When voting, listen to the grass

  • Julene Bair


When I say I’m from the High Plains, people often tell me how bored they were on their last drive through eastern Colorado or Kansas. I agree. The Plains are boring now that most of the land has been farmed into a drab patchwork of corn, soybeans and wheat. But no land was ever as exciting as the short-grass prairie that used to roll toward the horizon.

This prairie once sustained millions of bison through dry summers and harsh winters. Its miraculous tolerance for drought and cold came from belowground, where a square yard of sod could contain almost five miles of roots. The perennial grass sequestered much more carbon than the shallow-rooted, short-lived crops we replaced it with. It also supported a diverse biotic community, and prevented the soil from abandoning itself to erosion.

This was the genius of buffalograss, part of “the genius of the place,” a phrase in the title of a new book by Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute in Kansas. I know 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 easily from the veins of a human. That’s why each September finds me driving to The Land Institute’s Prairie Festival.

When I go there, I enter a Kansas that has not been destroyed. Where land is plowed, it is for breeding perennial grains that combine the seed-producing bounty of annual crops with the soil-preserving genius of perennial grass. This year, upwards of a thousand people filled the open-air barn to hear Wendell Berry, the world’s best-known agricultural writer. He illustrated modern agriculture’s myopic focus on the bottom line with a story about the “tumble bugs” that rolled dung around the cow pastures of his childhood.

When he asked about their disappearance, a university entomologist told him 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.

“Call me myopic. Whatever,” I can imagine my father saying. He had the confidence of a man who’d seen his wheat yields triple since his childhood.

But has increased production been worth the cost to the health of both the land and the people who work it? Hardly, said biologist Sandra Steingraber, whose cancer led her to write three books tallying the harms to human health caused by farm chemicals.

Nor has the rise in production been efficient, according to ecological economist Josh Farley. Before the dawn of the Oil Age, farm workers burned one calorie to produce 10 calories of food energy. Today, five to 10 calories of nonrenewable hydrocarbon yield only one calorie of food.

“As carbon-based organisms,” said Wes Jackson, it is in our nature “to go for the energy-rich carbon.” In this, we are no different from bacteria on a petri dish, which readily consume sugar. We mine rich oil to produce monocultures of rich grains, losing topsoil in the process. “Soil is more important than oil,” Jackson pointed out. We can’t grow food without it.

I thrilled at so much sane talk, especially in my part of Kansas, where merely speaking the word “ecology” can provoke disdain. Yet I also despaired. How will these voices, and those that whisper up to us from the grass, ever penetrate the din made by industries that profit from ecological suicide? Then the essayist Scott Russell Sanders reminded the group that we are not called upon to change the world, only to do “little acts of love.”

And so I add my voice to a growing chorus that speaks for the sanctity of the soil, air, water and grass that grew us all. It is election time, and yes, people have many economic worries. Many of us need jobs or fear for the jobs we have. Moneyed interests would have us believe only poison and waste can keep us fed. But clean energy and healthy food offer far more hope for employment –– and for survival. Let’s support the candidates who listen to the genius of the grass, not to the bullying shouts of Big Ag and Big Oil.

Julene Bair is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Longmont, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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