Monday, April 30, 2012

The Tracker

Tom Brown fascinates me.  He grew up in the sparsely populated Pine Barrens region of southern New Jersey.  When he was eight years old, he met Rick in the woods, and the two boys became the best of friends.  Rick’s father was stationed at a nearby base, and his grandfather was Stalking Wolf, an old Apache tracker.  The Tracker was the first of Tom’s many books, and it introduced us to the amazing world that he was blessed to experience.
Stalking Wolf was one of the last Apaches to be trained in the old ways, by elders who were still wild and free.  The wilderness was his home, church, and school.  He could follow tracks on a dark night — by blind touch.  He could perceive the trail of a mouse across dry gravel.  His stalking skills allowed him to sneak up on deer and touch them, an ability that some modern hunters no longer have.  He earned his name by touching a wolf, a nearly impossible feat.  He could read the patterns of the land — the smells, the snapping twigs, the alarm calls of animals, or the sudden silence of the bird music.  He was completely in tune with the land, both physically and spiritually.
Stalking Wolf taught Tom and Rick for eight years.  “He taught us to make use of everything, to live with the least disruption of the earth, to revere what we took from the woods, to master our fear, to hone our special skills sharper and sharper, to expand our senses and our awareness, to live in the space of the moment and to understand eternity.”  The boys learned tracking, stalking, awareness, self-control, survival skills, and spiritual consciousness.  They spent all their free time outdoors, studying nature, and practicing their skills.  They rarely saw their parents on weekends or summer vacations.
Tom became completely at home in the wilderness.  He could go into the woods, naked and empty handed, and spend the whole summer living off the land — confidently, comfortably, fearlessly, and joyfully.  He could catch a deer and kill it with a knife.  Often he would wander far beyond familiar places, and not be sure where he was, but being “lost” was never a cause for fear or panic.  “Everything I could want was immediately at hand.  If I was lost, I seemed better off than a lot of people who weren’t.  I was always at home, wherever I was.  Only when I came out of the forest did I find out how easy it is to get lost.”
Stalking Wolf taught the boys that there were no greater or lesser spirits.  The spirit of an ant had no less significance than that of a bear or a brother.  He loathed all aspects of the civilized world, and he avoided contact with it, to the best of his ability.  Despite what white people had done to his land and his people, he did not hate them, because they were lost, unhappy, and didn’t know any better.  But he did hate their way of thinking and living — “they killed their grandchildren to feed their children.”
The boys absorbed his love for the land and the wild ones who lived there.  Like Stalking Wolf, they could not comprehend the mentality of people who brought in bulldozers, or dumped their trash, or drove through the woods.  Outsiders were like space aliens, displaying no respect for the place.  “True lostness is when you have forgotten the spiritual center of your life, when your values have gotten so warped with time that you do not remember what is truly important.”
One day, Tom discovered a number of dead deer in the woods.  Their shoulders and hindquarters had been removed, and everything else was left on the ground to rot.  New York restaurants would pay good money for prime cuts of fresh venison.  Tom was horrified.  He followed the tire tracks to an old cabin, and found the four poachers.  In a blind rage that he barely remembered, he attacked them, beat them up, bent or smashed their guns, destroyed the cabin, and burned their truck.  He took bold action to defend the land.  “The woods were my life and still are.”
The Tracker is a treasure.  It reminds me of my boyhood years, when we spent our days in the woods and fields, swamps and lakes, in a beautiful rural countryside that has since been erased by a cancer of strip plazas and McMansions.  I developed a strong bond with nature.  Only later in life did I realize that most folks never had this experience.  So many grow up in manmade environments, and many of them never experience anything else.  Tom’s bond with nature went far deeper than my own, because he was lucky to find a wise elder to guide him.  I grew up in a community of General Motors factory rats. 
Despite being raised in consumer society, and despite submitting to a public school education, Tom was able to remain detached from the civilized mindset and follow a healthier path.  It wasn’t easy.  He had to straddle two totally different realities.  He was routinely mocked and ridiculed for displaying his intense respect for nature and spirit, for not going to college, for not pursuing a corporate career.  The civilized crowd could not comprehend what he valued and loved, because they had no spiritual connection to life.
