Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Farming Away Our Future

I'm enraged. I'm just so angry. I want to blow up tractors and burn cornfields. When I read articles like this, showing images of the last vestiges of northern prairie being converted to corn and soybeans, I just can't take it. Millions of acres in just a few years?* My god. My god.

Why is prairie important? Water filtration. Prevents erosion. A nursery for native insects which do the core of pollinating 70% of our food and are the base of the wildlife food chain. Grasslands also used to be incredible carbon sinks hedging against climate change, and cleaning the air like the Amazon rain forest; you've read my rant about that I hope. Lot's of graphs and stats there.

Red = a ton of conversion going on

Yes, let's plow up marginal prairie land that's highly erodible, that may or may not get enough rain year to year, because we have crop subsidies -- the farmer will make money no matter what. And let's be clear the farmer is not the Super Bowl ad's romantic version, it's big ag companies. It's lobbyists in government. The farmer is dead and died half a century ago.

Yes, let's plow it up. We need more corn, 80% of which goes to feedlots to fatten up animals as soon as possible, and those fat animals increase our risk for heart disease because they're so fatty. This is not the bread basket of the world (if it was we wouldn't be growing monocultures), it's the bread basket of corporate greed and genocide on a scale I thought we'd left behind: give us our beef, our diabetes-inducing high fructose corn syrup snuck in to almost every product. What a killing Cargill makes.

Yes, genocide. We did it once with the Plains Native Americans, and in the process were pretty thorough with countless species of flora and fauna. But we didn't finish the job. There's still land left in the northern Plains. The prairie pothole region where some 90% of North America's waterfowl breed. But why do we need ducks? We need ducks because they need prairie. Bible-thumping conservative rural folks, scripture says what you do the least of these you do to Me. Me = God. If you take away homes, cause extinction of species, you are eradicating any hope of heaven. You are eroding divinity.

Look at the lesser prairie chicken, an animal now relegated to northwest Oklahoma and southwest Kansas almost exclusively. One chicken needs literally tens of thousands of acres of open prairie to survive. If you save the prairie chicken, you save countless other species -- you also save us. You save us from the dust bowl and real starvation, you save us from climate change (for a while), you save us from our darker selves. We are better than this.

Maybe we should stop chaining ourselves to oil pipeline equipment and move to the prairie. Let's see thousands of people in a field chained together, preventing that last habitat from vanishing forever. Why? Because damn it, we can't be this bad. We can't be this evil. We can't be this stupid. We can't.

If we don't value the land that sustains us, we don't value each other and ourselves. We might as well start jumping off buildings and shooting each other -- end the misery our children and grandchildren will endure because of us, this culture. We are better than this. We love our children, don't we? We value our lives, don't we? Must our rage and ego condemn all life to just hanging on? Must our own insecurities be forcibly echoed on the landscape around us until all creation suffers the human condition of doubt, longing, and fear? If you can't love the least of this planet, there's little hope you can genuinely love anything at all.

*Mother Jones came out with a piece that has lots of fun facts: 

-- If farmers set aside some land for pasture we'd have healthier and tastier beef, and that grassland would mitigate farming greenhouse gas emissions by 36% since it'd be a carbon sink.

-- Prairie loss from 2006-2011 was on a pace similar to that of the AMAZON RAINFOREST. So where's a "save the prairie" campaign with sad tv commercials? Prairie is our rainforest!

-- This level of rapid conversion has not been seen since the 1920s and 1930s. We all know what happened as a result. If we plow up erodible land, fill in ponds, and take down trees, we're undoing everything the government made farmers do to prevent a dust bowl repeat! Lordy we are stupid.

-- Prices for corn and soybeans doubled between 2006-2011, thanks to ethanol mandates (you know it takes as much energy / resources to produce the equivalent amount of ethanol) and crop insurance.

-- This month the USDA issued a report, "Climate Change and Agriculture in the US" which states that it won't be until mid century when climate change starts to inflict serious yield declines. (But if we plow up more prairie, won't we be releasing more stored carbon and creating more temperature increases? We have to leave prairie alone NOW and pray to God, that's what the report really should say.)

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Bald Eagles in Lincoln

My wife and I were coming home from the grocery store, zipping along at 50 on an interstate off ramp, and she says, "Are those eagles? Yes, yes, those are eagles!" She was just like Tweety Bird. So we went home, emptied the car, turned around with camera and binoculars, ran into an eagle by some houses and parked while another couple pulled up, got out, and the man shook his binoculars in the air like we'd just won the World Series. All of this action was within 1/2 mile of Capitol Beach Lake just west of downtown.

Ripping apart a meal as bits of something fell to the ground.
Full and off to join some friends.

There are the friends. I see five. Right?

These were the first bald eagles I'd ever seen. Wish I had a really nice telephoto lens -- say 600mm.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

I'm Not Ready

I admit a great sense of loss when the snow melts. I do not look forward to spring. I have not had my time of rest and introspection, I have not replenished my reserves and deepened my roots, and already the warm sun and temperatures in the 50s are coaxing me out of my depths. I feel strung out in this weather. Overwhelmed. In a few weeks the crocus leaves will shoot out from the brown lawn--already iris reticulata are an inch tall. And now, too, seeds must be started in the basement. It was only a little over 2 months ago that the garden had bright fall colors and glistened with the memory of a hot, dry year which still draped itself over me like a heavy shadow. And now spring? Yes, we will dip and rise, but like last spring the season feels early.

