Last weekend my wife and I ventured over an hour west to visit some prairie dog towns. When we arrived at the first town it was much smaller than I’d figured it would be, even after looking at satellite images. The prairie dogs trilled and barked, and none let us closer than 50 feet before diving into the ground. But what surprised me about this maybe 20 acre or less area was what surrounded it like a curtain or cinder block wall–corn. And not good looking corn. All along our drive there and back hardly a center pivot was idle. Water was spraying everywhere. Bridges we crossed showed severely depleted creeks and rivers. Indeed, the North Platte is completely dry. Lincoln alone uses 75 million gallons of water a day right now, and the mayor is threatening watering bans if we don’t get to 60 million. SIXTY MILLION. Tens of millions going just to gardens and lawns that have no chance anyway in a nearly two month rainless drought—god knows how much above these numbers is cropland water use. Let’s not mention the 12 billion gallons we pump out of the Ogallala aquifer daily, or 200′ in the last century (some project it will be empty in 10-20 years).
Standing there in the country the diminished population of prairie dogs no longer sickened me—it was the fields. The ethanol plant. The new grain elevators going up and railroad tracks everywhere. Since 1920, the heartland has always produced more than we need, hence government subsidies that can account for 50% of a farmer’s income. To produce one calorie of grain requires 10 calories of hydrocarbons.
All that genetically modified corn so intensively managed, a monoculture that is dependent on us to exist, which has made it so that only, maybe, 20% of the plains could ever restore itself with native flora if we vanished this second. All that corn (70% of it) is fattening cattle that pour methane into the air, foul surface water, and that give us nice marbleized beef leading to heart disease. Grass fed beef is leaner and has wonderful omega 3 fatty acids—and tastes much more buttery, as a local organic / grass fed burger joint has shown me. Right now, feeding cattle wastes 90% of plant energy since only 10% can be retained by a cow.
Edward Abbey suggests “…that we open a hunting season on cattle. I realize that beef cattle will not make sporting prey at first. Like all domesticated animals (including most humans), beef cattle are slow, stupid, and awkward. But the breed will improve if hunted regularly. And, as the number of cattle decrease, other and far more useful, beautiful and interesting animals will return….”
If cattle ate more efficient grass we could use the surplus grain to literally feed the rest of the world. 10 acres of grassland in fertile “tall grass” Iowa could feed as many cows as 100 acres in short grass rangeland out west. The new central Plains grasslands would provide economic and environmental stability for a region that is young at only 12,000 years—and so the native plants we know well are the ones that are the most easily adapted and strong and could be again.
The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas is working on creating perennial grains that replicate natural ecosystems—a tall order when the answer is already at hand. And if even ecologists believe in technology saving us from our own hubris, what hope is there? The technology of the planet works, it’s free, and some of it is still here. There are 140 native species of grass alone in the great plains (with 60-80% of each plant underground), and I have maybe five species in my garden. With all the wildlife I see in just 1500 feet, imagine the diversity, the power, the health—the efficient transfer of energy from sun to plant to animal to human—that would occur across a county, let alone a state. If we change light bulbs, if we shower faster, if we build more efficient cars (or pretend to), then we need to grow our food and gardens smarter. This means less monoculture and less lawn. In the end there’s no amount of adapting we can force on nature that will work—we must adapt, aka simply accept who we are. We dump so much energy into manipulating nature; all that effort could be redirected and we’d be a more peaceful and balanced culture. Maybe. In the last three years crop insurance programs, and now a proposed bottom crop price, have taken away the risk and encouraged farmers to plow up another 23 million acres of shrubland, wetland, and prairie margins (link here for map). There’s really not anything left, is there?
Standing at the edge between a prairie dog town and a field of corn, I feel the duality of my life. How I live it—all the corn in my diet—and how I preach it here in my words and backyard. I am two faced in the least and I know it. I’m riddled with guilt. But I’m also riddled with hope. Not because I think we will change, but because prairie dogs and milkweed and winecup still exist on a few acres amongst a horizon of center pivots watering corn.
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