Chito. In Baja California Sur, if you’re talking about Chito, it’s the same as if you were sitting in the offices of Rolling Stone talking about Sting or Bono. Surnames are simply superfluous. Chito is the owner of Rancho Santo Domingo, 2,500 hectares of spectacular land in the Sierra La Laguna mountains that has been in his family since the 1700s. Like most rancheros in Baja Sur, Chito (christened Alfredo Orozco Castro) has all the skills he needs to thrive in a remote area: he knows how to build houses, run a business, train horses, lasso cows, deal with snake bites, make cheese, handle poachers, distill plant-based medicines, fight forest fires, roast pigs and track missing hikers. And that’s just for starters. Ranching has been his way of life, all his life, and when he looks to the future he sees, well, something different.
“Around 35 years ago things started changing,” says Chito. “We used to have rains every January and February, sometimes three times a week, but now we really only have rain during the summer hurricane season. Water, of course, is life, and with this much longer dry season we can’t have as many cows, we can’t make as much cheese, we don’t grow as many vegetables – the impact on the ranching way of life is huge.” Right now selling cows is Chito’s main source of income but, at the age of 60, he’s ready to embrace a post-cow future. “I really see the future of Rancho Santo Domingo in ecotourism.”
In 2019 Chito started working with Todos Santos Eco Adventures (TOSEA) on a luxury tent camp in the avocado, grapefruit and mango orchard that his grandfather planted for his grandmother at the ranch. (Disclosure: the author is a co-owner of TOSEA). With his own hands he built a traditional ranch kitchen with a beautiful brick, wood-burning stove that is the heart of the camp, and this is complemented by walk-in tents throughout the orchard that feature locally made furniture, real beds, rugs, lamps, rocking chairs and other details that make staying on Chito’s ranch not only incredibly fun, but super comfortable. Chito often guides guests on hikes and mule rides throughout the mountains, and loves chatting with folks around the campfire at happy hour afterwards. His incredibly accomplished 7 year old grandson Alfredito often accompanies him, always making sure that there is enough wood for the stove and always ready to share a laugh with camp guests. Together they demonstrate a truth that has been known in the area for centuries: the ranchers of Baja California Sur are some of the most gracious and welcoming hosts on the planet.
They are also accomplished artists. Using the tools handed down from his father, Chito is a master leatherworker and his beautiful saddles, bridles and other leather items are highly sought after. He is also a natural teacher, and a leather working workshop with Chito is the highlight of many guests’ stay at Camp Cecil de la Sierra, the luxury tent camp on his property.
Chito inspires his fellow artists as well. Renowned ceramic mosaic artist Donna Billick, the founder of Todos Artes in Todos Santos, was so impressed by the time she spent with Chito that she created the BioSphere, a magnificent ceramic homage to Chito, his ranch, his cowboy roots and his ecotourism future. And she’s not stopping there. Todos Artes artists Isabel “Issy” Von Zastrow and Will Worden will be working with Donna to lead plein aire watercolor workshops at the camp, where visitors can seek inspiration and subject matter from the ranch and the fantastic natural beauty of the area. Alfredito took one of Issy’s first watercolor classes at the camp. He was so impressed that he came back the next day with his cousin Damian and demanded another one. Alfredito’s stated goal in life is to follow in Chito’s footsteps. With his natural gifts for people, ranching and art, we can all look forward to Rancho Santo Domingo’s continued success as a joyful place where visitors can seek respite and inspiration. In the generations to come, ranching ecotourism may well come to be encapsulated in just one name. Alfredito.
Mahi mahi straight from Agustin’s boat, strawberries with crème freche right out of Agricole, Nasturtium-adorned salads fresh from Jan’s farm, zillions of mangos, right from your own tree. This is the type of food security enjoyed by many residents of Baja California Sur (BCS). All fresh, all delicious, all healthy – and always obtainable in season.
BCS is the fastest growing state in Mexico, with vast sums of tourism-driven dollars flooding the state. This growth, rapid and seldom interrupted over the last few decades, has acted as a beacon to people across Mexico, drawing thousands of immigrants seeking economic opportunity. The Ministry of Economy reported a population increase in BCS of over 25% between 2010 and 2015, a rate which does not appear to have slackened. Yet BCS does not have the infrastructure or resources to adequately feed and house all the new arrivals, a fact that has given rise to a slew of informal settlements across the lower part of state, many without even the most basic of public services. Not coincidentally, the government agency CONEVEL states that in 2020 roughly 29% of the population in BCS was living in extreme poverty, with almost 35% of the population suffering from social deprivation, including deprivation of food access. In this land of plenty, accessing fresh, nutritious food is an extreme challenge for many.
