HU:Ñ, HA:L & BAWI: The Three Sisters of the Santa Cruz Valley
By Zoe Martín Cowan
A sea of green and yellow combs the valleys where my predecessors once witnessed the multicolored diversity of life that is the Sonoran Desert. Maize lit the path for the Green Revolution, a massive increase in high yield crop production globally, and has been central to the development of GMO technologies. But humans once had a much more intimate and spiritual connection to maize, a term derived from the Caribbean Taíno-Arawan word mahiz meaning ´life-giving’. It played a central role in the Cosmo-vision of the Maya of Mesoamerica, who believed that mankind was created by divinities from maize dough. The Aztecs also revered maize deities. This flowering grass is thought to have been the first crop that allowed early American civilizations to become sedentary, and still sits at the throne of modern Native American gastronomic culture. The fates of this species and our own have become entangled in such a complex manner that human politics, ethics and livelihoods depend on our relationship to each other. People across the planet depend on maize varieties as a staple food crop and to fuel their energy sources (animal and machine). On the other hand, unlike its wild ancestor, maize cannot reproduce without farmers.
Teosinte is maize’s wild ancestor; a grass with a sweet stem and indigestible grains used for brewing a fermented beverage called chicha. The Maya domesticated it 6,250 years ago in Mexico, and it quickly spread south and north to all of the Americas, slowly evolving into modern maize through artificial selection. All who grew it noticed that when planted alone, maize rapidly impoverished the soil. However, when planted together with beans and squash, it had the opposite effect. That is why this queen of American agriculture is considered one of the components of the ´Three Sisters´ of the milpa, or triple crop guild. Maize stems constitute steady supports for climbing beans, which in turn fix nitrogen and provide nutrients that maize requires. The third sister, squash, affords a blanket of green foliage that shades the soil, prevents erosion and retains moisture. The three are mutually beneficial, while conveniently offering complementary nutrients in their fruits essential to human diets. It is these ecological relationships that allowed American civilizations to become sedentary and thrive.
Modern maize’s ancestors quickly became staple crops for early farmers. When they migrated, so did their seeds, which were traded. The early domesticates have since diversified into a plethora of artificially selected varieties. There are now millions of varieties of sweet maize, popcorn, flint corn, dented corn and blue corn, among other categories growing on all continents and consumed by all types of people and their livestock. My land, the Santa Cruz Valley, found in the Sonoran Desert, has been home to the ancient Chapalote popcorn, 60-day white corn and dented June corn for many generations, safeguarded by the Tohono O’odham people, who collectively refer to such crops as Hu:ñ.
White 60-day corn produces small thin off-white ears with yellow silky tassels and is traditionally planted alongside O’odham squash (Ha:l) and tepary beans (Bawi). When the soil becomes moistened by the first summer monsoon rains, a stick is used to make small holes into which two to four seeds are dropped. Taking advantage of monsoon water to sprout quickly, it becomes fully ripe in only two months, right in time to be harvested before the first frost. When the silky hair attached to each kernel turns brown or when a white juice can be pressed out of the kernels, the ears are ready to be collected by pinching them off the stalk. The juiciest ears are peeled and roasted right after being picked, on grills or in shallow pits, and the rest are left on the stalk to dry for seed saving. Some kernels are also ground into flour to make tamales and tortillas.
