I have heard that what you teach you get to learn. That is the law of Giceiving in action. I find myself constantly acquiring information, giving it out and then really learning what I have taught. Here’s an example of what I mean.
I was born and raised in Las Vegas by parents who appreciated the natural beauty of the surrounding Mojave Desert mountains, so much so that they would take my sisters and me hiking on weekends about twice a month. Seeing all of the wondrous plants and animals would spark much curiosity in me, but I wouldn’t find out what they were until much later. In school, we never really learned much about our desert, almost as if it wasn’t that important. But ever since then, my curiosity has led me to knowledge I find not only important but could possibly help people worldwide.
Desert knowledge is mostly held by the American Indian cultures that still live in it. Because most have been Americanized and therefore are steadily losing their cultures and languages, there is renewed interest in making sure the essentials don’t get lost forever. These include plant and animal knowledge, procurement of wild foods, and desert technologies. Although in the modern world this type of knowledge is less celebrated, these ancient ways of living are the foundation of any modern civilization and need to be preserved. Lucky for me, I found two very helpful introductory books on the desert lore of Las Vegas: Native Plants of Southern Nevada: an Ethnobotany, and Southern Paiutes: Legends, Lore, Language, and Lineage. Both books have taught me a lot about how life was before American domination, and I feel that if I was ever stranded out there in the desert, I might just be able to survive. But more than just surviving, I want to learn how to apply this new knowledge to my city lifestyle.
In the desert there are hidden gems. For instance, mesquite beans, when cooked right, are sweet as candy and taste almost like chocolate. Prickly pears aren’t the only cactus fruit you can eat, as all cactus fruit are edible, although some are tasteless, and the good tasting ones come in a wide range of flavors, from sour and lemony to sweet and tropical. Barrel cactus fruit are spineless, look like a small pineapple, and can be used as a sour vegetable in pickling; and the seeds, which are enclosed in one area of the fruit, can be ground up and substituted for or added to corn masa in making tortillas. Indian Fig pads are a Mexican vegetable, and Cholla flower buds are high in the nutrients that many industrially produced foods lack. Chia seeds, or “Jello of the desert,” make a refreshing addition to any fruit juice. Indian ricegrass produces a grain that is very high in fiber and protein. Amaranth seeds have certain proteins usually found only in meat, and can be popped like popcorn and made into confectionery treats. Tepary beans, actually native to the Sonoran Desert, are a nuttier tasting substitution for pinto and kidney beans. But the best thing that all of these foods have to offer (besides the great new flavors) are their numerous healthful benefits. Almost all of them are very low on the glycemic index, and many of them release mucilage and soluble fibers that slow down the blood’s absorption of sugars and starches, preventing blood sugar peaks. This makes them perfect foods for people with diabetes.
When I first started learning about the bounty of the desert, I would tell my family and friends about it, but hadn’t really gone out and picked these foods on my own. Well, about two years ago, I was visiting a friend who lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and who has diabetes. I noticed he had a few mesquite trees growing in his front yard and let him know some of the tidbits of information that I described above. He was very impressed, saying “whenever the mesquites would drop their pods, it was a hassle to get rid of them, but I never knew I was throwing away food!” From then on he started picking up mesquite pods and having me come over and sift out the bad ones. Then when I told him about the benefits of prickly pear fruit, he remarked how whenever he walks down the street, the cacti are always so full of fruit, but nobody ever picks them. From then on, he started asking his neighbors whether he could pick their cactus fruit. He had done something that at the time I was somehow unable to do: quickly apply practice to knowledge. I was talking about all of the wonders of native foods, while in reality I wasn’t actually eating them in preference to more unhealthy foods. What helped me change was seeing his satisfaction in eating tasty, healthy, and free food that came from a block away. Ever since then, I have learned how to procure and cook the bounty of the desert. By informing others as to the richness of the desert and its healthy food, I have acquired a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle in my desert city.