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  • Glenn McDonagh

    Living not far from Danthonia I was very interested in Johannes Meier’s comments. Very impressed by the depth and scope of their work. Here’s hoping many more farmers take up the challenge and for those of us not on the land, whether people of faith or not, the way of life espoused by Johannes, the open and humble approach to the natural world, is not only inspiring but increasingly essential. All the contributions were very informative, knowledgeable, accessible and ultimately optimistic. Very worthwhile.

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This fall and winter we invited people who work with the land—farmers, ranchers, foresters, ecologists and others—to tell us what they think the earth is for. What follows is a selection of the responses we received.

Art Shapiro
Davis, California
Ecology

What kind of work do you do and how did you start doing it?

I’m an insect ecologist-biogeographer and my career grew out of a childhood fascination with natural history. I’ve had a straight-line trajectory since I was maybe eleven.

What is your schedule like, day to day?

During the school year I teach three days a week. During favorable weather I spend three days afield doing research—collecting data—and in bad weather working in the lab analyzing those data and doing experiments.

What is your favorite part of the job? What is the most challenging?

Favorite: Trekking alone in the high mountains, be it the Sierra Nevada or the Andes. Most challenging: Trekking alone, etc. (I’m 73.)

What are the most serious threats to the earth or the land? What gives you cause for hope?

The most serious threats are all aspects of “global change”—climate, pesticides, land use. There is no way we can understand how Nature works if there is no Nature left to understand. The greatest cause for hope is that the destroyers and the deniers may be cunning, but at core they are stupid brutes. That, and that alone, buys us some time.

What is the earth for?

The earth is not “for” anything. It just is. It was not created or designed with us in mind.

Lyle Anderson
Grygla, Minnesota
Farming

What kind of work do you do and how did you start doing it?

We farm approximately 6,500 acres in the northwest corner of Minnesota, approximately fifty miles from Canada and sixty from North Dakota. A lot of people from Minnesota say northern Minnesota is everything north of St. Cloud; they’ll call Brainerd “northern Minnesota,” but it’s basically in the east-central part of the state. We’re really tucked up in the northwest corner.

I manage the farm with my daughter and son-in-law. We each have our own operations—we make all our own individual decisions on the managing and marketing—but we work together on the land. We rotate wheat, soybeans, and a type of grass seed called rye grass that’s found in most blends of lawn mixture and on a lot of golf courses. (It’s a specialty contract crop, which means it’s not something you can grow and sell on the open market, like you can with wheat or soybeans.)

I started farming because my father farmed and his father farmed. I’m the third generation. My grandfather homesteaded from Norway in approximately 1899. He only farmed about 160 acres. It was free land given out by the government at that time, and you had to live on the property so long to claim it. Then my father expanded the farm to approximately a thousand acres at one time, I believe. My brother also farms—he farms around three thousand acres.

When I grew up working on the farm, it was a way different world. Machinery was small. We didn’t have a tractor with an air-conditioned cabin until I was about twenty years old, and we used smaller two-wheel-drive tractors. I wouldn’t let my kids ride on tractors like that now. They were dangerous. You sat outside on a rickety open seat with wheels right by you. You could slip down and get driven right over, and many farmers were in those days. And the lights weren’t good, so you very seldom worked after dark. Now we work basically up to 24 hours a day if we have to. We don’t like to, but at least you’re in a nice environmentally controlled cab. Most of our larger field equipment is four-wheel-drive articulated tractors. They’ve got nice seat suspensions. Almost everything is automated: there are computer monitors that tell you what you’ve seeded, what you’ve overlapped. You don’t have to be involved with steering, which takes an awful lot of the pressure and fatigue off the operator, so he can be monitoring his equipment better than if he were physically driving it. Farmers are also now using the internet and satellites to survey their farms and the conditions to get different ideas about what applications to do. It’s unbelievable, but certain things like drone tractors will be used in my son-in-law’s farming operations someday.

What is your schedule like, day to day?

It’s more and more managing these days: financial managing, marketing, dealing with suppliers on inputs, purchasing basically all the different things you need for the farm. And organizing—we’ve got hired men, and you’ve got to organize their time and workloads. We employ two men full time, but I’ve got three retired guys who work through spring’s work and harvest, and a couple of neighboring friends who will help me on a short-term basis. They probably work five to ten days in the spring and ten to fifteen days in the fall. Myself, I don’t do much physical farming anymore, other than in the spring’s work, with seeding and the tillage and all the things you have to do. I do quite a bit of work in the spring, then in the fall, directly with the harvesting and working the land back, but the hired men do more of the primary tillage jobs, and grain hauling.