It is best to plant O’odham squash or Ha:l at the beginning of the monsoon season, with the first rains of hot June and July, although it can be planted as early as May if water is available for irrigation. Three to four seeds are inserted in mounds four to eight feet apart from each other, about one inch down into the soil. Ha:l is traditionally planted between rows of Hu:ñ (Tohono O’odham maize). It requires nutrient-rich soils, which can be found wherever beans or peas grew the previous year. Ha:l vines grow as long as 15 feet, so abundant spacing is needed between seeds. Its roots like soil that is not too hard or dry. In the Sonoran Desert, the soil is hard and alkaline, so it must be dug out and mixed with mulch or straw, then formed into mounds. The ground must be kept moist for the first week, which is why the first monsoon rains are the perfect time for germination. Once the first leaves sprout and the plant establishes good roots it can be watered every two weeks. A good strategy is to build a berm around the stem to help retain moisture and allow water to percolate down to the roots. Once it flowers, Ha:l needs to be allowed to stress in order to produce. Three weeks after sprouting, small striped green or yellow squash called Ha:l m:amad (squash children) can be harvested. About half of these are picked to eat tender, and the other half left on the vine to mature into big winter squash harvested in October to November when the vine dies. Ha:l can be eaten fresh or sun-dried and stored, and its seeds toasted.
The third sister of the Americas is arguably the most important; the Tepary bean or Bawi. This leguminous crop has bacteria in nodules of its roots that help convert nitrogen in the atmosphere into a consumable form by plants. Nitrogen is scarce in desert soils due to lack of organic material, a condition that renders plants of Bawi’s family essential to the entire ecosystem. Bawi is also one of the most heat and drought resistant crops in the world. Thanks to these characteristics it has allowed people to settle and survive in the Sonoran desert.
Bawi is not only a staple crop but also central to the himdag, or worldview, of the Tohono O’odham people. Legend has it that the Milky Way consists of white tepary beans (To:ta Bawi) scattered across the sky. Its wild ancestors were highly diverse in color, including the dark speckled bean chipulee, but today mostly two varieties: white and brown teparies are consumed. To plant, sixteen-inch deep furrows are dug to add in manure, aerate and moisten the soil in which three to four beans are dropped. These should be spaced twelve to sixteen inches apart. Until all the beans germinate, the soil should be kept damp, then watered only once a week. These plants need to be allowed to stress from heat and drought to produce beans, so one should only water when they begin wilting and stop watering altogether when the pods turn brown. Like its sisters, Bawi is planted in July and is nursed by the monsoon rains. It produces vines where white flowers sprout and pods that are collected in October after the vines dry in the summer sun. Bawi bushes are pulled when the pods rattle when shook, then placed on flat clean ground and pounded with sticks in order to extract the beans from their pod. Beans are cleaned with a winnowing basket so that the wind blows away any impurities, and then stored in ceramic pots or baskets away from moisture. Some of the seeds are saved for planting; the rest are stored for consumption. The addition of Tepary beans to desert diets is an important source of protein.
(Figure 5) White and brown Bawi
Maize and man are mirror images of each other in that neither can succeed alone. Whoever cultivates an ecosystem of crops, such as the maize, squash and bean guild, will quickly realize the importance of each element, and that a balance of giving and taking will always yield the best harvest. Guilds such as maize, the very substance of humanness; beans, nurturing the soil beneath and lighting up the sky above for us to find our way; and squash, providing the perfect environment for beans, maize and human ambitions to sprout; serve to exemplify the fragile interconnectedness of ecosystems on earth, for which we are responsible and from which we benefit so greatly. Let this article be a memo to a new generation of farmers who will hopefully transfer this ecological thinking to other groups of crops and to the next generation, contributing in this way to preserving the diversity of drought and heat resistant food crops for the betterment of future livelihoods of all species.
- Corn | Native-Seeds-Search. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 July 2017.
- Kruse-Peeples, Melissa. "Desert Foods for Healthy Living." Native Seeds/SEARCH - Desert Foods. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 July 2017.
- "Remarkable Plants That Shape Our World." University of Chicago Press. N.p., 01 Oct. 2014. Web. 29 July 2017.
- "Terrol Johnson, Tristan Reader, Co-founders of Tohono O'odham Community Action." Book: From I'itoi's Garden. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 July 2017.
- "TOCC Plant Atlas." TOCC Plant Atlas. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 July 2017.
- Photography by Dena Cowan in our backyard and Mission Garden at Tucson’s Birthplace