Regen-a-nation

This column and the prior one are a bit different than my more scientifically oriented blog entries.In general, I try to steer away from politics and sociological issues with this website. I post those types of thoughts elsewhere. But, at this time in my life, I’m really just trying to clear out some of the thoughts spinning around in my skull. So, I’m just sharing these thoughts for what they’re worth and in order to get some sleep.

Despite masters degrees in political science and economics from the University of Chicago, after my mother got pregnant with my oldest older sister, my father dropped out of law school at Northwestern and got a teaching certificate. He spent the next thirty years teaching American history at an all Black American high school on the West Side of Chicago. With his summers free, and my mother a fine artist, we usually took month or two long trips during the summer by car to different parts of North America.

The image above is a water color and pencil drawing by my mother from a trip we took to the Southwest including to New Mexico and Colorado. I think I was six or seven at that time. I recall visiting the Anasazi cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, and the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico. In one of the structures at this pueblo, I remember an elder telling me where he got the willow wood for the bow my parents bought for me from him. I ran around the rest of that summer with the bow imagining I was a great hunter shooting arrows at all the creatures I imagined. Later in life, as a minor in comparative religion, I took courses in both Eastern and First Nation religion comparing things like Taoist spirits and Hopi katsinim. This also led me later to incorporate a lot of Deep Ecological thinking into my matrix of beliefs, so not exactly an anthropocentric perspective.

I guess the point in sharing all of this is that I’ve always been fascinated and have always admired the culture, beliefs and paradigms of non-Western societies including those of indigenous people. Even my current unorthodox Christian beliefs borrow heavily from parallels between early Christian Gnosticism and Chan Buddhism.

More recently, I listened to a young member of a First Nation give a presentation at the Oxford Farming Conference. In an effort to reinforce this person’s identity, this person made specific claims and presented them as truths. I was a bit dubious. I also didn’t feel such reinforcement was necessary. The claims made during the presentation included horses never going extinct in North America, humans first came to North America 130,000 years ago, and that First Nation people managed bison to rebuild soil using fire in ways that were analogous to modern domesticated ruminant management. I had remembered some debate regarding these claims, so afterwards I decided to do some research to refresh my memory as to what all the debate was about.

This article, Pseudoarchaeological claims of Horses in the Americas, casts doubts on the first assertion. The article notes that the claims about horses not going extinct aren’t backed up by much besides embellished oral histories and dubious sources. (Yes, I know that discounting orals histories as legends is “ethnocentric science”. But then again many written Western traditions, including a lot of Judeo-Christianity, are overly literal interpretations of allegories that also don’t historically make much sense when looked at critically). This second article, Critics attack study that rewrote human arrival in Americas, points out the problems with the second assertion. The 130,000 year old date was based on fractures of mammoth bones presumably being made by some sort of hominin but no other evidence. As other archaeologists noted, there were other possible reasons for the fractures on these bones. And in regards to the third statement,  this third article, Native Americans managed the prairie for better bison hunts, cited research designed by the Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation. This research described how fires were used to attract bison to certain spots with new grass growth so the bison could be driven more easily over cliffs. As described in the book, Forgotten Fires, fire was also used to directly hunt bison, and to keep prairies from succeeding to forests as well as for a myriad of other things. But none of these uses of fire are directly analogous to grazing management strategies based on the biomimicry of herd/apex predator prey relationships like with holistic planned grazing. The soil science is also a bit different as well, but that’s a topic for a future blog post.

So, in other words, the “truths” presented in this person’s presentation were in reality hypothesis without a lot of supporting evidence.  With this in mind, I reached out to another presenter at this conference as follows:

“Your talk was great. Not sure how much of the rest of conference you’ve been listening to. Seems like there were a lot of other perspectives regarding indigenous practices. Though some of this seems to be based on new mythology. For example, the hypothesis that in North America horses weren’t reintroduced by Spaniards. This hypothesis from a dissertation of Yvette Collin is based on oral accounts and questionable sources.  Anyway, I’d be curious as to your perspective on some of these other perspectives. Am I off base and incorrect? Is there something I’m missing, some actual paleontological evidence for any of this? Is such new mythology problematic? It seems this new mythology is being promulgated by a lot of younger people trying to re-establish their cultural identities during a time when those identities are under assault in Trump’s Amerika.”

Now I’m not really at liberty to quote this presenter’s response. Though after acknowledging limited familiarity with beliefs emanating from people of color in the United States, this person instead offered some of the experiences this person learned working with other youth in this person’s own country, the UK. There, youth reconnected to ecology and rediscovered their own identities through mythologies but then also made further discoveries that further changed their youthful perspectives and beliefs.

This person’s observations about youth and becoming ecologically literate were great and very astute. But to me, in order to understand where some of these youth are coming from in the United States, one has to explore the historical and contemporary context in our country. Now I may be very wrong with the ideas posed in what follows, so these words are provided to instigate further constructive dialogue more than anything else. These words are not intended to be construed as definitive or conclusive.

