For many of us, we think of nature-based activities in terms of recreational activities like camping, hiking, kayaking, birdwatching. These activities are great for exercise, connecting with family and friends, and enjoying the outdoors. However, this week we want to elevate some traditional nature-based activities that connect us to our land, water, and air in the most vital way possible.
The following nature-based are examples of how we have worked with nature to build and support thriving civilizations. These agricultural and land-based practices have played an important role in Hispanic and Latinx culture, existing through generations, and continue as traditions that many of us share today. Read on to learn more about our ancestral connections to the lands we have inhabited for centuries.
Chinampas, or floating gardens, were constructed by the Mexica people, who lived in the city of Tenochtitlán during the Aztec Empire. Because Tenochtitlán was built on an island in the middle of a lake, the Mexica didn’t have access to much land to grow important crops like corn, beans, and squash. As a result, they engineered their gardens by staking out rectangular plots in shallow areas of the lake, digging up mud in the area next to the plot (thus creating a canal), and piling up the mud and soil to fill in the rectangular garden plots. While chinampas were more widely used long ago, they continue to be used to this day in Mexico City. Researchers and scientists alike credit the indigenous communities for what would be the beginnings of modern-day aquaponics.
Acequias are community-managed irrigation channels brought to the Americas by the Spanish in the 1600s. Open channels bring runoff water from the mountains to fields downstream, both irrigating and flooding farmland. Today, they continue to play an important role in New Mexico and Colorado, where farming families unite to clean the existing acequias every spring. The traditional clean-up is called La Limpieza, an annual rite that remains today after centuries. In New Mexico and Colorado, small towns are organized around the acequias, ensuring that the land near the waterway receives the water necessary to cultivate crops. Acequias are managed democratically by a mayordomo, and community members who own water rights are called parciantes. With these rights are stewardship responsibilities of coming together to clean the waterways. Many believe that the acequia system should be held up as an example of sustainable water management because it not only creates “communities that serve as stewards of the environment,” but it also extends growing seasons, which has positive implications for food sources. According to researchers, these waterways are environmentally friendly and more beneficial than the use of concrete culverts or metal pipes because much of the water returns to groundwater or serves as functional wetland habitat for wildlife. Acequias rely on community involvement, which makes it a unique and critical way to share water.
Prehistoric humans began tending plants nearly 20,000 years ago marking the emergence of societies based on agriculture. However, it was around 10,000 ago that the domestication of certain plants in Mesoamerica, such as beans, squash, and maize, played a critical role in the shaping of the culture and traditions that have been passed down to generations of Hispanics and Latinos today. One prime example of this is a gardening technique of companion planting that originated in Mexico where maize, beans, and squash, called the Three Sisters, are cultivated together in the same garden. The maize acts as support for the beans, and together the maize and beans act as shade and control humidity for the squash. Meanwhile, the squash acts as a weed suppressant. While we can’t be sure of when the plants started to be grown in tandem, we do know that beans were domesticated in South America, followed by squash in Central America, with Maize reaching the Andes between 1800 and 700 BC. In the four corners region of the United States, indigenous tribes like the Puebloans used the Three Sisters gardening system to sow crops in a drier environment. What was able to be cultivated by tribes across Mesoamerica is a reminder of one of the many ways we are connected to the land, and proves as an example that many communities were able to thrive by way of gardening and agricultural advancement.
Wood Cutting & Piñon Gathering
It can be easy to forget that for centuries, during the cold season, families would need to prepare for the winter. This meant cutting wood to heat homes, as well as to fuel wood burning stoves. Piñon nuts were gathered during the harvest season, nourishing with its nutrient rich nut, eaten after roasting or being made into a paste for empanadas. Both practices helped to sustain families through the winter, and are still regarded as tradition today, with piñon gathering developing as a source of revenue.
Wood cutting is a tradition that many still practice today by gathering enough bundles to keep families warm through the winter. According to HECHO Advisory Board Member, Rock Ulibarri, wood cutting is an event more like Thanksgiving than a tedious chore. “All my boys come into town and we spend 3 days in the mountains. We take the best food, meats, beans, tortillas, and chile. We catch up with each other and learn about each other’s lives,” Ulibarri says. In Northern New Mexico, the majority Hispanos have wood stoves and heat their homes by wood. That makes wood cutting and storing essential for survival. Pine and Oak are cut but are never selected if they are still part of a tree that is alive, only trees that are dead are harvested. In Ulibarri’s family, his sons have started their own families who live in the city, but every year will make the drive to help their father gather and cut wood to harvest for the next season. In this way, the tradition lives on.
Piñon nuts have been sowed and gathered by indigenous people, later including communities of Hispanic descent. They are reported to have saved early explorers from starvation on their expeditions and continue to feed several communities today in what has become an annual tradition for many. The piñon nut is packed with protein, and can be found within the cone that is produced from the tree. During the harvest season, many families will travel to national parks and designated lands to pick piñon nuts for roasting, as well as to help create a paste for empanada making.
Hunting is an age-old practice that our ancestors relied on for survival. Wielding the right tools to hunt, as well as being sufficiently skilled and knowledgeable about how to track and find animals all played a key role in living off of wildlife. Passing down this knowledge and skills played a critical role in the next generation being able to sustain themselves and their families with food harvested from a hunt.
Today, hunting traditions are still strong in many communities. HECHO member Jerry Otero wrote in a blog post for HECHO, “While hunting is now sport and tradition for my family, we don’t forget it was a valued food source for my dad’s family at the time,” Otero said. Hunting has allowed communities to provide for themselves and avoid going hungry in times of hardship. For Otero, the land has deeply influenced his connection to the outdoors, with his grandparents and beyond “have hunted, fished, and lived off Colorado lands for centuries.”
Nature-based activities have been practiced by indigenous, Latinx, and Hispanic communities for countless generations. Much of the way land is tended and gardens are grown today stems from traditions that have been passed down through the generations. Today, we must continue to protect and preserve these traditions by getting outdoors to practice and teach these traditions to future generations.