Friday, January 24, 2020

Lessons from the Land

Lessons From the Land

by Josh Svaty

I have the benefit of farming in the Smoky Hills of central Kansas, one of the more rugged regions of the state. Because it is part of the Dakota Sandstone formation, it is one of the few places in Kansas where you can find caves, Native American petroglyphs, and sixty foot bluffs along creeks. 
The regions rugged quality also serves to make it the ideal classroom for stewardship and the environment. Much of our pastures are what we call native prairie – an extant portion of the great American desert that has never been touched by the plow. The plant types, the animal species, and the lay of the land are generally the same as they have been for centuries. Juxtaposed to that are pockets of farmland carved out of more level areas along creeks, or sometimes heavily terraced into the sides of hills. 

In some cases, those landscape divisions get blurry. I have a property that is all pasture, but that wasnt always the case. About half the pasture is what we descriptively call go back,” which means it was farmed at one time and then returned to pasture. The previous owner of the property stopped farming it in 1967. 
To stand on this property, one of the highest spots in Ellsworth County, is to marvel that it was ever farmed in the first place. Its deep canyons cut steeply from the top of the hills. Its location on the west end of the county puts it even closer to John Wesley Powells famous Dry line” (the 100th Meridian), west of which rains become hard to depend on. Its unused terraces curving along hills are a legacy of an effort to keep the thin topsoil in place. 
At the base of one of those ravines is a marker that stands as a lesson for all of us. An old, unused line of stone fenceposts – stone because when the fence line was built there were no trees, and quarried stone served as the best option for pioneers – moves down the hill and into the valley, following the contour of the hill. These fenceposts generally stand three to four feet above the ground, with another three feet buried beneath. At over 500 pounds, they can be incredibly permanent. 
Except in this ravine they dont stand four feet out of the ground. At the bottom of the ravine there are several posts that stand less than twelve inches out of the ground, silted in and almost buried by the washing of the topsoil when the top of the hill was plowed and farmed decades ago. 
As I look at these posts, I think about the vast extent of time involved in Gods creation on this planet; the wildly brief portion of which humans as we know us have been a part; the infinitesimally small part of which we have been farming the Great Plains of central North America; and then finally the farmland on that property that is now back to pasture. I dont know exactly when it was first plowed, but probably in less than a half century – a mere nanosecond of time in our existence – we as humans opened those hills for farming and then figured out that plowing those hills was a big mistake. The damage was done. 
The posts stand as lessons in forgiveness and healing. The scale of lost topsoil is beyond what I will ever fix in my lifetime. The go-back” pasture, though perennial, does not and will never graze as well as the adjacent native pasture. The carbon and living elements in the soil and the mix of plants were altered for centuries in just a matter of years. One could say that compared to truly native pasture, the landscape has been ruined. 
Yet it has not been ruined. I applaud the farmer in the 1960s that made what was then an economic decision to stop what he was doing. Even though the mix of grasses he reseeded isnt perfect, over time it has become more diverse. Greater prairie chickens – a native species rapidly declining because of habitat loss – are in abundance on the property, with most leks in the areas that had at one time been farmed. The property is not entirely better, but it is getting better. Healing can happen. 
As Christians in a rapidly changing environment, we can struggle with how to fix what we see as environmental problems, how to pressure appropriate entities to provide the most impactful relief, and how to heal. The scale can seem staggering or even overwhelming – particularly when so many of us are disconnected from the land. Imperfect as it may be, my pasture full of buried stone posts gives us lessons on healing the landscape.  
First, when we know we are engaged in harmful behavior toward the environment, like the farmer who chose to take a field back to pasture in 1967, we need to stop what we are doing. Second, we need to try our very best at restoration, understanding that perfection and full restoration are not achievable. Third, landscapes can be healed by the same potent force that God commands us to extend to our neighbors: love. When we love a place, we take time to notice its details, to see damage that we have caused, to ponder ways in which we can mend it. Love requires time and investment. 
Not all of us are currently plowing fields that should have remained prairies. But we are all engaged in activities that we know on their face are damaging. We can stop. We can heal. We can love. And future generations will likely look back at us the same way I look at the early farmers that tried to adjust to their mistakes: they may shake their heads at our foolish decisions, but they will appreciate our efforts when we genuinely tried to fix problems in order to create a better future.   
I close with an argument against naming a single threat like climate change as the most important challenge facing us as a planet. I believe climate change, water quality, soil loss, species loss – they are all connected, and all stem from our rapid consumption and disregard of natural resources that began upon our expulsion from Eden. The Industrial Revolution may have sped the process, but these problems started long before 150 years ago. I love to remind friends that had we not had the oil and gas industry, we might not have any whales. Fossil fuels are not the original sin. 
What then, shall we go on consuming so that grace may abound? Of course not. As stewards of Gods creation we must do the best we can, with what we have, right now – secure in the knowledge that we serve a Providential God who has a plan for this planet and everything in it. That gives me hope, and as members of a faith community, can there be any better inspiration to do our best?

Josh Svaty and his wife Kimberly live in Ellsworth, KS, where they own and operate a diversified crop and livestock operation and where he manages his consulting company, Perennial Prairie.

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