What is your favorite part of the job? What is the most challenging?

I really enjoy spraying. You get to go over your crop and see the different stages it’s in throughout the year. Another thing that I like to do in the fall after harvest is to use this thing called a scraper—it’s like a miniature earth mover. You load dirt up and haul it to different areas—if you’ve got a poor area in the field that’s affected by water, you just accentuate the water pattern for it out in the field. I call it landscaping. I like it because I’m improving the land, and I’m not managing a lot of different projects at same the time. I just get to be off by myself, like a rancher overlooking his ranch.

The most challenging part of the job is financial management. Life on a farm is wonderful: it’s a wonderful place to be, working with your family. But it’s a very stressful occupation—mainly from the financial instability, and the weather. Farmers have some of the highest suicide rates in the nation. We’ve been fortunate here the last few years to have moderately favorable weather, and I’ve never gone through great depression, but I’ve had some down-and-out times.

Recently, the tariffs our president has put on have affected the value of our crops greatly. For our soybeans and wheat crop, the value has dropped 20 to 25 percent, and input costs are going up, all because of his trade policies, which don’t make any sense whatsoever. No man is an island and the president seems to think that he alone or the United States alone can succeed, and we can’t. There’s a whole world that we have to be concerned about.

What is the earth for?

It’s to keep all the people alive. To have a home, to have food. To make a life for themselves, no matter where they are. You could be a factory worker, you could be an office worker—the earth exists to provide you with subsistence: food, livelihood, recreation. It’s for the people, but we have to preserve it so the animals and the rest of nature will survive—it’s a very integrated thing. Global warming is a very serious problem nowadays. It’ll affect everybody. It’ll affect water levels, ice caps, polar bears, islands in the Caribbean. It’s something that we just have to try to be concerned about.

Farmers are some of the greatest stewards of the earth because their livelihood so depends on that piece of ground staying in a good condition. In other areas like mining or logging, it’s more destructive. They’re not as reliant on that particular plot of land as farmers are—or at least that’s what it looks like to me from the outside looking in. They don’t care about the long-term consequences of their actions, while farmers are greatly concerned with the long-term consequences.

Sandra White
Hertfordshire, United Kingdom
Ecopsychology

What kind of work do you do and how did you start doing it?

My work is as an ecopsychologist, rooted in a longer career as a psychodynamic counselor and psychologist informed by Freudian and Jungian theories of the unconscious. Ecopsychology is a large field with many diverse practitioners, including herbalists and wilderness guides, to suggest two possible ends of the continuum. I focus on examining people’s relationships with larger nature in the U.K., where I live. My interest is in facilitating respect, love and reverence for Earth as a complex living system and for all forms of life which have evolved to live within it and share this planet with us as home.

I had a strong connection with larger nature as a child and lost it in my teens, partly through immersion in mainstream culture. I gradually came back to it in my thirties and since then, over the past thirty years, I have devoted considerable time and energy to examining and changing my own attitudes and behaviors towards larger nature, through which my personal sense of respect, love and reverence for Earth as I have described it above has emerged and expanded. Eventually, in my forties, I became so deeply concerned about global warming that I stopped training as a Jungian psychoanalyst in order to try to apply my psychological and ecopsychological understandings to cultural change. On a small scale, I started to take people out into larger nature individually and in group workshops. One of my specialties is denial, and for a while I did a little work with green activists to improve the psychological understanding underpinning their campaigns. I also developed a consultancy to take ecopsychology into the corporate and government sectors (with which I have previously worked in the field of race relations, where I also applied my psychological frameworks). In my home town, I started an eco-group which developed into a Transition Town. Through all that work, I realized that I was developing a set of theories about why there is not large-scale engagement with global warming and, indeed, the current mass extinction. I withdrew from working, partly in order to develop those theories, with practical strategies to express them, and am still in that process.

What is your schedule like, day to day?

When I was working in the field, my days were highly varied, spending a lot of time sitting in larger nature, writing, preparing lectures, running workshops, reading about ecopsychology, attending ecopsychology events and developing the consultancy work outlined above. At the moment, I mainly spend time in larger nature, write to develop my ideas, and stay connected with how global warming and mass extinction is being discussed in the wider culture.

What is your favorite part of the job? What is the most challenging?

