I stand in the backyard before anyone else is awake. It’s just me and the big white dog, Allie.
My hands find the thick ruff of her neck, and she likes it. And I have the sense that there is no atmosphere and that there is nothing that stands between the heavens and us.
The rosaceous dawn light is slow to creep into the valley at this time of year. Venus shines brilliantly from the East. It is almost enough illumination to shadow the great dog and I when we venture out into the chill blanket of dark. In spite of it still being dark, I can see clearly where we walk, the horses grazing quietly in the still morning air, and the trees along the murmuring river. It’s the collective starlight from orbs millions of miles away that lights our path; light cast eons ago that finally alights on my trail this early morning in the quiet Pahsimeroi.
The cast of stars is always memorable at this time of year. The air is cold and the stars are sharp in the cloudless sky. I can pick out Andromeda, our galactic neighbor, with my naked eye. The bright and abundant stars make our valley atmosphere feel pristine, sheltered by the tall rings of mountains that seem to filter even the smoke from the fires that sadly continue to rage in California, and affect some of our friends there.
November is the month the quiet of winter steals in. One by one, songbirds have left. The cranes and their young launched one last unwieldy ascent and headed south. The elk bugling has ended. They continue on grazing the rich grass of the river bottoms, but no longer cry out with their fight provoking calls, staking claim over females, strutting their antlered frames with heads held high. Now, their heavily horned heads are pointed down, harvesting the grass laid down by the high sun of a mountain summer, putting on some fat after the breeding season but before winter.
All around me, the world is settling in for the cold.
For us, that means keeping the wood fire burning; a small film of smoke emanating from the stove curls and wends its way upward. We heat with the abundant wood that cloaks our mountains around the valley. From the millions of acres of green timber, there are hundreds of thousands that have succumbed to insect and disease epidemic: mountain pine beetle, Western spruce budworms, and Douglas-fir dwarf mistletoe. Burning wood does our little tiny part to remove fuel from a forest that is primed for wildfire after a century of Smokey the Bear fire suppression interrupted millennia of an elegant natural fire regime under which these ancient forests evolved. Although occasional big fires occurred, most of these historic fires were usually quiet, non-catastrophic understory fires that meandered through the forest floor. It was nature’s way of keeping the forests open and uncrowded.
But now, Western forests like these are in trouble, a tinderbox of dead and dying trees and understory fuels due to years of fire suppression.
So yes, by burning wood, we emit some carbon, but the carbon sequestered by grasslands regenerating on the 70 square miles that we graze easily makes that wrong right by locking in organic matter deep beneath the soil in an abundance of life.
It’s numbers. Math. These days, we often find ourselves considering the equation of carbon and life, and our roles in the balancing of it. It is now more important than ever to think on ecological terms in a global sense, and what our role as stewards of our landscape should be. We often feel very alone in agriculture, as commodity production ramps up to meet non-food manufacturing demands.
Soy ink. No longer tamari or tempeh, but ink. Ethanol from corn. No longer tortillas or cornbread, but fuel.
Caryl and I drove daughter Emily to several land-grant Universities over the week, checking out school possibilities for our graduate. On the way there, we observed tens of thousands of acres of beautiful dirt, plowed and disked, exposed to the elements for the winter, blowing dust in the dry Intermountain air. Much of it was rockless, unlike ours. My gardening wife was swooning. Deep bottomland soils from big meandering rivers and deposits of volcanic ash worked by soil organisms over centuries into rich deep soil.
All plowed, and ready for the following planting season. And dead.
Dead, because without plants on it, no life lives underneath. No life, and therefore no carbon stored in the ground. Organic matter- carbon pulled from the air by plants and integrated into the soil by soil organisms- volatilizes to the winds of winter. Many soil organisms like the fungi are destroyed through annual plowing. The following spring, amendments of chemical fertilizers would be added to replace the native biotic fertility that had been lost, further impacting soil organisms. Where there was once a grassland full of life above and below soil, now there is little life left in these expanses of tilled fields. The soil is dirt, because soil is alive, but dirt is dead.
It’s no wonder we have atmospheric carbon issues. Life is built with carbon, and there is none in the dirt. It is all swirling around us in the atmosphere.
But back to the Earth’s surface, and us, driving south on I-15, looking for university options for a daughter who wants to learn more than we can give her. When you bring a kid to college, she and you have to think about everything: is the campus safe? Where would she park her car? What is the living situation? What is she going to eat? The latter is actually quite a thing, I discovered.
