What Does It Mean to Love the Land?

Thank you very much, Bob, and thank you, Ellen, for inviting me here to visit with such a distinguished group of people. I really am honored to be able to address you and to visit with you. You have given so much to your state, as I'm learning at the various events we've attended together so far. There are so many areas in which you've contributed to the state in terms of higher education, literature, art, music, business, philanthropy, architecture, folklore, history—the list just goes on.

Your accomplishments remind me of a saying that my mother taught me, "Of those to whom much has been given, much will be expected." Clearly, you have expected a lot from yourselves, and the topic of this gathering illustrates your dedication to serious reflection on philosophical issues affecting our times.

My task is to explore the question, What does it mean to love the land? The first thing I should do is to clarify that question by asking, What do we mean when we say "land"? And even scarier perhaps, What do mean when we say "love"?

When I was in college, this business of definitions seemed to me a way for the professor to stall for time. Now that I am a professor, I see that stalling for time is not always a bad idea. After exploring this issue of what land is, I will try to illustrate some of the problems that I see in loving the land, with examples from my home state of Kansas and from my adopted home of Iowa.

Then I'm going to make a case that loving the land is kind of like loving thy neighbor—a tremendous responsibility, a very difficult task that we will never completely accomplish, requiring hard and strategic choices, not only at a personal level, but at the level of society and culture.

What do we really mean when we say "land"? There is, of course, the common vernacular meaning: the landscape, the scenery outside a moving car or on a park trail. Last night we were treated to wonderful descriptions of the diverse land forms of Texas from the Chihuahan Desert to the High Plains. From the Hill Country to the Piney Woods to the Gulf Coast, this is an obvious source of pleasure and pride to Texans and a genuine way, a real way, of loving the land. There's also the way we see land when we fly over it, abstractly, as a picture puzzle of different colors and textures, different owners, different land uses, all dissected by rivers, roads, and the various topographic features of the land. There's another way we experience land as gardeners, paying close attention to soil, to light, to rain, as we plan and plant, as we hoe and harvest.

These are the vernacular definitions, but they are not complete. If we combine the aerial view of land with the gardener's view, we begin to approach the sense of land as an ecosystem. I'm an ecologist, so that's the way that I have tried to develop my understanding of land. From an ecosystem perspective, land includes animals, plants, the climate, and the marvelously complex living medium that we lump under the word "soil."

Land, in this sense, includes the air flowing above and the water flowing through. It includes processes like photosynthesis and nutrient uptake in plants (carbon fixation from the atmosphere). It includes assimilation of plant energy and nutrients by animals as they eat plants, the pathways of energy and nutrients up the food chain, and later on their decomposition by the action of invertebrates and microbes in the soil.

Fire, flood, and wind are part of ecosystems. For instance, what would South Florida look like without hurricanes? Hurricanes are an intrinsic part of the South Florida ecosystem. And what would a flood plain be without floods? Flooding is not a disaster; flooding is a natural part of the ecosystem.

The ecologist's view of land also extends beyond the common, immediate time scale. What we see on the land today is merely a snapshot; an ecological vision requires us to see land changing over decades, centuries, and even millennia. In decades a tree can grow; in centuries a forest can replace a prairie, a delta can form, a river can change course. In millennia a new soil horizon can form. A climate can go from warmth to ice, and new species can evolve.

Let us adopt the most rigorous and inclusive view of land. Land includes not only wilderness, parks and open scenery, but urban land, suburban shopping malls, and farm land. When we talk about land, we need to talk about all of those lands, not just the stuff we think of as scenery.

Finally, most critical to an ecologist's definition of land is that it includes human beings. We are connected to the oil fields of Iran and Alaska, the coal mines of Appalachia and Wyoming, the hard rock mines of Brazil and the Congo.

We are what we eat; we are physically what we eat. Our bodies are physically part of all the land we eat from—vegetables and fruits from California; bread from Kansas; pork from Oklahoma, Missouri, Iowa; chickens from Alabama and Tennessee; potatoes from Washington and Idaho; shrimp from Belize and Thailand. Our bodies are physically connected to and part of those ecosystems. And in turn we are very much affected by the way food is produced.