I'm not ready. Go away. Come back winter, seal me in with your cocoon of snow, give my full measure of the seasons so that I am whole again, truly ready for my spirit to embrace the good green changes. 55, you are like eating frosting out of a can before dinner--you make me feel empty and sugary. Let me earn you, spring. Let me earn the first pasque flower with all my soul. Teach me patience yet again, a lesson I need more and more. Hold off. Hold me at a distance. Be still.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Lawns, "Weeds," and the New Nature

A post in the New York Times on a lawn's / garden's ability to sustain us -- as in, lawns are dumb. The writer is talking about vegetable gardening almost exclusively, but I may fudge those thoughts with native perennials and shrubs.

-- "True, a lawn is a living, growing thing, a better carbon sink than concrete (though not as good as a vegetable garden or a meadow), and even more so if you leave the clippings in place, which also reduces the need for chemical fertilizer. And most people find a well-tended lawn pleasant-looking."

My neighbor across the street mows three times a week and bags his clippings most of the time. Another neighbor bags exclusively, setting out those bags for trash collection. I thought we were two decades past not mulching lawn clippings. I suppose this is why my neighbors fertilize 3-4 times a year and water every other day -- even as our rivers run dry amidst the warmest summer ever and top-category drought that covers 95% of Nebraska.

-- "But when it comes to the eye of the beholder, weeds are the same thing as beauty: to a gardener, grass is a weed; a row of lettuce surrounded by dark, grassless soil a thing of beauty. To some gardeners,  including me, dandelions are a crop. The situation, then, is not black-and-white. A yard is not either unproductive and “beautiful” — as a lawn — or, as a garden, productive and “ugly.” Many of us can thrill to the look of dead stalks, and even enjoy watching them rot. This is a matter of taste, not regulation. “In a way, that’s what these battles are about,” says Fritz Haeg, the Los Angeles artist who initiated Edible Estates and wrote the book of the same name (subtitled “Attack on the Front Lawn”). “They’re about reconsidering our basic value systems and ideas of beauty.”

For a wildlife gardener like me, I have a double battle to wage: the first is that native plants and the insects they sustain are better suited to our environment and thus potentially easier to maintain (the former), and the presence of a food source for diminishing bird and amphibian numbers is massive to overall environmental health (the latter). The second battle is that to NOT clean up the garden in fall is as important as having the native plants in the first place. Wildlife finds shelter in the standing winter garden, and there is far, far more interest in the garden as the russet, auburn, and tan colors dance in winter sunlight amidst falling snow (not to mention the insulating benefits of snow for plants that can suffer frost heave). Talk about easing the winter blues.

-- "They’re also about a relationship between us and nature. Lawns are an attempt to dominate and homogenize nature, something that hasn’t worked out very well. Gardens, however, especially urban ones, make visible “the intimate relationship between people, cities and food, constantly reminding us of the complexities and poetry of growing food and eating,” says Haeg. From which, just about everyone who’s thought about the subject agrees, we’ve all become alienated.

Even my students freely admit to the disconnect they have with the "wild" world. When is the world torn from our hands? When is it beaten out of our souls? And how can you possibly get it back when education and employment stifle creativity in favor of fixed methods of performing daily routines?

-- "And small-scale suburban and urban gardening has incredible potential. Using widely available data, Roger Doiron of Kitchen Gardeners International[3] estimates that converting 10 percent of our nation’s lawns to vegetable gardens “could meet about a third of our fresh vegetable needs at current consumption rates. Ten percent is optimistic; even 1 percent would be a terrific start, because there is a lot of lawn in this country. In fact it’s our biggest crop, three times as big as corn, according to research done using a variety of data, much of it from satellites. That’s around a trillion square feet — 50,000 square miles — and, since an average gardener can produce something like a half-pound of food per square foot (you garden 100 square feet, you produce 50 pounds of food), without getting too geeky you can imagine that Doiron’s estimates are rational."

Wow. I hate corn with a passion. Which means I must now hate lawn three times as much. No problem. And this is neat:

"Gardening may be private or a community activity; people garden together on common land, and most gardeners I know share the bounty freely. (In parts of England and France, people grow vegetables in their front yards and encourage their neighbors to take them.)"

I'll end with a quote from Thomas Rainer's post on the new nature being our backyard and small public spaces:

"The front lines of the battle for nature are not the Amazon rain forest or the Alaskan wilderness; the front lines are our backyards, medians, parking lots, and elementary schools. The ecological warriors of the future won’t just be scientists, engineers, or even landscape architects.  The ecological warriors of the future will be gardeners, horticulturists, land managers, Department of Transportation staff, elementary school teachers, and community association board members.  Anyone who can influence a small patch of land has the ability to create more nature.  And the future nature will look more and more like a garden."

On June 8 come see my garden, and let's talk about four seasons of sustainable native plants and wildlife habitat, about how the battle for nature is out my back door. And what a gorgeous, spirit-enriching battle it is.