The genius of the grass

Note from Priscilla: I am delighted to welcome guest blogger Julene Bair, Julene Bairwhose essays on connecting with the prairie lands of her birth caught my attention for bringing heart and soul to the problems of the disappearing family farm and the depleted soils and waters of the high prairie. Her book One Degree West is available on her website, and she is nearly finished with a new book, Water in the Desert. This essay appeared in The Land Report and is reproduced with permission from The Land Institute.

I love Julene’s last line, which for me called to mind a question I heard David Abram pose recently: “How do we keep faith with matter?”


An Ex-Farmgirl Goes to the Prairie Festival

by Julene Bair

When I say that I come from western Kansas, where my father grew wheat and raised sheep, people often tell me how bored they were on their last drive across the Plains. I agree. The Plains are boring now that the land has been plowed into an almost solid patchwork of corn, soybeans, and wheat. But when I was a child, there were still many pastures where buffalograss knit itself over the ground like a woolly tapestry. I could imagine the days when the pale grass rolled toward the horizon, infinite green meeting infinite blue.

The prairie in winter at sunrise

Even then I knew that it had been a crime to erase so much beauty. Today I know that the loss went beyond beauty. The grass had sustained millions of bison through dry summers and harsh winters, and might have fed America for generations, had the herds been shepherded instead of obliterated. Buffalograss’s miraculous drought and cold tolerance stemmed from below ground, where a square yard of sod could contain up to five miles of roots. It sequestered much more carbon than do the shallow-rooted, short-lived annual crops we replaced it with. It also supported a diverse biotic community and prevented the soil from abandoning itself to erosion.

That was the genius of buffalograss, part of “the genius of the place,” a phrase in the title of a new book by Wes Jackson. I know too well the market forces that laid waste to that genius, because my own family’s farm fell prey to them. We plowed grass and sprayed chemicals and pumped water until there was so little to love about our farm that we thought we could easily part with it, banking the profits. But a hundred years of working the land do not drain as easily from the veins of a human as the water and fertility did from our soil. That’s why each fall finds me driving to The Land Institute’s Prairie Festival.

When I go there, I enter a Kansas that has not been destroyed. Where Institute land is plowed, it is for breeding perennial grain crops that combine the seed-producing bounty of annual crops with the soil-preserving genius of perennial grasses and forbs.

* * *

This last fall, the open-air barn overflowed with upwards of 1,000 people. They had come to hear a formidable lineup of speakers, among them the world’s best-known agricultural writer.

Wendell Berry read from his foreword to the newly released Kentucky’s Natural Heritage: An Illustrated Guide to Biodiversity, recounting the desecration of the state’s topsoil, culminating in the coal industry’s removal of entire mountaintops. Enabling the destruction has been a paucity of localized thinking, evident in everything from the “unsettled” nature of those who “came purportedly to settle” to a “displacing religion” that, despite the settlers’ eagerness to own land, “made a pride of despising the earth and earthly life.”

The industrialization of agriculture that followed on World War II was a particularly ironic tragedy, said Berry, because by then we did have access to ecological standards advocated by the likes of Aldo Leopold, Albert Howard, and J. Russell Smith. But their work was ignored. Instead, “the machines and chemicals developed to defeat foreign enemies were turned against the farmland and the farmers on the home front.”

Berry illustrated modern agriculture’s myopic focus on the bottom line with a story about the “tumble bugs” that had rolled dung around the cow pastures of his childhood. He suspected that a new worming medicine used in cattle caused their disappearance, but when he asked a university entomologist what had happened to the dung beetles, he was told not to worry, they had no economic significance. Then a plague of face flies hatched in the now unburied dung and caused an expensive pinkeye epidemic in cattle. Could the two events have been related, Berry wondered? Conventional science, economics, and agriculture seldom ask such questions.