When we envision a healthy, sustainable future, it’s going to be a world where people have remembered how to live with the land and the community of life.  Throughout his journey, Stalking Wolf was frustrated by the difficulty of finding people to teach.  Almost no one was interested in learning the old ways, because this knowledge had no value in the modern world.  His elders encouraged him to keep trying:  “The things of truth and spirit will never pass away.  Our ways will not die.  In the final days, man will seek again the things that we know.”  Tom established a wilderness school, and he has spent his adult life teaching the old ways to eager students.  The story continues. 
Brown, Tom, The Tracker, Berkeley Publishing Group, New York, 1979.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Rogue Primate

Canadian scholar John A. Livingston (1923-2006) was a pioneer in the deep ecology movement, and a notorious rogue thinker.  He detested the senseless ecological destruction caused by civilized societies, and blamed this on their humanist ideology, which seemed to be possessed by an insatiable hunger for perpetual growth at any cost — a death wish.
This ideology had poisoned the minds of most modern humans, and it had roots even deeper than religion or politics.  Communists and capitalists, liberals and conservatives, Christians and Muslims — all shared a fervent blind faith in human superiority, and our right to ruthlessly plunder the planet to support any and all enterprises that human folly could fancy.  Destroying the future was what cool people did.  The planet was ours to devour, of course.
Wildlife conservationists, environmental activists, animal rights advocates, spiritual leaders, politicians, and mainstream consumers all earned Livingston’s scorn for their failure to think outside of the humanist box.  What a jerk!  Cool people never criticize humanism.  Consequently, he gained a reputation for being a pessimistic misanthrope, which is why you’ve probably never heard of him. 
Pessimist is accurate; like any sane person, he did have “a lack of hope or confidence in the future.”  A misanthrope is one with “a hatred, dislike, or distrust of humankind.”  Livingston did distrust our species, but he seemed to be a compassionate misanthrope — he hoped that we could get our act together some day, and believed that this was not totally impossible.  So, he really wasn’t a nutjob, he was just someone who had a rare gift for being able to see what was clearly obvious. 
In Rogue Primate, Livingston discussed the boo-boos of human history, and contemplated the possibility of undoing them.  Many thinkers have concluded that agriculture or civilization was the start of our downfall.  Livingston believed that the stage for disaster was set long before that, when we invented magical thinking.
In an earlier essay, One Cosmic Moment, Livingston concluded that the development of magic had done far more to damage the future than our adventures in tool-making.  Cave paintings and fertility figurines were created to metaphysically encourage successful hunting and abundant game.  At this point, we began symbolically controlling nature — from an imaginary position of human superiority.  As everyone knows, those who flirt with magic will have to marry it.
The magic act began maybe 40,000 to 50,000 years ago.  Our cultural evolution became unhitched from our slow-motion genetic evolution, and it moved into the fast lane.  We ceased being evolutionary creatures, and became revolutionary.  Some have called this transition the Great Leap Forward.  At this point, we began accumulating how-to information, which eventually turned us into the loose cannons of the animal world.  By and by, we became clever enough to live and prosper almost anywhere.
Wildness was about freedom.  Wild animals had no masters or owners.  Domestication, on the other hand, was about submission and dependence.  Non-human domesticates were selectively bred to be passive, fast growing, and capable of producing abundant offspring.  They were dim, infantile creatures who did not blend in with the wild ecosystem.  They had lost the ability to survive in the wild, and depended on humans to provide them with food, water, and protection.  Humans were the crutch that they could not live without.
Following the Great Leap Forward, humans became highly dependent on a different sort of crutch.  Evolution had not elegantly designed us to thrive as ground-dwelling creatures.  What we lacked in strength, speed, teeth, and claws we eventually replaced with cleverness.  We developed complex language and abstract thinking.  We learned how to make and control fire.  We became good at cooperation, sharing, tool-making, and hunting.  Every useful bit of learning was passed on to the next generation, and our knowledge base snowballed in size and power.
Cleverness became the crutch that we could not live without, our key to survival.  As our dependence on learning grew, our own biology became less and less important.  The embarrassing result was that humans became the only species to accidentally domesticate themselves, a dangerous and unnatural achievement. 
