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Reflections on Prairie Festival

Libby Comeaux, October 14, 2010

The sun is taking its time waking up. It stretches, peeks an eye out from under the covers, rolls over and goes back to sleep. Its coffee pot sits idle on the stove, the waiting grounds still tucked in for the night in the freezer. Yesterday, the sun was sitting up by now, stretching its arms wide on the edge of the bed, about to stand up. Every day it’s a little sleepier, takes its time a little longer, waking up. Welcome to autumn, harvest time.

The ancients saw gold as the metal that best reflected the value of the sun. And silver represented the moon’s capacity to wax and wane, pull the tides of Earth and our bloodstream, light the night with reflected light. I think about this as the sun wakes up, languidly, this golden time of year. In these waning days of the industrial age, we ache for Earth’s native species and peoples when corporate giants leave their wake of destruction behind their gold and silver mines. How today can we properly reverence the sun and the moon, their gifts to us? What new awareness bridges the mystical and the practical, the beautiful and the economic?

Long the harbingers of planting and harvest, the transits of sun and moon anchor our days and illuminate our nights. Wes Jackson of the Land Institute commented at this year’s Prairie Festival that Wendell Berry won’t farm with machinery fueled by ancient sunlight (fossil fuels like oil and gasoline). Ever the poet, Berry prefers the intimacy of the farmer and the land. He works on foot, with his mule pulling a simple implement.

On September 26, I toured a Kansas indigenous wild prairie with one of Jackson’s staff. Did you know that over a hundred years ago, when a homesteader first opened the wild prairie with a plow, it sounded like a zipper! That sound cracked open the dust bowl. Funnels of rains washed millions of tons of prime topsoil down the Mississippi River to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. The chemical pesticide and fertilizer load in that same wash created a huge dead zone where the River meets the Gulf. And these same dynamics help destroy a football-field-sized area of wetlands every 38 minutes. Planet Earth built these wetlands to foster new ocean life and buffer the coast against hurricanes. Now throughout the globe, living soil washes away just like, wherever the native vegetation has been cleared for farming – and exponentially more intensely where industrial agriculture reigns.

Most of us do not realize that it took Earth millions of years to create complex living soil. The minerals and organic matter, the microscopic creatures who do the work of translating soil nutrients to fibrous root hairs – these do not regenerate overnight. People talk of Peak Oil, but Peak Soil is more serious. People do not have to fly in airplanes, but everyone needs to eat. And the human population is increasing in drastic proportions.

The agronomists and soil scientists at the Land Institute have a solution in the works. They learn from nature, as well we all would do. They notice that the native wild prairie is a diverse ecosystem. Numerous varieties of prairie grasses, legumes, and forbes form a dense interwoven living system, whose roots plunge as far as 20 feet down into the soil. Not only do the roots hold the soil in place, while drawing up minerals and circulating nutrients for both micro-organisms and plant life alike, these roots continually build soil by shedding parts of themselves as compost. The biodiversity makes this a healthy resilient system, impervious to decimation by marauding insects, violent windstorms, or flooding rains.

By contrast, the annual monocultures (wheat, corn, barley, rye, etc.) that farmers have been taught to grow are vulnerable to pests, not to mention washing away precious soils during the harvesting, resting, and plowing times of the year. Diminishing soil quantity and quality have made farmers vulnerable to a multi-billion-dollar industry of farm chemicals, whether to fertilize or protect from pests. And multinational corporations tinker with plant genes to build Frankenstein pest control into corn via addiction to certain herbicides and pesticides. Scientists like Sandra Steingraber trace “the farm inside the body” as public health enemy number one.

At the Land Institute, a quiet natural transformation of the entire system of agriculture is under way. With the vision of a perennial, diverse farmland that mimics the health of the indigenous wild prairie, Wes Jackson and his collaborators patiently hybridize prairie grasses with edible seed-bearing grasses (annuals like wheat, barley, rye, etc). Already, they have developed a perennial wheat they have trademarked Kernza. The real possibility exists for a variety of crops to grow in a single, resilient field, with perennial roots down 20 feet, rebuilding the soil base of the watershed and feeding the burgeoning human population with healthy grains. The producers of chemical pesticides and fertilizers will just have to join the party by transforming their industrial capacities to support the green energy revolution!

The sun is up now, sitting on the bed and stretching, wondering what the day will bring. What if you were the sun, beaming abundant energy out with constant generosity? Would you be pleased at the blue planet circling you so regularly? What response to your beneficence would please you?

At the Prairie Festival, I heard the term “running on current solar energy” so many times it is embedded in my brain like so many deeply rooted prairie grasses. Fossil fuels like oil, gas, and coal are stored solar energy. We risk bankrupting the planet when we spend down this natural capital, at such quantities and speed that the diminished ecosystems cannot absorb it, much less regenerate it. Yet our industrial agriculture follows that path, in the form of fossil fuel for large tractors and combines, for transporting the food to distant markets, and for chemical derivatives known as pesticides and fertilizers. Current solar energy is like a mule that runs on grass, like a person that moves on legs or a bicycle, like a solar cell that runs a cookstove or a computer.

It’s a slow process, the traditional farm-based hybridization of new plant stock. But when I imagine fields of golden grain – biodiverse, perennial, and full of healthy nutrition – waving in the Kansas wind, I see a new icon of appreciation for our generous sun.

© 2010 Libby Comeaux

See www.landinstitute.org