Monday, November 1, 2010

Words to Relish: Food for thought from the Land Institute

“… The soul’s bliss and suffering are bound together like the grasses…” From “Twilight: After Haying,” a poem by Jane Kenyon

The Land Institute has taken as its symbol an unassuming tuft of prairie grass. The part of this plant we normally see is only the tip of the iceberg, however. When founder Wes Jackson appeared at Colorado College a few years ago, the small grass plant he displayed was eclipsed hundreds of times over by a vast web of filigree roots that rambled on beneath it for several feet. This deceptively unobtrusive plant is the perfect metaphor for the Land Institute’s own mission: re-establishing the notion that the people of the rural plains come with a similar root structure that is just as invisible, vast, and profound, a resource worthy of respect and preservation, a foundation for building on, rather than for simply plowing under and forgetting.

I grew up on a mid-sized farm a stone’s throw from Jackson’s Land Institute, which is located on a winding gravel road just outside Salina, Kan. Once a year, when the Land Institute holds a festival in a barn and brings together an eccentric audience to hear from a chorus of countercultural prophets, I try to stop by and savor the early autumn sun glinting on the blooming sunflowers and migrating monarchs, the ripe apples and pears spilling from scattered trees, the views of the Smoky River in this beautiful but quiet spot.

Kentucky writer and philosopher Wendell Berry was on the program again this year. (He and Jackson have been close friends and collaborators since he first appeared at this same event 30 years ago.) Despite having traveled 700 miles west, Berry talked unapologetically and at length about the attributes of his own native land, a fertile topic he has plowed repeatedly in his career. By the time I left I was looking around at the sorghum fields fringed by hedgerows and silo-studded farms with the passion and gratitude of the perennially homesick. Berry’s contention — in books like his recent Imagination in Place — is that our souls require us to re-inhabit our roots, our families of origin, our native communities and landscapes, in spite of a culture that has taught us to denigrate those things in the name of progress. For example, he makes this observation of his college years (which resonates with me): “The question before us, seemed to be, not how we might fit ourselves and our book knowledge into our home landscapes, but how we would fit into our careers, which is to say our exile.” Of course, Berry is famous for ending his own exile by returning to a small farm in Kentucky (as he describes it, “about a mile from the house where my mother was born and raised and about five miles from my father’s home place”) after graduating from Stanford and living briefly in New York City (the pre-eminent literary capital, then and now). A phenomenal talent, he managed in spite of remoteness to publish prolifically and to make the choice of going home a fertile theme of his work.

It was in reading Imagination in Place that I came across the lyric fragment above from a poem by Jane Kenyon. (Former poet laureate Donald Hall and his wife Jane also left New York City to live at Hall’s family farm in rural New Hampshire in the later years of their lives.) It’s a line that echoes again the solemnity of the native grass and the humanity of the dwindling population that continues to live in concert with it.

Kent Wheatley, the founder of Seed Savers Exchange, also spoke at the Prairie Festival. Coupled with hearing Bill McDorman, who spoke earlier this year at Colorado College, I was prompted to return again to a book I’ve long intended to read about one of the world’s original seed savers: Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nicolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine by ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan.

What fascinating armchair travel! The obvious theme here is the importance of biodiversity. But on dramatically vivid display is the remarkable ingenuity and adaptive wisdom of farmers, whether growing crops in the remote highlands of central Asia, the mythical Nile River Valley, the richly blessed Mediterranean or the impoverished Hopi and Navajo Indian Reservations of the American Southwest. Despite growing up in the farm fields that comprise the American breadbasket, I needed this refresher course on the breadth and wealth of Ethiopian agrarianism and other ancient hotbeds of agricultural innovation. When agriculture dies out, so do diverse crops. Perhaps most importantly, so do the farmers. Maybe today’s monoculture farming is drifting toward something resembling the unsatisfying wasteland of middle management that inhabits modern jungles of corporate cubicles. Work should be independent, engaging, worthy of humanity’s intellectual capacities, completely unlike most of the current jobs open to jobseekers. Reading Nabhan’s book revives the question of what global culture values, how it measures progress, wealth and achievement, and what these views mean for the lifestyle of the average person.

The Land Institute is unique for being a private institution shaped around the whims of its brilliant if at times curmudgeonly founder (recipient of a prestigious MacArthur grant and a “Right Livelihood” award). Jackson’s own Becoming Native to this Place is a beautifully written classic on the unsettling of rural America (to use a term taken from the title of a Wendell Berry essay collection that plows a similar furrow.) It should probably be required reading in all college agriculture programs, if only for the sake of discussion, but it’s not.

As the days get shorter and the evenings longer, any of these books are a potential source of satisfying immersion. And for a nice introduction to Wes Jackson, read the opening pages of an extensive interview with him published in October issue of The Sun magazine.