The Sonoita Valley is a land of grass, oak, and mesquite in the undulating basin and range country of the Arizona-Mexico borderlands. In words and images, Jane Bock, Carl Bock, and Stephen Strom describe the environment, biodiversity and human history of this extraordinary place. “The days when cowboys ruled the Sonoita Plain are over,” write the Bocks. “This is less a good thing or a bad thing than it is a sure thing.” But what does the future hold for the valley and its living things, as exurban developments replace cattle ranches?
The authors are a photographer of southwestem landscapes, and two ecologists who have worked for the bulk of their professional lives at an Audubon sanctuary in the Sonoita Valley called the Research Ranch. At a more personal level, this is a book by three residents of the valley who share a passion for its remarkable beauty and diversity, and share a deep concern that it might be diminished for future generations absent careful and informed stewardship.
The book is organized into three sections. The first considers those three environmental forces that shape the ecology of all the world’s grasslands: drought, fire, and grazing. Understanding these forces and how they affect the environment upon which all living things in the Sonoita Valley depend, lies at the core of developing realistic conservation strategies. What are the effects of domestic grazers in a landscape that existed for most of the past 10,000 years without bison? How has the human urge to suppress fire altered the valley’s ecosystems, and how can fire be brought back into a place where it belongs?
The second set of essays provides selected but vivid examples of the diversity of plant and animal life in the Sonoita Valley:
- century plants that punctuate the grasslands like great spiny cabbages and have life cycles curiously similar to those of the Pacific Salmon;
- an enigmatic sparrow whose habitat preferences hint at what the valley must have looked like before the time of Columbus;
- the beautiful and durable prickle-poppy, that nobody should call a weed.
Finally, the authors consider humans in the valley, from the first Americans, through the early Hispanic and Anglo ranchers and their enduring cultural legacies, to the present day exurban colonists. People have dominated the world’s grasslands for so long that we really have no idea what they might be without us. The point of conservation in the Sonoita Valley, the authors argue, is not to restore its ecosystems to some unknowable pre-human state of wilderness, but instead to find ways of protecting the very things that attracted most people to the valley in the first place.
In her forward to Sonoita Plain, western historian Patricia Nelson Limerick applauds the authors’ attempts to unite ecology with aesthetics, to bring both humor and compassion to the table, and to suggest conservation prescriptions that engage rather than skirt the complexity of having humans in the picture. “The authors of this book show us how to be both Naturalist and Humanist, warning us, instructing us, amusing us, and raising our spirits at one and the same time.”
Sonoita Plain was published by the University Of Arizona Press in February, 2005.
Sonoita Plain: Views from a Southwestern Grassland with Carl Bock, Stephen Strom, photographer, 2005, Univ. Arizona Press.
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