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Permaculture in Damaged Lands: Degradation and Restoration in New Mexico

A certain coal-strewn road in Madrid, New Mexico
— the remnants of a now defunct railway.

Alternately barren and spectacular, the southwest United States has piqued the imagination of Americans and people across the world for generations. The site of gold rushes, Native American homelands, and a culture of lawlessness that has yet to fade completely, much of the land was degraded and destroyed long before Hollywood discovered how to cash in on retelling stories from its checkered past. Films may glorify the breadth and scope of the iconic terrain, but the essence and character of the Southwest ecology has been drastically altered; it little resembles what it once was.

For the Southwest’s environment, 2010 was one for the books. I happened to arrive in New Mexico on June 28th, when the Los Conchas fire had spread within spitting distance of the Los Alamos National laboratories and locals were convinced radioactive material was going up in the huge smoke clouds. The fire whipped through 160,000 acres of New Mexico, the largest, swiftest fire in the state’s history. It took less than a week to break the record previously held by the Dry Lakes fire, which destroyed 94,000 acres in 2003 in Gila National forest — but neither compared to the Wallow Fire in Arizona which burned out half a million acres (200,000 hectares) in the same summer. There are always complex reasons for the explosion of such fires, but the proximate reason in this case was drought.

The drought map on June 28th, 2011.
Re-used with permission from the National Drought Mitigation Center.

A secondary reason for the situation is that the entire ecology of New Mexico has been abused and degraded for hundreds of years, and on arguably a larger scale than most US states, leaving it vulnerable to the weather shocks of climate change and drought. These days, many worry about the so-called mega drought, which seems always on the horizon. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the environment of the southwest United States and New Mexico was systematically raped and pillaged, but the abuse began in many respects before the mining or deforestation that occurred later. It began with the importation of European cattle and sheep in the 16th century and 17th century under Spanish colonial rule.

Sheep at the mouth of Cayote Canyon.
Republished with permission from US Forest service.

Once rolling grasslands, New Mexico is today mostly desert, though it is not often thought of as a man-made one. I had just returned from Jordan, where I was working on the Jordan Valley Permaculture Project (aka: ‘Greening the Desert – the Sequel’ site) with Geoff Lawton and a number of volunteers and professionals doing fantastic work and consultation. I was fascinated by the parallels to the environmental conditions in Jordan, where over-grazing is far and away the most pressing problem contributing to the severe water shortage in the country. Jordan, too, was once a very different place. There, similar environmental abuses depleted the country’s resources in a single generation. Today, chemical-driven monoculture is the norm. But the patterns in both regions are all too familiar. When I read in a US Forest Service report, about the land degradation and the process through which the “entire Hispanic system of adaptation broke down; the traditional cultural ecology no longer functioned”, I thought first of the Bedouins.

A local Monsanto office in Jordan. The sign says “welcome”,
but the gate is locked.

As Neal Spackman, a permaculture pioneer in Saudi Arabia reminded me, “many areas in the world are threatened by desertification, and that’s a process that, once started, doesn’t stop without human intervention.” Neal’s project focuses on training Bedouins to harness the local water resources, which come in the form of torrential flash floods. As Neal says “permaculture is the design framework guiding these efforts, but the tools are suited to each cultural and climactical context.” Seeing the bleakness of the landscape in the Middle East, and realizing the history of how it became so, was a humbling experience. As Southwest climate expert William Debuys told me, “Permaculture is not a panacea for our land stewardship problems: the scale at which permaculture (or any set of treatments) can operate is limited — and the needs of the land for rehabilitation know no bounds.”

Heading north, past the many ancient Native American communities that line the rails towards Santa Fe, I noted the ubiquitous sagebrush and scattered junipers, clutching to the crumbling hills and erosion gullies near the road. This wasn’t merely a similar landscape to the Middle East, it was essentially the same. Modernization and poor land stewardship have erased many of the unique features of the land. In Jordan, the ubiquitous saltbush pops up in every corner of the landscape, and is one of the only native weeds that isn’t browsed by grazing animals. Here, the sagebrush is the common volunteer, packed with aromatic oils which make it unpalatable to livestock, but also give it the tendency to ignite. The trauma the land has suffered through has created a common ecology, a landscape of degradation, that transcends geography. In both countries, the desolation stirs up feelings that range from dread to awe.

I was on the train heading to a permaculture institute in Madrid, New Mexico where I was greeted warmly by Amanda and Andy Bramble, who run the Ampersand Sustainable Learning Center. They’ve been working on their off-grid property for over seven years. Much of their community is bisected by an old compacted railroad, which used to haul coal to Los Alamos, creating big erosion issues throughout the area.

