It Takes a Village to Raise a Prairie

Reader Contribution by Lierre Keith

“In dreams begin responsibilities,” wrote Yeats. But to be alive right now — if the heart is more than a brute pump — is to live in a dream from which, try as we might, we cannot awaken. The dream repeats, we struggle, it pulls us deeper, and it is possible to drown in despair.

Knowledge is now double-edged. It can be a sandbar of sanity in a world gone mad (populations of plankton — beginning of the food chain, makers of oxygen — have plummeted 40 percent — will someone please make this stop?); or it can drive us into the desperate denial of magical thinking (a fuel cell by any other name). Some people need the rough shock of numbers, an emotional defibrillation, to jolt them to life: old-growth forests, 98 percent gone; prairies, 99 percent gone; yes, this culture is killing the planet.  For others, god is in the details, a god who needs us if not to pray than at least to notice: the lacework of life is rent and suffering.

Take the detail of prairie dogs, who, along with the bison (of which there are only 1,500 pure-bred left), are the keystone species of the North American grasslands. Something like 160 species need them for food and shelter. Their towns, which can get as big as 25,000 square miles — an extraordinary feat of both social and structural engineering — increase, well, everything, from the protein quality of the forage around them to the number of other species that can live there, too. Golden eagles, magnificence in flight, with their gold-glowing crowns and 7-foot wingspans. Kit foxes, who may mate for life. Horned larks, the only native lark of this continent. “Destroy prairie dogs,” says Terry Tempest Williams, “and you destroy a varied world.”

The prairie dogs are indeed rent and suffering. They’ve been reduced to less than 1 percent of their native range. Understand what that reduction means: 96 to 98 percent of all black-tailed prairie dogs have been poisoned, gassed or shot. The survivors are now “overwhelmed with stress.” They stop eating, lose weight, spend too much time underground and reproduce less. Anyone who has survived an assault will recognize this pattern–it’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Prairie dogs also have a specific alarm call, a word they’ve now had to add to their language: “Man with a gun.”

Let us join the prairie dogs and shout that alarm to everyone we love. The instruction manual for that gun is the religious texts that give men dominion over the rest of us: women, animals, the earth. The gun itself is agriculture and the biotic drawdown of civilization it incurs. The bullet is corporate power, especially the doctrine of corporate personhood. The target, of course, is what is left of this planet: the 2 percent of prairie dogs, the 1,500 bison, your life, mine. We cannot afford to burrow in and go off our feed.

But hope is useless without a plan. So here’s the only one that can deliver: repair, restore, rejoin. Repair the broken prairie, all 400 million acres, one holding at a time if we have to. I’m not the only one saying this. Drs. Frank and Deborah Popper introduced the idea of the Buffalo Commons in 1987. The idea was vilified. Yet two decades later, even the Kansas City Star is backing the concept.

The numbers, all of them, speak for themselves. As William Ruddiman explained in his book Ploughs, Plagues, and Petroleum, agriculture marks the beginning of global warming. That’s what happens when you destroy prairies and forests, whose underlying goal is the creation of soil. All land life depends on that soil and we should be humbled with reverence at what grass and trees, in concert with fauna both micro and macro, can do. The basic building block of that soil is, of course, carbon. Grass is so good at building soil that repairing 75 percent of the planet’s rangelands would bring atmospheric CO2 to under 330 ppm in 15 years or less. Read that again if you have to, as the world entire depends on us getting this.

It’s not the math that’s difficult. It’s the ideological–which is to say, emotional–framework. After 10,000 years of civilization, and a few decades of the veganization of the Left, most environmentalists have no concept that agriculture is biotic cleansing, wiping clean the slate of species-rich communities to be replaced by a monocrops of humans. As Richard Manning points out in Grassland, a book that is equal parts love-letter and plainsong, “A wheat field is nothing more than a clear-cut of the grass forest.”  And all tillage systems contribute to global warming, at 1,000 pounds of carbon per acre for corn, wheat and soy. Meanwhile, perennial grasses store carbon at exactly that rate.

What this planet needs is the people who will repair it, acre by acre. The young and idealistic — the people most likely to have the passion and the physical ability — are not being called to the work that most needs them. They’re being led astray into a political dead end of personal purity via consumer choices that will change exactly nothing. Indeed, if that purity involves eating highly processed soy products — grown by farmers who have been turned into serfs of Monsanto, and then manufactured by companies like DuPont — it’s only adding to the problem.

