In the second week of August, the Tucson community, the greater Southwest, indigenous peoples, and farmers everywhere lost a good friend, an extraordinary seed saver, and a historian of Southwest food and farming folkways. He was also a patron saint to the founders of Edible Baja Arizona. Dr. Barney T. Burns, 69, was far more than a co-founder of Native Seeds/SEARCH. He spent more than four decades linking native farmers and artisans to the communities, human rights support networks, and applied scholars that cared about them and their future. Trained as an archaeologist, dendrochronologist, climate scientist, and ethnohistorian, Barney knew more about northwest Mexico than anyone I have ever known, through both his firsthand experiences and his readings. He maintained one of the most extensive libraries of borderlands archives and rare books I have ever seen.
But if this suggests that Barney was a stuffy scholar, nothing could be further from the truth. With a wry sense of humor, fun-loving trickery, and shaggy-dog storytelling, Barney amazed nearly every soul that ever traveled or dined with him. From the days when he was growing up in Carlsbad, New Mexico, in the ‘50s, to his very last days in the Tucson Mountains, Barney had a museum curator’s penchant for collecting and documenting the material cultures of our region. It was as if he were on some wild adventure to rediscover the Holy Grail.
His work benefited far more people than most of us will ever know. He and his wife and traveling companion, Mahina Drees, kept hundreds of Tarahumara families alive during some of the worst droughts their land had ever witnessed. Rather than simply offering handouts of one-time food relief, Barney and Mahina helped provide income through crafts sales, reintroducing lost seeds, sponsoring ecological restoration, and water-harvesting projects, and building a network of support for livable wages. They were also instrumental in efforts to stop World Bank-funded intrusions of highways, sawmills, and mines into the Sierra Tarahumara in the ‘90s, when no one thought that little Davids could ever scare away such a Goliath.
As co-founders of Native Seeds/SEARCH, Barney and Mahina assembled most of its original seed collections, and continued to serve on the board for more than another quarter century. As a compiler and co-author of the book The Other Southwest, and many journal articles, and chapters in anthologies, Barney made a unique contribution to ethnohistorical and ethnobotanical scholarship as well.
Much of Barney’s work the last half of his life was done in tandem with his partner, Mahina, singer-songwriter, nonprofit activist, seed saver, and garden educator. Together they must have traveled more than a hundred thousand miles into remote villages on both sides of the border. No two people have worked harder to ensure an agriculturally diverse future for our region, and no one could have ever done it with as much adventurousness, hilarity, and joy as Barney and Mahina have done. Each of them deserves to be regarded as true keepers of the multicultural heritage of the borderlands, and Barney will be deeply and immediately missed by hundreds of his Raramuri, Yoreme, Mormon, Guarijio, Nde, O’odham, Mexican, and Yori friends.
Adios, amigo. See you under the Sacred Tree on the other side of the Desert River.