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The Western Landscape
Wes Jackson

Land is "Ecological Capital"

It was a land that was rich with what we call ecological capital. It was available for an abundant food supply of corn, and wheat, and other grains. So, this was as a result of the glaciers that had come and gone over the eastern part of what was the prairies, the rocks that pushed down from Canada, being ground up and supplying a fresh supply of nutrients that would then make it possible for the plants, particularly the legumes, to capture nitrogen out of the prairie air, made this area fertile. Those glaciers we can be quite thankful for, for having provided the phosphorus, the potassium, the calcium, the manganese and so on that made it possible for the plants then to capture out of the prairie air oxygen and nitrogen and hydrogen and carbon that would then be bathed in the chemistry of the biota to create the fertility.

So when the Native American, somewhere in North Dakota, came by and saw the plow, and what it was doing to turn the sod over, he said, "Wrong side up" and went away. What we have seen since that time is a steady erosion of that ecological capital, that has really in a sense threatened the future food supply for not only the American but for the people that we export our food to. So Catlin saw a young continent, a young prairie, and what we now have is one that is greatly aged.

Types of Prairie and Grasses

There are three different kinds of prairies in the large sense. There's the tall grass prairie in the eastern part of the United States. There's the mid-grass prairie in the central plains, and then there's the short grass prairie. The tall grass prairie: high rainfall or high precipitation. And the short grass with much less precipitation. The prairie has been coming and going during the Pleistocene, during the Ice Ages over about one million seven hundred and fifty thousand years. There were the various glaciers that would come down and then they would recede and in those inter-glacial periods there were the prairies that would come back. Not in all places, but the prairie is a rather old phenomenon from the point of view of human time at least. Not necessarily from the point of view of geologic time.

Well, wherever we have prairie, whether we're talking about the Canadian provinces of Alberta, eastern Colorado, or the prairies of Texas, or the prairies of Ohio and Indiana and Illinois—not many left, only about two percent of the prairie is left—there are what we call four functional groups. There are warm season grasses, like big blue stem, little blue stem, Indian grass, switch grass. There are cool season grasses, there are legumes, and there are members of the sunflower family. Those four functional groups—and we see those four functional groups as necessary for the stability of the prairie. The idea is, if we can mimic that structure we will be granted the function. So, the efficiencies that are inherent in the natural integration is what we hope to achieve.

The Role of Fire

If you have fire, and the grasses as I mentioned earlier have evolved to invite fire, then that keeps the woody vegetation from coming in and establishing a foothold or toehold, which then would allow for even more advancement. The fires were set by lightning and also by the Natives. The Natives would, especially after the horse came, the Natives would build fires and then it would green up closer and they could keep the horses in closer to the camp. A fire will make it possible to quickly recycle the nutrients. You know, in other words if you got the standing crop there and you want to get those nutrients back so that there can be more luxuriant growth following the winter, why a fire helps. That's why ranchers, a lot of ranchers around here will burn their prairies, usually in March or April.

The System in Balance

If you look at that prairie, it features recycling of materials. It runs on the sunlight that's available to it. It is because of species diversity you have chemical diversity. So it takes a tremendous enzyme system on the part of an insect or a pathogen or a disease type organism in order to give you the epidemic. So, species diversity is equal to chemical diversity which creates a problem for any creature that would like to give you the epidemic. So our idea is to try to mimic nature. We pay attention to Alexander Pope's poem in the Epistle to Burlington. He says, “Let nature never be forgot . . . consult the genius of the place in all.” And the genius of the place is the prairie that has worked it out as well as it can be worked out over the millions of years of evolution.

Prairie Animals: The Buffalo

Well, Catlin saw vast herds of bison. We don't know for sure how many—sixty million, maybe. He saw antelope, he probably saw the prairie wolf. He saw the wapiti, or the prairie elk, and there were in the prairies the prairie dog towns. Where he saw the little prairie dog and living mostly underground, these animals providing burrows for both that accommodated the burrowing owl and the rattlesnake.

When Catlin was around in 1830, the big smallpox epidemics had not yet hit and knocked out so much of the Indians, especially in the upper Missouri. Catlin saw the Native pretty much in balance with the prairie ecosystem, which included those animals that I mentioned.