“The International Community Foundation (ICF) founded the Alianza Para la Seguridad Alimentaria (ASA, or BCS Food Security Alliance) in 2014 as an alliance of nonprofits, business owners, government agencies and individuals committed to addressing food insecurity in southern BCS” notes McKenzie Campbell, a program officer with the ICF. “When the pandemic slammed into Mexico in March 2020, BCS was one of the hardest hit states because of its heavy reliance on tourism. Food assistance groups exploded across the state, and by December 2020 many of these groups were serving more than twice their pre-pandemic population.” Because BCS did not have a state foodbank, these groups were spending precious time and resources sourcing ingredients. ASA mobilized to effectively become a mobile food bank for these groups, supporting their efforts with the distribution of despensas (packages of donated food and hygiene essentials) to the informal communities. Continues McKenzie, “It was when we were actively distributing despensas that we realized that without a formal government safety net or a reliable food supply, these communities would be in a constant state of crisis. The pandemic really showed that we needed a permanent solution to addressing food security in BCS.”
Luis Garduño, the director of ASA who was in charge of distributing despensas during the pandemic, says that the ICF doubled down on its commitment to food security during the pandemic. ASA had been formalized as an independent Mexican nonprofit in 2019, so it was the perfect platform from which to accelerate food security efforts in the region. Says Luis, “The first thing we did was conduct a series of diagnostic studies looking at all facets of the food system in BCS from producers, to distribution points, to consumers. Based on what we learned through these studies, ASA is focusing its efforts in three main areas: creating a Sudcaliforniano food bank, fostering community health and resilience, and piloting local foodsheds.”
The food bank program is a remarkable testimony to ASA’s focus. Says Luis, “We are really excited about the progress that’s been made with the Sudcaliforniano food bank, and we expect it to be fully functioning with a presence in La Paz and Los Cabos by the end of 2022. We have secured warehouse space in both locations, and we’re working hard to source necessary items like trucks and cold storage.” The core of the food bank program is food recovery and redistribution, salvaging food that is deemed unsellable or unusable by producers and getting it to vulnerable populations. Notes McKenzie, “Around the world 40% of all food produced in the world is wasted and all those inputs lost. In Mexico, 20 million tons of food are wasted every year, enough to feed 70% of the population living in poverty. One of ASA’s first efforts was to assess food waste hot spots in BCS, then implement recovery, redistribution and prevention strategies.” Continues Luis, “In 2021 ASA provided 34 tons of recovered food to 5,800 individuals. Our goal is to be providing recovered food to 12,000 people on a regular basis by the end of 2022.” The Sudcaliforniano food bank is now affiliated with BAMX, Mexico’s national food bank program, and partners with its prepared food donation program, Al Rescate. It also receives and distributes regular donations from several Walmart-affiliated stores, Carl’s Junior and Earth Ocean Farms.
“Another thing we found when distributing despensas to the informal communities during the pandemic was that women were taking leadership roles and doing what needed to be done to protect not just their own families, but also the most vulnerable in their communities” recalls McKenzie. ASA’s second key initiative, community health and resilience, is designed to amplify that leadership, and give these women the tools they need to be even more effective. Continues Luis, “This program is multifaceted. Not only do we work with these women on leadership skills like decision-making, negotiating, effective communication and teamwork, but also on personal finance skills and small business administration skills. We help develop their skills to determine what is the most nutritious food they can buy for their families with the money that they have.” The program also teaches hurricane and emergency preparedness and response, including basic first aid, fire management, hurricane alert and preparedness systems and control centers for emergency response.
One of the key focus areas of the community health and resilience platform is nutrition and healthy cooking. Local groups like SINADES in Pescadero are at the forefront of this effort. Under the leadership of founder Inés Melchor Pantoja, with assistance from her husband, Julio César Rivas García, SINADES has been working with women in the community for almost two decades on a Conscious Cooking program, making healthy foods affordable, desirable and an integral part of family life. So that they could procure organic produce at a reasonable price, SINADES and the 18 women of the Conscious Cooking program started building greenhouses at their homes a decade ago. The greenhouses have given these women and their families much greater food sovereignty and economic stability, and 3 of them are now expanding into raising chickens. They are currently looking to formalize a point of sale for their chickens, eggs and chicks, and to expand the program to other women in town. SINADES is attacking food insecurity at its source.