With the emergence of agriculture and civilization, our mindset got much wackier, and we began causing significant ecological damage (while hunter-gatherers continued a low-impact way of life).  In the civilized world, the notion of human superiority moved to center stage, and old fashioned ritual magic was replaced with powerful human-like gods and goddesses.  The new mindset majored in individualism, competition, and aggression.  The entire planet, and everything on it, was absorbed into the human sphere.  This gave birth to the humanist ideology, which had now spread to almost every society on Earth.
As domesticated animals, we became excellent followers, obedient hard working servants.  We could endure living in high density populations, and spending many hours a day in windowless factories manufacturing frivolous status trinkets.  We had an extremely high tolerance for abuse.  Alas, our days of wild freedom were behind us, and forgotten.
Some say that there is a window of opportunity, between the ages of 5 and 12, when we are most likely to form vital emotional bonds with nature.  A bond with life on Earth is essential for a sane mind.  Unfortunately, today’s kids are far more likely to stay indoors and form bonds with technology, which we eagerly encourage.  They are dangerously isolated from the family of life, and likely to remain stunted for the rest of their days.
Livingston went on and on, illuminating the various errors of our ways.  This was not a celebration the amazing brilliance of humankind (which sounds sillier every year).  Instead, he presented us with a coherent explanation of how we got into this mess — a sobering look in the mirror.
The good news is that the core of the problem is thought patterns, and thought patterns can be changed.  First, the notion of human superiority must be disemboweled and fed to the ravenous mongrels.  It is essential that we once again develop an intimate and respectful relationship with nature.  Remember that there was a time when this culture did not exist.  We can live without it, and we must.
Many thinkers have come to the same conclusion, that we must radically change the way we think and live.  Livingston’s analysis focused attention on domestication, bonding with nature, abandoning dominance relationships, and denouncing the diabolical cult of humanism.  He followed a different path, and added some important pieces to the puzzle.
He concluded by prodding his readers: “We, the educated, the informed, the well nourished, the affluent, do pathetically little to stall the human juggernaut.”  We need to imagine an alternative way of human being in the world, and we need to stop being silent, passive, tolerant, domesticated sheep.  No matter how broken we are, we all still possess traces of undamaged healthy wildness buried deep inside — ancestral memories of better days.  Courage!

Livingston, John A., Rogue Primate — An Exploration of Human Domestication, Roberts Rinehart Publishers, Boulder, Colorado, 1994.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland

W. G. Wood-Martin (1847-1917) published Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland in 1902.  He wanted to document what was known about the spirituality of pre-Christian Ireland before all memories of that world were forgotten, and he was more than thorough (over 840 pages in two volumes).  He was not a mystic, or a righteous inquisitor; he was a fair-minded scholar.
Irish culture had a lumpy mixture of influences.  Hunter-gatherers arrived around 6000 BC.  They thrived on deer, shellfish, and salmon until about 4500 BC, when invaders infected the forest paradise with domesticated sheep, goats, cattle, and cereals.  The health of the ecosystem has been in decline ever since, and the forest and wolves are long gone.  The land has become an ecological skeleton.
At the end of the eighth century, the island was a collection of chiefdoms that shared the Gaelic language and culture.  Then there were invasions of missionaries, Vikings, Normans, and English, each of whom built settlements and put down roots.  Like most societies that major in domesticated plants and animals, Ireland became a land of warriors, and bloody conflicts, which left deep scars on the collective psyche.
I was fascinated by the book because it presents us with a white European society that had an intimate relationship with the land — a land that was spiritually alive in every aspect.  Every stone, tree, bird, and stream was holy.  Souls never died when the body did, they often found new homes in various plants and animals.  Some became banshees, who screamed and howled with the blowing wind, issuing warnings or announcing deaths.  Spirits of the ancestors were ever-present in the lives of everyone — and sometimes evil spirits, too.  Any living thing might be an ancestor.  You were never alone.