The bison was the Native Americans' general store. The bones they used, the shoulder blades for scrapers for scraping the hide. Catlin must have seen to what extent the bison was the general store for the Native American. It was when the bison had been nearly extirpated that that ended a major food supply for the Plains Indians. And probably did as much or more to lead to their defeat than any other single factor.

Plowing the Prairies

Before that, in the eastern prairies, where the glaciers had come and gone—and I'm speaking now of Indiana, Illinois, southern Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, eastern Nebraska, Missouri, eastern Kansas. The settlers settling into this country with abundant precipitation plowed the prairies. Some of them said that as they plowed, sometimes taking three and more yoke of straining oxen, it was like plowing through a heavy, woven doormat. Some said it sounded like the opening of a zipper as the plow made its zipper sound, cutting those roots immemorial that would hold the soil and keep it from eroding.

That plowing, that opened up what turned out to be the greatest agricultural land of the world, was these Midwestern tall-grass prairies. That was well underway shortly after the Civil War, 1861 to 1865. After the Civil War, then there was even more settlement, out on the prairies in the mid-grass and the short grass. The railroads had been given land that they could then sell to settlers, and then of course there was the Homestead Act of 1861 that contributed to the settlement, dividing the land up into a grid of square miles and making available 160 acres, and in some cases 80 acres to the settlers.

Exploitation of the Prairies

There was very rapid change after that. The gold rush of 1848 and 1849 had an impact. It was something to get across. Lots of those people that went to California gold fields of course went down to the Isthmus of Panama, walked across, and then caught another ship. The railroad, the transcontinental railroad that was finished in 1869, brought people across these prairies. But the major change to this prairie was the plow. During World War I, there were some forty-five million acres of prairie, mostly short- and mid-grass prairie that was plowed up in order to offset the decline in food supply in Europe, where fifty-five million acres was out of production. So that event led to or contributed greatly to the dust bowl of the 1930s.

So I don't see any way for us to find our moorings until we return to settle this continent, rather than treat it the way we've treated it. I mean, you know, just look at the high plains for example, which start about right here, a little farther west. You know, first came the Native Americans, so they were mining flint. Well, that could go for a long time; but then came the miners of hides. Then came the miners of bones. Then came the miners of oil and natural gas. And then came the miners of soil. Then came the miners of water. This whole place has been a place where there's a series of mining economies. It's the mind—it's the focus on the pump, rather than the maintenance of the well. And the only way I see for us to extricate ourselves from this wasteful way is to become native to this place, to our places.

Remnants of the Prairie

We have some vast regions, especially over in the Flint Hills of Kansas. And the Tall Grass Prairie National Park is over in eastern Kansas. It's too small a park, but we'd like to see it get added to sometime. So, no, most of the prairie, because it's so rich, got plowed, and where it didn't get plowed, it was usually because it was not plowable. Like in the Flint Hills, there's a little layer of flint right under there and so you're gonna be scratching rock right off. So it's not human virtue that's kept most of it intact, it's some difficulty.

"Looking to Nature as a Standard"

There is a history of looking to nature as a standard or a measure against which we judge our practices. My friend Wendell Berry, the poet, novelist and essayist, the author of The Unsettling of America, traced this history and you can see it in the literary tradition, and later in the scientific tradition, you can go back to Virgil, you can come from Virgil to some of the Romantic poets, well, Milton and Shakespeare and Spenser all talked about looking to Nature, and Alexander Pope, I mentioned, said, "Let Nature never be forgot . . . consult the genius of the place in all." And Wendell says that after Pope, this went underground and that the Romantic poets after Pope used nature more as a reservoir of symbols rather than having any practical use.

Favoring Perennials over Annuals

Essentially all of the high-yielding crops for the human are annuals, which means you have to tear the ground up every year, which means you subject it to the forces of wind and rain and therefore you have erosion of the stuff that we're made of—soil. Soil erosion. The prairie features perennials, grown in a mixture, whereas the human features annuals grown in what we call a monoculture, all one thing—wheat, or all corn, or all soybeans, or all barley or whatever. We're wanting to create a perennial mixture of crops that we can eat. So we want to make wheat a perennial and sorghum a perennial, and rye a perennial, and we would like to see corn and other crops turned into perennials. So that's what our research effort is all about. That's what we're about is try to make an agriculture based on the way the prairie works. So when we say perennialize it means through plant breeding. Convert these annuals into perennials.