Raíz de Fondo is another community force based in La Paz. Founded by Erika Goetz 12 years ago as a community garden in a dirty, abandoned lot in downtown La Paz, Raíz de Fondo is now a driving force for nutrition, food security and sustainable living across the city. The group provides workshops to schools and communities on how start their own gardens, providing garden kits as well as on-going instruction on composting and nutrition. The program has been so successful that when the Secretary of Education (SEP) decided to launch a nutrition and wellness curriculum in elementary and preschools, Raíz de Fondo was tapped to train the teachers in their school garden program to deliver the curriculum.
Another key Raíz de Fondo program is “Cocianado para la Colonia”. Based at the outdoor kitchen of one of their community gardens, Jardin Guamuchil, chefs prepare meals made with ingredients from the garden, as well as rescued food, to support community kitchens with limited resources. Erika says they plan to support 3 groups this year with a total of 3,000 meals. The team is further using this platform to teach healthy recipes to cooks from participating institutional kitchens. To support these programs, Raíz de Fondo has created a network of vegetable farmers who often have perfectly edible food that they cannot sell. They are thrilled to have Raíz de Fondo redistribute this food to those in need, and even get a tax deduction for their donation. Because of their extensive experience with local producers, Raiz de Fondo is a key partner in ASA’s food recovery and distribution program in La Paz.
The third pilar of ASA’s food security platform in BCS is creating thriving local foodsheds by boosting the capacity of small and mid-sized farmers to produce healthy food for the local market. In June 2021 ASA started an “Agroecological Learning Collective” focused on the transition to a regenerative production model, employing farming techniques that improve soil quality. Currently 7 producers from 3 farms are participating in the pilot collective and have received 60 hours of technical assistance and 30 hours of regenerative management consulting. There is a great deal of excitement around this project, and local businesses like Sueno Tropical, Rancho Cacachiles and Baja Regenerative Farms are all pitching in with invaluable advice on production planning, crop selection and marketing. ASA’s Food Hub goal is to be the currently missing link of aggregation, distribution and marketing between local small and mid-sized producers and regional buyers and consumers.
How can you help ASA implement this comprehensive approach to food security in Baja California Sur? Connect with these programs and lend your time, money, expertise, and enthusiasm:
Like many of the best things in life, Mar Libre was born over drinks by friends kvetching about the state of things. “When you get biologists together, the conversation invariably veers to how bad things are in the natural world” says Pablo Ahuja, one of the founders of Mar Libre. “On this particular night we were all complaining about how we couldn’t enjoy diving at San Rafaelito in the Sea of Cortez anymore because every time we went, we’d have to spend all of our time and air picking fishing line off the coral. This is painstaking work that must be done very carefully so the coral doesn’t get damaged.” Pablo continues, “Right then and there we decided that instead of cleaning up areas incidentally when we were out diving, we’d start diving with the purposeful intent of cleaning these natural areas.”
Pablo and his friends decided to set a date right then and there. “On the night of July 3, 2015 we posted on Facebook about a clean-up dive for July 21, 2015, and by the next morning we had over 20 divers and dive companies saying they wanted to participate. By the time July 21 rolled around, there were 8 boats and 70 people volunteering to help. That day we cleaned the reef not only San Rafaelito, but La Gaviota as well.” That was a little over 6 years ago and Mar Libre has done a monthly reef or mangrove clean up dive every month since then. Says Pablo, “There are so many rents that we pay on a monthly basis like housing, electricity, and telephone, so we decided that we would also pay our monthly rent to Mother Nature.”
The Mar Libre crew understood from the beginning that conservation without education is not productive or sustainable, so in October 2015 they started going into the schools to educate students and staff on the issues, using the photos and data they had from the July, August, and September clean up dives. Pablo, a marine biologist with a background in science education, lead the charge. “The school directors in Baja California Sur have been great to work with. They will give us 45 minutes per classroom to discuss the problems and the solutions. Very often after a visit an entire school will go on a cleanup. Cleaning a mangrove or reef really changes their views. They simply cannot believe the amount of trash that there is, and they realize that only they can really be the agents of change. So far we’ve engaged with over 24,000 students in BCS.”
Just how much trash is there? Recalls Pablo, “We did a cleanup at El Magote in La Paz in March 2021 with 200 volunteers and 8 boats. We took that trash to the La Paz dump which has a scale. That is how we learned that we had collected 8.4 tons of trash on just that one day. We estimate that we’ve cleaned over 140 tons of trash from the reefs and mangroves since we started the project in 2015.” Some of the things that they find in a mangrove that has never been cleaned might seem surprising to the uninitiated. Recounts Pablo, “We’ve found fax machines, washing machines, electrodes, 50 year-old mason jars. We pulled 4 porcelain toilets out of one mangrove. We figured folks had gone camping and were just looking for a little privacy. It’s fun to date stuff that comes out of the cleanups. There is a brand of beer called Carta Blanca that used to make its bottles with a little indentation on the side. The idea was to use one bottle to take the cap off the next. They stopped making those bottles in 1970 so when we find them we know that trash is at least 50 years fold.”
