What Is Earth For?

“The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and foster its renewal is our only hope.” – Wendell Berry

Author Wallace Stegner once said every book should try to answer an anguished question, an instruction that I took to heart at a tender age. For over thirty years, I’ve tried to answer a number of anguished questions in my writing, photography, and activism, ranging over the fields of archaeology, history, conservation, the radical center, regenerative agriculture, resilience, and climate change. Although the questions were often daunting and suffused with urgency, in my answers I tried to be creative, hopeful and, above all, a good storyteller. It’s my nature to see the glass as half-full, even if the glass is large and intimidating!

Slowly, a general anguished question began to reveal itself over the years, linking my various concerns and creative efforts: what is land for? Why do we do what we do to land, including its plants and animals? Why do we treat it so poorly at times and yet magnificently at others? Why are we so obsessed with its beauty and bounty and yet so harmful and destructive to its health? We are possessive of land and possessed by it, but we are also deeply conflicted about what land is for – Food? Wilderness? Mining? Inspiration? Recreation? This anguished question lies at the heart of The Sun. In my story, a young doctor inherits a large, beautiful property and must decide: what is the ranch for? Oil-and-gas? Houses? Cattle? Fish? Wolves? A casino? A spiritual retreat? Complicating things, there’s a dead body and a mystery to solve as well!

Hurricane Katrina

When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, my anguished questions expanded suddenly. How do we build resilience economically and ecologically for a rapidly changing world? How do we scale-up hopeful solutions to serious problems? How could we work together more collaboratively despite significant cultural and political differences? How were we going to confront a warming globe and slow down climate change? The same year, I saw a graphic in a peer-reviewed academic journal that brought all the issues I had been worried about and working on into focus. The researchers studied twenty-four global indicators in an attempt to understand how fast human impacts were taking place at earth system levels – i.e., to oceans, land, and the atmosphere. They discovered that in a tiny fraction of time our impact had grown from insignificant to colossal. They called this rate of change The Great Acceleration. Human activity was approaching or exceeding some of the great forces of nature. The extent and magnitude of alterations to the natural world was (and continues to be) unprecedented, they wrote, and humans are now the primary driver of change on the planet. Taken together, it meant a new anguished question: what is earth for? Here is the graphic:

Steffen, et al, “The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration” Anthropocene Review, January 2015 (updated from 2004) – the year 1950 is in red.

In the years since Hurricane Katrina, I have searched for hopeful answers to this question in many places and expressed what I found in a variety of forms, including books, articles, lectures, and the work of the Quivira Coalition. Last fall, I was asked by the editor of a journal to reflect on this ‘earth’ question specifically and share what I had learned with readers. I was reluctant at first to try, mostly because I was feeling down about our prospects (Trump, climate change, Twitter, etc), but writing the essay proved to be cathartic. I realized that the quest to tackle anguished questions still beat strongly in my breast. I was still ‘Courtney White’ in other words (see previous post) even in fiction. It’s all one journey in one canoe. I am reprinting the essay here (The Point, no. 18, Winter 2019, in a longer version) as a way of explaining how my search for answers to anguished questions came about and evolved over time. And I offer it here on the Summer solstice as a tribute to the start of my favorite season of the year and a reminder to keep on questing:

What is land for? This question entered my mind like a bullet one incredibly hot July day in 1979 while working on an archaeological survey crew in the Sonoran desert north of Phoenix, Arizona. Actually, it was the second piercing thought I had on that scorching afternoon, the first being what the hell am I doing here? It had to be 120 degrees out – hotter, actually, since additional heat blasted upward from the volcanic rock all around us. It was like being roasted slowly in a furnace – again. It had happened yesterday. And the day before. In fact, it had been a record-setting week of broiling temperatures in Phoenix, the kind of unforgiving heat that softened asphalt in parking lots and runway tarmacs, cancelling flights. Normally, I didn’t mind. I was eighteen and indestructible. Besides, I knew from experience that the desert has a surprising amount of shade if you know where to look. This day, however, was different. The volcanic land, covered with moon-like fragments of black rock, was shadeless except for the thin relief offered by a handful of saguaro cactus. Needing a break, our four-person crew dispersed quickly to the sparse stand of these stately monarchs, squeezing our bodies into their shadows. We didn’t have a choice. We were miles from our truck. And we had a job to do.

We had discovered a prehistoric field house among the rocks.

On survey in 1979 (I’m on the left). Near Phoenix.

