on the road

on the road

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Conversation with the Land

Wendell Berry is one of my favorite authors.  As a poet, a novelist, an essayist - and a farmer - he writes about things that interest me - and in a way that makes me think more deeply about my own agrarian efforts.  For Christmas this year, my wife gave me a copy of his 2015 collection of essays, Our Only World.  As I read his essay about sustainable forestry last night, I was struck by the thought that farming and ranching (and forestry) - done well - are conversations with the land.  Good farming and ranching requires a dialog with the land - a give-and-take discussion.

This conversation requires us (ranchers and the land) to develop a common vocabulary.  The grass, the trees, the soil, the animals (wild and domestic) allow us to communicate with the land.  More importantly, these "words" allow the land to communicate with us (if we're willing to "listen").  For example, the variety and health of the plants in our pastures allow the land to tell me how I'm doing as a grazier.  The life in our soils tell me whether I'm paying attention to what's going on beneath the surface - whether we're cycling carbon and building organic matter.  The health and vigor of my sheep - and the health and vigor of the wildlife on our rangelands (including the predators) - communicate something about the quality of my management.

Developing this vocabulary requires thoughtful observation.  In several leadership courses I've taken, I've learned about the importance of active listening in effective communication.  Active listening involves hearing without focusing on our own responses.  Listening to the land takes more than my auditory senses - "listening" to the land requires all of my senses (sight, smell, taste, feel and hearing).  Paying attention - to the color of the water in our seasonal creeks, to the sound of the tree frogs singing after the stock ponds finally fill in the winter, to the hawks that hunt for rodents in our pastures after we move the sheep, to the weight of our lambs at weaning - allows us to understand whether our efforts are improving the health of our land.  Actively listening to the land requires me to be fully engaged.

I find that conversing with the land is largely a matter of my questions and the land's answers.  I might try something new (like herding our sheep through a stand of dead starthistle to aid in it's decomposition).  I like to think that I'm asking the land whether this approach will help improve the condition of the rangeland.  In listening for the answer, I find that I have to adjust my concept of time - I can't expect the land to answer immediately.  This is, perhaps, the greatest challenge in communicating with the land.  I probably won't get an answer from the land on the same day that I ask the question; indeed, I might not get an answer for months or years.  Humans communicate on a human-centric timescale; the land often communicates on a geologic timescale.

Sometimes, our questions of the land may be offensive - and the land surely tells us such if we're paying attention.  Sometimes the land can be offensive, too - even the most sensitive "listening" farmers and ranchers have suffered from the drought.  But "listening" - and responding to what we "hear" - makes all the difference, in my opinion.

The best farmers and ranchers I know are constantly listening - even if the answers are incomplete or confusing.  They try something (in other words, ask a question), wait for the answer (sometimes for years), and then adjust their management accordingly.  The best farmers and ranchers are comfortable with this uncertainty - and they understand that this conversation will last a lifetime (and probably longer).  As Jayber Crow, the title character in one of my favorite Wendell Berry novels, learns:
"You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers.  You will have to live them out - perhaps a little at a time."
"And how long is that going to take?"
 "I don't know.  As long as you live, perhaps." 
"That could be a long time."
"I will tell you a further mystery," he said. "It may take longer." 

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