The land was parched and cracked and scattered with stones, as if the clouds had rained rocks in this part of the world. Small, thorny mesquites dotted the landscape, their taproots tunneling far beneath the soil to suck whatever water lay there. Creosote bushes fanned out from their mounds of chalky dirt and arroyos twisted this way and that, like immense snakes gouging the earth. Some were 20, even 30 feet deep, their beds barren of vegetation, dry as a bone, but strewn colorfully with litter.
This was the terrain Valer Austin saw 13 years ago. She was 59 years old, and one can imagine her walking swiftly over the hard land, dressed in jeans, white button-down shirt, a bushwhacker hat cinched at the chin, puffs of dust, fine as talcum powder, rising with her footsteps; her scanning an arroyo, violet-blue eyes narrowed over the sharp cheekbones, noting the depth of the thing and then gazing out over the vast stretch of dry, red earth. This was what was left of the San Bernardino ranch in Sonora, Mexico, after everything that could be taken from it had been taken, after all the previous owners, the ranchers and the farmers, had wrung it dry. Valer and her husband, Josiah, had just purchased the ranch, adding it to the several they already owned in the borderlands of Sonora and Arizona. None of these ranches were healthy and productive, though San Bernardino was the most degraded of them all. Just mesquite and rocks, rocks and mesquite.
"See the water there?" Valer and I are driving through El Coronado, the first ranch that she and Josiah bought, on a lark, 31 years ago. We climb out of her truck to look at a meandering stream. Cottonwood, white-barked sycamore, and juniper line the banks. As we drive on, we see fields of native grasses, a sunshiny yellow now in midwinter. "None of this was here when we first came," Valer says, her voice as light and emphatic as a girl's. The face she turns to me is small and delicate, almost pixieish; her eyes are brightly lit. "There was no water. None!" But that was before she and her husband took on the immense project of bringing water back to these desecrated landscapes.
The joke among people who know her is "don't ever take a walk with Valer." At 72, petite but cowboy-lean, she will outpace and outlast you. You'd never imagine that she was born and raised on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, like a "hothouse flower," as she has put it, the daughter of a Wall Street broker and a high-society lady. Valer attended an all-girls school, leaving for a yearlong tour of Europe when she turned 19, her suitcase filled with letters of introduction from her mother. She spent far more time in museums than with her mother's friends, and when she returned home, she enrolled at the Art Students League of New York and began her life as a painter. To hear her and friends tell it, Valer reveled in city life, going to the theater and the galleries, swimming at the exclusive Colony Club on Park Avenue and tramping the streets in her splattered painter's clothes, seeming to know every hidden corner and always meeting the most fascinating people. Nothing in her background prepared her for the work she would one day be doing in the borderlands. She learned French, not Spanish, after all, and played a mean game of tennis. But there was that tireless energy, the sense of adventure. There was the drive to do something meaningful. "Valer's not really attached to tangible things," a good friend says. "She's much more interested in ideas and accomplishing something."
When Valer first saw El Coronado, she asked Josiah, "What do the cows eat, rocks?" The land had been grazed so relentlessly that the grasses were depleted, the creeks were dry most of the year and deeply eroded, the soil powdery and parched. The two had come down to Arizona on a vacation. A friend suggested they make an offer on this mountain ranch. They bid low because they weren't really serious, but the owner accepted and suddenly they were in possession of a 1,920-acre spread in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona. Well, it will be a good vacation home, Valer thought. She didn't picture herself living there. But Josiah, a financial investor who was raised in rural Maryland, hated the city and was itching to leave. It took Valer longer to realize that the ranch was in such bad shape, they couldn't be absentee landowners. So they sold their New York townhouse and temporarily moved into a trailer on El Coronado.
"My husband grew up on a farm, so for him it was a natural progression," she says. "For me, I was just open to it. I thought, Well, I've been happy every place I've lived, why not try a new one?"