Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Nature of Cultivating Home in the Great Plains

We live in a culture predicated on the belief that humans know better, that science will solve all of our problems, and that the faster we go the better off we are. Pioneers practiced this and it produced the loss of one of the largest grasslands in the world, the near-eradication of countless Plains Native American tribes, led to a dustbowl, and ultimately created a dead zone in the gulf of Mexico, among countless other issues you're likely familiar with.

I'm not a Luddite, but you'll think I am. Without a sense of place, without a connection to where we are and where we are from, science will never be the sole answer to addressing our most pressing cultural concerns. But in concert with our emotional and psychological connection to place? Then probably. We are an insane species. So many of our problems stem from not being connected to each other, to home, to region, to place. We don't care about where we are. We are transient. A suburb in Georgia looks a lot like one in Iowa looks a lot like one in Oregon -- big box stores, the same landscape plants and design, the same restaurants. Only when you stop to look hard, REALLY hard, can you find differences, but those differences -- those places of community and connection -- are only on the margins.

Those same margins are in agricultural fields. They are shrub borders and tree windbreaks, marshes and ponds, bits of prairie between the road and the field the farmer hasn't plowed up yet. But we're getting to them, making way for one more row of corn and displacing whatever is left of history, of place.

I know, you're a farmer and you argue that your place means a lot, it's been in you family for 100 years. But that place is manufactured by you -- the only resonance it has is human memory. Do you know the memory of the land? Of the flowers and grasses? The birds and mammals and the insects? Do you know how the ecosystem works? Do you know what plant eases fever? Do you celebrate the predators, those keystone species that make an ecosystem work, or do you shoot them for sport and out of fear? In what ways can you incorporate place / prairie into your fields that will be better for the planet and your bank account?

The pressure of ethanol mandates means more corn fields. Crop insurance means a farmer can still make money even if the crop, planted on newly cleared erodible land or marsh, completely fails. GMO research will produce corn that can stand up to more drought, and so more prairie -- upland and dryland -- will be torn up. And once it is life dies above and below the ground. Suddenly, we become gardeners in a forcible way, the land dependent on us and our carbon inputs of fuel, fertilizer, and weed killer.

We like to think we know better. Frankly, there's a wisdom in plants and animals that we've pushed to the brink, not only to the margins of our emotional and physical lives, that have much to teach us but that we'll never know because we don't stop to learn. Without a connection to and knowledge of place, we can never be real farmers or real stewards or real gardeners or have a real home. How do we get nature back into our lives? Why does it matter? What's at stake beyond food security, clean water, easing learning disabilities, ending violence and depression? In a world slipping into irreversible climate change and mass species extinction, the questions carry more weight than science alone in any field can address.