So let this act as a call. There are groups out there, organized and working hard to restore the prairie and protect its residents. The Great Plains Restoration Council (a group that’s actually working on the Buffalo Commons), the  InterTribal Bison Council (57 tribes, 15,000 bison, and counting), the Buffalo Field Campaign, (whose members put themselves bodily between the last true bison and physical harm. Watch their videos: you cannot remain unmoved. At least buy a t-shirt.).

My proposal is an addition to the good work of these groups. We need a new Bleeding Kansas. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 proclaimed that the residents of each state or territory would decide whether slavery was allowed. People felt the emergency of slavery and knew that the entire west could fall if Kansas didn’t hold as a free state. Thousands of abolitionists moved to the middle of nowhere — the cultural edge of the universe for Boston urbanites — to stop slavery, and they succeeded.

If environmentalists would only understand that the prairie is desperate to return and do its part, that all it needs is people willing to help it, then acre by acre hope could take root. The young and idealistic have been willing to fight fascism in Spain, to harvest sugar in Cuba, to pick coffee in Nicaragua. They’re needed now to plant prairie, only no one is calling them. Let this be the call you’ve been listening for: repair, restore, rejoin. Repair the broken rivers, the exhausted soil. Restore the grasses and their animal cohorts. Rejoin as participants, never again to dominate. Stop buying barely edible industrial waste products manufactured from soybeans, and start dreaming of prairies.

There are stream beds in western Kansas that have been dry for decades because the Ogallala aquifer has fallen so far. The population has fallen along with it. There are entire counties with less than 2,700 people, which is below two people per square mile. There are towns in the west that will give you a lot if you only promise to build a house on it. There are also ghost towns for the taking.

Understand that corporations don’t own the land — they are very clear that if they owned the land, they’d have to pay farmers as employees. Now, they can command prices below production costs and the federal government makes up the difference. Our tax dollars are turning farmers into serfs and the world into an ever-heating hell.

So gather your friends and your deep green vision and go. Thousands of people did it in 1854. Groups like the New England Emigrant Aid Company raised money to help abolitionists make the move, creating the towns of Lawrence and Manhattan, Kan., and adding to the towns of Topeka and Osawatomie. The emigrants were politicized people and went on to run for all kinds of public positions, including, for instance, Martin Conway who served as Kansas’ first U.S. Representative.

Reading the history of this small, impassioned migration, one detail stands out: they didn’t go alone. The New England Emigrant Aid Company sent parties of 150 to 200, which as it turns out is the exact number that works for the face to face decision-making used by the band societies in which we evolved.

Maybe it takes a village to raise a prairie. The concentrated efforts of a few hundred people could win not just a town but an entire county. With a county comes the whole apparatus of law and justice: the Board of Supervisors, the County Commissioners (who now order the gassing of prairie dogs, even on private land), and last but not least the courthouse itself. What if local power was, for once, lined up against the destructive institutions that are gutting our planet to the bone, to stand instead in defense of communities both biotic and human? This could be done. Four or five groups of 150 emigrants would be enough in some places. And that number would also be enough to create all kinds of civic institutions based on deep green values, from universal health care to alternative schooling. You’d have your Border Ruffians — the name “Monsanto” comes to mind — and you’d have to face them down with whatever Beecher’s Bibles were appropriate to the situation. But take heart: it’s likely our emigrants could immediately earn a living. Consider that grass-based farmers can turn a profit the first year: Restoration Bison would be the ultimate in grass-fed beef.

Maybe Yeats had it backwards. In responsibilities begin dreams. We need to dream, and dream big, 400 million acres big, 330 ppm big, 10,000 years of destruction big. Repair, restore, rejoin, from the despairing shards of your heart to this broken world on the edge of the end.

The bison are dreaming that deep and endless promise of grass; the prairie dogs are dreaming of men without guns; the grass itself is dreaming of rain and soil, roots and sun. Surely your heart is dreaming of home, a place both wild and quiet where you finally belong. It’s not too late for this planet, not yet, not if we put those hearts — animal hearts, still — and both hands to work.

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