Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Changing Mindsets

What’s the difference between dirt and soil? Well, dirt is the stuff we wash out of our clothes. Soil is the loose surface layer of the earth’s crust in which plant roots develop. Quoting Ralph Inge, “All of nature is a conjugation of the verb ‘to eat.’” And, ultimately, the soil eats us all. We must learn to value our soil. All life is tied to the thin layer of topsoil covering the land. Soil chemistry determines whether civilization can be supported or not. Some civilizations apparently became extinct because they did not understand the importance of their soils. Lierre Keith, in her book “The Vegetarian Myth,” refers to topsoil as “fossil soil” to emphasize the fact that this precious resource takes millennia to form. According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, it takes 500 years to form an inch of topsoil. And like fossil fuel, we’re using it up at an unsustainable rate. According to the USDA, one-third of U.S. agricultural land is eroding faster than the sustainable rate. The “sustainable rate” is the acceptable rate of soil loss. There are no figures for the proportion on U.S. agricultural land where top soil is increasing. Perennial pastures improve soil structure and fertility and decrease erosion losses. Pastures build topsoil!

Take an apple and imagine that it represents the earth. Now cut it into quarters and discard three of them, since three quarters of the earth’s surface is covered by water. Now cut the remaining quarter in half. One of these sections represents desert, swamps, mountains, and the Arctic and Antarctic regions, so discard it. Slice the remaining section lengthwise into four equal parts. Now you have four 1/32nd sections of the apple. Discard three of them, as they represent areas of the world which have rocky soil too poor for any type of food production, are too wet for food production, or are urban areas. Carefully peel the remaining section. This small bit of peel represents all the soil which humans depend on for food production (Wyoming Agriculture in the Classroom, 2008).

But wait a minute! What about the grasslands which occupy 40% of the earth’s land surface (World Resources Institute)? “Crop production” and “food production” are NOT synonymous. This is the flawed mindset that agriculture means crop production and that farming means cropping. This mindset assumes that pasture-based livestock systems are less productive than cropping systems, and that pasture-based systems are less productive than confinement systems. These assumptions usually compare single-species pasture-based livestock systems on less productive soils with crop production on highly productive soils. Rarely are integrated, multiple species grazing systems considered, nor are these two philosophies compared on soils of equal productivity. The irony here is that this country’s most productive soils developed under the Midwest’s tall grass prairie. And the prairie was well managed by the Native Americans. But wait! Didn’t the Native Americans “live lightly on the land?” Once again, we’re confronted with a badly flawed worldview.

“When Lewis and Clark headed west … they were exploring not a wilderness but a vast pasture managed by and for Native Americans” (Lott, 2002).

Images of woodlands, unsullied by human presence, and of the Great Plains (or Prairie, in Canada) with its huge herds of bison (Bison bison) may come to mind when we think about pre-European North America. But this popular image of pre-Columbian North America as a pristine paradise is incorrect. When Europeans first arrived in North America, they found anything but a primeval landscape. Instead, they encountered a land significantly altered by humans through the use of fire, sophisticated agricultural techniques, mining, and road and mound building (Mann, 2006).

“At the time of Columbus the Western Hemisphere had been thoroughly painted with the human brush. Agriculture occurred in as much as two-thirds of what is now the continental United States, with large swathes of the Southwest terraced and irrigated. Among the maize fields in the Midwest and Southeast, mounds by the thousand stippled the land. The forests of the eastern seaboard had been peeled back from the coasts, which were now lined with farms. Salmon nets stretched across almost every ocean-bound stream in the Northwest. And almost everywhere there was Indian fire.” (Mann, 2006)

From fire created and maintained prairies and managed forests, to earthworks and settlements, the American landscape by the time of European contact had already endured thousands of years of modification by large Native American populations. The pristine wilderness view, to a large extent, is the invention of 19th-century romantic and primitivist writers like Henry David Thoreau and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Denevan, 1992). The reality is that the impact of native peoples was nearly ubiquitous, even in areas with comparatively sparse Indian populations. Many scholars now believe there were more than 90 million inhabitants of the New World when Christopher Columbus first set sail for the Indies (Denevan, 1996).

