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Becoming Native to this Place

by Wes Jackson

121 pages, paperback, Counterpoint, 1996

In six compelling essays, Wes Jackson lays the foundation for a new farming economy grounded in ecological principles and located in small towns and rural communities. Contrary to the tenets of industrial agriculture, Jackson seeks to integrate food production with natural ecosystems in a way that sustains both.

Praise for Becoming Native to this Place

"A call to rethink our basic assumptions about ecology while heeding lessons gleaned from our past."--The New York Times Book Review

"Full of challenges, questions, and compass points, imbued with a refreshing thoughtfulness."--Pacific Discovery magazine

"A good introduction to a thinker whose ideas on agriculture are radical both in their technical approach to food production as well as in terms of the economic, social and cultural context within which it is practiced."--Review of Radical Political Economics

Quotes from Becoming Native to this Place

"On the basis of evidence from dwellings and villages that have been excavated, and that from written narratives by those who accompanied Coronado or came into the region later, archeologists have estimated that 'within the confines of Rice County [Kansas] there were well over 25,000 people,' or about thirty-five natives per square mile. In 1927, Rice County had just under 15,000 people. In 1980, 11,800. In 1988, 10,800, In 1990, 10,400.

"Why this huge decline in numbers of people? Were the natives more sophisticated at providing their living than we are? More than 25,000 people are now being supported in cities outside the county by Rice County soils and water, by steel produced in Gary, Indiana, and by fossil fuel. We know that nearly all of the young people who want to stay or who leave but want to return would bring the population to well over 25,000. Why can't they stay or afford to return?

"A neighbor of mine, Nick Fent, has recently written up the seventy-year history of 240 acres (three contiguous eighties) fifty to sixty miles north of old Quivira. Nick and his wife Joyce now own those 240 acres. The topography, the rainfall, and the soils are comparable to those in old Quivira. Nick Fent used courthouse deedbooks in his research. The three eighty- acre tracts were originally deeded to three settlers who had come west to establish new lives for themselves and their families. Nick Fent describes how 'buried in the legal abstracts is the depressing struggle of these transplanted families who had bet mortgages against droughts, dust storms and grasshoppers. The documents recording the satisfaction of mortgages are always preceded by those recording another mortgager of larger debt.' In 1891, a woman living on this land went insane, and her husband, 'owing to extreme poverty,' could not transport his wife to the asylum at Topeka. Nick Fent continues:

Subsistence farming on the center 80 acres had been subjected to drought, when crops failed completely, wet years, when the creek bottom corn fields were too soft to work; and plagues of grasshoppers that ate everything from cornstalks to hoe handles. Burdened with increasing debt, it had passed through 14 owners from the time of its presidential patent deed No. 1, in 1885, to our ownership in 1955. Through 70 years, owners Dell, Hawkins, Decious, Crowel, Minor, Carnal, Curtis, Loughridge, School, Haley, Ashman, Wetchel, Walker and Mills tried, through their struggle with the elements, insanity, death and taxes, to eat, educate their children and pay the interest on their debts.

Most of their personal struggles and disappointments were hidden in the quiet desperation of their lives but are reflected in the permanent record of escalating mortgages."

"Nick concludes with this chilling sentence: 'The families who devoted their lives to losing this land might have prospered elsewhere had it remained 'Buffalo Range.'

"Why did those families fail where the natives had been successful?"

. . .

"The Soviets wanted heavy doses of philosophy in science. Too many of our scientists assume that philosophy can be and should be excluded from science. But, though some Lysenkoist ideas were absurd, that does not mean that philosophy as such should or can be kept out of science. The philosophical view the Lysenkoists were struggling to foster was more on target than the simple reductionism that still dominates Western science. Our placement of priority on the parts over the whole denies the importance of emergent properties, or qualities, the things that pile up as we go up the level of organization from small to large. Even systems theory is a form of reductionism, for the intersecting variables on the computer do not predict emergent qualities. (Take the two gasses hydrogen and oxygen, which combined at a given temperature and pressure give us wetness.) Moreover, when scale is a factor, emergent qualities appear that reflect mere increases in size.

"Lysenko was an aberrant power-hungry nut in a context that brought him to power. Nevertheless, he existed within a philosophical frame we need. For example, the Lysenkoists emphasized traditional, cultural, peasant intelligence as important for agriculture. They made such a fetish of this emphasis that they carried it too far, ultimately suppressing the scientific view held by Vavilov. In our country among our scientists today, it is the other way around, except for the miniature low input sustainable agriculture (LISA) effort and the acknowledged need to develop on-farm research. One could, of course, go overboard in the direction of tradition only. I see it as I travel to various sustainable agriculture gatherings. It is actually a rumble that makes me uneasy. The noise is often from a hard put-down of modern science. When I listen to such put-downs, I remember that in the USSR overemphasis on tradition and cultural wisdom shoved out some good Western science."

. . .

