What the hell am I doing here?
It must have been 120 degrees—hotter, actually, since heat was also blasting upward from the volcanic rock all around me in the Sonoran desert north of Phoenix. It had been a record-setting week in the city, with the kind of unforgiving heat that softens the asphalt of parking lots and runway tarmacs, canceling flights. Normally I didn’t mind. I was eighteen and indestructible. This day, however, was different. The desert, an outdoor furnace covered with moonlike fragments of black rock, was without shade except for the thin relief offered by a handful of saguaro cactuses. Needing a break, my three companions and I quickly ran to the sparse stand of those stately monarchs, squeezing our bodies into their shadows. We didn’t have a choice; we were miles from our truck and had a job to do.
It was the early Eighties, and my second summer working on an archaeological survey run by Arizona State University. Its purpose was outwardly scientific: to discover and record archaeological sites to better understand the prehistoric people who had lived there. But in reality, our work was political. Phoenix’s economy, sustained by epic amounts of air conditioning, was beginning to boom. Homes, schools and businesses were springing up like weeds after a spring rain. Raised on the edge of the expanding city, I had a front-row seat as cement flowed endlessly in all directions. However, there was one limitation to Phoenix’s heedless addiction to growth: water. For civic leaders, the solution was obvious—new dams. Taller, wider and deeper than existing ones. Previously, engineers would have been hired and bulldozers dispatched to accomplish their vision of progress. By the Eighties, however, federal law required cultural and biological surveys to be conducted before the bulldozers leveled everything, which is where ASU came in. Its job was to inventory the past before it was lost forever to the rising waters of new dams, and also to help civic leaders choose the best site for the new dam. My job was to hike, make maps, collect artifacts and camp in the desert.
Over the course of surveying the basins of five potential dam sites, ASU’s crews discovered a variety of prehistoric ruins, large and small, but none as intriguing as a little field house we found on that broiling July day. At first glance, the structure was unimpressive. A square of shaped stones, it measured two meters by two meters and stood only one rock high—hardly discernible in the rocky moonscape. Standing there, I frowned at the little house. What was it doing here? Such structures were usually associated with agricultural fields, serving as stores for harvested crops, but where were the fields? The land was sand and rock. Prehistoric food included corn, beans and squash, and archaeologists called the technique used to raise them “dry farming,” which is a literal description. Farmers relied on rainwater to grow crops, and when the rains failed, as they often did in the arid Southwest, people suffered. Yet prehistoric farmers were opportunists. They grew food wherever they could, even in places considered marginal by desert standards. My crew discovered field houses in surprising places, including on steep slopes, but none as merciless as this moonscape. It spoke of human ingenuity, and desperation for sustenance.
This was a revelation to me, a suburban boy who had no idea where his food came from other than grocery stores and fast-food restaurants. Ranching? Farming? The survey was the beginning of my education in the deep link between land and survival. As we worked, the law of the desert for prehistoric inhabitants became clear: cultivate the land or perish. It was a law as old as agriculture, and probably even older. For millennia, humans have been in a dynamic, productive and codependent relationship with the earth for our sustenance, both nutritionally and spiritually. Success or failure is a mix of farming skill and natural caprice (the whim of gods or summer storms). That solitary field house sitting among the sun-blasted rocks spoke viscerally to a fundamental human attitude toward the earth: we need it to nourish us.
When I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the early Nineties, the image of that little field house remained in my mind as I became involved in the conservation movement. Alarmed in 1994 by the recent Republican Revolution and soon-to-be House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s declared intention to roll back 25 years of critical environmental legislation, I started volunteering for the Sierra Club and was quickly recruited as a foot soldier for the local chapter. While much of Gingrich’s anti-environmental agenda was successfully blocked in Congress, due in part to nationwide protests, I saw a different sort of trouble brewing at home. At the time, conservation work was dominated by open conflict between environmentalists and loggers, miners and ranchers over the use of public land in the West. Headlines around the region regularly featured disturbing news: effigies of forest activists hanging from street lamps; road-building equipment disabled in the dead of night; federal property attacked by anonymous assailants; hiking trails booby-trapped with explosives; trees spiked with large nails to prevent their harvest; endangered species threatened by a rural campaign of “shoot, shovel and shut up”; and public meetings dissolving into shouting matches. Two popular bumper stickers reflected the tenor of the times: “Cattle Free in ’93!” and “Cattle Galore in ’94!”