With that preface and those caveats, let me venture forward……..hopefully not like a herd of bison off the edge of a cliff.

I’ve only spent a week in the UK, so I really don’t understand the racial dynamics there. But in the US, having grown up in Chicago, and spending a lot of time in other urban centers and communities, particularly Philadelphia and Los Angeles, I have some understanding of some of the racial dynamics in these communities as well as some of the social dynamics in rural places that my interest in regenerative agriculture, these past eight years, has taken me.  

And that’s the thing, regenerative Ag has exposed me to people from different backgrounds that under other circumstances I would have never met. Regenerative Ag isn’t just a set of practices, it’s both a noun and a verb. The purpose is to regenerate soil health as well as to regenerate human, community and planetary health. Does regenerative Ag borrow from the best practices of the past? Yes, most definitely, but it also combines that past wisdom with newly discovered soil and plant microbial science. So there’s an even greater understanding of the how and why in addition to the what. As for inclusivity, yes that’s an issue, particularly in the US. Being more inclusive needs to start with acknowledgment and gratitude for rediscovered indigenous knowledge. But note many people of color already use regenerative Ag practices, including regenerative grazing, in other places around the world like with these pastoral people in Africa as shown in the video below.

Plus contrary to some assertions, in the US, there are organizations like the Quivira Coalition, the Intertribal Agricultural Coalition, and HMI International that are all trying to make the regenerative Ag community much more inclusive. Though this isn’t easy in a country where systemic racism, as described below, is part of the historical formation of our nation and part of its psyche and thus structurally affects, consciously and unconsciously, many facets of our lives whether we like it or not. More specifically, structurally in regards to land ownership, as PastureMap’s founder and CEO Christine Su notes in the video just below, only three percent of land owned in the United States is owned by all people of color. Ninety-seven percent of all land owned in the United States, is owned by white Americans. (In regards to this video, I was there live for this event. Christine is a friend. She’s brilliant. This is a great discussion, so please take some time to give this panel’s discussion a listen. It’s well worth your time).

The US has always been morally a tale of two countries. On one hand, we glorify our ideals, and teach about “manifest destiny” in our sanitized high school U.S. history courses. But, on the other hand, we fail to acknowledge or atone for all the horrible actions and events in our country’s history, an history that ironically has made the “American dream” possible for many immigrants who came to the US, the land of opportunity, of their own choosing. Nowhere has the US glossed over and sanitized its history more than with Black Americans and First Nation people

Unlike other races and ethnicities, Black American’s ancestors didn’t come here of their own free will or to escape oppression. They didn’t come as family units. Instead they were forcibly brought here as chattel in the hulls of ships. Many millions died en route to the Americas crossing the Atlantic from Africa. When they got here, they were treated and bred like livestock. They also weren’t allowed to reestablished family units. As Cornell West once explained to me in response to a question I posed to him at a session of the Black Radical Congress back in 1998, the church became the extended family. Additionally female black slaves were frequently raped by slave owners who viewed black women as their property that they could do whatever they wanted to do with. Slavery also didn’t end with the Civil War. Many emancipated slaves post reconstruction were re-enslaved through a loop hole in the 13th Amendment that allowed for involuntary servitude. This led to convict leasing based on contrived charges that shaped perceptions of young Black American males as people to fear that persist until today. Plus convict leasing didn’t end until 1942, only to be later replaced with mass incarceration to fight a “war on drugs” with great disparity of sentencing based on the color of one’s skin and one’s economic status.

Note too, black slaves were brought here because early attempts to enslave the indigenous people weren’t successful. First Nation members knew the land too well and could easily escape back to their own people.

Though for First Nation members, any escape from enslavement provided only a temporary reprieve. Indigenous First Nation people were shortly thereafter exterminated through war and disease. Bounties were even placed on the scalps of First Nation children. Those that survived during the founding and expansion of the United States were forced off their ancestral land and relocated further and further west onto smaller and smaller pieces of land. But even then treaties and other promises were repeatedly broken. Plus later forced assimilation caused a lot of native wisdom, especially ecological wisdom, to be lost.  So as one of my contemporary heroes, Bryan Stevenson says in this clip below, the United States is a post genocide society. 

Such malevolent treatment of Black Americans and First Nation people, and then toward other people of color, was made possible by the prevailing belief that such people of color were less than human. Author and historian Ibram X. Kendi details these ingrained beliefs in the psyche of early explorers and colonists and then up through to present day attitudes of many Americans in his book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. If you want to better understand many of the beliefs that shape the United States, this book is must reading.