Pablo takes the long view on his quest to clean the reefs and mangroves of Baja California Sur. “When we go to a new spot, literally no one in human history has ever cleaned that place before. It can seem overwhelming at the first cleaning, but subsequent visits are encouraging. Pargo Villa Reef near Isla Ceralvo is a good example. In September 2015 we cleaned that reef for the first time and took out 100 kilos of fishing line alone. In September of 2016 we cleaned again and took out 10 kilos of fishing line, and we think this was mainly because we didn’t get it all the first time. In September 2017 we cleaned again and there was only one kilo of fishing line. And with education, 100 kilos of fishing line will never build up in this spot again.”
Mar Libre exists only in the hearts and minds of the kayakers, surfers, divers, sailors, biologists, students and other ocean lovers who volunteer their time, energy and resources to cleaning our local reefs and mangroves. There is no office, no staff, no NGO status, no budget, no funds. Pablo’s goal is to wipe out even that reality. “We want to clean and educate ourselves out of existence.” But that moment is not yet at hand and much work remains to be done. Everyone is invited to join the Mar Libre movement and participate in the monthly reef and mangrove cleanups. Invite your friends, your family, your school group, your office mates to join you!
A tumultuous, exhilarating, infuriating and irrevocable shift of population, outlook, culture and vision is sweeping the lower part of the Baja peninsula. Some residents who have been here for a time are eagerly embracing the evolution, spreading the new concepts one joyous Instagram post after another. Others remain faithful to the old days and ways, testily resisting the transformers one grumpy Todos Santos Newsfeed post after another. Who is really a Todos Santeño? Paraphrasing Colson Whitehead’s beautiful tribute to New York, “No matter how long you have been here, you are a Todos Santeño the first time you say, ”That used to be Café Santa Fe” or ”That used to be Santana’s.” … You are a Todos Santeño when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now….You start building your own private Todos Santos the first time you lay eyes on it.”
For Greg Schredder the first time he laid eyes on Todos Santos was in 1961 from the sea, but he’d been driving down the Baja peninsula for a couple of years by then. “A bunch of us southern California surfers started coming to Baja in 1959” recalls Greg. “Because there was barely a road and certainly no gas stations at that time, we retrofitted our old truck with a custom-built 55-gallon gas tank and brought what we called our Tijuana credit card, a one-inch tube that we’d use for siphoning the gas we bought at the ranches. The ranchers were always incredibly welcoming and ready to help us with gas and anything else we needed. Of course, we didn’t always find them in time and we were often stranded for days. We didn’t care, we were just always looking for waves.”
The fishermen were equally welcoming. “We would travel with 10-pack cartons of unfiltered, Delegado cigarettes, and one carton would get us up to 50 pounds of lobster. Everything was so abundant then. We’d actually get tired of eating lobster and so we’d use it as bait to go fishing. It was not uncommon to see 600-pound groupers in the Pacific lagoons in those days, and the fishermen would actually catch these giants with their hand lines. We loved staying in the fishing villages on these trips. We would surf, dive, fish, and learn incredible stories of these people living in the most remote locations. You could hear your heartbeat for a quarter mile it was so quiet and still. We would always bring baseballs, gloves and Playboy magazines, and we made friends and had a great time everywhere we went.”
Greg’s introduction to Todos Santos was rooted in much more glamorous transportation than the type that required a Tijuana credit card. “In the 1950s and 60s, most of us surfer kids in Newport, California worked on the yachts of famous people like André Previn, Julie Andrews, and Humphrey Bogart to make money, and they really treated us like family. In 1965 I came to Cabo on Ralph Larrabee’s yacht, Goodwill, and stayed for about a month. At that time Cabo was really just a small village with no electricity. Larrabee’s friends like Donald Douglas (of Douglas Aircraft fame) and John Wayne would fly in to spend a few days partying and fishing, then fly back home. It was during these downtimes that I first explored the Pacific Coast between Cabo and Todos Santos. It was a surfer’s paradise.”
Greg’s friendship with the likes of Douglas and Wayne ended up lasting decades and inspired many of his business ventures across Mexico and Costa Rica. “I would often travel with them over the years, and they are the ones who motivated me to get a real job. As a surfer and diver I decided to set up factories in La Paz and Tijuana to make rubber products related to those activities. We expanded that business into setting up factories for many Fortune 500 companies who needed inexpensive, repetitive labor. We were the largest employer in La Paz and Ensenada for over 20 years. Of course, before the highway came in, it could take up to 2 days to drive to Todos Santos for some surfing.”