He traced a host of agricultural harms to the demise of the small family farm. With fewer people working the land, harm is seldom noticed, let alone prevented. “The cruelest proclamation ever made to American citizens,” said Berry, came in 1952 from the Eisenhower administration: “Get big or get out.”

* * *

My father got big buying the land of neighbors who couldn’t get big, so had to get out. Part of what allowed him to farm so much land was the dawning of the Age of Dow. If I had shared Berry’s premise with him, that industrial agriculture fails to look beyond the here and now, he would have said, “Go ahead. Call me myopic.” He had the confidence of a man who’d seen wheat yields triple since his childhood.

But have these increases in production been worth the cost? Hardly, said biologist Sandra Steingraber, whose books tally the health effects of synthetic chemicals while narrating her own battle with bladder cancer and her struggle to raise healthy children in a poisoned world. She pictures the environmental crisis as a tree with two trunks. Along the first, “contamination of all life with toxic chemicals” branch, are strung the health disorders associated with chemicals. Take for instance those attributed to Atrazine, a weed killer that my father used on corn. Even though it has been banned in Europe for its implications in breast cancer, prostate cancer, and low sperm counts, it is still the second most widely used agricultural chemical in the United States.

Julene wading in a spring fed by the Ogallala aquifer

Steingraber travels to small farm communities with the recently released documentary film version of her first book, Living Downstream, and speaks “across the great cultural divide on abortion, about chemicals that have the power to trespass into the human uterus and sabotage pregnancies and contribute to miscarriage.” Forthright about her own reproductive history, including the termination of pregnancy that an early ultrasound revealed was “not going to end happily,” she encourages her audiences to transcend differences concerning the abortion debate and to support ending the nation’s dependency on agricultural pesticides.

The other branch of the tree is climate change, or, as Bill McKibben calls it, “the de-creation of life.” “Both halves,” said Steingraber, “rob us as parents of the ability to carry out our two most sacred duties—to keep our children safe from harm and to provide for their future.”

* * *

Oh, yeah. The future. That’s one concept that traditional economists do not factor very well into their theories, said the ecological economist Joshua Farley. The so-called magic of the market, he said, is really the magic of a barrel of oil, which yields the equivalent of 20,000 hours of human labor. This makes it possible for us to upset ecosystems so fast that they can’t recover. The market has no “feedback loop for when to stop.” Prices often remain stable even as the costs to human health, ecosystems, and future generations mount.

Mainstream theory is based on the notion that the economy should grow ad infinitum, adding 4 to 5 percentage points every year. Never mind if this means a doubling of consumption about every 20 years. If we run out of one resource, we can always substitute another. As an example, Farley offered the theory of the 2005 Nobel economist Thomas C. Schelling, who said climate change was not that much of a threat to the economy, because it would mainly affect only agriculture and forestry, which represent less than 3 percent of our gross domestic product.

“No food?” quipped Farley. “But, hey, we’ll go see more movies or something.”

Ecological economics replaces the paradigm of endless substitution with that of ecology. It challenges the goal of never-ending growth and takes into account the character of resources, some of which we can’t afford to waste. It also takes a more optimistic view of human nature. Capitalist economics considers successful sharing impossible, and it is predicated on greed. “The wickedest men will do the wickedest things for the greatest good of everyone,” explained Farley, in a paraphrase of John Maynard Keynes. But research demonstrates that humans are wired for cooperation. When we share with others we get a euphoric sense of belonging not unlike the pleasure we get while making love. This feeling has its origins in our hypothalamuses, which bathe our brains in oxytocin.

Whether we humans are fundamentally greedy or altruistic, the transition to a postcarbon economy will require some cooperation. It will be especially important to share information and new technology. Solar technology, for instance, needs to improve quickly if it is to meet demands for it, and this can happen much faster if researchers share innovations with one another. The market system fails when sharing is called for because of the need to protect profits. As an alternative, Farley suggested a global collective that would help organizations such as The Land Institute develop and share information essential to sustainability. Common resources, such as air, water, and a stable climate, belong to everyone, he argued, and should be managed collectively. Industry would be taxed to pollute or use at levels up to but not exceeding ecosystems’ ability to absorb or recover. And since we face a crisis easily as dire as World War II, when the highest tax bracket was 96 percent, some rich people might have to pay more taxes.