The zone of hypoxia or low oxygen in the Gulf of Mexico about 7,000 square kilometers, last I checked, is almost dead. Excess nitrogen flowing out of the Mississippi River from the Midwest fertilizes the Gulf, increasing the amount of algae, and as that algae decomposes and falls to the bottom of the ocean, the oxygen is sucked out of the water by microbes. Gulf Coast fishermen sell their boats.

Eat a steak and become part of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem. I can't emphasize strongly enough that this is a physical reality, just as real and direct as a baby nursing from its mother tastes the broccoli she had for dinner.

So what does it mean to love all the land, the land in its fullest and most complete sense? It means having your heart broken again and again. To paraphrase Aldo Leopold, the father of the modern conservation movement and a Midwesterner, the consequence of an ecological education is that you live in a world of wounds.

Let me show a few images of the land that I love.

This is the Kansas River. I grew up in Salina, but my folks on my dad's side come from the Topeka area, and the Kansas River flows from west to east through wheat, through sorghum and cattle country. It's fed by the Smoky Hill, the Saline, the Solomon, the Blue, the Vermillion, and comes to its confluence with the Missouri River near the Missouri border.

This land is land that my brother Scott has spent most of his adult life on. He frames houses in the Lawrence area. He loves to hunt and fish. He spends almost all of his free time on this river and in the bluff lands above it. Finally, a couple of years ago, he was able to afford to buy a little piece of land along the Kansas River, his little piece of paradise.

Here he is with my daughter Nettie and his daughter Abigail. It's paradise almost. On this hot June day that we took out kids to the sand bar, my brother warned me that the girls weren't going to be able to splash in the cool water on the edge of the sand bar. There was a permanent health advisory; the water is too dirty to swim in. He can't take his daughter fishing there either because the fish have high levels of pesticides in them that limit consumption to eight ounces every six months for an adult male.

There is less and less of this river to show our girls. Long ago when he started college, he used to be able to see large shoals of freshwater mussels on the bottom of the river. The United States is home to the largest diversity of freshwater mussels in the world, and over 70 percent are imperiled or extinct. Now, he rarely even sees a dead mussel, rarely even sees a shell. These were killed off by sediments and excess nutrients in the water.

Growing up, my brother and I used to explore the sand bars and fish and swim in the Smoky Hill River next to our home. This was a major part of our bonding as children—and, I believe, of my beginnings as a biologist and his beginnings as a sportsman and naturalist. Our children must be held back and taught not to touch the river, as if it were a garbage can in a public restroom. This is a hurt that I can only begin to describe.

Now, let's move to Iowa, another beautiful state, a state of prairies. At the time of the European invasion, 85 percent of the land was prairie and wetland. The prairie developed over the last 10,000 years as plants migrated back in and the glacier melted. Every summer the plant roots grew deep and died, depositing organic matter in the rubble left by the glaciers. Cold winters and wet springs kept the organic matter from oxidizing or decomposing, so it accumulated deep in the soil horizons.

Many parts of the state have eight or more feet of black soil and subsoil. Just to give you an idea what that means in terms of agricultural productivity, I found a map that shows Iowa and other states sized according to the value of their agricultural output. It makes Iowa the biggest state in the Union—even bigger than Texas!

Less that one-tenth of 1 percent of this tallgrass prairie remains. The remnants are small; the largest remnant in eastern Iowa is about 240 acres. Most are in the five- to ten-acre range, and people do back flips when they find a new four- or five-acre prairie.

Let's compare what the landscape looks like now with the prairie ecosystem. Once covered with perennial roots, covered with plants that held the soil in place and soaked up the rainfall and snowmelt, this is now a land of row crops. Because corn and soy beans grow over a very narrow window of time, this land stays essentially bare seven months out of the year.

The remaining prairies are often tiny. I once found a prairie between two farm fields that was about 18 inches wide. Despite being the rarest ecosystem in North America, tallgrass prairie remnants continue to be plowed under every year, especially after land changes hands.