“I have always loved the Pacific side of Baja, and in 1979 I bought Rancho Gaspareño, 50 acres of remote land along a quarter mile of the Pacific coastline, not too far from Todos Santos. One of the people who drew me to the area was Carmen Salgado Agramont. She had a little cantina with a hitching post out front for horses where she’d serve up warm beer and hot food. She was quite savvy, and bought the first gas refrigerator in the area. She almost couldn’t keep up with ranchero demand for cold beer after that, and there were always dozens of horses around her cantina. I loved that place, and it was Carmen’s son who set me on the path to buying the ranch, which actually has the name and signature of Benito Juarez on the original land grand title. Since then I’ve been growing coco palms on the ranch, and have also been experimenting with growing plants from Hawaii like breadfruit that have excellent potential in Mexico.”
Greg loves the history of the area. “Rancho Gaspareño was named after a Spanish galleon that went aground on the point, the Gaspareño. It was one of the so-called Manila galleons, Spanish ships that sailed between the Philippines and Acapulco for 250 years, bringing spices, silks and other luxuries from the far east to New Spain. All these galleons sailed the Pacific coast of Baja on their way to Acapulco, so naturally enough the area became riddled with pirates, many of them English and Dutch. There are many tales of buried pirate treasure in the area, and local school groups still come to explore the cave at Rancho Gaspareño each year to tap into the lore. Treasure hunters have reason for optimism; in 1974 when the road from La Paz to the ferry terminal at Pichilingue was being built, a pirate chest of plundered loot was discovered by road workers.”
“I think of this part of the Baja coastline as the forgotten area” continues Greg. “People drive past Rancho Gaspareño going a hundred miles an hour on the new 4-lane highway and have no idea of the history of the area.” The Guaycura and Pericue Indians were the original inhabitants before the Jesuit’s arrival in 1697, and they were essentially wiped out by the time the Jesuits left in 1768. The Jesuits built their theocracy based on a promise to the King of Spain to get rid of the pirates who were plundering his ships, and the pirates faded away with the demise of the Manila galleons in 1815. Dominican Padre Gabriel González had a ranch near Gaspareño from 1825 to 1850, and the tobacco, rum, sugar, corn, and livestock he produced there made him the richest man in Baja California. From his ranch the padre engaged in espionage and guerilla warfare during the Mexican-American war of 1846-1848, and – thanks in part to the Padre – Mexico won a major victory near Gaspareño (but lost the war). By 1855 the Padre had lost his political backing and left Baja for good. For the next one hundred years entrepreneurs made fortunes in the sugar cane industry with fields in areas like Gaspareño, but in the 1950s a severe drought and price drop lead to the demise of the industry; the last sugar processing plant closed in 1974. In that same year the trans peninsular highway made its way to Todos Santos, bringing new life to the town, and in 1985 renowned artist Charles Stewart arrived from Taos, planting the seed for Todos Santos’ current incarnation as an artists’ colony. It remains an agricultural center and surfing hotspot, only now it is firmly on the radar of major developers.
62 years after his first trip down the Baja peninsula, Greg is ready to carve out a little hacienda for himself and his art collection, but let someone else take over the bulk of the land that is Rancho Gaspareño. He has kept his 50 acres wild and free, but would love to see someone with vision and passion create a place of beauty that celebrates the area’s thrilling past, and embraces an artistic, sustainable future. Someone who started building their own private Todos Santos the first time they laid eyes on it.
Of course, letting go of a big piece of the ranch is bittersweet for Greg. Paraphrasing Colson Whitehead’s tribute to New York once more, “We can never make proper goodbyes… Maybe we become Todos Santeños the day we realize that Todos Santos will go on without us. …. Naturally we will cast a wary eye toward those new kids on the block, but let’s be patient and not judge too quickly. We were new here, too, once.” Yes indeed. A tumultuous, exhilarating, infuriating and irrevocable shift of population, outlook, culture and vision is sweeping the lower part of the Baja peninsula. It always has.
The National Geographic Society, as venerable an institution as ever graced the shores of the North American continent, has an image problem. Since 1888 the NGS has been supporting adventurers and explorers of every stripe across all the corners of the globe, and such is their success that it is now safe to say that we know it all. Satellites and surveyors, exploring on the ground and from the air, have neatly filled in all the spaces on the old maps where there used to exist nothing but the terrifying admonition: Here be dragons! Does this mean that the Age of Exploration is dead? Is there no more geography left around which a society can coalesce for discovery? Is the NGS, as some naysayers opine, obsolete?
