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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

Perennial Thinking


EPA would face the steepest cut of a 31 percent reduction from current levels. The budget proposes the discontinuation of federal funding for the Clean Power Plan, climate change research and international climate change programs. Altogether, it calls for the elimination of more than 50 programs within the agency.

-- Rebecca Shebad, CBS News, March 16, 2017. reporting on President Trump's proposed budget

If you're not upset about erosion, join the club. There's plenty of room for you.

I've spent the past month chewing on this post, which mostly entailed my withstanding the unremitting feeling that there's just no way to square the circle. Wendell Berry is Concerned Citizen No. 1, having taking up that post in the early 60's and presiding over it during a half century of ever-widening land degradation and economic regression. He's still there, of course, except now things are worse. Meanwhile the ranks of concerned citizens has swelled to the tens of millions, and those freaking out about erosion still number, well, probably just one.

I exaggerate, but only in the slightest. We are overwhelmed these days with bad news, risks, losses, tragedies nearby and far-off and the responses to all this, which, year after year, appear ever more wrongheaded, feeble and downright stupid. And that's just the part we see. Because we humans are so damn terrible at perceiving the slow, the indirect, the non-local and the non-immediate, our locus of concern isn't even that well-placed.

Quick: what's the greater threat right at this moment, the Republican party's ascendancy in the U.S. government, or deforestation? Even if you know that deforestation is a more significant contributor to global carbon emissions than every car, truck and plane on the planet combined (I didn't), you're almost certainly more upset about the Republican party's assault on health care, women's rights, legislative transparency and cronyism. That's what's been bumming me out this month. Not deforestation, despite the fact that the word's food supply is at risk, entire Alaskan coastal communities are relocating because of massive erosion caused by enormous waves from sea ice collapse, parts of the Mediterranean are drying out, and oceanic acidity is killing off entire species. The Republicans are gummy bears compared to the hyper-carbonized atmosphere.

No, the nutty shenanigans of our so-called leaders aren't the target of Wendell Berry's invective. For Wendell, it's erosion. And so he beckons me to look away from CNN, away from Twitter, to see what he sees. I can't see contaminants building up in the topsoil of my garden, nor my river gasping for oxygen. But it's not because these things aren't happening. It's because my setup here in urbanized southeast Portland makes me blind to such things.

A psychologist I heard interviewed last week was asked why romantic relationships are so hard. "It's because we're creatures of memory," he answered. Our knowledge is built on memories, and our memory is built on experience. Our childhoods were replete with good and bad experiences from relationships with parents, sibling, friends -- and thus we have memories that code us for new relationships in our adult lives. His point was simple, but, I thought, rather profound: the patterns of our relating are made from the memory-stuff of our prior experience and limited by that same stuff. We don't participate in romantic relationships tabula rasa -- it's just the opposite. We relate according to what we remember. Truly we are bound by memory, until we consciously learn anew.

Broadening this idea out to our culture helped me discover another reason why the Wendell way of seeing is so difficult for so many. It's not JUST that westernized societies are obsessed with technology, brainwashed by science and entertained to death. It's ALSO that we're a people -- probably the first, only and last -- to be absolutely and altogether isolated from the source of our bodily sustenance. We are, nearly all of us, deaf and mute to the land and water as our bodies-extended. It's true as a species, which is why climate change activism is so hard. But at the individual level, it explains why Wendell Berry is someone you never heard of. You don't really care about erosion because you haven't a single memory of how erosion ruined anything connected with you. Your teachers and professors and mayor and bloggers and Facebook friends and news anchors and guys-that-you-hang-out-with don't care about erosion either, for exactly the same reason. The blind lead the blind. The fridge is still full. What's the big deal?

It turns out that erosion, which is the movement of soil from one place to another, is a natural process but one which, when subjected to man-made forces, can get ruinous in a hurry. In Appalachia, near Mr. Berry's home, it's estimated that bad farming practices have caused erosion to occur 100 times faster than the normal rate for that region. In eroded fields, crops don't grow. In natural areas, species disappear. In waterways, sedimentation and eutrophication (excessive nutrient enrichment) depletes oxygen and kills fish life, especially when the sediments have been poisoned by fertilizers. This run-off process, which has been going on for decades, has resulted in a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of Connecticut. And topsoil, once gone, doesn't come back. It takes about a thousand years to form topsoil. It's estimated we've got about 60 years' worth left.

Why erosion right now? Well because it jumped off the page at me in reading the speech Wendell gave at the Beard Food Conference in New York City in 2012, reprinted in Our Only World. He was speaking about the 50 Year Farm Bill -- a proposal from Wes Jackson's Land Institute which would overhaul federal farm policy. Of course it's gone nowhere. The actual Farm Bill is renewed every five years to do a few large scale things, like authorize spending on farmer subsidies and food stamps. The 50 Year version has at its centerpiece, incentives that would transform most of the land now given over to growing annual crops (mostly corn and soybeans), to new strains of perennial plants that could be specially bred for grain production. Annual crops are monocultural, disease-prone and soil-exhausting. They are short term mutants, extractive of soil nutrients and dependent on huge chemical inputs. They are, as Berry puts it, "Nature's emergency medical service, covering wounds and scars to hold the land until the perennial cover is reestablished." Perennial plants, on the other hand, grow in mixed species environments year round, hold the soil in place and, through their natural death and decay, build soil complexity and biodiversity.

The agriculture we've got is monocultural and pretty much always has been. Grains, hay and forage crops comprise 95 percent of what we grow. But the Land Institute has started to figure out how to replace annual grains like wheat, with perennial substitutes like Kernza, which should be available for sale at Whole Foods in a couple years. The 50 Year Farm Bill is written for a sustainable agriculture. It's written to deal with erosion, which is a cancer -- a natural process that we've let mutate into something deadly.

Wendell's remarks at the Food Conference are laid out, petition-style, in 21 claims. It's a straight line story. His Kentucky region very hilly and therefore best used for growing perennial grass pasture, which is how, until recently, it had always been used. Ethanol demand introduced corn and soybean farming on to these highly erodible sloping fields, simply in response to a new sales market. To satisfy a demand today, the fertility of field, stream and gulf are destroyed for the foreseeable future. The misfit between what natural systems demand (perennial coverage of the soil) and what industrial systems demand (single solutions to single problems and therefore monocultural crops anywhere), calls up the need for this long-term Farm Bill that would address agriculture's most urgent problems by "invoking Nature's primary law, in default of which her other laws are of no avail: to keep the ground covered." Were we to do so, Wendell speculates, chemical pollution would be reduced, farm animals could return to pastures from wretched confinement factories, and animal wastes would be returned from waterways, where they do damage, to pasture land, where they do good.

Wendell is famous for saying that everyone is a part of our agri-culture because everyone eats. Maybe the thing to do, to slow or stop the cancer of erosion, is head over to Whole Foods and tell those guys to stock Kernza the minute it's available. Then buy some and brew some beer, or bake some bread with it. If we can learn to think perennially, then I think we'll finally begin to see what Wendell sees, even if it's not right outside our door.


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