It was my second summer as a member of an archaeological survey project run by Arizona State University, part of an energetic effort at the time to canvas the desert around Phoenix for signs of ancient human activity. On the surface, our purpose was scientific: to discover and record archaeological sites so we could understand better why prehistoric people did what they did centuries ago. In reality, our job was political. We surveyed land fated to be drowned by the rising waters of new dams. Phoenix’s economy, sustained by epic amounts of air conditioning, was beginning to boom. New homes, schools, and businesses were springing up like weeds after a spring rain. Raised on the edge of the expanding city, I had a front-row seat as cement flowed endlessly in all directions.

However, there was one significant limitation to Phoenix’s heedless addiction to growth: water. To civic leaders that meant new dams – taller, wider, deeper. In the old days, they would have simply hired engineers and dispatched bulldozers to accomplish their vision of progress. By the late 1970s, however, federal laws required cultural and biological surveys to be conducted before the bulldozers could fly, which is where ASU came in. Its job was to inventory the past before it was lost forever – and help the civic leaders choose the best site for the new dam. My job as a crew member, hired at the eye-popping (to me) rate of $3.33 an hour, was to hike, make maps, collect artifacts, and camp in the desert. I had so much fun I would have done it for free!

Prehistoric field house. Bandelier, NM, from my book In the Land of the Delight-Makers (1992)

Over the course of surveying the basins of five potential dam sites, ASU’s crews discovered a wide variety of prehistoric ruins, large and small, but none quite as intriguing to me as the little field house in the volcanic field on that broiling July day. At first glance, the structure was unimpressive. A square of shaped stones, it measured two meters by two meters and stood only one course high – hardly discernable among the rocky moonscape. Trained eyes had discovered it, however, and now we needed to record the lonely edifice. But we weren’t quite ready to abandon the blessed shadows of our saguaros. Standing there, I frowned at the little house. What was it doing here? These types of structures were usually associated with agricultural fields, serving as storage for harvested crops, but where were the fields? The land was sand and rocks and pitiless sun.

Prehistoric food included corn, beans, and squash and the technique used to raise them was called dry farming by archaeologists, which is a literal description. Farmers relied on rain water to grow their crops and when the rains failed, as they often did in the arid Southwest, people suffered. That’s why prehistoric farmers were fabulous opportunists. They grew food wherever they could, even in places considered marginal by desert standards. Our survey crew discovered field houses in surprising places, including on steep slopes, but not one as merciless as this moonscape. It spoke of human ingenuity – and desperation for sustenance.

Phoenix during my youth.

This was a revelation to me as a suburban city boy who had no idea where my food came from other than the grocery store and fast food restaurants. Actually, in our household most of our meals came from the freezer. My mother liked to boil frozen food in a bag, back when that was popular. Ranching? Farming? I had no clue. The only livestock I knew were a few horses my parents owned for a while. Occasionally, I would spy a green farm field on the edge of town while driving, but the only crop I ever saw harvested were new houses. All that changed when I joined the survey.

Hiking across inhospitably dry country that had once sustained thousands of prehistoric people, I came to appreciate the deep link between land and survival. The Law of the Desert for prehistoric inhabitants became clear as we worked: cultivate the land or perish. It was a law as old as agriculture, and probably a lot older. For millennia, humans have been in a dynamic, productive, and codependent relationship with land for our sustenance, both nutritionally and spiritually. Success or failure was a mixture of farming skill and natural caprice (the whim of gods or summer storms, take your pick). For me, it was all on display that burning July day in the form of a solitary field house sitting mutely among the sun-blasted rocks. It spoke viscerally to a fundamental human attitude toward the earth: we need it to nourish us.

After a move to Santa Fe, New Mexico, I carried the image of the little field house in my mind as I became involved with the conservation movement. Alarmed by the “Republican Revolution” in the 1994 mid-term elections and Speaker-elect Newt Gringrich’s declared intention to rollback twenty-five years of critical environmental legislation, I called a representative of the Sierra Club to volunteer my services and was quickly recruited as a foot soldier for the local chapter. While much of Gingrich’s anti-environmental agenda was successfully blocked in Congress thanks to a national outpouring of outrage, I witnessed a different sort of trouble at home.

At the time, conservation work was dominated by open conflict between environmentalists and loggers, miners, and ranchers over the use of public land in the West. Almost daily headlines around the region featured a cycle of unhappy news: effigies of forest activists hanging from street lamps; road-building equipment disabled in the dead of night; federal property attacked by anonymous assailants; hiking trails booby-trapped with explosives; trees spiked with large nails to prevent their harvest; endangered species threatened by a rural campaign of ‘shoot, shovel, and shut up;’ public meetings dissolving into shouting matches, on and on. Two popular bumper stickers reflected the tenor of the times: “Cattle Free in ’93!” shouted one and “Cattle Galore in ’94!” shouted the other.

