It may be desert but you might forget it, looking out across the grasses and forests and even the more arid bunch-grasses north and east of town. But one thing our high desert shares with many other parts of the state is the fragility of the soil. So much relies on it – soil is what grows crops, trees for shade, and breaks down the old to be recycled and renewed.
When my family moved to Flagstaff about 20 years ago there were many surprises, but two big ones about the ground: the red clay of the soil, and the cinders on the roads in winter. Looking at other yards, I remember discovering “xeriscaping”: having cinders and rocks for a yard instead of grass. It all made sense. This was a different part of the country, and the clay and soil need different care – most of the soils here are “inhospitable” to gardeners, but still bloom with all the native plants. Cinders are easy to find, and putting them on roads is less damaging to the plants and environment than salt – that was even part of my science fair project, looking at plants wilting from salt exposure! And in this dry state, watering a lawn seems a little silly. A lot of these lessons make sense, and stick out when you first see them.
Some people think that the soil is the key to fighting climate change. Others point to the risks of increasing erosion as wildfire risk rises. In older times, they even farmed around Flagstaff, but they pushed the soil too hard and had to pause – and other activities moved in to provide livelihoods. Whether you want to use the dirt to garden, to fight climate change, or simply to keep it around and keep Flagstaff the way it is – spare a thought for the soil.