The old railroad grade towards the Ortiz mountains which raised and
diverted the arroyo from its original level. Floodwaters back up against the grade
on the west side and are channeled down to a giant erosion headcut, disrupting
the flow of the water and dragging away valuable organic matter and silt.
The black, shiny material on the surface is coal waste,
which covers the surface for miles.

The Ampersand Sustainable Learning Center

The neighboring cities of Cerillos and Madrid, New Mexico, share a lot of common history. Both major mining cites in the late 19th century, Los Cerrillos was an ancient turquoise cache for Native American delvers before its hillsides were stripped for deposits of lead, copper, silver and other precious metals. The hills of Madrid held sizable quantities of both soft bituminous coal and hard anthracite coal — hauled first by wagon load and then by the trainload down the Sante Fe Railroad. Though the mines have closed and the railway is dismantled, the scars on the land remain; long, empty roads caked in black soot. To someone that spent some time reading landscapes, the coal road was like an insult, built right next to a stream valley (arroyo) at such an angle that it seemed to maximize the potential for erosion on all sides.

The outside garden spaces at Ampersand were few, but well cared for and fed only by rainwater or greywater. As Amanda put it to me in an email: “once we discovered the limits of how sustainable we could be here food-wise (a few fruit trees and shrubs, a small garden, a couple of perennial vegetable beds and a greenhouse), we began looking into the greater community for participating in a more regional sustainability.” This was perhaps the biggest lesson I took from Ampersand, the limits of sustainability in the landscape. Thoughtless planting was more likely to do damage than good. Careful, water-wise planting fulfill their own needs while they help run the local community gardens in Madrid. They started with a strong zone 1 and extended from there, holding the landscape together with swales and sound structures as they coordinated.

Mr. Bramble with a very happy batch of Kale in December

It is somewhat difficult to see the amount of systems, and the amount of work that has gone into Ampersand at first glance. You can’t immediately tell how many hours they labored with pick axes and shovels to change the slope of their driveway with rolling dips and cross drains. Nor will you immediately see the multitude of earthworks, small and large, that send water and silt into carefully mulched beds and lower swales. A series of swales at the highest part of the property marks the beginning of Ampersand’s set of systems.

Amanda Bramble leading a class at Ampersand headquarters during a course.

All the rain water that falls on the house is channeled into two large cisterns. An earth berm surrounds the house below upper swales on the hillside, moving all the rainwater from the area into the cisterns, or to surrounding plantings. All grey water moves through the interior house systems into the grey water planter in the greenhouse and is channeled into or put directly on the planting beds.

The roof water is channeled into the two cisterns, while the earth berm around
the house directs all water down towards trees, bushes and shrubs.

Water-harvesting warrior Brad Lancaster (right) with
Andy Bramble (center bottom), and Ampersand interns.

The uppermost swales in wintertime

Over the next few weeks, we worked on various projects; doing a final coat of cob on the exterior walls of the straw bale houses, setting up additional rainwater harvesting and working on a solar dehydrator. Because sunlight is so abundant here in New Mexico, it makes sense to focus on solar-driven technologies, but here they are kept practical and low-tech. One of the things that impressed me the most about Ampersand was their efficient use of energy. Having only a modest solar panel system, they rely on solar energy in other ways; three solar ovens for the majority of the cooking. Black barrels hang to heat shower/washing water, black-painted jars heat vegetables in the solar ovens, and a solar dehydrator. All increase their ability to use solar energy as passively as possible.

Intern Ian Callagan demonstrates the power of solar ovens through calzones!

Making Kale chips with the solar dehydrator. With a full-set of trays, this
dehydrator can easily serve the entire community. With such a short growing
season, preserving and storing food is a must for sustainability.

From the beginning of the institute there has been a focus on community. They have active relationships with their neighbors — sharing tools, resources and knowledge — whether that be digging swales on neighbor’s properties or catching diamond-back rattlesnakes from under their front porches (both of which I had the pleasure of participating in).

The community members chose to create a relationship together with a formal legal agreement, to share labor and knowledge. As Amanda puts it “we have developed a strong trading network with neighbors for tools, vehicles, knowledge and labor and we are looking at what we can glean from the larger area. We are discovering how to grow and preserve foods with our resources to develop food security for us and our region. We ferment, sprout, and we preserve fruits and tomatoes in the solar ovens, and with the large solar dehydrator so no food will go to waste. And our neighborhood is ready for when the apricot trees of northern New Mexico do bear fruit.”

