Driving west into the afternoon sun toward the mountains, the buildings begin to disappear as the road opens into a seemingly never-ending landscape. Saguaros dot the mountains, arms up in welcome. A pompadoured quail jets across the road as a prairie dog jumps in its burrow. The roads turn from asphalt to dirt, and you get the sense that this place has a different vocabulary to accommodate the way that light hits the hill at dusk or the echo of birdsong. You notice how the sky just keeps getting bigger and how you can breathe in deep, feeling that expansion. You might begin to know some of what Jill Lorenzini knows.
Jill Lorenzini is an educator, artist, grower, builder, and longtime desert dweller. Her life and work are grounded in the place she inhabits, and out of this place, she creates structures, art, food, and medicine.
Lorenzini greets me in the drive. We pass a garden with endless shades of green. Heat has come early this year, so yesterday she put up shade structures. Peas spill over trellises and the sun dapples their green stalks. A bathtub raised on blocks is covered in cob plaster with the shape of a mermaid on the basin and, underneath, a cut out to make a wood-burning fire. The tub is stained red from the creosote trees just next to it, the leaves of which Lorenzini uses for soothing sore muscles. We walk by a solar oven—up to 325 degrees today—with dinner: yams and squash and garlic roasting inside, and we continue into the shaded wraparound porch surrounding the circular house Lorenzini built. On the right, an outdoor pantry with shelves full of jars of spices, hanging baskets of herbs, and counter space for food preparation. On the left, an outdoor sink. Past her two refrigerators, one for her food and one for the products she makes, we find a table. Lorenzini pours hibiscus punch over ice into a Mason jar, now fuchsia, and hands it to me.
Could you tell me a little about how you came to the desert and what about it appealed to you? What made it become home?
I grew up around Buffalo, New York—huge snow country, not a lot of sun. My father’s work was as a pilot with American Airlines. People within that circle were always seeking sunny destinations so one of the people recommended Arizona. We took vacations here when I was a kid. It was so different from where I grew up and mostly that was the wide openness, the ability to see other than just down the street. Then my sister came to college here and I came shortly after—anthropology was something that I was interested in and the idea of being able to be active year-round.
I keep wanting to explore the idea of terroir—the definition given to food when it tastes like the place it came from. The flavor of a place. Like true champagne is made from champagne grapes and they grow in a certain region and there are all the soil conditions, the air, the climate, the seasons, the sun exposure, the elevation. There’s an essence of what Tucson is. I know the desert in all the ways I’ve walked through it. I feel at home because I realized when I came here that I needed that wide openness to truly feel comfortable in myself.
So you built this house? Can you tell me about that process?
I had been an alternative school and public school teacher for a while. During my teaching, I met a mentor, Judy Knox. She and her husband had started a straw-bale construction company called Out on Bale. I asked: “Do you need any help?” And they said yes. I was right in the thick of it: teaching workshops, writing a quarterly journal, getting interested in how to build and use different materials, which fed a need in me I always had without really knowing.
I’m not a trained architect but I’m proof anyone can do this. I’m handy and I did a lot of study and research [when building the house], but you can get away with a lot. I call what I do opportunitecture—I scrounge and find something and I use it.
I think people are very hungry for these kinds of elemental things. We all have those skills, but it’s [been] generations since we used them. Recently, I was helping in a permaculture class and I did a section on natural building where you actually handle dirt and mix it and pour into an adobe form. You can see that people have a natural proclivity and then they are lost in it, like children.
Can you tell me about the cookbook you’re working on?
I’m one of the core members of Desert Harvesters. The first cookbook we made was called Eat Mesquite. Now, we’re increasing to 12 to 14 new ingredients. All the bean trees: mesquite, ironwood, palo verde. All the main cactus foods: saguaro, cholla, prickly pear, barrel. We have greens and herbs, things triggered by the rains. Chia seeds are one of the new ingredients. Chiltepin is another. And then a variety of flowers. We’re doing a “meet the ingredients” section and organizing the book by seasons. We’re paying homage to native people because we’re beginning with the summer, which is the beginning of the year for Tohono O’odham, when the rains come and the saguaro fruits are ripe. For each of those ingredients, I’m doing dry erase art. I’m illustrating a calendar of wild foods in ink. The book is heavy on stories and featuring people who have done what we call fusions: taking old recipes from the regions they were from, or their ethnic heritage, and substituting desert ingredients.
