Can We Restore the Prairie—And Still Support Ourselves?
Posted Dec 12, 2011 by Wes Jackson
[Excerpt]: Since ripping open the prairie for modern monocultures, we're losing soil and fertility. Agricultural pioneer Wes Jackson says there's another way.
The Grass was the Country as the Water is the Sea.
Author Joseph Kinsey Howard describes a spring day in 1883 in North Dakota when John Christiansen, a Scandinavian farmer, looked up while plowing a field to discover an old Sioux watching him. Silently the Sioux watched as the prairie grass was turned under. The farmer stopped the team, leaned against the plow handles, pushed his black Stetson back on his head, and rolled a cigarette. He watched amusedly as the Sioux knelt, thrust his fingers into the furrow, measured its depth, fingered the sod and the buried grass. Eventually the Sioux straightened up and looked at the immigrant. “Wrong side up,” said the Sioux and went away.
Another writer in the mid-1930s described how his grandfather “broke prairie sod, driving five yoke of straining oxen, stopping every hour or so to hammer the iron ploughshare to a sharper edge. Some of the grass roots immemorial were as thick as his arm. ‘It was like plowing through a heavy woven doormat,’ grandfather said.”
To many of us today it seems tragic that our ancestors should have so totally blasphemed the grasslands with their moldboards. But who among us, in their time, would have done otherwise?
Nevertheless, it was one of the two or three worst atrocities committed by Americans, for with the cutting of the roots—a sound that reminded one of a zipper being opened or closed—a new way of life opened, which simultaneously closed, probably forever, a long line of ecosystems stretching back thirty million years.
Before the coming of the Europeans the prairie was a primitive wilderness, both beautiful and stern, a wilderness that had supported migrating water birds as well as bobolinks, prairie chickens, black-footed ferrets, and Native Americans. Never mind that the Europeans’ crops would far outyield the old prairie for human purposes, at least in the short run. What is important is that the Sioux knew it was wrong, and that his words became regionally famous for the wrong reason. The story was often repeated precisely because farmer Christiansen, and the others who passed it on, thought it was amusing. To their minds those words betrayed the ignorance of the poor Sioux. As far as the immigrant was concerned, “breaking the prairie” was his purpose in life...
Originally posted at Yes! Magazine. This essay has been excerpted for YES! Magazine from Nature as Measure: The Selected Essays of Wes Jackson, published by Counterpoint Press, 2011.