I was a conservationist, which supposedly put me on one side of this fight, yet the conflict had the hallmarks of tragedy. Both sides, and all of us in between, seemed destined to lose what we all valued: the health and diversity of the West’s open spaces. The hardheadedness of this fight also reflected other divides in the nation—the red and blue split that would soon engulf our national politics.
In particular, I struggled to understand why my fellow activists kept proposing solutions to environmental problems that carried the maximum penalty for rural people. For example, a vigorous national campaign to prohibit all logging in national forests called “Zero Cut” was the proposed answer to forest mismanagement by the federal government and it fell hard on the struggling, largely Hispanic villages of northern New Mexico that relied on the forest for wood to heat their homes. Tensions quickly flared as villagers protested this assault on their culture. Activists persisted in their pursuit of a “leave-it-alone” philosophy toward nature, resulting in a pipe bomb being placed in the local mailbox of the most aggressive environmental organization. (It didn’t go off, thankfully.)
A remedy came from an unexpected source. At a statewide Sierra Club meeting in southern New Mexico, I saw a cowboy hat sitting on a table. It belonged to Jim Winder, who lived and ranched nearby. If that wasn’t surprise enough, I learned that Winder had accepted the invitation of the chair, Gwen Wardwell, to become a member of the executive committee. A rancher on the statewide executive committee of the Sierra Club? And a Republican to boot! What was going on here? Winder boasted that he was ranching in a new, ecologically conscious way. He bunched his cattle together into one herd and kept them on the move so that any particular patch of ground would be grazed only once a year, mimicking the manner in which bison covered the land. Also, Winder didn’t kill coyotes. He didn’t even mind wolves, because bunched-up cows can protect themselves. There was more: because he ranched for rangeland health, Winder got along well with government employees, he had more water in his streams, and, importantly, he was making money.
It sounded too good to be true. Curious about his approach, in early 1996 I joined a tour of the family ranch that Winder had organized for a small crowd of his fellow Sierra Clubbers. Among us was a vocal anti-grazing activist who tried to provoke our host into a confrontation. It didn’t work. Winder parried each attack with a patient explanation of ecological principles and a fine sense of humor. I soon learned there were other ranchers of Winder’s stripe across the West. Their work confirmed the appeal of what I saw on Winder’s ranch: thick grass, healthy riparian areas, young plants, wildlife, open space—all the things I said I wanted as a conservationist. Of course, I saw livestock too.
Acting on what I learned, Winder and I, along with another Sierra Club conservationist, founded the Quivira Coalition, a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to “sharing common-sense solutions to the rangeland conflict.” Our goal was to build a radical center among farmers, ranchers, agencies, scientists, conservationists and members of the public committed to progressive land-management practices that restore social and ecological health. Our guiding philosophy was that of the Kentucky farmer and author Wendell Berry, who wrote: “You can’t save the land apart from the people; to save either, you must save both.”
One of the main goals of the movement at the time was wilderness protection. Arguments advanced by activists were based on the 1964 Wilderness Act, which defined land dualistically: it was either “untrammeled” and “primeval” or it was not. Empty, unused land was considered to be “pristine” and activists wanted it to stay that way. I knew from my archaeological fieldwork, however, that our land wasn’t pristine at all. It had been occupied and used by indigenous people for thousands of years—at least until they were driven out of their homelands by the federal government, in many cases. The wilderness did look empty, but only because it had been forcibly emptied of people. These are working landscapes, I argued, both past and present, ecologically as well as socially. Ranchers had a place in the West too. This was the point the New Mexican villagers were also trying to make: culture matters. But whenever I raised these concerns, my fellow environmentalists would scoff. One even accused me in print of being “an archaeologist”—apparently a slur based on the fact that I took into consideration the cultural aspects of human-nature relationships.
Similarly, activists rarely talked about food production, except to criticize industrial agriculture or complain about livestock on public land. Positive, nurturing relationships between humans and the land that are centered on sustainable farming and ranching were almost never discussed, buried instead under noisy demands for more wilderness designation and greater wildlife protections. Lost in the antagonistic rhetoric that dominated the Nineties was any acknowledgement that land could be managed regeneratively, in ways that sustain humans and the natural world we all shared together.