Lorenzini lays out several small jars and a bag of tortilla chips on the table, next to the peas she just harvested.
This is radish relish—it has radishes, carrots, garlic greens, ginger. There are golden raisins to give it a bit of sweet. Kimchi is usually made with cabbage, but this is made with mustard greens, radishes, greens, ginger, cayenne, and garlic. That pea, you have to open the pod like a zipper. That one, you can eat whole pod.
Peas are notorious. Their lesson is you can never see everything the first time. They stay hidden, even if you are looking right at it. You have to go around the trellis or change your position to see the peas. I picked yesterday and already there were more to pick. I know if you have things that are growing, you have to attend to them.
Can you tell me a little about the medicinal things you make?
Most of my friends joke: ask me any question and the answer is creosote. But it is very valuable to make a salve. In fact there’s a series at the farmers’ market that Barbara [Rose] and I set up called Homestead and for one of the classes I’m steeping creosote in olive oil to make salve. The essential qualities of the creosote make it super good before sun, for sunburn, to put on any cut or scrape or in a tincture. One of my other favorite medicinals is desert lavender and that is a great one to know because it’s a hemostat. If I’m out in the desert and I fall and start bleeding, I can take desert lavender, chew it in my mouth, and put that poultice right on the cut. I’ve also infused it in tequila and it has a nice peppery, lavender flavor.
What educational programming are you working on now?
Through Desert Harvesters, Barbara Rose and I are doing a monthly demonstration at the Santa Cruz Farmers’ Market on Thursdays in partnership with the [Community] Food Bank. Barbara and I created a Homestead series: how to ferment, how to make salves, how to use solar ovens. I like hands-on learning, so we offer follow ups. If we do a demo on cholla buds and you really want to know how to harvest, process, prepare, and store them, we offer hands-on workshops at Bean Tree Farm. I created a series I’m going to do in partnership with Food Conspiracy Co-op starting this month on Monday nights: the Sonoran Desert Series. I do monthly plant walks based around the season in Dunbar Spring and around La Cocina on their Tuesdays for Tucson nights.
Can you speak to, in our current political, cultural moment, the value of connectedness to the place you inhabit and intimacy with that place?
God, that’s all that’s keeping me going. In the current state of affairs, I’m heartbroken to think this could all be lost. If I can have a dose of beauty or understanding or contribution to the preservation of this, or if anyone is empowered to know the plants around them that are foods and medicines, that’s gonna help all of us. That’s going be a reservoir of sanity if things break down. I think of surviving the current political climate as—how do I develop toolkits that are going to allow me to do that? If I have pain, I need to develop a pain toolkit. If I have sorrow, I need to develop a sorrow toolkit. If I have anger and rage and frustration, I need a toolkit for that, too. And it’s all here. It’s everywhere. That’s why I feel at home. When I feel depleted, I go out in the desert. Getting grounded, even lying on the ground. People think the desert is hostile or spiny. I find it extremely inviting.
It can be so easy to forget that going out and spending time in the desert is an option. So for people that feel intimated or want to have more of a relationship, what would you say to them?
Think of it like exercise, you have to set aside a regular time. And I’m the same way: I’ve planned all these things through Desert Harvesters where I’m getting out to walk. And I’m doing that in both urban and wild places because I think there are treasures in the urban. But you have to commit to getting out into it. You have to grow intimacy. Even getting outside, even walking. Walking slows you down enough to see things.
Eating is one of the biggest ones. I’ve been working with Barbara Rose going on nine years now. And pretty much every time we’re together, we’re eating some amazing foods. Desert Harvesters is all about developing intimacy with place through native foods. I think when I eat desert foods that I’m eating the place that I am. That’s ultimate intimacy to me. I can be in my garden and go eat peas and eat them immediately—there’s heavy-duty chi in that sort of relationship. Or if you’re out on the trail and you know what’s an edible food and you can eat it, I like that. I need that. ✜
Desert Harvesters. DesertHarvesters.org.
Lisa O’Neill is a freelance writer living in Tucson. Her work focuses on intersections of social justice issues including sustainability and food security. Visit LisaMOneill.com.