The Land Institute

The Land Institute has about 380 acres. It's got about 160 acres of prairie. And about 100 acres of that's never been plowed. We're in kind of a border-land between tall-grass and mid-grass prairie. We're in an area of roughly 30 inches, 29 to 30 inches of annual precipitation. We have offices for researchers—there are eight Ph.D. level scientists, supported by the Land Institute. We support fifteen graduate students around the country that are working on some aspect, whether it's perennial plant breeding or ecological studies, and we've got a greenhouse full of plants, hybrids are being made. We have a laboratory where embryos are being rescued from wide crosses, to keep them growing and get full blown plants. We just finished a ten-year study called Sunshine Farm. Two hundred and ten acres in which the sunlight that fell on that farm had to sponsor all of the activities on that farm. That was headed up by Dr. Marty Bender, who is now writing papers and will be putting out a large book on the Sunshine Farm. But most of the work is for what we call natural systems agriculture, to build this agriculture modeled after the prairie.

A combination of research plots, native prairie, a greenhouse, laboratories, and the Smoky Hill River comes right through, dividing our property. The Smoky Hill River is the southernmost drainage of the Missouri River Basin. And the Smoky Hill, we are here near Salina, Kansas; the Smoky Hill River eventually joins with the Republican to form the Kansas River. So these streams are of prairie origin. They don't begin in the mountains. They begin out on the prairie.

The Mission of the Land Institute

We have the legacy here, a rather rich legacy of grassland, of natives that lived well on this grassland, of the coming of a conqueror, looking for gold, uninterested in becoming native to this place, but only interested in what it could provide in the way of short term gain. And what we're hoping to do is to have this landscape be where there is a psychological transfer, psychological change and part and parcel of that is to build an agriculture that is stable and not dependent upon the extractive economy. So that's the research effort here at The Land Institute. Devoted to a search for sustainable alternatives in agriculture, energy, livelihood.

"Welcoming Back the Wild Animals"

The larger species that are out here that capture our imagination—you know, the bison, the wapiti or prairie elk, we don't have a prairie wolf anymore, we still do have the coyote, and we've got bobcats and now the wild turkeys are coming back and the deer are back.

I'll be sixty-six this year; there were no deer and no turkeys when I was a kid and I never saw bobcat. Well, I saw two bobcats right out my window here and I can look out the window sometimes and see the turkeys and certainly see plenty of deer. We're welcoming back the wild animals. I think we're doing that. And I think that that's a healthy sign. We would like to get bison over on our 160 acres of prairie and have them for people to see a former standard, with the bison on the prairie. Now in a way it's artificial because it's barbed wire that's keeping 'em in. And the bison did not know fencing. The bison migrated and their numbers were trimmed in part by the coyotes and the wolves as well as hard weather.

Toward a New World View of Nature

The succession of looking to Nature as a standard is carried in the common culture. But it pops up as a series in the formal. It seems to me that there's a kind of a common sense in the common culture about how we cannot do better than nature. But there is kind of an override that it's to be subdued or ignored. It's a world view. I mean I can't help but think that my friend Angus Wright, who wrote The Death of Ramón González: The Modern Agricultural Dilemma is absolutely correct. It's not a conspiracy, says Professor Wright, but it's a world view. A world view that Nature’s to be subdued or ignored. So the prairie nearly vanished as the consequence of that idea—that Nature's to be subdued or ignored.

Well, one would hope that a person could become native to a place in a city. I would say, however, that it would be terribly important for the city or urban dweller to develop what I would call an agrarian mind, to recognize the source of the sustenance and the health—where did it come from? You know, what is it that sustains me? I found there're probably more people in cities concerned about soil erosion than in the countryside, but, of course, there are more people in cities you know, so it's not exactly a fair statement. But I do think that it's not so much a matter of people, everybody can't live out on the landscape for one thing; but the policy decisions that have to do with the treatment of land have to come from, you know, the collective, which includes the folk in the cities.

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