Dr. Jon Rebman in the Sierras
Not a chance. A glance at the interactive NGS global explorers map, which shows thousands of explorers engaged in equally numerous projects across our well-mapped continents, definitively lays that notion to rest. A zoom from the global view of the map down to our own Baja California Sur shows just how vibrant an era of discovery we inhabit. Here you’ll find a hiker symbol in the Sierra La Laguna mountains just outside of Todos Santos, which is the avatar for NGS explorer Dr. Jon P. Rebman, director of the San Diego Natural History Museum’s Botany Department, and author of the definitive Baja California Plant Field Guide. Dr. Rebman’s work demonstrates not only that the Age of Exploration is alive and well, but that we are always gaining a deeper knowledge of the areas depicted on our maps. Perhaps more importantly, we are conserving the existing knowledge of these areas that is in danger of slipping away.
Explains Dr. Rebman. “After 20 years of floristic research on the Baja California peninsula and adjacent islands, my colleagues and I created an annotated, voucher-based checklist of the vascular plants of Baja California. We published this in 2016, and when we compared it to the only floristic manual for the entire Baja California region published by Wiggins in 1980, we found that we had added more than 1,480 plant taxa to the area, including approximately 4,400 plants (3,900 vouchered taxa plus 540 reports), of which 26% are endemic to the region. As part of this process we identified several plants in Baja California that are very rare and only known from one to very few collections.”
“We got focused on the need for conservation efforts to protect the region’s rare flora during a November 2013 expedition in the Cabo Pulmo area to document biodiversity in an area slated for development. My colleagues and I documented two plant species that had been lost, meaning not collected or scientifically documented, for decades. One of these rediscoveries was Stenotis peninsularis (Rubiaceae), a micro-endemic species that was last collected in 1902 by T.S. Brandegee. Yes, that means we had not seen this species in over 110 years!”
Inspired, Rebman continued his quest for the lost plants of Baja during a workplace re-assignment from San Diego to La Paz August 2015 to June 2016. Working with local Baja botanists, he rediscovered approximately 50 plant species in the Cape region that were known from just one, or a tiny number, of historical specimens. But there were more. Specifically, there were 15 more “lost” plants, all endemic to the Baja California peninsula, that had been collected between 1841 and 1985, but had not been seen since. Rebman was intent on finding them. “With the ever-increasing detrimental impacts to native plants and natural landscapes, I realized that the time was now to attempt to re-discover some of Baja California’s very rare, unique, and presently “lost” plants before they are gone forever.” The National Geographic Society agreed to fund the project, and Rebman got his Mexican colleagues – Dr. Jose Luis Leon de la Luz, Dr. Alfonso Medel Narvaez, Dr. Reymundo Dominguez Cadena and Dr. Jose Delgadillo – to join the effort. But how do you find a “lost” plant? It’s not for the faint of heart – spiritually, physically, or intellectually-speaking.
Astragalus piscinus: an image of the holotype specimen deposited in the united States national Herbarium (uS) at the Smithsonian.
Consider. In March 1889, self-taught British botanist Edward Palmer disembarked from a boat at a place on the Baja peninsula that he called “Lagoon Head”, found what he thought was a common weedy plant, and deposited it in an herbarium without further ado. Sometime later, renowned American botanist Marcus E. Jones found it in the herbarium, realized it was a very rare, endemic Baja California plant species, named it Astragalus piscinus, (common name Lagoon Milkvetch), and that was the last time anyone recorded it. In 1884 noted California naturalist Charles Orcutt was in a place he christened “Topo Canyon” when he chanced upon the very rare Physaria palmeri, took a sample, and recorded it with the fledgling San Diego Natural History Museum. No one has noted a sighting of it since. The entire list of the 15 lost plants Rebman and his colleagues set out to find reads like this, with very precise information about the plant, but incredibly imprecise information about the location. Therefore, the first thing the team had to do was pore over the papers, books and letters of the botanists who originally discovered the plants, and do their best to figure out where, exactly, in this 1,000 mile long peninsula, these botanists were when they took their samples. As a result, one of the cool byproducts of the expedition is a map put together by the NGS team that shows the place names used by these early botanists with the actual place names in use today. As every good cartographer knows, maps are an ever-evolving business.