The rustic Irish spent their lives in a very small world.  Their food, water, fuel, clothing, and building materials came from the land nearby.  They owned little, and few of their belongings were imported from other places.  The land and the people were one, to a degree that would stagger the imagination of modern consumers, whose lives depend on a highly complex global system for almost everything.  But as we move beyond Peak Cheap Energy, we will inevitably be returning to a highly local, muscle-powered way of life of some sort.
Wood-Martin suspected that the fairies were “probably representatives of an aboriginal and conquered people” (the forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers?).  Fairies frequently came out at night to sing and dance, and their music was so beautiful that people who happened to hear it became enchanted.  Some of them chose to spend the rest of their lives with the good people, and others returned to the world of mortals, where they often went insane, or committed suicide, because they couldn’t get the sound of the magical music out of their heads.
Long ago, the fairies had been conquered by people with iron weapons, and so they detested iron and other metals.  Peasants protected themselves from fairy mischief by hanging horseshoes above their doors, by carrying knives, and by sewing bits of iron into their children’s clothing.
There was no such thing as bad luck.  Animal sickness, crop damage, lunacy, accidents, and disease were the result of curses or elf-shots (darts shot by fairies).  The antidote was a counterattack using even greater magic.  Sometimes a passionate blessing could break the curse.  Sometimes a disease was transferred to a strip of cloth, taken out, and tied to a bush — “a good riddance.”  When someone was wronged, they often sought justice by putting a curse on their enemy — “may he and all he owns melt like ice!”  A king was once cursed with an insatiable hunger, and he ate so much that he caused a famine in the land.  If the curse was deserved, the target would surely suffer.  If not, the curse would be returned to the sender within seven years.
All animals could think, communicate, read our minds, and influence our behavior.  Some were guardian spirits who protected us.  Some were inhabited by ancestral souls.  Some were people who had been changed into wolves for seven years by a powerful curse.  There were women who could appear as hares, cats, or sows.  The boundaries between humans and other animals were far less clear than they seem to be today.
The Irish countryside is rocky, and many of the stones were sacred.  Stone circles were thought to be old giants, or people who had been turned into rocks.  Some stones had holes big enough to crawl through, and these were used for healing.  Stones with smaller holes were used as swearing stones, used for swearing oaths, like wedding vows. 
We cannot live without water.  The Irish drew their water from springs, streams, lakes, and wells.  These too were seen as sacred, of course.  Water from holy springs helped cows to produce more milk and butter.  On the eve of May Day, people often bathed in sacred pools to be healed.  They tied offerings on nearby bushes — pieces of cloth or locks of hair.  They tossed coins in a well and made wishes.  The spirits of wells were benevolent when remembered, but vindictive when neglected.  Sacred waters were sometimes home to sacred trout, which no one harmed, except for mean enemies.
Paul Shepard once wrote: “Sacred groves did not exist when all trees were sacred.”  The forests started falling in the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age sped up the pace.  About one-eighth of the original forest survived until the sixteenth century, but these woodlands were gone by the eighteenth century.  So, the book mostly talks about sacred trees, not groves — like the big old oak in the pasture, often used to inaugurate new chiefs.  All trees had souls, and some grew up out of the graves of ancestors.
The cycle of the year was split into two halves, at May Day and Samhain or All Hallows Eve (31 October).  New life was celebrated at May Day, with bonfires, dancing, and may poles.  Halloween was a scary time, because the night was filled with the spirits of the wandering dead.  Villagers wandered from house to house in processions, stopping to recite ancient verses at each home.
It’s difficult to imagine living in a reality that was so spiritually alive, with people who had powerful connections to the land, and immense reverence for it.  Modern life can feel so empty and artificial.  Wood-Martin left us with an important clue: “If you procure a box of fairy ointment, and rub it on the eyelids, you instantly see everything as it really is.”  That would certainly be an unforgettable mind-blowing experience! 
Of course, the old Irish were simple, illiterate folks, who spent their lives in a world of silly superstitions.  We modern folks are free of that (we think).  The pagans gained power by drinking at sacred wells, by crawling through sacred stones, by initiating blessings or curses.  We gain power by overloading our lives with sacred stuff — hybrid cars, McMansions, big screen TVs.  The greater the harm that we cause to the Earth, the more prestige we gain.

