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Water made this Valley: The 'Rich Country' of Xochimilco

Either it's on this side or that...

Can you find it?

No, but I found this one.

One of my companions pulls a 14-foot long branch from the brush.

That will do.

The four of us pile back into the car, the branch held out the passenger window like a javelin, and continue down the dusty gravel road towards the canal.

Road to the chinampas

The sun shines and a warm breeze drifts in the window. Through the water vapor and smog, one can make out the volcanoes to the south and east gently rising out of the Valley of Mexico. It is winter in Xochimilco and the birds are plentiful, spread across the chinampas.

The chinampas, floating gardens, have graced this landscape for more than 800 years. The ancient technique of piling up organic matter held by wooden stakes within the shallow lakes revolutionized agriculture in the Valley. A complex system of canals allowed for easy irrigation, and the rich soils dredged from the bottom of the lake made for productive growing seasons. In the 15th Century, the burgeoning Aztec empire in Tenochtitlan, the island city to the north, relied on Xochimilco for food for their tables and flowers for their altars. Xochimilco itself is Nahuatl for The Fields of Flowers. Now Xochimilco has been completely enveloped by the city, now making up the southern lowlands of Mexico City.

Trajinera alongside the canal

We unload the chainsaw, garden tools, and backpacks and step down into the unadorned trajinera, a long flat wooden boat. The branch, now our oar, is pushed down into the soft sediment. Aquatic plants begrudgingly part as boat and cargo are steered south, towards La Granja Ecológica Tlicuilli, the Tlicuilli Ecological Farm.

Loading the Trajinera

Granja Tlicuilli is a central project for Cualti Urban Agriculture and Permaculture. Cualti is a network of projects and people founded in Mexico City in 2009 to support sustainable food production and consumption.

While oaring, the co-founder of Cualti fills me in on the neighborhood. This part of the chinampas is mostly abandoned. There is only one family that lives here permanently, but keep paddling 30 minutes south and you will be in the middle of an urban area where cinderblock houses line the canals. Though this part of the chinampas is protected under conservation zoning and registered as a UNESCO Heritage Site, informal urbanization is encroaching from all sides.

Navigating the canal

Documentation of this unorganized growth, damage to the wetland ecosystem and its wildlife, and the need to mobilize policy and conservation efforts to mitigate harm are well noted in layman and scholarly literature. Heavy metals and bacteria are abundant in irrigation water. The Axolotl, a species of salamander found only in Xochimilco, is critically endangered. Informal developments are promoting the urban onslaught. Risks are high, optimism is low. Success stories can be hard to find.

Mural of the Axolotl in El Mercado de Xochimilco

As our boat pulls up to the Tlicuilli Ecological Farm I can't help but smile. Before 2005, this plot of land probably looked like its neighbors: empty, dry, unkempt grazing lands. Today, full-bodied trees border the perimeter, vibrant green chard stands nearly two feet tall and the adobe structures scattered across the lot are strong and sturdy.

Exploring the farm

We begin to look around, first at the bio-intensive permaculture beds then towards the wide circular garden and the two-domed balmy greenhouse. We crawl into the temezcal, say hello to the beehives, and eat under the newly constructed common area. Along with man-hours invested, one can feel there's a lot of love here.

Greenhouse at Tlicuilli Ecological Farm

Beehives on the edge of the property

Looking at the contrast between the Tlicuilli Ecological Farm and the neighboring lands, I can't help but think of the restoration work of Aldo Leopold, the great American environmentalist, and author of A Sand County Almanac. Leopold was a pioneer of the land ethic, a perspective shaped in part by his family's restoration of their farm in central Wisconsin. When he first bought the land, there were no trees, and the sandy soil was shot. As his daughter, Nina Leopold reflects on the farm, "This was sick land but rich country for the growth of perception." In their work the Leopold's were drawn to consider the faults of the prevalent 'conquest of Nature' narrative and the value of creating in-tune relationships with the Earth. Over the years, their time, care, and love turned the bare farmland into biodiverse, healthy forests and prairies.

Neighboring lands: dry chinampas converted to pasture

Developing a sense of place and learning land stewardship viscerally, with hands in the soil, arguably molds the self as much as it shapes the earth.

Like Leopold's farm in Wisconsin, Xochimilco holds a richness in its land. We put on our work gloves and pick up the hoes and rakes. Our goal is to clear a plot of land for an outdoor patio and garden. From the grass, we pull up plastic tarps and metal tubing, cleared brush that will be used as firewood, and bags of old glass bottles. Projects are a process; a road, not a destination. We work in pleasant silence under the sun.

Clearing for the patio

The lessons of manual labor are multifold: work on the chinampas and you are working in one of the last living cultural landscapes of the Valley of Mexico. You are participating in breathing life into memory and paying homage to Mexico's aquatic patrimony.

Lake Texcoco and her four sisters once spanned 1,500 km across the Valley. They now are all but drained. The expansive glaciers on the surrounding volcanoes have all but melted. Nearly fifty rivers that flowed down from the mountains have all but disappeared. And the forest and grassland watershed that charges Mexico City's aquifer is being stressed from urban growth, polluting agriculture, and mismanagement.

Water made this Valley.

But this understanding and its imprint on the conscience of ciudadanos is slipping.

In the chinampas the oneness with water lives on. Even despite urban encroachment and conservation challenges, the canals are still teeming with life. In no more than four minutes sitting on the edge of the trajinera in silence, I count eleven unique bird species. Some I know: the great egrets, blue herons, green herons, coots, grackles. Others are new: anhingas, the unidentifiable species of sparrows and warblers, and the Harris's hawk that glides over the channel to a nearby tree. In total, there are at least 180 identified species of birds in Xochimilco.

Blue heron against the backdrop of Volcán Teuhtli

Xochimilco is the past, the present, and the opportunity: to be a heritage site of sustainability and space of bio-cultural celebration. The Tlicuilli Ecological Farm and other projects such as REDES: Ecologic Restoration and Development are reaffirming the importance of the chinampas and their protection.

Four hours later, the grounds by the adobe house are cleared. My pants are dusty and I've got a few red ant bites on my ankles. My hands are satisfyingly tired from the hoeing. We rest by the fire pit and close our eyes. The rumble of the city is there, like always, but for a moment I can lose myself in the symphony of birds, wind, and insects.

What most visitors know of the chinampas is a glitzy trajinera on an overcrowded canal and all-day drinking parties with loud music blaring. This is fine and fun. But alongside, what of the great opportunity of ecological perception and collective learning presented by this rich country?

Efforts that are taking a renewed look at these fields and canals, affirming century-old traditions, and reinvesting in the landscape that has given this Valley so much offer an important inroad for us all.

What example can these sustainability and conservation projects in Xochimilco set for their chinampa neighbors? What model can be shared with city residents who only know that water flows from the tap? Could this instill a new appreciation for water, food, and wildlife throughout the megalopolis?

And what would all this say to the world?

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