At the moment, my most challenging aspect comes when I recognize how differently I think and feel about Earth from most people I meet, and my current focus is on how to bridge towards them and create a dialogue that will not trigger or exacerbate denial. This is crucially important because, once triggered, denial produces exponentially more of the undesired behaviors. My approach is rooted in a profound respect for denial as a necessary and valid psychological defense. My focus has become, rather than how to communicate about global warming and mass extinction, how to enable the mechanisms of denial to relax at an individual and collective level, and this is integral to what I aim to develop.

What are the most serious threats to the earth or the land? What gives you cause for hope?

The most serious threats to both lie, in my view, in the current version of Western capitalism expanding around the globe and extracting and exploiting more and more from both larger nature and human beings. The type and scale of psychological and emotional change needed is rendered more difficult when people are exploited and neglected, because more immediate material and psychological needs must take precedence in those circumstances.

I see as positive and cause for hope the increasing acceptance that global warming is both happening and human induced (although there are hazards in this), together with a growing realization of the downsides of the prevailing form of global capitalism.

What is the earth for?

I’m sorry, but I think this is the wrong question. I simply want to say “Earth is where…”

Earth is where conditions came into being for life to materialize and evolve into its current state of self-organizing complexity, interconnection and beauty, which is extraordinary in the known universe.

Earth is where, within the evolution of life, the human species has developed special and unique qualities and characteristics of consciousness and toolmaking which differentiate it from other species, all of which have their own equally special qualities and characteristics.

Earth is where the human species has the unique challenge of knowing and experiencing itself as part of the matrix of life and life’s ongoing evolution, while conversely so often imagining and feeling itself to be separate from and superior to the rest of life here and therefore entitled to mold life to exclusively human purposes.

Earth is where the future of life rests on whether the human species as a whole can discover the desire to uphold the evolution of life itself for its own sake alongside humanity’s narrower purposes, and thereby develop strategies to respectfully, lovingly and reverently coexist here with larger nature.

Earth is where, if it is ever legitimate to do what is called “anthropomorphizing,” in the face of human impacts that are destroying larger nature’s very foundations, we could imagine life validly asking itself, “What on earth is human consciousness for?”

Johannes Meier
Danthonia Community, Inverell, New South Wales, Australia
Ranching

What kind of work do you do and how did you start doing it?

I manage a 5,800-acre grazing property, breeding and trading cattle. The focus is on landscape regeneration via holistic-grazing management, natural-sequence farming, and working with the basic landscape functions of nature as created by God. These essential functions, including the water cycle, nutrient cycle, energy cycle and carbon cycle are self-organizing when we understand them and allow them to work. Essential to success is diverse plant and soil biological life, which builds soil carbon, retains water in the landscape, and holds nutrients for plants. Holistic-grazing management is probably the most important tool in regeneration, with the focus being on the diverse pasture sward, the soil beneath it, and its health, while the cattle are tools to achieve that health, not the other way around.

The Danthonia community was started in 1999 and was purchased as a functioning cattle/sheep/cropping enterprise. It didn’t take long to see that the landscape was in decline and conventional agricultural practice had caused much of the damage. Heavy use of herbicides, conventional fertilizers and tillage had destroyed soil fertility and caused massive erosion of topsoil with soil carbon levels falling below one percent. It took years of research, trial and error, and learning from other regenerative farmers to begin to heal the land on our property.

What is your schedule like, day to day?

Landscape regeneration depends on good management. The day starts with planning livestock moves and assigning tasks to farm hands. Like any farm, the best-laid plans often change, affected by weather, season, livestock health and many other factors. Livestock moves, yarding for weighing or health treatments, infrastructure building and repair are all part of the day’s work. Key to managing our farm is monitoring of pasture biomass, growth and productivity, and watching the cattle market with its ups and downs.

What is your favorite part of the job? What is the most challenging?

The absolute favorite part of the job is to see and be a part of the regeneration of a degraded landscape via obedience to the laws of nature and the functions God created to sustain life on this earth. Working with the cattle to achieve that is also very rewarding.

The most challenging aspect of the work is the paradigm shift required to learn to work with nature, not against it, and to discover what tools will achieve the goal of landscape regeneration in a very tough and brittle climate. Climatic extremes, heat, drought, flood all add to this challenge. Climate change is noticeable here in Australia, and the window we have to regenerate our land is closing.

What are the most serious threats to the earth or the land? What gives you cause for hope?

Conventional agricultural practice over the last seventy years has caused incredible destruction not only to our farm but to the whole agricultural system in Australia, and I believe, the world. This destruction is caused by a deep lack of understanding for how nature was created to function, and by greed with no thought for future generations. The damage done has taken us almost to the point of no return. As mentioned above, the effects of climate change are noticeable here, even in the fourteen years I have been on this farm. The most serious threat we face collectively is the paradigm of conventional agricultural practice, it is deeply ingrained and very difficult to uproot and change.

