A Savanna Life in a Technological World

Help. I’m too Closely Connected to My Land.

Help. I’m too Closely Connected to My Land.

In my ecological education, I have been the student, my mortgage the master. A hard, hard master. Many people in our society have a land relationship like a sexless marriage. No connection. Ships passing in the night. But what about those of us who have a different problem? What about those of us who have an unhealthy, dependent relationship with the land? Thus we start the next part in this occasional series, where I look at the important differences between agricultural life and hunter-gatherer life, as viewed from inside an agricultural life. In this segment, we will look at the agricultural (versus hunter-gatherer) land relationship. I have a life full of green grass, large animals, bird songs, in tune with the weather and the tides, etc. However, my relationship with the land is dramatically different from the one I read about in the anthropological literature. I will investigate this difference through the lens of the mortgage that we have to pay for our ranch. 

But first I have to answer the question, why have I not written a blog post for so long? It seems that when I have the most to say, I talk the least. Maybe that’s a more general pattern, I don’t know. So, we’ve gotten some stuff done this summer. First of all, important to this post, the mortgage got paid without incident. Also, we installed 20,000 feet of two-inch pipeline for cattle water. The NRCS rated it at 60 gallons per minute, which is I think a little high, but you get the point. We are going to have enough water. I did, like, 600 miles on foot at Cayetanna. We did a bunch of irrigating, mowed a bunch of pasture, did some corral modifications. Now we are busy putting in fence, Andrew and I. Hi Andrew. 

After Andrew leaves for the day, Abel-the-two-year-old and I go around on the four-wheeler ‘checking stuff.’ Eventually he starts to whine that he ‘wants to check grasses.’ That means we get off the four-wheeler, and sit down on the ground and he points to a plant and asks what kind it is and I say. For some reason, I love these moments. Land connection, right?

Where the pasture floods, plant biodiversity is very low, so this gets boring pretty fast, but he still likes to do it for some reason. Than he ends up making forts out of big clumps of grass. He says they are ‘squirrel houses.’ Or he picks full-fisted bouquets silver leaf. It’s been good to see the pasture with his fresh eyes. He loves Pacific silver leaf, a short composite with a yellow strawberry-like flower and a silvery underside. My visceral response to this plant is mostly negative. The cattle don’t eat it and it has a way of succeding even where I can crowd other unpalatable plants. I said that the mortgage has made me a better student of ecology. It has done that largely by making me pick sides. But this native forb is good for pollinators and birds, and the flowers make the pasture a lot nicer to look at.

My emotional response to Pacific silver leaf is a good place to start a discussion of how my land relationship is different from a hunter-gatherers. The anthropological evidence indicates that African hunter-gatherers since time immemorial would have responded to this plant with a shrug. Instead of having all my complex feelings, they would have simply moved off to somewhere where there were more grazing animals. Just as the grazing animals, encountering the silver leaf, would have shrugged and moved somewhere with less silver leaf. This worked extremely well. In the world that we all evolved in, affecting vegetation management was someone else’s job. It was the job of herbivores. Little ol’ humans had little power to change vegetation on a landscape level. You might as well ask them to move the sun and the moon. And with other ecological actors doing it for free, why even try?

I spend hundreds of pages talking about that in my book. So I won’t do that here. Instead, fast forward to my land relationship. When you have a ranch the idea of being able to just shrug your shoulders and pick up and leave seems so free and wonderful. It seems obvious to me that this is the ‘native’ human condition, that my psyche was built to do that and longs for that. But it also seems impossible. Easier to move the sun and the moon. I pay the mortgage on this land. I have no tenure on any other. Thats the only way it can work.

The reason for this is management. As soon as we start managing land, we have a very different outlook on it. We must start managing land when the ecological condition of that land starts to deteriorate to the extent that we have to mimic another species’ ecological impacts. Species now gone. Because we didn’t evolve to do it, management is hard. It leaves a bad taste in our mouth, a psychological residue. But, if we are going to improve the ecological condition of land, and/or make it capable of producing food, how else are we going to do it?

So, if you are going to manage, you have to be able to protect your ability to collect on your past management. It is possible for those on the political left to cite hunter-gatherers as evidence for the absurdity of private property rights. But as soon as anyone starts to manage, private property rights become essential. If you disagree, I would suggest that you probably aren’t managing land. Though essential in the modern world, it is so, so far from Eden, from the relationship millions of years of hunter-gatherer people had with the land.

Earlier agricultural people protected their past management with their lives. Talk about stressful. No one wants to go back to that. But having gone through everything necessary to pay this mortgage, I will if I have to. So you’d better really want my land if your going to try and take it. For the most part, in the United States, we have supplanted force of arms with a deed. A mortgage is a regular person’s means to a deed. A deed guarantees your right to collect on your previous management, encourages ‘good’ management (at least ‘productive’ management). A deed guarantees that the government will protect my past management, from thieves and usurpers  in this country and from invading armies, if necessary. It saves us from killing each other protecting and taking land. As it is, it will be at least twenty years before the stress induced heart attack kills me. That’s an improvement. Right?

So, while a mortgage is so, so far from our ancestoral relationship to the land, it is certainly better than a neolithic subsistence farmer’s relationship to the land. Maybe we could say that my land relationship is somewhere between those two things. And it is certainly better than land not being managed. Since our land is so degraded, if we are going to have food, than we need to have management. But in addition, if we are going to create healthy ecosystems we need management, and we need managers with skin in the game. 

This dynamic has had some earth shaking impacts on world history. Over evolutionary time, a casual relationship to the land worked great. Our world has changed so much. That is no longer an option. In recent history, hunter-gatherers that shrugged their shoulders and moved on when agricultural people took their land, eventually found themselves with nowhere left to go. So, the world has been inherited by cultures who ‘stood their ground.’

You can see how this would, over time, create some of the gargantuan problems of the modern world. Take Middle East peace, one of the stickier problems out there. This is where the political right goes over the top when it comes to land tenure. Isreal is home to perhaps the oldest continuously occupied agricultural settlement (Jericho). It is intertwined in the region where all the earliest agricultural settlements (and then empires) were located. Coincidence? The idea that I just layed out could easily be replaced with the neolithic idea that “God gave us this land.” Not super nuanced, but it instills the sense that there is nowhere to go, which effectively protects your past management. But this is very different from our ancestoral land relationship, and given twelve thousand years to fester, this ‘God given’ idea can become very difficult to shake. Like a mortgage. So mortgages aren’t great but at least it isn’t as bad as it used to be; God help us if everyone thinks that God gave them their land.

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