sun takes its position at an angle

indicative of winter time. I’m deer hunting with

my father with a primary goal of creating lasting

memories that we can carry with us forever, and a
secondary goal to restock our freezer with meat. It’s a luxury most of us have in this modern
world where we no longer have to rely on our wild harvest to make it through the winter. But on
this pleasant day I can’t help but look out across the landscape and think of how different it was
for the original stewards of this land. I try to envision a place without the roads and obvious
man-made structures scattered about in the distance. I think of what they may have collected for
food, where they found water, and how they might have chosen where to make a home. I think
of the relationship they had with their surrounding ecosystem of which they depended on for
sustenance. I try and imagine the thoughts that preceded from their minds when looking out
across the same vantage point I was looking out across that day.


As we scan the mountain sides for deer and examine tracks and other sign left behind by
our quarry, I start to take in further detail of the vegetation that forms the carpet of this desert
range. Each plant species taking up as much real estate as possible of bare earth that’s available.
Enough days spent in the wild and one begins to notice how each point of elevation and angle on
the surface of the ground dictates what plant species are allowed to grow there, and what aren’t.
I examine the rolling grasslands dotted with wolf berry and mesquite, giving rise to ocotillo
patches on the sunny south side of hills, with dense stands of manzanita, oak and juniper
dominating the shady north slopes. Bunches of Apache plume, yucca, and bear grass are
interspersed in a seemingly random fashion across the range. And understanding the biology of
our quarry, it is evident that the deer in this landscape have plenty to eat. I can’t help but wonder
if the original stewards of this land looked out and envisioned a grocery store of produce, or
sometimes wondered where their next meal would come from. I think about the lessons they
learned through trial and error on how to conserve the natural resources that dotted the
landscape, and where to find specific items to survive and thrive. I wonder if they pursued these
deer with the same, or even enhanced, level of observation of what features made up the
ecosystem laid out before them.


We make our way down a steep canyon to the bottom to check for sign and to find a way
up the other side. Unbeknownst to us when looking down from the top of the canyon, we find a
seepage of water coming out of the rocks, and trickling into small pools where clumps of sedges
gather at the water’s edge. Enough time spent in the wild desert and one begins to realize the
true value of water as being the post precious commodity. This no doubt came to the forefront of
the original stewards’ minds when learning to how to live in this harsh environment. It is then
no surprise to wonder just how sacred this resource become within their culture, and how they
most likely took detailed notes on where to find it and how to gather and care for it. This
concept has reverberated into current Indigenous culture today. If one invests a significant
amount of time observing the different wildlife species that come to drink from a spring in the
desert, as well notice the varied flora that situates around a spring, one can start to understand the holiness that is placed on this resource. And indeed it was evident that our quarry was relying on this particular spring, just as so many species have throughout time.


As the sun begins to dive below the skyline, and the cool air begins to set in, we make
our way back to camp and build a fire. And as I start this fire and help it grow to become 
something that will warm our tired bodies, I think about how the original stewards repeated the
same exact process on this landscape centuries ago. I think about the relationship these people
may have developed with fire knowing that the secondary growth after a wild fire on the
landscape may include desired plants for various uses. Not to mention the high nutrition that
comes with that growth that wild herbivores recognize all too well as plants reclaim a landscape
after it’s been burned. I also think about how camp fires were used to heat homes, and keep
families safe warm back then. And how each steward may have had a favorite place to collect
their firewood, and may have even burned the same types of wood I was burning on that chilly
night.


Time spent hunting and roaming the desert mountains forces one to slow down and think
about the past. It’s easy to think one is alone on a landscape when in fact original stewards have
been present on that same landscape for millennia. And in this current range the original
stewards may have included the Hohokam, the Mogollon or Mimbres, and later the Apache.
Indeed, this particular range was a key stopover place for Cochise, famous Apache leader, and it
is no wonder why he requested to be buried in that area upon his death. To the original steward,
it wasn’t some wild, untamed landscape full of unknowns and loneliness. It was home. And as I
go forth to venture into these places, I try to take the same mentality with me. The mentality of the original stewards.