Wilderness or cattle ranch or both? Western Montana.

Although I was a conservationist, I felt a great deal of anguish because this conflict had all the hallmarks of a tragedy: both sides, and all of us in between, seemed destined to lose what was most valued by everyone: the health and diversity of the West’s open spaces. And it wasn’t just the West, the hard-headedness of this fight reflected other divides in the nation – the “red” and “blue” split, for instance, that would soon engulf our national politics. In particular, I struggled to understand why fellow activists kept proposing solutions to environmental problems that carried the maximum penalty for rural people. For example, a vigorous national campaign to prohibit on all logging in national forests – called ‘Zero Cut’ – was the proposed answer to forest mismanagement by the federal government, a solution that fell hard on the struggling traditional Hispanic villages of northern New Mexico who relied on the forest for wood to heat their homes. Tensions quickly flared as villagers protested this assault on their culture. Activists persisted, resulting in a pipe bomb being placed in the local mailbox of the most aggressive environmental organization (it didn’t go off, thankfully).

Jim Winder

An answer to my anguish came from an unexpected source one day. Walking into a statewide meeting of the Sierra Club in the southern part of the state, I saw a cowboy hat sitting on a table. It belonged to Jim Winder, who lived and ranched nearby. If that wasn’t surprise enough, I was told Jim was there because he had accepted the invitation of the chair, Gwen Wardwell, to become a member of the Executive Committee. A rancher on the statewide Executive Committee of the Sierra Club? And a Republican to boot! What was going on here? Jim boasted that he ranched in a new, ecologically friendly style. He bunched his cattle together into one herd and kept them on the move so that any particular patch of ground would be grazed only once a year, mimicking the manner in which bison covered the land. He didn’t kill coyotes. In fact, he didn’t even mind wolves, because bunched-up cows can protect themselves. There was more: because he ranched for rangeland health he got along great with government employees, he had more water in his streams, and most importantly, he was making money.

It sounded too good to be true. Curious about this new-fangled ranching, in early 1996 I joined a tour of the family ranch Jim had organized for a small crowd of his fellow Sierra Clubbers. Attending was a vocal anti-grazing activist who tried to provoke Jim into a confrontation (I learned later this activist was the prime suspect in a spate of cattle murders in the area). It didn’t work. Jim parried each attack with a patient explanation of ecological principles and a fine sense of humor. I soon learned there were other ranchers of Jim’s stripe across the West – ranchers managing for healthy ecosystems through progressive cattle management and collaboration. It confirmed what I saw on Jim’s ranch: thick grass, healthy riparian areas, young plants, wildlife, open space – all the things I said I wanted as a conservationist. Of course, I saw livestock too.

Rancher Jim Williams and myself. Jim sued the Forest Service and then joined the radical center to work things out collaboratively. Western NM.

Acting on what I learned, Jim and I, along with Barbara Johnson, another Sierra Club activist, founded the Quivira Coalition, a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to “sharing common-sense solutions to the rangeland conflict.” Our goal was to build a radical center among farmers, ranchers, agencies, scientists, conservationists, and members of the public around progressive land management practices that restored social and ecological health. Our guiding philosophy was encapsulated by Kentucky farmer and author Wendell Berry who wrote “You can’t save the land apart from the people; to save either, you must save both.” Our attempt to build a radical center wasn’t embraced by my fellow activists, however. Not only did many dislike talking to rural people, most were philosophically opposed to the idea of sustainable use of the land.

One of the main goals of the conservation movement at the time was wilderness protection. Arguments advanced by activists were based on the 1964 Wilderness Act which viewed land as either ‘pristine’ (“untrammeled” officially) or not. But I knew from my archaeological experience that nature wasn’t “pristine” at all. It had been used and occupied by indigenous people for thousands of years – at least until they were driven out of their homelands by the federal government in many cases. It looked like empty wilderness, but only because it had been forcibly emptied of people. These are working landscapes, I argued, both historically and presently – working ecologically as well as socially. Ranchers had a place in the West too, I said. This was the point the Hispanic villages were also trying to make – culture matters. But whenever I brought up these concerns fellow environmentalists would scoff. One even accused me in print of being “an archaeologist.”

Singing Frogs organic farm. Northern California.

