David Yetman — Southern Arizona’s ultimate Desert Ratby Hugh Holub on Jun. 02, 2010, under humor, tucson life and heritage
[Gems of Tucson is a regular feature where we look at some of the really unique people, places and events that define Tucson.]
David Yetman is Tucson’s chief Desert Rat.
Yetman, host of the PBS KUAT series “The Deserts Speaks” is the definition of a renaissance man. Variously he is a philosopher, politician, expert on the ethnobotony of northern Sonora, teacher, photographer, choirboy, Indian trader, television show host, author, and very funny.
His unifying characteristic is a passionate love for all things desert.
“When I was a kid, one of the members of my father’s congregation (he was a minister) gave us a National Geographic magazine with the article Tucson to Tombstone,” Yetman said. “I fell in love with the desert right then and there.” That was in 1953 in New Jersey.
Because David suffered from asthma, his family moved to Duncan, Arizona in 1954 and then to Prescott in 1955 where David went to high school. In 1961 he landed in Tucson working on the first of 3 degrees he would earn in philosophy at the University of Arizona. He is “Dr. Yetman” to his academic colleagues with the genuine Doctorate of Philosophy in Philosophy.
I met David in the early 1960s in the Catalina Methodist church choir. He is indeed a choirboy. David has perfect pitch, and is known as “Brahms” to his friends.
While in college Yetman lived for a while at the now infamous “Druid Student Center” (now preserved as an historic site for other more legitimate reasons) across from today’s U of A’s School of Architecture. The Catalina Methodist church choir and the Druid Center are a common thread of some of Tucson’s more interesting history including a flying saucer scare that made the front pages on local newspapers, and where the Frumious Bandersnatch originated. Yetman wrote a column for the Bandersnatch called the “Bandersnatch Philosophy” which is now a classic of satire. He is very funny. He will also probably deny that authorship.
One early experience with David involved the Seri Indians who live on the coast of Sonora west of Hermosillo. An anthropologist who lived with the Seri for many years before being thrown out of Mexico William “Seri Bill” Smith was a frequent late night visitor at the Druid Center, and regaled Yetman et al with stories about the Seri. One thing led to another and Yetman and I hauled down to Seri Desemboque in his African Safari style Land Rover to buy some ironwood carvings and get to know the Seri first-hand. David’s version of his Seri experiences are detailed in his 1988 book Where the Desert Meets the Sea: A Trader in the Land of the Seri Indians.
“I was curious how people without air conditioners and a guaranteed water supply got by,” Yetman said recently. The Seri are masters of an environment that is bleak to an American. They have also fought for over 400 years to maintain their identify. “There are over 500 Seri now who still speak their language,” Yetman added. “That’s a huge accomplishment in the face of pressures otherwise.” When Yetman first visited Seriland, there were fewer than 200 Seri Indians.
Yetman knocked around various jobs, all in southern Arizona, because there really wasn’t anywhere he wanted to (or could) live and work.
In 1976 local attorney Bill Risner recruited David out of a job in the Chiricahua Mountains to run for the Pima County Board of Supervisors. Yetman won that seat and served as a Supervisor from 1977 to 1988. As the only environmental voice on the county board back then, one of David’s major accomplishments was taking the lead to push for the purchase of a swath of land on Cienega Creek east of Colossal Cave Road, which became the nucleus of Pima’s Cienega Creek Natural Preserve. That in turn was the start of Pima County’s enormously successful Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan effort which resulted in the protection of over 200,000 acres of land out beyond Tucson’s urban edge.
There’s a trail off Gates Pass in the Tucson Mountain Park named for David.
After leaving the political world, Yetman first served as Executive Director of the Tucson Audubon Society, and then joined the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center in 1992 as a Research Social Scientist. He’s been with the Southwest Center ever since. He specializes in the plants, geography and people of northwestern Mexico.
Yetman got involved as hoist of the PBS show “Desert Speaks” in 2000 when PBS decided it wanted a desert-oriented travel adventure show. All of Yetman’s long-time friends and travel buddies have been seriously jealous of him ever since, as he got the job everyone wants—to get paid to do what you love.
“Using boats, bikes and burros, Yetman takes viewers from Bolivia to Baja California, bringing his boundless enthusiasm, energy and knowledge to the series,” says the show’s web site. Yetman is an accomplished author and photographer.
His books include: Where the Desert Meets the Sea: A Trader in the Land of the Seri Indians; Sonora: An Intimate Geography; Gentry’s Rio Mayo Plants: the Tropical Deciduous Forest and Environs of Northwest Mexico; Scattered Round Stones: A Mayo Village in Sonora, Mexico; Mayo Ethnobotany: Land History, and Traditional Knowledge in Northwest Mexico; and Hidden People: The Guarijíos of Northwest Mexico and their Ethnobotany.
His next book The Ópatas: In search of a Sonoran People (U of A Press) will be out in October.
Yetman is currently working on a book about the conflict between missionaries and the Indians in Spanish Colonial Sonora. He recently returned from a research project at the Archivo de Indias in Seville, Spain. His desk at the U of A covered with copies of hand-written reports circa 1680, he translates reports of Apache and Sobaipuri Indian encounters written by Spanish officials.
David’s goal from over 50 years ago has been “to live in the desert, to write about the desert, to understand the desert, to film the desert, to talk about the desert, and to understand how people live in the desert.”
And he has done an exquisite job of being the voice of the desert’s heart and soul.