My First Prairie Festival at the Land Institute in Salina, KS

Wes Jackson, Co-Founder of the Land Institute Delivering His Talk

Wes Jackson, Co-Founder of the Land Institute Delivering His Talk

I just returned from my first visit to the Prairie Festival late last night. A big thank you to John Buchanan for sending me to learn what these folks are all about, especially since it renewed a sense of hope in me that had been ebbing from what I have learned doing environmental work.

This is the mission statement for the Land Institute:

When people, land, and community are as one, all three members prosper; when they relate not as members but as competing interests, all three are exploited. By consulting Nature as the source and measure of that membership, The Land Institute seeks to develop an agriculture that will save soil from being lost or poisoned, while promoting a community life at once prosperous and enduring.

Wes Jackson, a co-founder of the institute, speaks for the soil and believes that we should look to natural ecosystems “as the measure against which we judge all of our agricultural practices.” I can’t wait to read his book Consulting the Genius of the Place, which I picked up at the festival. I know from working on water in Florida that more often than not, when we decide we are going to control and dominate nature to exploit her resources for our own ends things usually go awry.

The talk he gave was entitled, “Are We the Ones We Have Been Waiting For?” I sure hope so, and he is definitely someone I would trust to spearhead a movement to find a new paradigm. He believes that we need and are in the process of evolving a new cosmology, which given the state of the planet right now many of us would agree with pretty quickly. The old framework is no longer working. In accorder to accomplish this, Wes said that we need new stories and a fresh intellectual framework. Our art and symbols have not had time to catch up with the shifts in our world view that are already happening. He doesn’t believe that we need to jettison all the old stories, but that we have to reinterpret them with mature minds. The Garden of Eden, he says was a fault line. He believes the Fall came with agriculture, so we need to come up with sweeping changes in how we obtain food and the Land Institute is already working on this in ways I will discuss later.

I would argue and I suspect Wes would agree that our mature minds should capable of understanding that we need to work with each other and nature in order to live more sustainably for as long as possible. Though many have said we are on the verge of a sixth extinction and that overpopulation is going to wipe us out, that does not mean we should burn all the coal we can as fast as possible to hasten our demise and the demise of many creatures and ecosystems that are being wiped out by climate change. We have to shift from a competitive model to a model based on “relationality”. As I heard Wes talk and David Bollier speak about the Power of the Commons, I couldn’t help but think of the great German mystic, Hildegard von Bingen, who has influenced me for the past decade. She viewed all of life as being horizontally interconnected in a web of life. The divine for her, existed in life, which no matter what your belief system is something that makes sense. Nature is God’s creation, and if you don’t believe in God, then nature is pretty miraculous and we see that in her ecosystems and their intelligent design. There is a value in nature that exceeds the worth of her resources alone, and when we upset the balance nature has worked out for itself, the damage we do to the earth from exploiting one resource reverberates throughout the ecosphere.

But I diverge, back to Wes. He then talked about the Manhattan Project and how that arose in the threat to the atomic bomb and as a way to shorten the war. Today we are under a similar dire threat related to using up our diminishing resources and we need to find a way to marshall them responsibly. Wes asked us to consider how many possibilities a 500,000 person think tank working on a cap on carbon and a rationing project could come up with. His vision is for the Land Institute to become that kind of think tank and to attract all kinds of people to contribute with different backgrounds. There are the scientists of course, but input from economists, artists, writers, philosophers and a multitude of other disciplines is also needed to solve the monumental problems we face today and to shift how we related to the earth.