We have also affected the land in other ways. The herbicide atrazine can be detected in all of our surface waters twelve months of the year and has contaminated a major reservoir in the state that is the water supply for several communities.

Des Moines, Iowa, had to build a special reverse osmosis plant, the largest plant in the world, to take nitrates out of the water. This plant was designed to run about two weeks out of the year to mix clean water with other sources of water until they had diluted the nitrates enough to make it legally drinkable. But last year the plant ran for about a hundred days.

Iowa lakes and rivers are distinguished by having the highest levels of nitrogen and phosphorous in the world, according to U.S. Geological Survey data, and we are responsible for a disproportionate share of the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, also according to the USGS. About 50 percent of the nitrogen that is applied to our cornfields this fall will reach its intended crop; the rest will head toward you.

Iowa has also lost about half of its original topsoil since the time of European settlement 140 years ago. We started off on average with 18 inches and we now have on average nine inches. Hans Jenny has calculated that a good inch of topsoil takes 300 to 1,000 years to develop, so we've already burned up several thousand years' worth of topsoil.

Although the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service says that most of the erosion is at tolerable rates now, this is hard to believe sometimes. We have unpredictable rainfall, and on July 3 of 1999, when the corn was still small, a large portion of eastern Iowa got nine inches of rainfall in twenty-four hours. The soil was virtually unprotected, and there was more soil loss from this one storm than had occurred on those fields in ten years or more.

When my husband and I moved to Iowa in 1993, I knew that I was moving to a state that was involved in industrial agriculture. However, I wasn't quite prepared for just how industrial it was becoming. The new trend in the late 1980s and early 1990s was the conversion of a very democratic form of livestock production, raising hogs, into a corporate activity that was concentrated in large buildings called hog confinements, or confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

These CAFOs can hold 10,000 finishing hogs. That means they are growing from about 30 pounds to about 150 to 200 pounds before they're marketed. Most are corporate owned or raised by contractors.

Longtime rural residents, many of them hog farmers themselves at one time, began to complain. Hearings were held; there was all kinds of strife. They were saying that they couldn't let their children play outside anymore because of the stench, because they became nauseous. They couldn't hang their clothes on the line anymore; they couldn't open their windows on a warm summer night; they couldn't even have friends over for a barbecue and stay outside. And they couldn't sell their houses. People complained of flies, nausea, depression. The official reply was that odor is psychological and extremely subjective.

Just as an aside, I did a study with a colleague at Iowa State and a rural resident to look at manure-management plans in an area of very high concentration of hogs. Our study contained 60,000 finishing hogs in about four square miles.

We looked at the amount of nitrogen excreted by those hogs and determined that it was about 1.8 million pounds per year of nitrogen being released in that area. Almost three-quarters of that nitrogen went straight into the atmosphere as ammonia, and then that comes back down in the rainfall over a larger area.

They were applying nitrogen three times the rate recommended by Iowa State. They were applying nitrogen to soybeans, which is a legume which fixes its own nitrogen, so they were essentially throwing it away. The levels of phosphorous that they were applying were ten times that recommended by Iowa State.

The troubles of concentrated livestock are already well known. We have already seen the concentration of cattle into huge feed lots and chickens raised by the millions in small cages. We are now beginning to see 5,000-cow dairies in California and Wisconsin at the expense of small family farms. And I should mention that in Iowa between 1992 and 1997, we went from 34,000 hog farmers to 17,000. By 2001, there were 10,500 farmers selling hogs in Iowa while the total number of hogs sold remained steady.

This is happening all over the country, not just Iowa. I saw, as I was flying over, 200 such hog barns, probably somewhere in Missouri or Oklahoma. We who eat—that's all of us—are physically connected to these ecosystems. Even if we don't live there, we are physically connected.