* * *

But the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, who control 24 percent of the nation’s wealth, are especially reticent to pay their share of taxes, said Scott Russell Sanders. His talk was an exquisite tour de force against “the tyranny of concentrated capital.” Like Farley, he believes that we are unduly impressed by money, which, after all, is just a “human invention.” We fail to value the genuine wealth stored in our natural systems, on which the quality of our existence depends. Meanwhile, those vested with the monetary wealth we so admire use it and the power it bestows to continually amass more of each, while laying waste to that genuine treasure.

Sanders reeled off statistics backing his claims. Last year, the 25 top hedge fund managers made $26 billion, equivalent to the entire incomes of 500,000 households, or 2 million people—this in a country where 44 million live in poverty and 51 million have no health insurance. Among the 100 world economies with the largest GDPs, more than half are multinational corporations. These megacorporations are answerable only to shareholders yet are allowed to spend millions defending their interests at the public’s expense. As an example, Sanders cited ExxonMobil, whose revenue surpasses the economies of 180 nations. Exxon has lobbied to advocate drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and to oppose higher fuel efficiency standards, the regulation of carbon emissions, and safety regulations such as double-hulled ships that would help protect oceans from spills like the Exxon-caused disaster in Prince William Sound.

Why, I wondered, hasn’t Barack Obama put Sanders to work? He could explain to those duped by Big Money into fearing for their livelihoods that it’s not the economy, stupid, it’s the stupid economy. If we view ourselves as citizens and not consumers, Sanders insisted that we can make the necessary changes, restoring regulations and taxation in the interest of the public and the planet.

* * *

To get to that point, however, requires a wider recognition of the crisis. Wes Jackson expressed hope in this regard, noticing that the “formal culture” of science and literature is beginning to give more consistent credence to “nature as measure or as standard.” There have been some enlightened moments in US history, such as when Hugh Hammond Bennett led the Soil Conservation Service with the goal, in Bennett’s words, of “imitating nature as much as we could.” By the time Bennett retired, said Jackson, the program involved nearly 5 million farms.

But regardless of Bennett’s and other past success, the ecological attitude has never prevailed as a “succession in the formal culture.” Without such guidance, we continue to lose topsoil and saturate our farms with chemicals. Witness a hillside of corn stubble that Jackson saw recently. The farmer had employed the popular no-till method, killing weeds with chemicals instead of with implements. At the base of the hill was a catchment pond that had filled with mud. No-till preserves soil and soil moisture better than tillage, but rain will still run downhill and carry dirt with it if there isn’t year-round vegetation to stop it.

For Jackson, that monoculture of high-yield, genetically modified corn and the abused soil it grew in exemplify what he views as the three causes of our failure to honor natural systems in agriculture. First, it is our nature, as “carbon-based organisms,” to go after as much energy-rich carbon as we can get. In our eagerness for rich food energy, he said, we are no different from bacteria consuming a petri dish of sugar. Second is our attitude that “to get a meal,” nature must be, in Angus Wright’s phrasing, “subdued or ignored.” And finally our heritage in Enlightenment science teaches us to “break a problem down.” This process has become so reductive that we too often elevate the value of the parts over the whole. We understand molecular biology and can alter corn, making it immune to a poison that we also invented, which kills all vegetation that competes with our end goal. But we fail to notice the destruction to the whole of nature that we cause in the process.

The perennial grain crops being developed by The Land Institute and others, said Jackson, may finally allow us to begin moving our focus up the hierarchical chart, from the atom to the ecosphere. Many scientific papers are being published on the subject, making it likelier that the concept of “nature as teacher” will become a succession in agricultural science.