His talk made me hopeful that there were people that are already moving in this direction and that more positive outcomes are on the horizon. (He referenced the evolutionary cosmology work of Brian Swimme, who I have also been influenced by and respect.) It also made me feel a lot better as an artist struggling to express my response to being alive at this time in human history. I have long felt I was failing in my work. I have taken photos to express the beauty of natural ecosystems that are currently imperiled, as well as the devastation we are perpetuating. All of my photographs are made from a place of being truly immersed in nature and my hope has been that this sense will be imparted to the viewers and inspire them to form their own connections with nature. Like Wes, I feel the crisis of postmodern or whatever era we are in now (perhaps we are already moving beyond postmodernism) is that we have become sorely disconnected. So I have been struggling to find a way to express the important emotions and responses I experience as I do everything in my power to reconnect, yet I feel that I am always falling short. In the spring, I will be taking a two month course in alternative processes. I have taken up painting and gone back to writing but feel the urge to go beyond discursive writing such as this and enter the realm of poetry, and yet doing all this alone feels hollow. I have so far, unsuccessfully, been searching for scientists to connect with and thinkers of all levels. As science comes under increasing attack, I feel the urge to hear what the scientists have to say and learn from them, because maybe they are under attack for helping to bring down the status quo so we can move into new territory.

Now I see that I am involved in creative expression at a time when we are forming new symbols and that is why I am having so much trouble. I share this because many of you may be facing the same struggles I have been engaged in. The symbols don’t yet exist. Instead of feeling hopeless, as I have been feeling for some time, listening to Wes made me excited because forming new symbols sounds like a great and worthwhile challenge, and it is something that each and everyone of us can participate in. This is what is needed to start a revolution in thinking. It is not an ivory tower endeavor. Yes intellectuals are essential, but they are only one segment of the population. And many of us left school long ago, in my case after multiple degrees that still left me wondering what the answers are, but opted to continue learning from nature or in other ways. We need everyone to bring their unique experiences to bear on the challenging situation we find ourselves in. Synergistic thinking stands a far greater chance of making leaps and also of changing the framework we orient from. We don’t have to be frozen in outmoded ways of thought that are no longer serving us, personally or as a culture.

At the Prairie Festival, I met artists, writers, scientists, interns, academicians, small farmers, ranchers, and even someone from Big Ag. Meeting this last person made me incredibly hopeful. We all have to eat and our population is growing, so we need to find new ways to obtain our food and it won’t really solve the problems of the world if they are only implemented here and there on a small scale. The rest of the world will still be pouring tons of nitrates and phosphates into our water supply and things will continue to deteriorate in terms of soil erosion and water quality (the latter being what drew me to farming initially, but soil quality and mycorrhizae hooked me the moment I started learning about all of the land and its relationship to water).

Field of Kernza being grown to find optimal plants to breed

Field of Kernza being grown to find optimal plants to breed

Kernza is a fantastic crop that the Land Institute is working on. Here’s a link to more information on this more sustainable crop: Kernza is a wild perennial grain that they are domesticating as a crop. Perennial crops are more sustainable because they protect against soil erosion, conserve water and nutrients, and store more carbon below ground. Kernza’s roots are twice as deep as those of regular wheat, thereby preventing more soil erosion and making the plants more drought resistant since they can reach deeper into the soil for moisture and nutrients. In one plot, they planted alfalfa plants between the rows of Kernza. The were not ditches for runoff, as alfalfa’s roots are even deeper and can tap water below clay levels. When plants are healthier, they are more disease resistant too, requiring less fertilization and irrigation. After working on Florida’s water issue for the past six years, I know how important using fewer fertilizers and less water is for water quality and the health of riparian ecosystems and estuaries. It really was exciting to see what they are working on, though they will need to move towards some greater economies of scale if it is to become a worldwide solution as it is still quite costly to produce now. I do believe small local, organic, free range farms provide healthier food and I like to know exactly where my food is coming from, but I understand that eating this way is a luxury that is afforded to those with enough income to buy this more expensive food or the means to by the land and grow the food themselves. To work towards solving the food problem small local farms will most likely need to be supplemented by crops that can be grown in greater volume under sustainable farming practices. But this is all way out of my league to truly understand. I am just glad there are ethical people engaged in finding solutions to our food crisis and I am happy to support them in any way I can.