"In 1933, a graduate student at the University of Nebraska carried out a research project near Lincoln in which he compared an upland, never-plowed prairie with an adjacent field of winter wheat. Prairie and wheat were growing on the same soil type, but when moisture fell, 8.7 percent ran off the wheat field while only 1.2 percent ran off the prairie. It turned out to be the driest year on record. All of the wheat plants died, while the deep-penetrating perennial roots of the prairie survived. The upshot of this story is that prairie is 'designed' to receive water efficiently and the to allocate that water carefully. An average day in the spring would find the wheat field losing nearly twenty-one tons of water per acre, on the same day the prairie would lose only a little over thirteen tons per acre. This economy was produced by such mechanisms as moderating wind speed and keeping temperatures as low as possible.

. . .

"I began thinking along this line some fifteen years ago when it became clear that on sloping ground, regardless of terraces and grass waterways, soil would erode on wheat fields, corn fields, soybean fields, sorgham fields--wherever annual monocultures were planted. On the other hand, it was also clear that soil would more or less stay put in perennial pastures, in native prairie grassland, and in forests, independent of human action. But there was more, for to those annual monocultures came pesticides, commercial fertilizer, and a need for fossil fuel for traction. The prairie, on the other hand, counted on species diversity and genetic diversity within species, to avoid epidemics of insects and pathogens. The prairie maintains its own fertility, runs on sunlight, and actually accumulates ecological capital--accumulates soil.

"Observing this years ago I formulated a question? Is it possible to build an agriculture based on the prairie as standard or model? I saw a sharp contrast between the major features of the wheat field and the major features of the prairie. The wheat field features annuals in monoculture; the prairie features perennials in polyculture, or mixtures. Because all of our high-yielding crops are annuals or are treated as such, crucial questions must be answered. Can perennialism and high yield go together? If so, can a polyculture of perennials outyield a monoculture of perennials? Can such an ecosystem sponsor its own fertility? Is it realistic to think we can manage such complexity adequately to avoid the problem of pests outcompeting us?

. . .

"At work on my houses in Matfield Green, I've had great fun tearing off the porches and cleaning up the yards. But it has been sad, as well, going through the abandoned belongings of families who lived out their lives in the beautiful, well- watered fertile setting. In an upstairs bedroom, I came across a dusty but beautiful blue padded box labeled 'Old Programs--New Century Club.' Most of the programs from 1923 to 1964 were there. Each listed the officers, the Club Flower (sweet pea), the Club Colors (pink and white), and the Club Motto ('Just be Glad'). The programs for each year were gathered under one cover and nearly always dedicated to some local woman who was special in some way.

"Each month the women were to comment on such subjects as canning, jokes, memory gems, a magazine article, guest poems, flower culture, misused words, birds, and so on. The May 1936 program was a debate: 'Resolved that movies are detrimental to the young generation.' The August 1936 program was dedicated to coping with the heat. Roll call was 'Hot Weather Drinks', next came 'Suggestions for Hot Weather Lunches', a Mrs. Rogler offered 'Ways of Keeping Cool.'

"The June roll call in 1929 was 'The Disease I Fear Most.' That was eleven years after the great flu epidemic. Children were still dying in those days of diphtheria, whooping cough, scarlet fever, pneumonia. On August 20, the roll call question was 'What do you consider the most essential to good citizenship?' In September that year it was 'Birds of our country.' The program was on the mourning dove.

"What became of it all?

"From 1923 to 1930 the program covers were beautiful, done at a print shop. From 1930 until 1937, the effects of the Depression are apparent, programs were either typed or mimeographed and had no cover. The programs for two years are now missing. In 1940, the covers reappeared, this time typed on construction paper. The print shop printing never came back.

"The last program in the box dates from 1964. I don't know the last year Mrs. Florence Johnson attended the club. I do know that Mrs. Johnson and her husband Turk celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary, for in the same box are some beautiful white fiftieth anniversary napkins with golden bells and the names Florence and Turk between the years '1920' and '1970'. A neighbor told me that Mrs. Johnson died in 1981. The high school had closed in 1967. The lumber yard and hardware store closed about the same time but no one knows when for sure. The last gas station went after that.

"Back to those programs. The Motto never changed. The sweet pea kept its standing. So did the pink and white club colors. The club collect which follows persisted month after month, year after year:


Keep us, O God, from pettiness;
Let us be large in thought, in word,
in deed.

Let us be done with fault-finding
and leave off self-seeking.

May we put away all pretense and
meet each other face to face,
without self-pity and without prejudice.

May we never be hasty in judgment
and always generous.

Let us take time for all things;
make us grow calm, serene, gentle.

Teach us to put into action our
better impulses; straightforward
and unafraid.

Grant that we may realize it is
the little things that create differences;
that in the big things of life we are as one.

And may we strive to touch and
to know the great common woman's
heart of us all, and oh, Lord God,
let us not forget to be kind.

--Mary Stewart"

Table of Contents of Becoming Native to this Place

  1. The Problem
  2. Visions and Assumptions
  3. Science and Nature
  4. Nature as Measure
  5. Becoming Native to Our Places
  6. Developing the Courage of Our Convictions

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