Becoming Native To This Place, Wes Jackson. New York: Counterpoint Press, 1996.
Summary: Six essays advocating agricultural practices that reflect close attention to the character of a particular place.
Wes Jackson thinks universities ought to focus their work on preparing their students for “homecomings”–not to assume that success consists in leaving home but rather becoming native to these places–fully appreciating the character of the place and conforming one’s life in that place to its character. He elaborates this idea of becoming native to one’s place in the six essays that make up this book.
He begins by asking a probing question. Archaeological evidence indicates that at one time over 25,000 indigenous persons lived in the boundaries of Rice County, Kansas. By 1990, only 10,400 could sustain their livelihoods there. Why this population decline? Why did so many families fail where the native peoples once thrived? Why, in a place where buffalo roamed amid native grasses could an economy based on wheat farming fail?
Jackson argues that the assumption that nature must be subdued and ignored had a lot to do with it. Farm plots laid out in squares, disregarding the location of creeks and rivers, the fencing of prairie that offered common grazing ground along with hunting led to the decimation of the buffalo, a food source rich in calories, well-adapted to the prairies. Instead of studying what worked, farmers in tandem with agricultural scientists sought to bend nature to their will. Nature would not be bent.
He offers an interesting case of the conflict between Lysenko and Vavilov, two Soviet scientists. On the science, Lysenko was wrong on many counts and power hungry as well. But he was right to listen to peasant wisdom rather than the proponents of the collective, who wrecked agriculture. Rather than the objectification and control of nature, he urges what Wendell Berry calls a “conversation with nature.” One honors water, forest animals, savanna grazers and the prairie. One pays attention to the topography of land, allowing grasses to hold the soil on slopes. Out of this “conversation,” Jackson launched the Land Institute to develop practices appropriate to the place, an approach that seeks to “mimic” the nature of the place.
More than that, he dreams of what a community might be that did this, describing the community that once was in his location. Sustainability is not just about preserving wilderness, but loving the ordinary of prairie farmland, and even our cities. This loving of place is a task for all of us, and without it, even the most wild places cannot be hoped to survive. It means paying attention to the succession of a place, how in a healthy ecosystem, whether a marsh or a forest, nothing is wasted.
He describes his find forty years programs of New Century Club, a women’s group and their discussions of local wisdom, and the gradual decline even as modern agriculture advanced, but fewer could afford to live there. From beautiful program covers, the programs declined to mimeographs on construction paper. It was evidence that the people of that place had lived closer to the land in those early years than later, with all their technical advances.
Jackson concludes with a call to a kind of ecological patriotism–of love of one’s land, of our place that doesn’t turn the clock back but uses what we know to go forward, though not as conquerors, but those who have finally learned that the land is our teacher, and if we are to care for it well, we must learn from it.
I reviewed Braiding Sweetgrass recently on the integrating of indigenous and ecological wisdom. It strikes me that Jackson is engaged in a similar project. Many argue that we cannot afford the less “efficient” approaches of Robin Wall Kimmerer, or the Land Institute, or places like Polyface Farm, or even Wendell Berry’s own farm. If Wes Jackson and these others are right, we cannot afford our current, unsustainable life, where the hidden costs of our supposed efficiency are becoming increasingly evident. The question is whether we will start learning the lessons of our place on earth while those places can still teach us?