The climate responsible for the eastward extension of the tall grass prairies disappeared thousands of years ago, but manmade fires preserved it in areas such as southern Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and parts of Ohio by halting the process of ecological succession which would have resulted in these areas becoming dominated by trees as the natural climax vegetation (Williams, 1989). Further east, forest management with fire produced an environment that benefited wildlife and humans. The effectiveness of these practices is demonstrated by the observations that bison (Bison bison) once roamed along the east coast from New York to Georgia (Mann, 2006) and that elk (Cervus canadensis) have been observed in every continental state except Florida (Manning, 1997). “When Lewis and Clark headed west … they were exploring not a wilderness but a vast pasture managed by and for Native Americans” (Lott, 2002).

Bison grazing in the Tallgrass Prairie Nature Preserve, Osage County, Oklahoma
The popular misconception of pre-European North America as a “wilderness” reflects a lack of understanding of pre-Columbian North American conditions and practices, and a modern environmentalist ethic (Mann, 2006). “The post-Columbian abundance of bison,” was largely due to “Eurasian diseases that decreased [Indian] hunting,” according to Valerius Geist, a bison researcher at the University of Calgary (Geist, 1998). The huge herds of bison that were described by early European settlers were a symptom of the destruction of the human-animal-environment system that the Native Americans had operated for centuries before European contact, rather than an example of the “natural”, undisturbed grassland-wildlife system. Thus, the massive, thundering herds were pathological, something that the land had not seen before and was unlikely to see again (Geist, 1998, Mann, 2006). The prehistoric human imprint on the North American landscape was masked by the decimation of Native American populations as a result of exposure to Old World diseases, for which they had no immunities.

Charles C. Mann, in his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, writes:

“When the newcomers [European settlers] moved west, they were preceded by a wave of disease and then a wave of ecological disturbance. The former crested with fearsome rapidity; the latter sometimes took more than a century to tamp down, and it was followed by many aftershocks. “The virgin forest was not encountered in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” wrote historian Stephen Pyne, “it was invented in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.” Far from destroying pristine wilderness, that is, Europeans bloodily created it.

“By 1800 the hemisphere was thick with artificial wilderness. If “forest primeval” means woodland unsullied by the human presence, Denevan has written, there was much more of it in the nineteenth century than in the seventeenth.

“The product of demographic calamity, the newly created wilderness was indeed beautiful. But it was built on Indian graves and every bit as much a ruin as the temples of the Maya.”

Despite the horrible pestilences of the 15th through 18th centuries, the physical health and condition of the plains-dwelling Native Americans were far more robust than those of their contemporary Europeans in the 19th century. Explorers who first contacted the Kiowa and other bison-dependent nations documented that the diet of these people was almost exclusively meat-based. Observations made during the 1830s recorded that it was rare to find a male of the Cheyenne tribe less than six feet (183 cm) tall, while among the Osage people in the Kansas area few were less than six feet tall, and some were seven feet (213 cm) tall (Catlin, 1844). In addition, there was no evidence of the chronic diseases already observed in European populations (Taubes, 2008).

The European settlers suffered from their own flawed mindsets. They referred to the Great Plains as the Great American Desert, because of its lack of trees. This reflected the European farming mindset typical of the 18th and 19th centuries (Manning, 2007). They failed to recognize the value of grassland and its true potential, as well as its unique requirements. Governmental policies and the settlers’ farming practices were ill-suited to the Great Plains. Areas of natural grassland, the result of an interaction between climate, topology, soil, plant, grazing animals, and man-made fire, were plowed out for crop production. The topsoil, our nation’s greatest natural resource, was no longer protected (and increased) by a protective layer of an adapted perennial plant community. When the next drought occurred, as they periodically do in that region, the catastrophe known as then dust bowl began. Top soil was lost at a phenomenal rate. By 1934, The Yearbook of Agriculture announced that “100 million acres have lost all or most of their topsoil, another 125 million acres are about to and 35 million acres cannot grow crops of any kind.”