Other speakers I was fortunate to hear included David Bollier, as I previously mentioned, and Loka Ashwood. Economics has to be considered when any environmental decisions are being made. As I realized long ago, if you can’t explain things in terms of costs it is hard to convince people to go along with your vision to preserve the planet. Sadly, our current economic models need to be modified to include costs as well as benefits that were not previously recognized. For example, in Florida, when the air becomes unbreathable and the water is toxic, tourists stay away and livelihoods as well as creatures and ecosystems are destroyed. It goes beyond even this though. Bollier said we need new ways of thinking that are relational and not transactional. Bollier’s vision is of a bottom up instead of top down system with shared infrastructures, seed banks and the like. Top down clearly isn’t working, but for me I tend to think more horizontally like the rhizomes that exist within our soils and reach out to even different species of trees and plants to share information and to help sick individuals. Still I suppose the bottom up metaphor works for me as it does start from the earth. It can no longer be about exploiting our resources as quickly as possible to make the most money for the few in power. That is not sustainable and is frankly unethical in my opinion. David’s book Free, Fair and Alive will be coming out next year. And he has many other publications out already. Please read them. Economics was not my best subject in school, though I did finally begin to understand some of it after I started working in corporate banking years ago, though the errors for the premises current models are founded upon also became evident and I left that career to become an artist.

Loka Ashwood spoke about the issue of eminent domain, which is something that I became painfully aware of while working on the Sabal Trail Pipeline in Florida and of course when I visited Standing Rock. It brought back tragic memories of Robert Koons, a man of Native American heritage who had has land stolen from him and a pipeline laid feet from the graves of his ancestors, and that concession was only made after awareness of his plight was made to the broader public. Loka’s talk was entitled “Land Rights, and Justice: Why the Government is Losing the Trust of Rural America.” She visited rural areas where people had their land taken from them by Georgia Power and collected their stories and asked them who they thought was responsible and how they felt. More often than not they attributed responsibility to the government and not the actual entities that were robbing them of their land. Her work is groundbreaking in that by reaching out to these people and really learning what they thought, it might now be possible to reframe the discussion so that people will better understand how their rights are being abused and by whom. The role of corporations and government in the abuse of eminent domain is an issue we should all be concerned about. Though it often starts in rural areas where people don’t have the resources to fight back, it is a slippery slope and everyone’s land and rights are potentially at risk. Looking forward to reading her book For Profit Democracy: Why the Government is Losing the Trust of Rural America.

I regret to say I played hooky on the last day, as I wanted to go commune with the Tall Grass Prairie and see what had inspired these folks so much. The last morning I missed had talks on Healing Mother Earth, Frog Pond Philosophy, and Economic Transformations for an Ecological Civilization. I wish I had been able to attend those talks too. If I go back next year, I will allow more time. Thank you to everyone at the Land Institute for doing this important work and to all the people who support them and journey to the institute for this annual gathering. You taught me so much and I hope to be able to find or establish such a community of concerned individuals closer to home. I’m very grateful for the AS IF Center for inviting me to do an art/science residency and I hope to have some deep discussions with the people there about symbols and how this transformation can be accomplished throughout the fabric of our society and across the globe. I think humanity is ready for a change. We certainly are in this country.

I’ll leave you with some images from Claire Pentecost, the Prairie Festival artist for this year and a teacher at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Her installation at the Land Institute had soils she collected all over the world displayed in apothecary bottles she has been collecting for years. The concept of the Earth as medicine for our bodies and souls is fantastic and one I have longed been attracted to through my Shamanic Work. I loved her soil chromographs at the Salina Art Center, which were each so unique, and I especially loved her drawing of a tree, mycorrhizae, and a heart. As a Naturalist working on my Blue Ridge Naturalist Certificate, I became hooked on mycorrhizae and believe, as many German companies do, that they hold great potential for carbon sequestration and a better balance between soil and water. Many soil and irrigation companies in fact believe that mycorrhizae is the underground revolution that will help solve so many of the problems we face with soil nutrient issues, run off, and plants and trees being able to withstand some of the onslaughts of climate change. The symbol of mycorrhizae as being the heart of life definitely spoke to me on a very deep level.

The Philosopher's Loam
Soil Chromograph

A Disclaimer: These are all iPhone photos, as I did not bring my DSLR and was there to listen and learn not to take photographs. I apologize for the rambling nature of this blog, but it does convey all the thoughts and impressions that were stirred inside me. I hope reading this inspires new ideas of your own and makes you appreciate the real gifts of collaboration and community.