I think most of us are aware at some level that when we eat we are violating our obligation to be good stewards of creation through our association with these practices. Aldo Leopold says, "Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land. Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left. That is to say, you cannot love game and hate predators; you cannot conserve the waters and waste the ranges; you cannot build the forests and mine the farm. The land is one organism." This is another way of saying that we have to pay attention to all the land, not just the parts that are pretty right now.

Most of us would not have it so if we could help it. If you want to learn more about the food system, I suggest you read Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, a very good book that exposes the way that we eat and the system of how we distribute food and connects that with all sorts of other larger social issues, environmental and social.

The good news is that we can help it; we are not stuck, or if we are stuck, we're not stuck that far from the road. In the book that my mother Dana Jackson and I have recently published, The Farm as Natural Habitat: Reconnecting Food Systems and Ecosystems, we make the argument that the agricultural landscape we see now is inevitable. Many of the book's contributors know farmers who are already making a solid living and improving the soil, water, and biological diversity on their land. The Farm as Natural Habitat stems from the conviction that the agricultural landscape as a whole could be restored to something better. The destruction of every last shred of nature is not a necessary compromise for the survival of the family farm, or because of the need to "feed the world." We maintain that the trend toward sterile, industrialized agriculture is an unacceptable, unaffordable sacrifice; that it is far from necessary, and that we can help farmers reverse it to benefit nature conservation, rural communities, farm families, urban residents, and consumers.

I'd like to briefly introduce you to a few of the farmers we highlight in the book.

Tom Franzen is now an organic farmer, but in 1977 he was a progressive, high-chemical-input farmer. In that year the pope came to Iowa, and he was listening to the pope's message on the radio as he painted his barn. The pope said that the land is ours to take care of for future generations. Tom said he started to shake so much that he had to get down off the ladder. He spent the rest of the day walking around his farm and reflecting on his role in land stewardship. After that he stopped using insecticides, afraid of what they would do to his family and the soil. When I met him in 1993, he was in the process of drastically reducing his herbicide use.

By 2001 he had eliminated all herbicide and chemical fertilizer on his place, and he was marketing his hogs and soybeans organically. He called me up one day, jubilant. He said, "You know, you think you're committed to organic, but you're not really committed until you get that first bean check." He was paid $19.50 per bushel when the price for conventional beans was $5.40. You can afford to get lower yields raising organic crops.

An important element of Franzen's success is his use of holistic resource management techniques. This is a formal process involving the whole family of defining one's values and goals—personal as well as financial and environmental. Once the goals are identified, then the farmer asks how ecosystem processes on the land can be managed to achieve these goals.

Another farmer I would like to talk about is Mike Natvig. He and I worked on a project to convert some of his pastures to prairie—while still grazing them. He raises cattle using rotational grazing methods. They are moved from one pasture to another throughout the summer so they always have fresh grass and the remaining grass is allowed to rest.

Pastures in the upper Midwest are composed almost entirely of European, cool-season grasses and clovers. This is different from Texas and many parts of the Great Plains where cattle still graze on native grasses. Our goal was to restore native biological diversity to his farm without asking him to give up his income from cattle. Mike is also a founding member of Prairie's Edge Sustainable Woods Cooperative, the goal of which is to get better income from woodlands while protecting soil, water, and native biological diversity.

I'd also like to describe a wonderful three-year study led by the Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota. Six farmers and twenty researchers from the University of Minnesota were brought together to study and monitor indicators of economic, social, and environmental health on these farms. The farmers had recently converted from conventional dairying (where the cows are fed grain and hay rations usually raised on the farm) to rotational grazing (where the cows are led to fresh grass each day and feed themselves). Many of these farmers were losing money doing things the way the state agricultural college recommended, so they decided to cut costs and increase their profit margins while accepting lower milk yields using this methods.

One of the most surprising and exciting parts of the study was the bird monitoring. Farmers became expert bird watchers as they learned to recognize grassland-nesting migratory birds in their pastures. These birds, like Eastern Kingbirds, meadowlarks, bobolinks, and dickcissels, wouldn't go near their corn and alfalfa fields. But once they converted those fields to pasture, the birds began to recognize good nesting habitat.