There is great hope, however. Here in Australia there is a growing movement towards regenerative agriculture at a grassroots level, where land managers are taking it upon themselves to learn the practice of landscape regeneration. It is possible, and if these practices can be applied across even one half of Australia’s cropping and grazing lands, climate change could be held in check and possibly reversed. All that is required is a radical change in the way we land managers think and act.

What is the earth for?

That is an important question. I believe we humans were placed on earth by God to care for it, and to care for each other. As we celebrate the birth of Christ this year, and the tremendous hope He brings to every person on earth, let us remember that God in his great love created this earth and everything in it and in return He has tasked humanity, all of us, to care for and nurture his creation. After all, our lives are directly linked to the health of the land.

In our landscape, He has created marvelous natural functions that allow the land to be healthy, productive and vibrant even in drought or other climatic extremes. All that is required of us is to work with these functions, these laws of nature, to regenerate our land which is on the brink of ecological collapse.

Amazingly, the pattern of life God has created applies to us human beings as well as to our earth and its ecosystems. Just as our landscape needs restoration and regeneration to be healthy and productive, we humans need to be restored through God’s love and forgiveness. Just as plants live in symbiosis and synergy with soil biology, using sunlight and rain via photosynthesis to build life, so we humans need to work together, supporting, encouraging and helping each other to live in obedience to God’s laws. These laws relate to the whole of life and to all humanity—our personal lives, families, society and land—and obedience to them results in restoration, forgiveness, peace and purpose in life, as well as a restored and functioning ecosystem to support life on earth.

Julie Sullivan
San Juan Ranch, San Luis Valley, Colorado
Ranching

What kind of work do you do and how did you start doing it?

I’m a mentor, a rancher, a writer, a studier. Shy from the start, I observed rather than participated with my peers, and usually spent time with animals rather than human friends. I became an actor; then a teacher; then a deep ecologist, vegetarian environmental educator; and now a cattle rancher. I brought the college class I was teaching to visit a rancher with an environmental ethic, fell in love, and came to the ranch eighteen years ago, adapting my preference for the other-than-human to a life lived daily from and with land and animals.

What is your schedule like, day to day?

We wake pre-dawn all year, but for different reasons each season. Each has a pattern to its days, which morphs according to weather and whatever the cattle need. It’s like wave sets at the shore, a regularity, a series of short laps then a series of big tosses that a person can learn to anticipate, all the while knowing that there’s no controlling what the sea actually brings you.

Regardless of what the calendar says, our year begins in late March, when the first calves are born. Someone wakes pre-dawn to the single-digit cold, makes a cup of coffee for the travel mug, buries themselves in layers of clothes, grabs the flashlight, a pencil and our small red “heartbooks”—three-by-five-inch bound books with lists of all the mother cows—and head out to the Motherherd. Their dark bread-loaf-like bodies are calm as they lay on their sides, chuffing exhalations into the air that turn to small clouds. I walk slowly through them, watching for calving problems—a calf coming breech, a cold newborn who isn’t getting to her feet for her first suckle. I walk inches from the resting mothers and they tolerate my nearness, not shifting or standing, allowing me to be part of the herd for those liminal moments before day starts and we differentiate into human and bovine; they focus on eating and I move on with meals, email, bill paying and the mentoring of the new apprentice who arrives at the same time of year as the calves.

In summer, we grab coffee and a quick to-go breakfast, and someone heads up onto the range, eleven miles away, to check the herd, and the thirteen miles of water lines that take spring water down to the water tanks scattered across the ten thousand acres of rangeland we graze in the summer months. If all is well—no kamikaze squirrels stuck in the water lines, no floats rubbed off the water valves by cattle, who love to give themselves back scratches on anything they can find, so that water is skyrocketing over the tank and onto the ground—we head back home to irrigate the native-grass meadows, prepare for haying season, and tend to the inside part of an outside life. Around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, when the cattle themselves rise from their midday rest and rumination, we head back to the range, either on horseback or on foot, amble the cattle up one of the canyon-like draws in the rumpled foothills to fresh pasture. Looking at the grasses, checking for signs of regrowth and grazing impact.

