becoming native

I was chatting with a professor in the department of Archaeology a couple weeks ago about the history of Indians in Wisconsin. She explained to me how she can analyze isotope ratios in bones and find out if those people were from the specific area in which the bones were found, or if they had migrated from another area. The bedrock underneath any place is composed of unique proportions of minerals relative to other places. Plants that grow in the soil above maintain that unique signature, as do the animals that eat those plants and the humans that eat the plants and animals. After living in a place for 5-10 years, your bones begin to reflect the chemistry of the underlying bedrock. Of course that requires that you’re eating mostly food grown in that place. This got me thinking about my own chemistry. I’ve been living in Madison for six years now. To what extent do my bones reflect the ecology of Four Lakes?

As a civilization, we are still colonial. Individually, culturally, and economically, we behave not as natives to the places we live, aware of the boundaries and limits of our communities and ecosystems, but instead as temporary residents, extracting and consuming our resources at maximum efficiency, ready to move to the next place when those resources become exhausted, or waiting for some new technology to substitute what we’ve squandered. Plants, animals, water, minerals, and metals are not viewed as limited components of our ecosystems, to be used for our benefit within the context of those ecosystems. Instead we pretend these are infinite resources to be consumed as quickly and efficiently as possible, irregardless of effects on local ecosystems. In fact, we have so thoroughly devastated our home ecosystems, that they no longer provide the goods and services – clean water, fertile soil, food, fiber, and fuel – we need to survive. We’ve replaced all of the ecological processes that once provided these necessities with industrial processes. Oil provides our subsistence now, not sunshine. So what happens when the oil runs dry? Unfortunately, there’s nowhere else to go. No more continents to ravage on this planet. Space travel to discover new planets to plunder is the ultimate colonialist pipe dream. If we want to transition toward sustainable human societies, we must connect to our planet and its ecosystems. This will require rethinking the way we grow, produce, distribute, and consume food, water, shelter, materials, and technology. Daunting. But there’s an easy way to start.

Eating is our most explicit and intimate connection with ecosystems.

The first step toward becoming native is to start eating foods grown in the places we live. The burgeoning local food movement is an excellent start. Buying vegetables from small organic farms at your local farmers market is a great way to support more sustainable agricultural systems and local economies. But vegetables, even for vegetarians, still represent a small fraction of our total caloric intake. Grains (corn and wheat) are often the most significant portion of our diets, consumed either directly in the form of bread, pasta, soft drinks, or any number of processed food-like items, or indirectly in the form of conventional meat and now, gasoline. And it is the farming of these grains that destroy our terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. So how can we begin to replace grains in our diet with more sustainable, local, and native foods?

Grains are annual plants. Weeds. Their evolutionary strategy is to find some disturbed soil, put down some shallow roots, grow quickly, produce many seeds, and then die, hoping a few seeds will find their way to a disturbed environment elsewhere. In non-agricultural environments, annual plants are generally followed in succession by perennial plants. Annual plants colonize a recently disturbed area, reproduce, and are followed by the long term establishment of perennial plants. These perennials literally put their roots down. They develop large underground root systems and develop mutualistic relationships with soil fungus and bacteria, insects, neighboring plants, and animals. They become permanent members of their ecosystem.  They become native.

There are two big lessons to learn from perennial plants. One is metaphorical. Most of us today live like annual plants. We don’t put roots down. We don’t work well with the other people, animals, plants and microbes around us. We compete. We’re obsessed with efficiency and growth. We’re weeds. If we’re going to stick around on this planet, we’re all going to need to start putting down roots and taking some lessons from the perennials.

The other lesson is practical. Eat perennials!  Start finding replacements for grains in your diet. It’s hard. There’s not much in the form of conventional food. But here in Wisconsin we’ve got a long-lasting legacy of perennial food crops. Trees and shrubs that grow nuts. Chestnuts, hazelnuts, hickory nuts, walnuts, and acorns. They are all more nutritious then corn, are abundantly produced with no fossil fuel inputs, and their presence on the landscape results in myriad ecological benefits. So why do we feed pigs corn when they could be eating acorns? Why cook with vegetable oil when you could cook with hazelnut oil? Why would you drive a car with petroleum when you could power it on chestnut oil? The nuts of perennial trees and shrubs were the staples of many pre-agricultural societies, and will once again be staples of post-industrial society.

Becoming native means putting roots down and cultivating landscapes of abundant food, wildlife, clean water, healthy living spaces, and vibrant communities. It means developing trusting mutualistic relationships with not only the people around us, but the animals, plants, and insects too. Leopold was right. He concludes that the land ethic:

“simply enlarges the boundaries of community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land. This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love and obligation for the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love?“*

Do you love the soil? 60 years after A Sand County Almanac we’re still watching Wisconsin’s fertile glacial soils wash into the Gulf of Mexico causing a massive dead zone.

Do you love the waters? There are no safe rivers or lakes in the corn belt. How much atrazine is OK in your drinking water?

Do you love the plants? Animals? Any idea how many have gone extinct? How many can you recognize? Does it matter?

We are still living as visitors. As expropriators. As colonists. As weeds.

It’s time to put down roots. It’s time to love where we live. It’s time to become native.

* Leopold, A. A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press: 1949. 204