What do these farmers have in common? They're curious, they're interested in their family's well-being, and they're not locked in to what everybody else thinks they ought to do. They're very independent-minded people. And I would say that they're very empirical; they look very carefully at exactly what the land is telling them, and they respond to that.

Public policy has created a lot of this problem. The current farm bill that's being discussed in Congress has to do with recognizing and rewarding farmers for the multiple benefits that they provide to society—not just feed, food, and fiber, but watershed protection, wildlife habitat, a pleasant rural scenery. Previous farm policy has benefited a few very large grain companies like Archer Daniels Midland and meat processors such as Tyson and IBP.

There are other kinds of public policy that we can learn from out there. In Great Britain they very readily recognize that agriculture and nature are not far apart, that they're really part of the same thing, and that their farmers have a large role to play in conserving the biological diversity of their plants, their butterflies, and their birds. They recognize the value of a beautiful countryside.

It's a nation of amateur naturalists, and they have done a wonderful job of documenting everything that they have. After World War II, a lot of practices were changed. Land uses intensified, more of their diverse, low-productivity pasture land was fertilized, and more of their pastures and hay meadows were plowed up for crops.

Current conservation policies in Great Britain have created an agri-environment scheme in which farmers in certain sensitive areas are rewarded for foregone income if they graze their animals in a more traditional manner that conserves the rich plant diversity of the chalk grasslands.

Hay meadows that even Shakespeare wrote about, with very high levels of wildflower diversity, also were under assault after World War II, and a few of them are now protected. They're harvested for hay in management schemes that maintain that biological diversity, and farmers are rewarded for that. So there are many options out there; there are many ideas that we can learn from.

I'd like to close with a few thoughts about love. Now, I've only been married eight years. Most of you have been probably married longer, so I'm treading on thin ice here. There are people with more insight into this than I have, but there are a few pieces of conventional wisdom that I think we can learn from here as we relate it to the land.

First of all, we celebrate our loved ones' gifts and we appreciate their strengths, but we also accept their weaknesses. We don't try to change them, and this is true of the land as well. Rain does not follow the plow, as our pioneers ancestors thought. You cannot change the land by plowing it; you will not increase the rainfall. It is still an arid country, and that is something that we have to accept. It doesn't do us any good to try to blow past that one.

Similarly, we can prevent floods by damming rivers, channeling them and harnessing them, but we pay the cost. There is a species of fish in the Missouri River called the pallid sturgeon. That group of fishes has been alive in North America for 60 million years, and it's currently endangered because of channelization and dams. We pay the cost when we try to change ecosystems beyond their original character.

A second truism about love—little things mean a lot. Small individual gestures add up to big parts of our lives. Small little things? What am I talking about? Nitrate molecules. Carbon dioxide molecules. These are little tiny things that we add every day through driving our cars, through fertilizing our fields inefficiently, and we tend to forget about these little things but they add up in big ways, and we see the results in global warming and dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and other estuaries around the world—the loss of beautiful coral reefs as a result of fertilization, the loss of those mussels in the Kansas River, the loss of the ability of our children and grandchildren to swim in those waters.

Antibiotics are a little things. We currently feed antibiotics to livestock as growth promoters, not to help when them when they're sick, and bacteria are building resistance to the main classes of antibiotics. Fluoroquinones are the main class of antibiotics fed to hogs for growth promotion, and Cipro is a fluoroquinone. So we are rapidly increasing the risk that we will lose Cipro as a tool to treat Anthrax because we want the pigs to grow faster. Other countries have banned subtherapeutic uses of antibiotics and have done so without all of their farmers going out of business. Little things mean a lot.

And finally, let's not confuse momentary attraction to physical beauty with real love. Love involves responsibility and work. I have a six-year-old and a two-year-old—a lot of work. We all know that love involves commitment as well as great joys and satisfaction.

So what does it mean to love the land? Well, first, land is a big, big thing, bigger than we think it is, bigger even than Texas. And love is a strong, strong word. You can't just say it. You have to show it.