The take-home lesson? “Descriptive” ecology, which tells us “how natural ecosystems work,” must “fuse” with “prescriptive” agriculture, which tells us what we must do in order to eat. But only, I took it, if we want to continue eating.

* * *

At the end of the conference, I sat on a bale of straw against a corrugated-tin grain bin like the ones of my childhood, except this one had been painted red. The melody of the state song still played in my ears. As always, “Home on the Range” had been serenely rendered that Sunday morning by Ann Zimmerman and her audience, a good number of us teary eyed. Now the wind was playing on my skin as it sang an even more indigenous tune in the elm and ash above the Smoky Hill River.

What was that line in the last verse? “Where the air is so pure, the zephyrs so free.” Ah, yes, zephyrs. Ah, yes, this dependable sun. This pale-blue translucent sky. And this grass, for at my feet, among the varieties more common to central Kansas, were patches of buffalograss. I ran my hand through the curly, narrow blades.

It was probably just oxytocin, the love hormone, but I hadn’t felt so right anywhere in a long time. Why “just,” I wondered? What if I listened to what my body and the grass were trying to tell me?

Bending closer to the earth, this is what I heard. “I’ve been true to you. Be true to me.”

All photos in this post courtesy Julene Bair.

Update: Julene’s most recent book is The Ogallala Road: A Story of Love and Reckoning, published in 2014 by Viking/Penguin.


7 Responses to The genius of the grass

  1. Page Lambert says:February 24, 2011 at 11:00 am

    Julene’s essay is beautiful. One of the things I always admire about her writing is her ability to move gracefully between her own family history, her scientific knowledge, and the principles that guide her journey on this earth. Thank you, Priscilla, for posting this on your beautiful site.

    As a slight tangent, my friend, sculptor Roxanne Swentzell (Santa Clara Pueblo) started the Flowering Tree Institute: Creating Sustainable Lifestyles many years ago. Is is a family passion, small but growing, based on the concept of Permaculture. This quote is taken from their home page “Permaculture is the study of patterns in nature that create healthy ecosystems. By recreating these design patterns in our own lives, we help to create sustainable lifestyles.”

    I think your readers will find it interesting.

    Thank you.

    Page Lambert
    All things literary. All things natural.

  2. Laurel Kallenbach says:February 25, 2011 at 10:35 am

    I love Julene’s line: “a hundred years of working the land do not drain as easily from the veins of a human as the water and fertility did from our soil.” Thanks for reminding us that our bodies are so like the land.

  3. Gail Storey says:February 25, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    To re-do Lillian Hellman, every word in Julene´s post is true, including the and and. Heartfelt agreement from Costa Rica, where the keyborad is realy strange amdm misig smoe letters-

  4. Julene Bair says:February 26, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    Thanks to each of you for your thoughtful (and and funny) responses. Laurel, I think our bodies are extensions of the land. We are the Earth’s feelers and we’re supposed to be her admirers and protectors–the consciousness that can reflect on and celebrate the wonders of all creation.

    • Page Lambert says:February 27, 2011 at 9:38 am

      David Abram writes in The Spell of the Sensuous that “We might as well say that we are organs of this world, flesh of its flesh, and that the world is perceiving itself through us…” or, as Julene, says, extensions of the land … but I do love the idea of our existence being necessary to the earth, just as our eyes and heart are necessary to our bodies.

  5. Rick Chamberlin says:March 5, 2011 at 6:59 am

    Thank you, Priscilla, for putting me back on the soul expanding prairies, draws and mesas of the Smoky Hill country through Julene’s beautiful and cogent essay. I had the good fortune to become acquainted with western Kansas about 20 years ago while working as a volunteer fossil hunter and excavator for the University of Wisconsin Geology Museum. Julene’s words, and the words of the wise speakers she heard speak and that she shared with us, are bright lights in the dark. We must follow them home.

  6. Beth Partin says:March 17, 2011 at 9:57 am

    Wonderful post, Julene!