Then there was food. Why did activists rarely talk about food production, except to criticize industrial agriculture or complain about livestock on public land? Positive, nurturing relationships between land and humans centered on sustainable farming and ranching were almost never discussed, buried under noisy demands by activists for more wilderness designation and greater wildlife protections. Lost in the heated ‘us vs. them’ rhetoric that dominated the 1990s was any acknowledgement that land could be managed in regenerative ways that sustained humans and the world we all shared together. Even as the organic farming movement rapidly expanded and healthy food became widely available in natural grocery stores, restaurants, and farmers markets, many conservationists maintained their campaign against agricultural use of the earth. Others simply stuck their fingers in their ears.

This is where the image of the little field house among the hot rocks on that July day kept coming back to me – we need the land to feed us today as much as we did back then. Food doesn’t come from the grocery store, it originates in the earth. Either we can get it from organic, regenerative farms and ranches or we can continue to consume industrially-produced food-like substances. Either way, as Wendell Berry once observed, “eating is an agricultural act” – a point the conservation movement kept missing.

My work with the Quivira Coalition led to another issue that made my fellow environmentalists uncomfortable: the earth needed us too.

Example of soil erosion – these fence posts sat on the ground in 1937. Near Quemado, NM.

Our relationship to the land has too often been abusive. This point was driven home to me one day as I walked up a small creek on a ranch in eastern New Mexico. I could tell that the creek had been badly eroded by repeated floods but when I saw a barbed-wire fence with its wooden posts still attached stretched across the creek ten feet above my head, I knew something serious was going on. When I asked the rancher about the fence, he said the wooden posts had rested on the ground in 1937! In other words, a huge amount of soil had washed away in only seventy years. The main culprit was historical overgrazing by livestock in the uplands, which stripped land of its grass cover exposing soil to the erosive power of big storms. A few weeks later, I asked an expert with the federal government how much of New Mexico existed in a similarly degraded condition. “Most of it,” he replied. The Rio Puerco, a significant waterway west of Albuquerque, was once called the ‘breadbasket’ of region. Today, it is a forty-foot deep ditch along much of its length, a victim of ignorance and economic short-sightedness (the two principle reasons for land abuse, according to Wendell Berry).

The great conservationist Aldo Leopold once declared the arid Southwest to be on a “hair-trigger” for erosion. If stewarded poorly, he warned, the health of the land would begin a downward spiral leading to all sorts of trouble. He was right. In fact, for much of the Southwest the trigger was pulled decades ago.

Bill Zeedyk teaching a riparian restoration workshop, Comanche Creek, NM.

Fortunately, we can help turn this around. The toolbox for improving and restoring land health, nascent in Leopold’s day, has expanded dramatically over recent years. We know how to manage cattle holistically so native grasses can get reestablished and thrive; we know how to mend damaged creeks with simple, carefully-design wooden structures that slow water down and let riparian vegetation grow again; we know how to grow food regeneratively, building up carbon in the soil that was lost generations ago when topsoil washed away; and we know how to rebuild trust and work together for the common benefit of land and people.

These aren’t new ideas. Aldo Leopold observed long ago that the tools we used to damage the land – the axe, plow, gun, and cow – were the same ones that could be used to restore it. It wasn’t the tool itself that was the problem, he wrote, but how we use it. A hammer could be employed to build a house, for instance, or strike a person. Cattle, grazing in ways that mimicked the behavior of wild herbivores, such as a herd of bison, could be a tool for regenerating the land. I saw it in practice over and over.

Restored grasslands on Tom and Mimi Sidwell’s JX Ranch. Tumacacori, NM

Today, despite the news headlines about widening political and social divides in America, the radical center continues to grow across the nation. It goes by many names now – collaborative conservation, regenerative agriculture, sustainable resource management, ecoagriculture, watershed stewardship – but the purpose is the same: restoring the ancient, co-relationship between people and land. In many places, it is being led by young people who are emboldened not only by ideas and practices “beta tested” by their mentors, but also by new ways to measure and quantify the results of their work that weren’t possible twenty years ago. New technology, much of it hand-held, can generate piles of data that can guide our land management, food growing, and ecological restoration activities. The sequestration of atmospheric carbon in soils, for example, which has the potential to reduce the effects of climate change, is a rapidly burgeoning area of work among a new generation of regenerative farmers and ranchers empowered by low-cost, cutting-edge technology.

I find all of this tremendously encouraging. The environmental movement has changed too. Many activists now see the value of working landscape for conservation and are working in partnership with rural residents toward common goals. Building up carbon in the soil, for instance, is in all our interests, as every gardener knows. It is the lesson of the little field house that so sharply entered my mind all those years ago: the earth still nourishes us and we can still nourish the earth.

(all photos by Courtney White except the ones of Katrina, Jim, Phoenix and the two with me)

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