Wood-Martin, Walter Gregory, Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland, Kennikat Press, Port Washington, New York, 1970.  Originally published in 1902.
The contents of volumes I and II are available via Google Books.  The PDF downloads are scanned images of the original pages, and are not searchable.  The EPUB version is searchable text, but the conversion process introduced defects.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations

Professor David Montgomery’s book Dirt provides a fascinating discussion about an extremely precious substance that we can’t live without, but treat like dirt.  He begins with an intimate explanation of what dirt is, how it’s formed, and how it’s destroyed — in plain, simple English. 
Then, he proceeds to lead us on an around-the-world tour, spanning many centuries, to examine the various methods that societies have devised for mining their soils, and diminishing their future via agriculture.
The book is impressively thorough, and it’s likely to blow more than a few minds, but the voice is a bit soft.  A neutral tone is mandatory for textbooks, and this may encourage casual readers to be less concerned about the future than they should be.  Connect the dots.
From a human perspective, soil is a non-renewable resource, because new soil is created very slowly, a process often measured on a geological timeframe.  For example, the soils of the Mediterranean basin were largely destroyed by 2,000 years ago, and they remain wrecked today.  They are quite likely to remain wrecked for many, many thousands of years.  Much of the region that once fed millions is a desert today.
If smoking a single pack of cigarettes reliably caused a painful death by cancer within weeks, nobody would smoke, because it’s clearly not smart.  But cancer normally takes decades to become apparent, and by the time you learn about the tumor, it’s too late to make smart decisions.  Life does not have an undo button.
It’s a similar story with societies that take up the dirty habit of agriculture, which is almost always fatal.  Once you get started, it’s nearly impossible to quit, because it’s unbelievably addictive.  Yet we continue to act like it’s a cool thing to do, because it’s a clever way to acquire trade trinkets and status, and all the other cool societies are doing it, too.  The disease often advances so slowly, over the course of generations, that nobody realizes the mistake.  But once the soil is ruined, it’s too late to become smart.  There is no wonder cure.  Game over.
Eventually, Montgomery’s world tour brings us to the United States, where the white invaders imported their dirty habit.  In Europe, many farmers were quite careful to do what they could to slow erosion, and improve fertility, using time-proven techniques, because starvation was the alternative.  American settlers promptly threw these prudent practices overboard, because they were time-consuming, and because there was an unbelievable supply of fertile soil that was readily available.  In the New World, dirt was a disposable commodity.
Settlers could get rich quick by raising tobacco and cotton.  A field of rich virgin soil could support three or four crops of tobacco, and then it would be abandoned.  It was cheaper to pack up, move on, and clear new fields than it was to manure the fields they had already cleared.  This careless attitude fueled an explosion of erosion and deforestation.  One gully near Macon, Georgia was 50 feet deep, 200 feet across, and 300 yards long.  Soil exhaustion was a primary driving force behind the westward expansion of the colonists.  Rape and run agriculture seems to have set the mold for the emerging American mindset.
In the twentieth century, when farmers bought millions of big, powerful machines, the 10,000 year war on soils mutated into a new and horrifying form.  Erosion rates skyrocketed to levels never before believed to be possible, leading to catastrophes like the Dust Bowl.  Montgomery says it like this: “Continued for generations, till-based agriculture will strip soil right off the land as it did in ancient Europe and the Middle East.  With current agricultural technology though, we can do it a lot faster.”
Here’s a line that made me jump: “Everything else — culture, art, and science — depends upon adequate agricultural production.”  Like air and water, food is essential for our survival.  Without food, our entire techno-wonderland turns into fairy dust and blows away.  We can’t live without it, but at the same time we are rapidly destroying what makes food possible — because profits today are more important than existence tomorrow.  Sorry kids!
On a bright note, Montgomery gives us a quick tour of Tikopia, a society on a tiny island that is one of the few exceptions to the rule.  They seem to have devised a sustainable form of agriculture that majors in agroforestry (food-producing trees).  They combined this with a draconian method for maintaining a sustainable population, which was far less painful and destabilizing than the effects of over breeding. 