Amanda Bramble standing next to her exterior garden bed, fed with rain water
into a sunken clay pot system, thoroughly mulched and wired off from the birds.

I suspect the Brambles have had their eye on their nearby arroyo for some time, since it represents the majority water source in their backyard and empties over 200 acres. In late November, a long-written proposal for rehabilitating the arroyo and restoring it to its original level finally came through from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Cutting through the grade of the railroad.

This is the beginning of the construction of a few tiers of stone “Zuni” bowls.
This structure channels and slows the floodwater down gently
into the main Madrid Arroyo.

The completed Zuni bowls, a three tier arrangement that channels
the water downwards and slows it before re-entering the arroyo.

This is a brush wier, which helps channel the storm water flows into the
center of the weir to avoid eroding either side of the Arroyo.

The brush weir from another angle on another day

These were some of the more impressive earthworks I’d seen, made with precision and a deep awareness of their downstream effects. With the earthworks in place, the water flow will return to its natural level and sink into the land, and help recharge the depleted ground water. Along the way it helps strengthen the whole local ecosystem. With a little planning and foresight, not to mention a lot of sweat, the members and volunteers at Ampersand created a small network and spread it out, repairing the land in the process. In closing, here are the words of Andy Bramble:

Our society has devalued everything, including time, including cost, into an abstract idea we call money, [but] we aren’t driven by profit, we’re driven by quite another set of concerns: fertility, resilience, our relationship to resources, an awareness of time as where we live our lives, a desire to craft our lives and to make our own choices. There is no escape from the world or the “system.” There is only the effort to remain lively, to thrive. Ampersand is not about escape, it is about relationship and regeneration, on the land and in our lives.

Ampersand is accepting applications for the summer 2012 season. As a former intern myself, I highly recommend the experience. More information is available here.


Much of my research on New Mexico Environmental history came from: From the Rio to the Sierra: An Environmental History of the Middle Rio Grande Basin by Dan Scurlock of the Forest Service, available at:

Additional information came from discussions and emails with Andy and Amanda Bramble, Neal Spackman, and William Debuys. Pictures not attributed come from ASLC and the author.


  1. A great article. The exhilaration that I feel cannot be described in words. Once again a feel very confident in the permaculture design methods. Also I salute Amanda and Andy Bramble for their heroic efforts. I guess such people will be remembered as great pioneers just like the way early colonizers are considered now. Whenever I see a green patch of fruit or vegetables in such desert I feel this great emotion that I cannot describe in words. Thanks for posting this.

    Also I think that a single family requires a large area in such a landscape just to have sufficient food and an even larger area to produce enough things so as to earn sufficient money for their living. Can I know how much land is under the project?

  2. Thanks Dan. Interesting article. I am impressed by Amanda and Andy Bramble’s work and will look at their website. I live 30 minutes drive from the Tabernas Desert in Spain which looks just like this (but rarely gets snow) The desert is expanding in this direction ….

    We are lucky to have a borehole for water here, pumped by solar energy, so I have more water probably, but could learn a lot from their experiences. Thanks again for putting this item up.

  3. Mihir: Ampersand has an insulated green house attached to their house. In such a set-up you can get good perennial vegetable production, depending on the size you could certainly get a very decent amount of food for a family.

    For any questions regarding Ampersand I would contact them through their website. Thanks for the kind words.



  4. Hi Dan.

    Very interesting article.

    One thing that you didn’t convey, though, was why you couldn’t pull another greening the desert on a site like this. What exactly is stopping you from planting lots of fruit trees, making swales, etc?

    Rainfall differences?

    I was under the impression that GTD was as desolate as they come.

  5. Andrew,

    Rainfall in the Jordan Valley is somewhere around 120 mil-150 mil, NM is roughly twice that amount on average but sections receive only about 250. So its basically an arid-hyper arid analogy. Ampersand chose to grow only on rainfall, which was a choice. Just to be clear, Ampersand have swales and water diversion throughout their property.

    So, I think with unlimited funding maybe they would do a food forest, but I think there is a question over the specifics of the situation, and whether a food forest is appropriate on that landscape, in that spot of that community to consider. In that way I view GTD as an object example, demonstrating huge possibility, more than a panacea for every site.

  6. I’m vobsidety a place in New Mexico,, very remote so all the things I’ve been accustomed to would not be applicable. Salted cedar would be excellency for many things. What about “regenerative grazing”? Thank you!

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