The team narrowed down the possible locations for each plant (“Lagoon Head” turns out to be near Scammons Lagoon and “Topo Canyon” in the mountains of northern Baja), but then they had to actually find these very rare plants in an area that they had already demonstrated held over 4,400 different plants. It would seem almost impossible to make any progress while stopping to investigate all the different possibilities. Unless, of course, you are already so familiar with all the plants that you can immediately discern the one you don’t know, the one you’ve only seen as a specimen or a drawing. John Rebman and his Mexican botanical collaborators are quite possibly the only people alive today to stand a chance of finding any single one of these 15 lost plants. Yet so far, they have looked for ten and found seven. For the others, they need to wait for rain, in Baja, to find the blooms.
“It has not been easy” remarks Rebman. “We were in a desolate area in northern Baja where bandits are known to congregate, and I was looking for Orcutt’s
Astragalus piscinus flowers. Photo by Jon Rebman
Physaria palmeri. There were signs that the bandits were around, and alarm bells were going off in my head. But I had read Orcutt’s journals, had a firm sense of where he had been the day before he discovered the plant as well as the day after, and I really believed I was close. Yet I kept not finding the plant and kept getting more nervous. Finally, I decided that if I hadn’t found it by the time I reached the next tree, I would turn around. I got to the tree, got off my horse, looked down, and there it was. Orcutt, probably found it when he stopped to take a break in a shady spot all those years ago.”
Finding each of the 7 plants they’ve recovered so far has required serious expeditionary skills and effort, with horses, burros, camping gear, local guides, packed water and food. It’s been hot, it’s been dusty and, as we have seen, sometimes it’s been scary. But, as happens with most NGS projects, the results have been quite tidy. Says Rebman, “For each “lost” species that we encountered, we scientifically documented each population using standard protocols to make an herbarium specimen, we recorded all necessary label data, took a census of the populations, and assessed any visible threats to the well-being of the plant populations. Primary herbarium specimens have been deposited in the SD Herbarium at the San Diego Natural History Museum, and duplicate specimens have been deposited in the HCIB Herbarium in La Paz, Baja California Sur, and the BCMEX Herbarium in Ensenada, Baja California. I photographed each re-discovered plant using a digital camera, and these images, along with the map depicting old and new place names together, can be found at bajaflora.org.”
Dr. Alfonso Medel Narváez with Bouchea flabelliformis (Verbenaceae). Photo by Jon Rebman
While looking for the “lost” plants of Baja, Rebman and his team actually made several new discoveries. “From the expeditions we have taken so far, we have already encountered 30 new species previously unknown to science, all sitting in my cabinet awaiting further investigation.”
The NGS likes to quote American explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who said you never should have an adventure if your planning is good and you pull off every detail; an adventure is when things go wrong. With multiple expeditions looking for 15 ultra-rare – or possibly even extinct – plant species in poorly-described locations, there is bound to be an abundance of adventure in the process for Rebman and his botanical collaborators. But that is the essence of discovery, the essence of exploration, and Rebman and his team are showing us that there is still a huge amount to be discovered, and re-discovered about the places where the dragons used to roam.
Only a limited number of reasons come to mind when considering why someone would willingly allow themselves to be bitten by a venomous snake. There is, of course, suicide by snake, popularized by Cleopatra who reputedly smuggled an asp (cobra) into her chambers to kill herself and her hand maidens as Egypt fell to the Romans. Closely related is spirituality by snake, in which believers handle venomous snakes as a testament to their faith. The snakes snuff out the posers. And then there is science by snake, in which investigators inject themselves with venom to build up immunity, then test that immunity with actual snake bites (see suicide by snake).
So when Catarino Rosas Espinosa, widely known as Don Cata, said that his father deliberately provoked a rattlesnake to bite him, it’s initially difficult to make sense of the story. Don Cata’s father, Hipólito Rosas, was a renowned curandero, or healer, in the Sierra La Laguna mountains of Baja California Sur (BCS). Born in 1890, Hipólito was growing up at the height of the mining frenzy in BCS, a time when many Europeans were moving to Baja and bringing more “advanced” notions of medicine and civilized society. It was a time that saw a huge influx of grand pianos into the state as a reflection of increasing wealth, and a rapid decline in the number of people experienced in the traditional healing arts. People wanted to purchase their cures over the counter.
Although he worked for the mines for a time, Hipólito did not embrace all the modernizations brought by the Europeans. In fact, the Europeanization of local culture prompted him to seek out those who had been practicing traditional medicine in Baja long before the arrival of even the first wave of Europeans almost 500 years ago – he sought out families in the Sierras who still have the blood of the now largely extinct native peoples of BCS – the Guaycura and the Pericu – running through their veins. Under their tutelage he became a great healer renowned throughout BCS, working with 81 plants in the area that have healing properties, and using them to treat everything from allergies and bug bites, to cancer and diabetes. But the most important lesson he learned, and the one he felt most critical to impart to his son Catarino, is the power of mind over matter.
