I give you the water of life…

If you’ve never read the book Dune, get a copy, read it, and then come back and read this post. Only then can you understand the depth of one man’s commitment to change the face of Tucson, one drop at a time. (For the record, “I give you the water of life” is actually a quote from Stranger in a Strange Land – another equally good science fiction read).


Our trip to Tucson began with two coincidental breakfasts of delicious gluten-free pancakes. Than and I separated for the first time on our travels to spend time with our friends Jess and Ali in Prescott, and it was a nice chance to recharge our individual batteries for a bit. It’s a rare and special friend whom you can hold at arm’s length for multiple hours on the road, and an equally special friend who can give you space. Also, it’s a rare friend who has the ability to spot photo opportunities on the road like this one:

Amazing car

During the day, I got to roam through downtown Prescott with Jess, and had a lovely time doing Yoga in the town square, grabbing a milkshake made by one of her biology students, and perusing the works of local artists. Before we departed, she took us over to Prescott college to see the school’s composting system. The school had converted a cinder block shed into a three part composting system, and seeing this definitely got my mind whirring with possibilities for a potential bear-safe composting systems at camp in Yosemite.

Prescott Compost

Our visit to Prescott was all too brief and yet all together sweet. We set off in the afternoon towards the dusty roads of Tucson, where we found ourselves right smack in the middle of their 21st annuals Day of the Dead procession. Ed, a good friend of mine from Yale, met us all decked out in facepaint and accompanying Day of the Dead accoutrements, and pointed us in the direction of the procession’s grand finale. All I can say is – what a night. The only way to capture the festivities is for you to see them:

Ed and me

Acro-yoga in the procession

Click for movie Click this photo for a movie from the event

It was yet another serendipitously timed arrival. The Day of the Dead festival was an incredible experience we otherwise never would have taken part in had it not been for the particular progression of this road trip.

The following day, after some great conversations with Ed about border issues and the drug traffickers he had caught unintentionally on the cameras he installed to monitor wildlife movements on national forest land (pretty cool job right?), we headed up the street to the house of Brad Lancaster, author of two books on Rainwater Harvesting, and the first example we had come across of permaculture in its full splendor.

Initially when I had reached out to Brad through his website contact page, his assistant Megan informed me that a tour of Brad’s facilities usually ran for $100 an hour. I’m not sure how much of that fee is meant to support rainwater harvesting endeavors, or simply to deter weak-kneed folks from visiting – but as he told us, all it took was a little willingness on our part to chip in on a project, and he was happy to have us by.

Pondering urbanite

We spent that afternoon helping Brad haul pieces of urbanite (i.e. broken up slabs of old concrete reclaimed from sidewalks and or driveways) and install them in a couple of water reservoirs he had dug up behind a property across the street. His vision was to create a totally green rental property – something of a rarity in Tucson – and somehow, amidst consulting with local government officials, teaching classes, and continuing to build his own rainwater harvesting systems, he was well on his way to making that vision a reality.

Than hard at work

Besides genuinely enjoying the lifting of laden wheelbarrows, the biting of shovels into sandy earth, and getting to stand back and see the results of a good day’s manual labor, we had some incredible conversations with Brad, who told us of his own life’s quest, and the experiences that brought him back to his native Tucson. When he told us that his reason for getting into rainwater harvesting was challenge he received from an ancient, wizened farmer in Africa – we knew he was the real deal. He had come back to Tucson not to focus on its problems, but to be a part of the solution.

Today, finding solutions is exactly what he is doing, one piece of curb at a time. Years ago, Brad and his brother, with little money on their hands, purchased a modest house in one of Tucson’s poorer neighborhoods, and from then on set out to get off the grid, completely reinvigorating the barren environment around them. After installing solar panels, a passive solar heating unit, and remodeling their house to keep it from falling down, they proceeded to build a series of rainwater catchment systems intended to harness the more than 1.25 million gallons of rainwater they calculated was running away on just one mile of asphalt in Tucson. They began by tearing up the sidewalk outside their house, and constructing water reservoirs that could be fed by runoff from the street. In order to feed these reservoirs, Brad boldly cut into the curb – a move which, though illegal at the time, is now a standard practice in Tucson.

Entrance to Brad's place

From that point on, he has proceeded to turn a desolate sidewalk desert into a blooming orchard – though you might not recognize it if you aren’t familiar with plants native to Arizona. Brad walked us through all the food his streetside trees were yielding, from mesquite seeds that could be ground to flour, to flowers, shoots, and stems that could be harvested and cooked in delicious native dishes. Edible cactus anyone?

There were so many cool things he had done, just on his own small property: an outdoor shower composed of dried palm leaves, all heated by passive solar energy; a bustling garden, arranged and constructed brilliantly to retain water and block or allow sunlight as needed during the different growing seasons; he even had built himself a fireman’s pole leading up to the top of his bike shed where he sleeps in the summer to keep cool. Getting to scurry up the pole reminded me that, when we think of functionality, we often forget that it starts with the word fun. Brad got this, and with his wide smile and dry humor (no, not a Tucson pun), he helped us to see how intelligent design could realistically be melded with beauty, fun, and art.

Up the pole

And I can’t forget to mention his washing machine. Available to the community, Brad had rigged up his washing mashine to distribute water through four different pipes to four different fruit trees growing in his yard. All one had to do was take the flush pipe from the back of the washer, and stick it in the tube corresponding with the tree you wanted to water. This, in conjunction with his elaborate (and yet, simple) system of pipes capturing and distributing water runoff from the roof, was more than enough to produce a thriving garden, producing figs, oranges and more under the blaring Tucson sun.

I’m serious – you need to check this guy out. Buy his book, get it at the library, drive to Tucson, check the website – whatever works, just check him out, and learn what you can. We need more Brads out there, and there’s no reason we all can’t follow in his footsteps.

Me and Brad

With that, we’ve almost made it back to the present moment: sitting in Santa Barbara after a wild couple days in LA. Quentin Tarantino would be proud.

Until now, my love to you,

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