COLUMNS: Consulting the genius of the place

COLUMNS: Consulting the genius of the place

We must remember that mature grasslands invite fire as do some forests

The phrase “consulting the genius of the place” inspired the book by that title, by Wes Jackson, a geneticist now retired, latterly of the Land Institute in Kansas.

When I saw the title, I had to read this book. I did not know at the time that the phrase was coined by the poet Alexander Pope, in 1731.

Throughout Western history, writers have often dwelt on nature as something to be revered or something to be dominated.

The prevailing thought now amongst considerate writers and scientists is that Mother Nature is to be respected, and perhaps consulted, to ensure that time tested “knowledge or ways” inform what we do to Her and with Her.

If one wants to read more in depth about what western writers have said about nature, try the ‘sometimes tough’ read, of “the Art of Loading Brush” by Wendell Berry, 2017.

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Loading brush harkens back to the days when brush cut from fence lines and pastures should be placed in neat piles for placing on a wagon later. Today we would probably use a front-end loader or an excavator with a brush rake.

The point of the story is that people who have lived their lives looking after a place (a small farm or woodlot), find that today’s land managers are in a hurry and have lost the art and skills of simpler technology (hand cutting of brush and hauling with horse and wagon).

How did nature create the fertile prairie soils which have given us the “breadbasket” of farmland which feeds so many of us?

The simple answer is that the native prairie plant and animal communities saw a high organic matter (stored carbon) content evolve over the many thousands of years after the last ice age.

But exploitative (non-sustainable) farming practices, have resulted in much lower organic matter—used up in farming by annually growing crops.

The good news is that the original organic content can be restored by growing the natural plants over a relatively short time period—four years or so.

Knowing what I have just written here and not being supported by the research university where he was employed,inspired Wes Jackson to start the Land Institute which I have followed over the years since the 1970s.

Jackson and his associates undertook a brave set of experiments. I believe at the time the Russians were also doing far out research on this same topic: creating perennial grains to make it unnecessary to cultivate the land every year to grow as we do now the annual grains in order to feed people and livestock.

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The last I heard the Land Institute felt they could have commercial yields in about another 10 years of plant breeding. Currently they produce about 1,300 plus pounds to the acre, somewhat less than present optimum commercial yields.

They are interested in having perennial crops which are also biodiverse, in other words, several types of grains and plants that could be harvested and separated as necessary.

This is where you can see pictures and read more: https://landinstitute.org/our-work/perennial-crops

Now, why is this important? Is nature really the embodiment of genius? I think it is worth a try to mimic nature in our land management systems, especially in those that have been somewhat degraded and which we want to rebalance.

As we struggle to restore the land that has been burned, we must remember that mature grasslands invite fire as do some forests.

Observing how plants and animals have evolved to suit the land around us can give us pause to plan and manage so as to work with nature , not against Her. To fight Her means we lose.

This idea is an underpinning of the now popular regenerative agriculture movement.

David Zirnhelt is a rancher and member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association. He is also chair of the Advisory Committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching Program at TRU.


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