Even as the organic-farming movement rapidly expanded and healthy food became widely available in natural grocery stores, restaurants and farmers’ markets, many conservationists maintained their campaign against agricultural use of the earth. Others simply stuck their fingers in their ears. This is where the image of the little field house among the hot rocks on that July day kept coming back to me—food doesn’t come from the grocery store, it originates on the land. And we need the land to feed us today as much as prehistoric farmers did. Either we can grow it on organic, regenerative farms and ranches, or we can continue to consume industrially produced food-like substances. Either way, as Wendell Berry once observed, “eating is an agricultural act.” This was a point that it seemed to me the conservation movement kept missing.
My work with Quivira led to another issue that made environmentalists uncomfortable: the earth needs us, too.
Our relationship to the land has too often been abusive, a fact driven home to me one day as I walked a small creek on a ranch in eastern New Mexico. I could tell the creek had been badly eroded by repeated flooding, but when I saw a barbed-wire fence with its original wooden posts stretched across the creek ten feet above my head, I knew something was seriously amiss. I asked a rancher about the fence, and he said the wooden posts had been in the ground in 1937! A huge amount of soil had washed away in only seventy years. The main culprit was historical overgrazing by livestock in the uplands, which stripped land of its grass cover, exposing soil to the erosive power of big storms. A few weeks later, I asked a soil expert with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, how much of New Mexico was in a similarly degraded condition. “Most of it,” he replied. The Rio Puerco, a significant waterway west of Albuquerque, was once called the region’s “breadbasket.” Today, it is a forty-foot-deep ditch along much of its length, a victim of ignorance and economic shortsightedness (the two principle reasons for land abuse, according to Berry). The great conservationist Aldo Leopold once declared the arid Southwest to be on a “hair-trigger” for erosion. If stewarded poorly, he warned, the health of the land would begin a downward spiral leading to all sorts of trouble. He was right. In fact, for much of the Southwest the trigger was pulled decades ago.
Fortunately, we can help turn this around. The toolbox for improving and restoring land health, nascent in Leopold’s day, has expanded dramatically in recent years. We know how to manage cattle holistically so native grasses can get reestablished and thrive; we know how to mend damaged creeks with carefully designed wooden structures that slow the flow of water and let riparian vegetation grow again; we know how to grow food regeneratively, building up carbon in the soil that was lost generations ago when topsoil washed away; and we know how to rebuild trust and work together for the common benefit of land and people. These aren’t new ideas. Leopold observed long ago that the tools we used to damage the land—the ax, plow, gun and cow—were the same ones that could be used to restore it. A hammer could be employed to build a house or to strike a person. Cattle, herded together and managed in ways that mimicked the behavior of wild herbivores such as bison, can be tools for regenerating the land. I saw it in practice over and over.
Today, despite headlines about widening political and social divides in America, the radical center continues to expand across the nation. It goes by many names now—collaborative conservation, regenerative agriculture, sustainable resource management, eco-agriculture, watershed stewardship—but the purpose is the same: restoring the ancient, co-relationship between people and land. In many places, it is being led by young people who are emboldened not only by ideas and practices “beta-tested” by their mentors, but also by ways of measuring and quantifying the results of their work that weren’t available twenty years ago. New technology, much of it handheld, can generate data to guide our approaches to food cultivation, ecological restoration and other forms of sustainable land management.
The sequestration of atmospheric carbon in soils, for example, which has the potential to reduce the effects of climate change, is a rapidly burgeoning area of work among a new generation of regenerative farmers and ranchers. Carbon makes its way into soil via photosynthesis, by which a plant takes in carbon dioxide through its leaves, separates the carbon molecules from the oxygen (to be released back into the air) and sends some of the carbon to its roots where it is exchanged for soil nutrients as part of a vast underground “barter” economy ruled by microbes. It’s a profound equation that can be summarized as healthier plants = deeper roots = increased carbon storage in the soil. Add water, sunlight and grazers (domestic livestock in agricultural systems) and you have the basics of the carbon cycle, critical to life on earth—and our collective future.
The environmental movement has changed with the times. Many activists now see the value of working landscapes both for the conservation of nature and sustainable agriculture, thanks to the efforts of collaborative environmental organizations across the country. At the same time, new environmental concerns, including climate change, necessitate new approaches. Promoting practices that build up carbon in the soil by nourishing microbes, for instance, is in all of our interests. We are in this together, more so now than ever. This is the reason that little field house entered my mind on that hot July day: the earth still nourishes us, and we can still nourish the earth.
Photo credit: Courtney White