The United States has always had this contradictory duality between its lofty idealistic goals and its real untaught history. That duality has always been utilized by those in power to sow division since before this nation’s founding. For example, as detailed in Douglas Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Slavery by Another Name, in the South post reconstruction in the 1890’s when white coals miners went on strike, leased black convicts were used as replacement workers to break the strike. Rather than focus their rage at the white owners of the coal mining companies, the white strikers directed their rage toward the black convicts, who had zero control over how they were being used. 

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. summed up the situation eloquently when he stated, “Why is so much energy been spent on demonizing…black people. Why? To keep the people who are most exploited in this society, black [brown] and white from realizing that their best common interest, their best friend, is with the person who is equally exploited, but with just a different color of skin. And believe me, if they ever join hands and link up, there is going to be the biggest transformation in this society that we have ever had.” 

Many of my childhood heroes like Bobby Kennedy, Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr were assassinated because they challenged those in power. So the voices of unity have often been silenced, while the voices of hatred have been amplified most recently by people like Donald J. Trump.  Trump, these past four or five years, has allowed the United States’ most malignant side to come to the forefront. Trump has used racial stereotypes and fear mongering to pander to the fears and anxiety of his base of followers. Trump’s behavior, actions and words have emboldened racists and supremacists. Though that doesn’t mean all of the people who voted for Trump were racists. Far from it. People in rural and red states have different concerns that many urban liberals and people of color just don’t always understand. Unlike in urban centers, racial matters also aren’t always the primary concern or focus of rural and agrarian communities. Why? There simply isn’t anywhere near as much diversity outside of urban centers particularly in the fly over states.

So that’s the historical and contemporary context, where young people of non-dominant backgrounds find themselves in the United States today. The attitudes that Trump promotes actually put the lives of such young people of color in jeopardy. But rather then acquiesce, the counter response to this environment has been to rediscover, embrace and assert one’s identity.  This rediscovery of identity includes being acknowledged and appreciated for past contributions from subjected cultures. This includes acknowledgement for contributions that were or have been embraced and rebranded by the dominant prevailing culture without any respect for the cultures from which these contributions came. I get this. Such appropriation has occurred in many aspects of culture from dance, art, music, beliefs, and food. So agriculture is no different. What’s been appropriated also includes paradigms.

Such events often are frightening to the hegemonic power structure plus, in reaction, causes an identify crisis among young people of white European origin. Thus we end up with the Alt-right. As Newton’s third law of physics demonstrates, for every action, there’s an equal reaction. And for every reaction, there’s another reaction. Then it seems every subsequent set of actions and reactions becomes even more and more amped-up… often by opportunists in today’s world of social media trying to build up his or her respective personal brand.

Though, in this context, what worries me the most is that the pain and deep hurt from years of mistreatment then manifests itself as rage and anger. So instead of changing narratives, that may allow for healing and reconciliation to occur, more lines are defined and more walls are built. Such demarcation lines and walls then only further separate people more rigidly into modern day tribes that alienate potential allies. And again, in today’s social media environment, the most extreme or shocking opportunists emerge as leaders attracting the most ardent followers including and especially those who are the most zealous.

So what we need are bridges not walls. We need understanding not division. We need nuance rather than absolutism. We need acknowledgment and a deeper more honest education not new mythologies and alternative facts. Identity shouldn’t be based on anger or rejection of anyone who doesn’t accept a different dogmatic set of absolute assertions or beliefs. So again, for me, what I find so problematic about absolutism and mythology is that this becomes a new litmus test where anyone who doesn’t pass with an 100% score becomes an adversary. Obviously such tests repels potential allies. So rather than coalesce against entrenched interests (e.g. agro-chemical companies) trying to maintain the status quo, we’re divided in smaller more easily dismissed groups of reactionaries. So when we’re divided, these powerful interests win. And when powerful interests win, everyone’s health, the country’s health and the planet’s health are perpetually weakened as the natural world is further exploited for short sighted gains and many things we really don’t need so much of to survive and thrive. So there’s not much to be gained by forming circular firing squads. Though sadly it seems, when motivated by anger that emanates from deep hurt and pain, people too often tilt at the wrong windmills over and over…again and again.

Though when you regenerate soil and plant ecosystems to the point where inputs for fertility, and pest management are no longer necessary, you change the power structure because the products, including the bio-engineered seeds, being sold to farmers are also no longer necessary. Without these poisons poisoning our soils, and running off into our creeks and rivers, our food is much more nutrient dense and our water is cleaner. Consequently, our health and the planet’s health is drastically improved. Improved health means less money needs to be spent on healthcare. So this money saved can then be better spent rebuilding communities and infrastructure rather than on chronic care patients with diabetes, neuro-degenerative diseases or a long list of other modern day maladies. So, no regenerative Ag isn’t just another way to move cattle or another set of labels. Regenerative Ag is how you bring people together with the common goal to regenerate the very health of our nation for everyone, not just the top few percent, in order to make America truly great for everyone, not just great again for white folk.

Anyway, down from my soapbox again.

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