Somehow, in my naïve way of thinking, I believed we had progressed from when I went to school in 1980. At that time, food was horrible. Food in the dining hall was mostly a carb fest only one up from microwaved ramen. Low quality proteins were surrounded with breading. There were pancakes, pastas and myriad other versions of bleached white enriched flour unapologetically covered with all forms of sugar. It’s no wonder my gut tripped out on me. I thought I had an ulcer or something (I probably did, akin to cattle too long corn in a feedlot—most do ulcerate eventually—but most die of slaughter before they succumb to gut tissue ulceration). Thankfully, I found out about other ways to eat early on in life. Friends taught me about the Mediterranean diet (although we didn’t call it that) when I lived off campus in inner city cheap housing. I joined a very early adopting food co-op as a working member. I rethought what my genome used to eat, and how my ancestors survived in northern Europe in prehistoric times. I started to eat those things instead of simple carbs.
I bought a rifle, and started hunting. I reintroduced wild game into my diet. It saved my life, I think. My gut began to heal.
Anyway, at each well-known university I visited with Emily, we were given meal tickets so we could try out their dining halls. Explore our gourmet chef prepared meals that provide for all dietary needs, they said. A balanced diet is critically important for student success, they said. And, we’ll provide all the fresh fruit they can eat (bowls of flavorless red delicious apples stood untouched, conspicuously placed throughout the food courts).
In fact, not only had nothing improved, it had actually gotten worse. The new trend in student dining is food courts, similar to what you see at your local mall. So now your college student can eat fast food every day. I was amazed. In this era of so-called food consciousness, I saw a perfect manifestation of the agriculture I had observed on the way to these colleges. There was synchronicity here: grow nutrient-poor crops on lifeless dirt so we can feed the future leaders, innovators of our culture, empty carbohydrates to rob them of the health and vitality needed to get the job done.
The dirt was dead, and so was the food.
And let’s train, indoctrinate, and program our students, despite what their parents may have done (and undo that), about how to make poor dietary choices that will influence their health negatively for life.
I enjoy irony, and here was a perfect case of it. Emily and I toured these brilliant campuses resplendent in the architectural prowess of mankind, with mirrored glass earth-friendly coatings and neo-gothic renaissance architectural beauty. Carefully coiffed floral displays and dandelion free lawns in quads complemented the concrete edifices- a campus environment that reflected the success of their students, alums, who made a place in the world, and made it better.
Then, on the other hand, with something as basic as food, we feed these kids akin to cattle in a feedlot or hogs in a confinement barn where animals are not fed for longevity and health but simply to get fat and soon die–as cheaply as possible.
Emily and I had trouble finding food fit for human consumption amongst the offerings. Huge lines formed around the carbo-courts: deep fried whatever on white bread in the form of puffy buns or pizza dough. Some of the college kids, perhaps through guilt put on them by a doting parental past or their own determined and desperate attempt to lose the “freshman 15,” packed plates of iceberg lettuce, food-colored orangish yellow cheese, flavored croutons and hydroponic tomatoes summited with a snowy and covering cap of Hidden Valley Ranch.
We finally settled on an ethnic area in the food court where we helped ourselves to basmati rice with buttered chicken and chick pea masala. There were no other takers. It was actually pretty good, we both stated. But, as Emily wisely pointed out, “I’m not sure I want to eat that every day.”
I think most of the students were like me at that age: healthy looking, at the prime of life, but gut dying a slow and often painful death inside.
It all comes down to biology.
Our culture raises plants on dead soils. We feed our bodies non-life sustaining foods in simple carbs and trans-fats that cause dead gut biota. We create a sort of hydroponic gut in us, needing supplements and anti-acids to survive.
Meanwhile we ruin the soil under our feet and the air we breathe. We foul the water with agricultural runoff filled with dirt and chemicals. And then we produce “food” that takes the ability of the future tenders of it all to turn this around by sabotaging their wellness.
I have a hard time writing these newsletters; I like telling nice stories (and we will get back to that next week). But I feel strongly that if people understood the connections between plants, and soil, and air, and animals, and us, they would make different choices.
Because we can, each of us.
And those collective choices about food and agriculture have a disproportionate effect on the wellness of our planet, and on our family’s wellness. The only way we can is to learn what our bodies really need—the foods our ancestors thrived on- and adopt those kinds of foods. And then train our kids how to prepare it (we spend a lot of time cooking in our home).
Certainly, it means greatly increasing our food budget (our family food budget is nearly 3 times the percentage of the average American’s). But the payoff is in wellness, and the wellness of our kids.
And even the wellness of our Earth. Because if we embraced the kinds of agriculture that provide real food, each one of us, one at a time, my grandkids may be able to keep walking around at night as I did early this morning—by starlight. And hopefully, your grandkids as well. I have two grandkids now; one is only 4 weeks old. And I want them to share in the good gifts of living on a living Earth.
And be grateful that they had grandparents who cared enough to invest in the future of their Earth.
Glenn, Caryl, Girls and Cowhands at Alderspring