Looking toward the future, Montgomery foresees a large number of serious problems.  Explosive population growth continues.  We are moving beyond the era of cheap and abundant energy, and this will continuously drive the price of everything upward.  Climate change is likely to deliver unwanted surprises.  Widespread destruction of soils continues, and simply converting to organic farming will not fix this.  Nor will no-till technology, which will eventually be forced into extinction by rising energy costs, or herbicide-resistant weeds.  We are running out of tricks for increasing productivity.  The end of the chemical fertilizer game is inevitable, and it will largely be replaced with recycled sewage — a priceless treasure that we are now throwing away via expensive, energy-guzzling treatment plants.
Our current system is simply not up to the task of feeding the world in the coming decades, because it’s a design that self-destructs.  We try to force the ecosystem to adapt to our food production technology, and this doesn’t work.  Instead, we need to make farming adapt to the needs of the ecosystem.  In short, we need a serious revolution in the way we do agriculture — a new philosophy that gives top priority to the health of the land, not to maximizing income by any means necessary.  How likely is this?  Don’t hold your breath.
The subject of this book centers on soil erosion.  In the good old days of muscle-powered organic agriculture, soil destruction took a thousand years to ruin a civilization, on average.  Industrial agriculture is much quicker.  It now keeps seven billion people alive by using soil to convert fossil energy into food.  But the clock is running out on cheap energy, and industrial agriculture has an expiration date.  This will give birth to a new agricultural revolution — the return to muscle-powered farming, on severely depleted soils, fertilized once again by nutrient-rich sewage.  Farm productivity will plummet.  We are close to peak food production now.

Montgomery, David R., Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2007.
NOTE: If you find this subject interesting, the first edition of Topsoil and Civilization (1955) is available for free online as a PDF download.  It follows a parallel course, but provides a different banquet of information, while coming to similar conclusions:

Monday, April 2, 2012

New Roots for Agriculture

Wes Jackson was born in Kansas farm country, in a place where his grandfather homesteaded.  The land of his birth was being destroyed by agriculture, and this drove him crazy.  Wes and his wife Dana created The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.  Their mission was to create sustainable agriculture, a noble 100-year project that he describes in New Roots for Agriculture.  This book is a great primer on farming — short, smart, and easy to read.
Our education system excels at graduating scholars who are blissfully ignorant about the food they eat.  Opponents of our truly horrid system for the mass production of meat, milk, and eggs often fail to recognize that our system for producing tofu, bean sprouts, and spinach is seriously defective as well.  Almost everything we eat has ecological costs far in excess of the price we are charged, and blissful ignorance keeps us marching down the wrong path.
Jackson has profound admiration for the Amish and Mennonites — America’s finest farmers — because they are religious about farming with exceptional care.  But their soil is not safe from normal hard rains, it washes away, too.  It’s heartbreaking.  No matter how hard you try, it fails.  It’s impossible to win when your primary tool is a plow (and no-till has its own serious drawbacks).
Jackson doesn’t restrict his scorn to modern stuff — agribusiness, pesticides, GM crops, the Green Revolution.  He condemns agriculture in its entirety.  It was a disaster 10,000 years ago, and it’s far, far worse today.  He has referred to it as an “accident,” but one that can be repaired.  We would be in far better shape today if we had continued dining on healthy wild foods, instead of shifting to growing crops on tilled fields.  He sees till agriculture as “a global disease” that is especially severe in the US, and “unless this disease is checked, the human race will wilt like any crop.”
Agriculture is a huge monster with a thousand heads, but it’s most terrible offense may be soil destruction, because it is largely irreparable.  Terrestrial life requires soil, and agriculture is tirelessly sending our finest soils to the bottom of the ocean.  It’s bad, and every farmer knows this.  Unfortunately, the system is designed to reward productivity, not ecosystem health.  Soil worshippers quickly go bankrupt.  Jackson is telling us nothing new, but he is shining a bright light on things that everyone should be thinking about at every mealtime.
There are a few exceptions to the rule.  In Japan and portions of northern Europe, agriculture has been relatively benign, because of unusual combinations of soil types, topography, and climate patterns — not superior farming techniques.  But almost everywhere else, it is a destructive process.  Note that neither of the two exceptions comes close to feeding their own populations.
