Numbering Our Days: Wes Jackson’s Final Prairie Fest with The Land Institute

Reader Contribution by Josh Brewer
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Over the final weekend in September, Wes Jackson and The Land Institute hosted farmers, environmental advocates, authors, academics and curious onlookers, like me, to Salina, Kansas. Since 1976, The Land Institute has researched, developed and advocated on the behalf of perennial polycultures for grain production. The Institute’s work resonates beyond Kansas to inform global conversations around soil preservation, carbon sequestration and agricultural runoff. After nearly four decades with the Land Institute, co-founder Wes Jackson will begin retiring duties in June of 2016, on his 80th birthday.       

It was fitting then for Wes Jackson to conclude the 2015 Prairie Festival with a Sunday morning call from the 90th Psalm, challenging listeners to “number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” Jackson’s oratory style favors tight, syllabic bunches which linger in stark contrast to the mile long view outside the Institute’s weathered barn in the Smokey Hills of north-central Kansas. Soil, Jackson argued in his address, time and again, is “as much of a nonrenewable resource as oil.” Each time, he paused, waiting for his point to germinate, but there really was no need, as he spoke to the conservation choir. Still, he preached.

Jackson first praised the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and that organization’s declaration of 2015 as the “Year of Soils,” but openly doubted whether such a push, however well-intentioned, would turn humanity’s multi-century tradition of soil degradation. For support, Jackson traced the long tradition of soil conservation through three canonical Western characters—Plato, Patrick Henry and George Washington—before highlighting Aldo Leopold’s partnership with the former Soil Conservation Service (now the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service) in Wisconsin’s Coon Valley watershed conservation project.

Coon Valley, located in Southwest Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, rises and falls, like much of that bioregion, in harsh grades where rivers and creeks have altered the exposed plateau. Intensively minded agriculturists, up until the 1930’s project, planted the Driftless region with little consideration of grade or erosion patterns. Ultimately, by working with the private landowners to conserve agriculture in the region, Coon Valley’s erosion rate decreased. The example of Coon Valley, for Jackson, demonstrates the value of reinstitutionalizing soil conservation concepts in agriculture.

The early fall sun climbed throughout Jackson’s message, warming, sweating, and eventually burning the necks and arms of those, like me, seated and standing along the barn’s periphery, but something of Jackson’s persona and rhetoric stayed the group. Never a false optimist, Jackson turned from the Coon Valley success story to speak of the dire state of soils in the Americas and worldwide. Even the shocking, reported statistics of soil loss, he argued, did not capture the scope of the crisis. Instead, when considering the soil, Jackson first compares the contemporary rate of erosion in light of the historical rates of erosion, but, then, more broadly, considers the geological background rate of erosion. Returning to the refrain, Jackson challenged the faithful to “number their days,” as the Psalm commands, to not only consider specifics, like the geological background rate of erosion, but to establish a geological worldview which originates soil health in geological events and the composition of soil in parent material.

Perhaps it was the sun that splayed my focus at this point in Jackson’s address; or, maybe, my lack of sleep from an evening spent under a full moon, within earshot of coyote yips and the replying bison and longhorn taunts had simply caught up. Whichever, I thought back to afternoon before, when an Institute tour guide missed the final tour of the Land Institute’s grounds, when none other than Wes Jackson arrived and addressed our group from a small bench. Jackson took a breath like the tour was second nature, but then, admitted, laughing, that he’d never given a tour of the facilities, so he’d just have to wing it.

Jackson began his tour with the Genesis images of the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. Jackson motioned to a slope of native prairie, and said, “We like to think of this as our tree of life.” He pointed down the slope, to cultivated fields of experimental perennial crops, collection bags wrapped around their seed heads. “That’s our Tree of Knowledge.” With a long pause, Wes looked deep into the already seeding prairie. Someone had raised identifications at the base of nearby grasses and flowers: Yucca glauca (Soapweed Yucca), Echinacea angustifolia (Narrow-leaved purple coneflower), Andropogon gerardi (Big bluestem), Schizachyrium scoparium (Little bluestem), and numerous other tallgrass varieties. Turning his gaze back to our group, Jackson said, “The Genesis story has an angel of fire running Adam and Eve from Paradise. Here, at the Land Institute, in we’re asking that angel to sheathe that sword.”

Down in the cultivated plots, our group learned how numerous projects at the Land Institute hoped to study and, through genetic selection, produce viable, profitable perennial wheat, called Kernza, and feed sorghum. The goal, as Jackson had put it, was to reunite contemporary agricultural technologies with the life of the prairie–itself an ecological technology developed by our First Nations. If The Land Institute succeeds beyond Jackson’s tenure, the Great Plains will, once again, sequester large amounts of carbon and reduce soil runoff through the development of deep root networks and associated microbiotic communities. Rather than relying on large scale prairie restoration in the Plains, an arguably nostalgic conservation project, Jackson and The Land Institute hope to conserve the soil, like Leopold by institutionalizing ecological practice.

Jackson concluded the address of his last Prairie Festival as president of The Land Institute in that barn on Sunday calling, like a minister, for the end to bio-centric and bio-essential thought. For Jackson, the biological is but one part of a complex web of life, including myriad groups like minerals and elements, rather than defining life as biological organisms. Jackson said that we must reject the supremacy of the biosphere—biological organisms and the components that support them—and drop the term altogether, in favor of the ecosphere to understand the larger “engines of the earth” which comprise and drive life. Then, as the crowd clapped and cheered, Jackson turned from his lectern and the abstract goals with which he’d challenged them, peering in the direction of the same native prairie that we’d toured the day before. Held in his worldview and gaze, I imagine, was the sweet spot between Life and Knowledge that Jackson had spoken of on our happenstance meeting.

Photos by Helen Schnoes

Josh Brewer is an Assistant Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, who covers Renewable Energy, Green Homes, and Nutrition. Josh comes to Mother Earth News from Arkansas’ Ouachita Mountains, Durham, North Carolina, and the splendid saunas of Upper Michigan’s Lake Superior shoreline.