Haying season bridges late summer to early fall. Cattle needs are still driving the day, but the 1975 International tractor, older dump rake, Massey Ferguson swather, and the 1953 Case tractor all need their daily tending before we head out to cut the native grass into long windrows, which are then gathered by the dump rake that pulls the long rows into piles. Harriers follow the tractors, hunting for field mice and voles. Thunderclouds pile up during the morning, and let loose for five minutes with pelting rain, gravelly hail, or just a wind devil scattering the newly cut hay.

And winter mornings start with lighting a fire in the 1920 wood stove which heats the house, making that pot of coffee, and then there’s time for reading the news, even a short yoga session, before the subzero morning seems to warm up with the rise of the sun over the 14,000-foot peaks to our east. Jackets, scarves, gloves go on after a hot breakfast, and we head out to move the portable electric fence across the meadows, which are dotted with those small hay piles—the winter feed for the cattle. With ground frozen solid a foot deep, we use a homemade slide hammer on a pole to pound four-inch-deep holes into the ground to move the fence posts that hold the electric fence, giving the cattle access to a fresh few acres of piles and graze for their breakfast. Planning the production year, annual budget review and projections, all the work of the self-employed become more prominent, but being inside feels good, once we know the cattle are well.

What is your favorite part of the job? What is the most challenging?

FAVORITE:

The pre-dawn walk through the Motherherd, and their quiet acceptance of me into the sisterhood, the loud “poofs” as they breathe, their dark deep eyes unconcerned by my scrutiny as I look for calving problems.

The immediacy of the work—that what I do each day actually does matter, right now and right here, that it can be life or imminent death for a particular animal, that I feel like I am actively giving back to a world that supports me, whether I give back or not.

Watching an apprentice discover how to get out of his own way, with self-doubt, fear of failure, or any of the other heavy burdens we all carry inside ourselves by the time we are twenty. Mentoring is often the ability to see what is in the way of a person’s fullness, then helping them find ways to dissolve those blocks, or maneuver around them, or reframe them into skills and strengths.

CHALLENGES:

A day like today, when we send twenty finished steers to slaughter, young animals in their prime, still almost calf-like in their faces and in their enjoyment of grass, sun, each other. No one pays us for the work we do that nourishes the soil, keeps the water and air sheds whole and well; we have to sell the animals we raise for food. Most people probably think that ranchers don’t feel sad, guilty even, about this. We do. And we are intimately connected to each individual and the choices we make.

That no one can make a living from sustainable agriculture, unless they live close to a major metropolitan area with enough people able to pay for what they raise. That these young people we mentor have no reason to believe they will ever be able to own land to raise food for all the other people who don’t really care to know where their food comes from. That those of us who raise food for others are invisible in our society, or if seen, are belittled as ignorant, racist, backward. Some folks who raise food are all of these things, but not all of us. And, given that we all need to eat, I would hope for more regard and concern for the fate of those who feed us.

What is the earth for?

She’s for herself. She’s got her own story and cycles unfolding, interacting with all of us who ride upon and within her. I’m some piece of that, ideally not a defining feature. How could I possibly know the answer to this? My narrow and personal frame of reference doesn’t have the receptors to grasp the enormity of what Earth is up to.

So if there isn’t an answer, there can be a response, a way to be answerable for the piece of her story that my life plays. I’ve always felt I need to earn my oxygen every day, and while this is rooted in family history and the role I play, I don’t think I’m off the mark when it comes to being answerable to who and what Earth is. What can I do each day to use the planet as other species do, fulfilling my needs—which include joy and beauty as well as food and shelter—while being part of a system that constantly calibrates and adjusts itself so that Earth can still function and fulfill her story? And this work, this daily tending of a particular plot of land with particular animals to feed myself and give back at the same time, is the best way I’ve found to do this, to have that care for Earth built into what I do.

When I first read these words of the Catholic eco-theologian Thomas Berry, back in my environmental-educator days, I thought he was right: “In its human mode, the universe reflects on and celebrates itself in a unique mode of conscious self-awareness.” Now, as I move electric fence on frozen ground or try to revive a calf dying from the cold, I feel he’s right all the more: we humans are here as the self-reflecting organ of the Earth, the part of her that sees the post-storm rainbow or grieves the road-killed raccoon—the part of her that notices herself noticing all she does and creates and is.

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  • Glenn McDonagh

    Living not far from Danthonia I was very interested in Johannes Meier’s comments. Very impressed by the depth and scope of their work. Here’s hoping many more farmers take up the challenge and for those of us not on the land, whether people of faith or not, the way of life espoused by Johannes, the open and humble approach to the natural world, is not only inspiring but increasingly essential. All the contributions were very informative, knowledgeable, accessible and ultimately optimistic. Very worthwhile.

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