"The ultimate meaning of the dust storms of the 1930s was that America as a whole, not just the plains, was badly out of balance with its natural environment. Unbounded optimism about the future, careless disregard of nature’s limits and uncertainties, uncritical faith in Providence, devotion to self-aggrandizement - all these were national as well as regional characteristics." Robert Worster

I recently attended the 11th Annual Oregon State University Extension Small Farms Conference. There were many young people among the six hundred people attending. I find this exciting and encouraging, since the average age of this nations farmers, a steady decreasing group, has been increasing for many years. The future of agriculture in this country depends upon young people taking up the calling of producing food for those who don’t. I learned a lot and met a number of interesting folks. It is critical, I believe, that these young farmers understand that grass farming is the agricultural model for the 21st century.
Breaking Prairie Sod, Camrose, Alberta, 1900
from this website 
"The Last of the Virgin Sod"
by Rudolph Ruste

We broke today on the homestead
The last of the virgin sod,
And a haunting feeling oppressed me
That we’d marred a work of God.

A fragrance rose from the furrow,
A fragrance both fresh and old:
It was fresh with the dew of morning,
Yet aged with time untold.

The creak of leather and clevis,
The rip of the coulter blade,
And we wreck what God with the labor
Of a million years had made.

I thought, while laying the last land,
Of the tropical sun and rains,
Of the jungles, glaciers and oceans
Which had helped to make these plains.

Of monsters, horrid and fearful,
Which reigned in the land we plow,
And it seemed to me so presumptuous
Of man to claim it now.

So when, today on the homestead,
We finished the virgin sod,
Is it strange I almost regretted
To have marred that work of God?


Catlin, G. 1844. Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians, London. Republished in 1973 by Dover Publications, Inc. New York, NY.

Denevan, W.M. 1996. Carl Sauer and Native American Population Size. Geographical Review 86:385-97.

Denevan, W.M. 1992. The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 82:369-85.

Geist, V. 1998. Buffalo Nation: History and Legend of the North American Bison. Stillwater, MN: Voyager Press.

Keith, Lierre. 2009. The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability. Crescent City, CA: Flashpoint Press.

Lott, D.F. 2002. American Bison: A Natural History. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Mann, Charles C. 2006. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. New York: Vintage.

Manning, Richard. 1997. Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics and Promise of the American Prairie. New York: Penguin.

Pyne, S. 1982. Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Stanturf, J. 2009. Use of Fire by Native Americans.The Southern Forest Resource Assessment Summary Report. Southern Research Station, USDA Forest Service.http://www.srs.fs.fed.us/sustain/report/fire/fire-06.htm. Retrieved 25 January, 2011.

Taubes, Gary. 2008. Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease. New York: Anchor Books.

USGS. 2006. Regional Trends of Biological Resources – Grasslands.Prairie Past and Present. Fig. 2. http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/habitat/grlands/pastpres.htm. Retrieved 27 January, 2011.

Williams, G. W. 2002. “Are There Any ‘Natural’ Plant Communities?” in Wilderness and Political Ecology: Aboriginal Influences and the Original State of Nature, in C. E. Kay and R. T. Simmons, eds. Salt Lake City, UP: University of Utah Press. 2002, 179-214.

Williams, M. 1989. Americans and Their Forests: A Historical Geography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

World Resources Institute. “Grassland extent and change.” Washington, DC http://www.wri.org/publication/content/8269. Retrieved 15 March, 2011.

Wyoming Agriculture in the Classroom. 2008. “The Earth as an Apple: Wyoming Science, Social Studies, & Mathematics.” http://www.wyomingagclassroom.org/. Retieved 15 March, 2011.


  1. Brilliant and enlightening. Thank you!

  2. You're welcome, TheodoreJ. Thank you for your kind words.