It was nearing the end of a 16-day botanical expedition on the Baja in 1987. While sitting on a rock, I pondered about needing more time in Mexico, and the need to learn the language. November 1, 1988, I found myself at a conference in Hermosillo addressing natural resources of Sonora. Following it, I continued on south to Alamos. My purpose was to learn the next vegetative change from the Sonoran Desert, Dry Tropical Forest, and to contribute to some botanical studies that friends were doing in the area. For what I had planned to be a year, has now been 23 years and I am still here. Obviously, life has been good to me.
Gaye Billington, a well-known character in the foreign community, had invited me to stay at her house. My Chesapeake Retriever and I moved in for a couple of weeks while I got my bearings. I had asked Gaye for a plant guide in the mountains. The second day I was hiking the sierra with the able help of the Sanchez family from the Voletin… Sra Sanchez had the most wonderful nursery, all native plants, a treasure. Knowing Gaye introduced me to all of the foreign community. This was easier at that time as there were more parties and get-togethers. The community was more cohesive. I was privileged to be a part of that generation in Alamos. Today with the four-lane highway and air travel, folks come and go more often. This, I feel, has had an influence on the present community.
I moved to the Barrio Capilla where today I say I “grew up.” I was there several years, immersed myself in the culture, and, with the help of neighbors, learned the language. It was great being a single person, as I was constantly supplied with food. It was a cultural oddity to the neighborhood that a woman would live alone. I was seldom alone as in those years there were lots of scientists visiting me, as well as all the neighborhood children. Some time the naturalists might be just men and that was another oddity for the Capilla folks to ponder: me alone with men!! Today I trust I am more sensitive to the feelings of the Mexican culture.
I used a guide in the field for some time, just to keep with the local norms for a woman. The fact is that, as a biologist, I can seldom find another woman to hike the hills with me. In the cities it is more common for women to be educated and go out on their own. For a few years I worked in Navojoa doing landscape design. This was an unknown skill to the people, but the architects knew and wanted those skills. So I had the chance to learn a different, more sophisticated culture.
Early on in my time in Alamos, the head of the Agriculture office came to me and asked if I could go with him to see the mayor, Professor Enrique Ibarra. The presidente had an idea that the Sierra de Alamos, where the town resides in the foothills, was somehow precious. He asked for help in writing a proposal. The Agriculture Office gave me a secretary. She did not speak English and I, very little Spanish. At any rate, we came up with a 15-page document. This was presented here and there at meetings, until in Hillo the El Centro Ecologico started asking for help to look at worthy areas for natural resource designation, such as parks or reserves. At that time there was no land set aside in Sonora for its natural resources. After many meetings and one director making the proposed park extension much larger (I thinking now we will never get it designated) on Earth Day 1996 the Sierra de Alamos and the upper drainage of the Rio Cuchujaqui extending to the Chihuahuan border was declared a Reserve for the Protection of Flora and Fauna Sierra de Alamos—Rio Cuchujaqui—by the Department of the Interior. 92,000 hectares.
Since traipsing through the mountains had been my life in Alamos, it was easy for me to define the best part of the newly declared reserve for a private project to protect the tropical forest. A group in San Diego, California, whose purpose was to conserve dry tropical forests in Ecuador, came to visit. Some time later they found a donor to buy and create a private reserve inside the federal one. I began purchasing and creating a basic management staff as we went along. Today Nature and Culture owns approximately 8,000 hectares. A Mexican non-profit has been formed and now that the basics are in order, it is time to grow the organization.
Much of the Mexican modernization that has taken place since I have been here has been a privilege to observe. Increased quality of education of a generation, health care advances, transportation improvements, and perhaps the most notable, a democracy unfolding.
It is saddening to see the fourth richest country in flora and fauna in the world destroying her natural resources at a rapid rate. So I have tried to take care of my own back yard, which represents the most northern limits of Dry Tropical Forest in this hemisphere and is a fine example now considered the most severely threatened of the large tropical ecosystems. My hope is this forest will remain valued for many generations to come.