Reconciliation of Open Space & Tucson’s Birthplace

Desert Waterways, Borderland Identity, & the Spring at the Base of Black Mountain

The city of Tucson is named after a water source that no longer flows. Prior to colonization of Tohono O’odham land, a freshwater spring flowed from the base of a great saguaro studded hill towards the Santa Cruz River. The O’odham place name for this area is Chuk-son which translates to “Spring at the Base of Black Mountain”. This is a space of rich biocultural significance that holds over 4,500 years of human community and history. 

Once, not long ago, Black Mountain stood over a winding river and mesquite bosque 5 miles wide with 60 ft tall trees. A forest where jaguars from the south and grizzly bears from the north could travel unnoticed between sky islands. Early western ecologists would describe the dense, biodiverse riparian corridor along Santa Cruz River as an ecosystem with no planetary equivalent. Looking east from the summit one could have seen miles of verdant ribboning riparian habitat. Today when we look east from the summit we see miles of asphalt, pavement, vehicles, and the scars of development and injustice. 

While most of the urbanized reach of the Santa Cruz River visually represents the trauma of environmental degradation, cultural erasure and the violence of redlining and urban renewal, there are unique exceptions to the hegemony of the built environment. These exceptions include the 27 acre triangle of open space adjacent to Mission Rd. which is currently preserved by the remnants of the 50 year old landfill. A reminder of how our past mistakes can serve as the seeds for future aspirations.. 

This reach of the urban flood plain is where Tucsonenses stroll and share stories with their loved ones of floods and cool shady dips throughout the ages of the river. Here is a hub where bobcats, quail and coyotes make their way between the only sliver of land connecting the Santa Cruz River and the iconic Sonoran Desert habitat of the adjacent Tucson Mountains. Here is where belted kingfishers perch along telephone lines and roadrunners race along the sandbars of the Santa Cruz. 

This is why places like the Santa Cruz River and the remaining open space found across the floodplain are so important. They are the sacred places that demonstrate to our youth the truth in our aspirations and in our histories. They embody what it looks like to tend and conserve the land through reciprocity and humility within our ecological communities. It is hard to believe something you have never seen or experienced – these places provide the context for our past stories and vision for the aspirations we have for our shared home. 

The reconciliation of the Santa Cruz River Floodplain is a long and arduous process. Native grasses like Giant Sacaton Sporobolus wrighti, Mesquite Vine and Pappus Grass provide crucial habitat for whiptail lizards, Sonoran Desert Toads and other reptiles and amphibians. Round-tailed ground squirrels and road runners run through the grass forests of the perennial floodplain barrios –  while below the same grasses weave their roots strengthening the soil and literally holding the land. These relationships demonstrate the importance of time, deep connection to place and community that allow for the most impactful healing to take place. Radical aspirations, like most seeds, simply require water, space, and time. 

For these reasons the Reconciliation on the River initiative is proud to be an organizing partner and member of the Tucson Birthplace Open Space Coalition (TBOSC).  Reconciliación en el Río will continue to facilitate land based learning, and discussions around environmental justice and reconciliation ecology as tools to help define and envision our aspirations and shared visions for the health and healing of our floodplain at spaces like the A-mountain Landfill and other reaches of our shared floodplain.

The TBOSC Coalition members believe:

  1. This land at the base of the hill should remain open space, continuing to be a wildlife corridor connecting the living Santa Cruz River to the Tucson Mountains and beyond, as well as providing connectivity for pedestrians and equestrians. 
  2. This land holds a unique archeological, aesthetic, and bio-cultural heritage with a continuous human presence of more than 4,000 years. Globally recognized and deeply associated with Tucson’s identity, it should be celebrated and protected as a living historical and bio-diverse inheritance for the health, beauty, and wisdom of visitors and future generations. As well as the wellbeing of the non-human beings that walk, fly, and swim here, and all of the plants that should be protected and cherished.
  3. This land is a crucial area for positive urban climate action and desert resilience, lessening urban heat, air and sound pollution, as well as preserving an irreplaceable area of dark skies in the downtown area.
  4. This land has a history of transgression and loss. It has been turned from fertile land – historically and prehistorically Tucson’s food basket – into deadly gravel pits, a city dump, and damaged property ignored for years. Now is the time to break this destructive legacy with a new story, one of reconciliation and cooperation.
  5. This is a place of sacred life, a place for cultures to come together in a positive way, a place for healing our shared land and ourselves, a place of cultural practice. The Santa Cruz river connects us to each other, and to our generations past and future. We, all peoples in Tucson, Pima County, and the Sonoran Desert are called here, together, for a reason.
  6. Decision making processes related to this land should center those most impacted by decades of environmental racism, gentrification and colonialism, namely:
    • Tohono O’odham community members, whose ancestors lived in the village of Chukshon and are buried here, and who continue to live here
    • Neighbors in Barrios Sin Nombre, South Menlo Park, Kroger Lane, Santa Cruz, and the Westside community

TBOSC seeks to act as a broad-based coalition, a gathering of regional organizations and individuals providing gatherings, quorums, shared strategies, and united action to protect this land and provide research and means for alternatives to destructive exploitative development. 

We are tierra y alma (earth and soul), agua y amor (water and love), present in O’odham jeweḍ (O’odham land), celebrating ṣu:dagĭ and apedag (water and wellness). We celebrate this land not only as Tucson’s historical birthplace, but as the birthplace of a future that we and all creatures are safe and happy to live in. We look forward to many celebrations together along the banks of the Santa Cruz River!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: