Growing up on a farm outside Prescott, Arizona, writer and researcher Rafael de Grenade learned how to survive in rough country. At age 12, she dropped out of school to work on a nearby ranch; at 14, she began attending college classes at night.

Since then, de Grenade has traveled to more than 30 countries, worked on construction crews and fishing boats, worked as a field botanist, and earned a master’s degree in creative nonfiction writing and a doctorate in geography from the University of Arizona in Tucson. Her Fulbright Fellowship took her to Baja California, where she studied the cultural and conservation role of desert oases. At the Tucson Desert Oasis Initiative, she helped city and county government collaborate with nonprofits on projects to make Tucson a “model of sustainable desert living.”

Her memoir, Stilwater: Finding Wild Mercy in the Outback, was released in June, and traces her season on a cattle-mustering crew in a remote corner of Australia’s Outback.

“The place was as far as one could go without falling into the sea,” says de Grenade, “the ragtag and rugged crew almost a parody of the cowboy myth.” De Grenade examines how humans forge both communities and themselves in challenging landscapes—the way we push against land, and the land pushes back.

Kati Standefer caught up with de Grenade recently in her office at the University of Arizona’s Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, where she is beginning post-doctoral research.

How did your upbringing in Arizona help you adapt to life on the other side of the world?

The American West is very similar in ways to Australia. I think the only reason I was able to make the transition over to Australia and the cattle station was because I had been raised in the American West and formed on a ranch in north-central Arizona. It was a mountainous, very rugged ranch, full of granite boulders and oak brush and wild cattle. We rode all day, every day, and we didn’t carry water, and we didn’t carry food, and I was treated as an adult. I learned how to shoe horses and pack salt on mules, to put in irrigation systems and fix fence and fix vehicles—the entire range of ranch work. We spent years, literally, in the saddle.

That kind of multifaceted ability to step into a problem and understand what’s going on and then use your mental and physical capacities to address the problem—that carried across easily to Australia. There’s almost no difference, in the sense that cattle cultures in one part of the world or another part of the world are based on the same animal. And animals have certain instincts and work in certain ways.

You write in Stilwater of the people you worked with: “Most of those Outback characters had a fighting sense still in them, born of wide spaces and the struggle for existence, a certain hardness built up in layers over time.” Do you think this sort of “hard” personality is inevitable as a way to adapt to a gritty, challenging landscape?

I think work shapes us, and places shape us. Being involved in work that is close to the land tends to erase the gap between romanticism and reality. The day-to-day experience of being involved in intense, physical work that was very dangerous didn’t allow much space for tenderness.

And yet tenderness emerged everywhere. Like the crew members that would take in orphaned calves. And though we all had some degree of callousness, one of the fascinating elements of this story is that we were all very compassionate beings. You see that in the complexities of peoples’ characters. It’s not on the surface. But perhaps working with animals, on a day-to-day basis, creates more tenderness than working in an office day-to-day. So even though you have to be very coarse on the outside, perhaps it fosters more compassion on the inside.

In addition to being a writer, you are a qualitative and quantitative researcher. How do you see these crafts working together?

For me, science and writing are not even two sides of the coin; they are just two different ways to know more about this place we live in. Writing is seeing and thinking and being creative—pondering, working with images, with ideas. Writing is a way of questioning, stepping into mystery. And science, at its basic level, requires some of the same elements. Science is a way of understanding mystery, and quantitative and qualitative methods within science are simply a structure by which one asks questions.

The level of creativity and imagination that writing can take is also a key to effective science. Science, I believe, sometimes is seen as more credible, and we do have millions of researchers around the world, and a system of peer review, where your work is always put out before other scientists, and they make sure that you’re staying on track. Perhaps there’s less of that feedback in writing, and so in a sense writing can be more daring, can be more dangerous.

Writing is a form of taking, and science can also be a form of taking. And we don’t necessarily compensate those from whom we take the data or from whom we take the stories. So both require tremendous sensitivity. I’m hoping that I can continue to pursue both equally. Science does pay better!

You’ve spent quite a bit of time studying how communities live in arid landscapes. As an Arizona native, has your work changed the way you view your home?

Living in the desert is a bit of a quandary. Cultures have lived in arid environments for millennia, and have done so brilliantly. They have not only survived, but thrived. And the innovation and creativity that people used to gather water, to collect water from remote sources and transport it to where there’s fertile soil—it’s kind of a positive-feedback mechanism. If you live in arid lands, water is everywhere. It’s in small quantities, and yet it can host tribes, villages, even cities.

The difference is that today, we can live in the desert and forget that we live in the desert. We use water as if we lived where it rained. We contaminate the water as if it were not a limited resource. I do think it’s possible to live in the desert in a sustainable manner. But at the scale of the urban areas that we have today, we’re going to need every solution that we can find. And that would include traditional techniques like water-harvesting and agriculture that uses desert-adapted varieties. It’s also going to have to incorporate science and technology.

The situation, especially in the context of global climate change, is going to be pressing. Already is. And yet we’ve been denying this to some degree. We are going to have to reallocate our water; we’re going to have to reprioritize what we need water for. Food is one of those. Drinking is another. Our sewer systems? I’m not so sure that that’s necessary. In the same way, growing crops which are shipped out of state, or growing food for animals—we’re going to have to re-think how we use this water.

Your new post-doctoral position involves studying “water towers” in the South American Andes. Why are these high-mountain water sources important to the conversation about global climate change,  and what does this mean for the American West?

Climate change never has a straightforward impact. The snowfall and glaciers in high-altitude mountains, like the Andes, supply rivers, and the river then supplies an entire series of communities on its way to the coast. Change at the top has great ramifications everywhere downstream. The mountains are complicated—they’re being affected in all these ways—and then you have these societal responses to the changing weather, changing water. You can look at how people are acting together, working with others—or not—on policy, all types of decision-making.

I think that parts of the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies could also be thought of as water towers, especially since many people in the American West depend on those faraway water sources. None of us are truly independent. And the greater that distance, the more vulnerable we are to disruptions, both environmental and social. I think both will be exacerbated in the future. Our hope really lies in focusing closer to home, while keeping an eye on global challenges.

How do we make decisions about the challenges we’re facing so we don’t continue to have this gap between rich and poor, people who will be more affected by climate change than others? Water towers, I think, are just one way of looking at these permutations of change. By shifting our focus to make sure that the water we drink, the food we eat, the people we interact with, and where we spend our money are closest to us, we can begin to take responsibility for our actions, and seek longer-lasting solutions.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Stilwater: Finding Wild Mercy in the Outback

By Rafael de Grenade


256 pages, $16