Don Cata and Dona Luz
By the time he was a teenager Don Cata was already an accomplished healer himself, having worked alongside his father since he was a small child. He saw that with every single patient Hipólito would end the consultation with a pep talk, telling the patient that everything was going to be fine. Don Cata says his father was cueing his patients’ minds to help heal their bodies. When Don Cata turned 16, Hipólito decided it was time to make flesh this lesson of mind over matter, and so set the rattlesnake upon his son.
Today Don Cata is a very healthy and youthful 65 years old, but he can still remember vividly the painful, lethal venom coursing through his veins, and the intense struggle to dominate it with his mind, keeping it from reaching his heart. He says that power of positive thinking, of the mind dominating the body, is critical to good health, and one of the best ways we can help ourselves prevent and/or recover from illness and injury. But how does one get a mind that is so powerful it can stop rattlesnake venom from reaching the heart? Plants. Says Don Cata, “I like to look for plants that have very long lives, lives that are longer than ours, old plants that are full of sustainable, renewable energy. When I see a really large, obviously old tree, I hug that tree with my whole body and with lots of love, and that tree shares its energy with me. When I go up in the mountains, I prepare tea from the root of a long-lived fern that grows there, and every day I drink 3 cups of this tea just before bed. I consider problems I need to resolve or areas in which I need help, and after drinking this tea at night solutions and knowledge come to me. After 15 days in the mountains of drinking this tea every day and walking in a different altitude, I have great clarity of mind and feel like a young man when I return to my ranch.”
Omar Piña is a 39 year-old traditional Mexican medicine expert who has studied with native peoples, shamans, curanderos and rancheros throughout Mexico. Omar, who holds several certifications in holistic health, says that traditional medicine is “based on a harmonious relationship with all the elements of the earth with whom human beings coexist, but do not master. (Emphasis is the author’s.) Many diseases and natural phenomena that affect people’s health are associated with a poor relationship with the beings of nature.” Omar, whose father is an MD, notes that in Western medicine, if a process cannot be readily understood it is generally dismissed. But Omar, Don Cata and other practitioners believe that people can connect with the spirit of the plant, and that plants can both heal you and prevent disease, whether this is an explicable phenomenon or not. All these healers have their go-to plants for particular ailments and issues (see The Power of Plants in Your Baja Garden) but they all believe that how you deal with the plant has as big an impact on the results that you may get as any chemical properties inherent to the plant itself. Explains Don Cata, “You must transmit love to the plant and give thanks to the plant, as well as the land and the earth. Otherwise it will die. We never take the whole plant for a medicine, we just take what we need.” Omar agrees. “To reap the full benefits of the healing or restorative properties of the plant, you must ask the plant for help. When people have a physical symptom, they must ask for the help so that they can start looking deeper for the root of the problem in their souls.”
Omar says that the rancheros of BCS like Don Cata are fully responsible for their emotional and physical well-being in ways that many of us in the west are not. “In modern times we have such large egos we think we can solve everything but we cannot. We just want to take a pill for the problem, without digging deeper into its origins. The Baja Rancheros and the native peoples of Mexico have so much respect for the earth, the things we cannot see, and for being connected to everything around us.”
Omar is living testimony to the power of plants to heal one’s soul and maintain balance in life. In 2010 Omar’s brother was kidnapped in Monterrey N.L. and has never been seen or heard from again. The shock of such an almost unimaginable event caused Omar’s mother to suffer a stroke, and plunged Omar into a profound emotional crisis. But, says Omar, “In this most difficult moment of my life, traditional medicine and plants taught me so much about life and spirituality, and brought me back to emotional health. It is this inner process of healing myself, of healing my soul, of finding balance with the help of the plants that I want to share with others.” The kidnapping of your brother – that’s a lot of venom for your mind to keep away from your heart.
Carlos Casteneda, the famed author who wrote several books about the teachings of a Mexican shaman concluded, “The aim is to balance the terror of being alive with the wonder of being alive.” Omar has succeeded in doing just that, and sharing this knowledge is now his life’s work. “Traditional medicine is sacred, it comes from god, it’s related to god” says Omar. “It is of and for the community – it belongs to everyone.” Don Cata agrees. People throughout the Sierras seek him out for healing, but he feels that his main purpose is to teach them how to use the plants themselves. “When friends visit, or when I’m working on projects on ranches with others, I always try to give them the knowledge for themselves and their families, and encourage them to pass it on to others.”
The great Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt wrote, “Nature everywhere speaks to man in a voice familiar to his soul.” Man just needs to open himself to hear that voice. Mind over matter.