Looking out his office window, Jackson can observe both heaven and hell — prairie and wheat field.  The prairie is beautifully adapted to the ecosystem, and suffers no erosion problems.  It actually builds healthy new soil.  The wheat field produces more calories per acre, but it is a soil mining operation, an extractive enterprise with no long term future.  Jackson’s core principle is that “no interest or value should be put above the health of the land.”  Let’s make that our planetary motto.
He believes that truly sustainable agriculture is possible.  Annual plants, like corn, wheat, and soy, need to be started from seed each year, which requires annual tilling, and results in significant soil erosion.  Perennial plants survive for a number of years.  Jackson recommends that we switch to perennials for grain production, because this would more closely resemble a prairie, and cause less erosion. 
In his plan, fields would contain a blend of different species of seed-bearing plants, not a monoculture of genetically identical plants.  The system would improve soil quality, maintain its own fertility, conserve water, have few problems with pests and diseases, require lower energy inputs, be more drought tolerant, and produce as much grain as conventional agriculture.  Because yields are highest in the first year, and then taper off, the prairie would have to be plowed and replanted periodically.  He estimates a five to ten year replant cycle.
It’s a radical idea that is much easier said than done.  To enable mechanical harvesting, the mix of species would have to ripen at the same time.  The mix would have to be fine-tuned for every microclimate and soil scenario.  The Land Institute is decades away from having a finished product, and there are no guarantees that it will ever reliably work as intended.  The Soviets had a similar idea back in the 1920’s.  They did decades of research, and then abandoned the project.  They claimed tremendous successes, but refused to show them to outsiders.
Jackson has some concerns about his vision.  The accident of agriculture began when we believed that we could cleverly control and manipulate nature.  And now, he’s attempting to correct the problem by using the same approach — controlling and manipulating nature.  That bothers him.  Sustainable agriculture must live in peace with the ecosystem, not replace the natural ecosystem with a chemical-soaked, soil-mining food factory.
This book was written over 30 years ago, when gas was 30 cents a gallon, and people thinking about Peak Oil numbered in the dozens.  In that era of innocence, you could still dream about plowing up the whole farm every five to ten years, and harvesting prairie-like grain fields with gas guzzling farm equipment.  Because Jackson’s plan requires the use of industrial machinery, it isn’t genuinely sustainable.  It can’t be harmlessly performed for the next 2,000 years, because it is dependent upon the existence of industrial civilization.
If you’re going to dream huge, magnificent, revolutionary dreams for a 100 year project, why not throw in radical population reduction, too?  An unsustainable population is, of course, completely unsustainable.  A much smaller herd would cause much less harm, and nothing is impossible when you’re dreaming. 
And why not dream of a cuisine where grains are not the foundation of the diet?  In another book, Jackson wrote that grains are core to the human evolutionary heritage.  Are they?  Many cultures throughout human history have done just fine with no grain foods at all.  Indeed, cultures that major in domesticated grains have a strong tendency to be over-crowded, belligerent, and suicidal.  Please help yourself to the nuts, berries, and grasshoppers. 
As I was reading, I kept thinking about Richard Manning’s vision of returning corn country to tall grass prairie, ripping out the fences, moving in the buffalos, elk, and wolves, and turning our bakeries into steak houses.  God was in fine form when she created prairie ecosystems, they were an absolutely brilliant design.  Ripping these perfect ecosystems to pieces with moldboard plows, planting grain fields, and exterminating the thriving community of wildness was the opposite of intelligent.
In his 1987 book, Altars of Unhewn Stone, Jackson described a 6,400 acre prairie ranch in the Flint Hills of Kansas that had never been plowed.  It supported 1,700 cattle during the grazing season, and it was mostly managed by a single cowboy.  Fertilizer was never used.  The use of fossil fuel was tiny.  Overgrazing was carefully avoided, and soil erosion was at normal levels for a healthy prairie.  If we replaced the cattle with buffalo, and gave them free range, would this be better for the land than perennial grains?  Could buffalo hunting be harmlessly performed for the next 2,000 years?
Jackson, Wes, New Roots for Agriculture, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1985.