Monday, May 17, 2010

Hollowing out the Middle

Hollowing out the Middle: Causes and Consequences
Supper Club
Mike Dargan
April 20, 2010

The rural areas of the Midwest are losing population. Between 2000 and 2008, Iowa's rural counties declined by 4.2% while urban counties rose 8.5%. The state as a whole grew to just over 3 million for the first time, but our size and consequence relative the other United States continues to plummet. In 1930 Iowa boasted 11 seats in the U.S. Congress. We now have five. It appears that we will be down to 4 in 2012.

A disproportionate portion of this decline is occurring among young adults. The best and the brightest are packing up their childbearing potential and heading for the big cities, either in or out of the state. This phenomenon began with the transition from an agricultural to manufacturing society, and has been accelerating as we move from the industrial age to the information age.

Iowa is growing slowly, getting older, and losing political, economic, and social influence.

Frank and Debra Popper argued in their 1987 article, The Buffalo Commons as Regional Metaphor and Geographic Method, that rather than persisting in attempts to civilize the Great Plains--the primary result of which has been predictable boom and bust cycles, it would be wiser to restore the plaines to their natural state; in other words, let nature take its course. The Popper's metaphor was scorned by the plaines men and praised by environmentalists.

Twenty-three years later, the Poppers' figurative language is well on its way to becoming a literal reality: Nature is taking its course; the rural population of the Midwest and Great Plains continues to dwindle despite attempts to slow the trend. It appears that that the depopulation will continue. Adequate rainfall for crops on the Great Plaines is unreliable and the cost of irrigation is growing. In the Midwest, manufacturing jobs are rapidly evaporating. Communication is difficult in rural areas and the remaining population becomes ever more hostile to change as each generation grows older.

Sociologists Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas examine this issue in last year's non-fiction best seller, Hollowing out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America. The assertions, conclusions, and solutions of Carr and Kefalas provide the basis for this evening's talk.

Carr and Kefalas's study of Ellis (er, Sumner), Iowa was part of a larger research project: The Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, conceived by Frank Furstenburg and funded by the MacArthur Foundation. The initial project design called for interviews of young adults from metropolitan areas in the vicinity of New York, San Diego, Detroit, and Minneapolis/St. Paul, in an attempt to discover how they make decisions on education and occupations as well as where they're going to live, work, and raise families. Late in the design of the project, Furstenburg felt that young adults from non-metropolitan areas should also be examined; after all, they do account for about 20% of the population.


They decided that they wanted to study a town somewhere, out there, in the "middle." Not near to a big city, or ocean, but maybe in a "red" state; with lots of bible beaters! At first they were stumped. Their normal interaction with such states was limited to glimpses of itsy bitsy square patches under the clouds from 35,000 feet at 600 miles per hour. Luckily, they didn't have to break out the darts: One of the researchers, Carr, recalled meeting a small town Iowa native who was a fellow exchange student in Dublin, Ireland back in the 1980s. They decided that her town, Ellis, (Sumner) 15 miles from the nearest MacDonald's, 40 miles from WalMart, and 80 miles from Starbucks, would do just fine.

With their location settled, Carr and Kefalas set forth on their adventure to gather data about the natives that they would then subject to "qualitative" analysis. While they felt the need to be close to the townies, these gownies were not about to "go native." Carr and Kefalas, being associate professors armed with grant money, rented a house and got down to doing interviews.

After a series of interviews with local political leaders, educators, and the young people who had recently graduated, or should have graduated from Sumner High School, they divided the young adults into four categories:

The Achievers--those who are driven to succeed and are also praised for their talent and achievements. They get high ACT scores, earn prestigious college degrees, and must live elsewhere because Ellis doesn't have the infrastructure necessary to provide them with meaningful employment. They rarely return, except for visits. The city is very proud of its achievers and allocates substantial resources to support them. The very best go to the "Crown Jewels" of Iowa's Regents' Institutions: the University of Iowa or Iowa State University.

The less accomplished Achievers may attend one of many private colleges or a second tier university, such as the University of Northern Iowa or Upper Iowa University. In any case, only about 1 in 7 of Ellis's residents holds a bachelor's degree or better. Most likely they are school teachers or health care professionals. And, we all know that declining enrollment begets consolidation which provides even fewer opportunities for degreed professionals.

The result? A town with dwindling opportunities for college graduates pushes its best and brightest off to college and subsequent employment elsewhere.

Carr and Kefalas also identify the Stayers: those who think that Ellis is "good enough," and don't want to leave their homes and families. They see Ellis as a great place to raise children, but self limit their own economic and social potential by not acquiring the education necessary to be employable beyond factory and service sector jobs. Their narrow skill set leaves them one plant closure from economic and social disaster.

The Stayers are identified early on as less worthy of support by the larger community. They tend to have less access to the four-year schools. When they do attend colleges or universities, they are less likely to succeed. Often, they take advantage of the nearby community colleges where they may earn associate degrees that lead to careers as CNAs, dental hygienists, welders, or other trade-like occupations. Carr and Kefalas note the irony: Substantial community resources are devoted to supporting people who will go away and never come back. On the other hand, at best, the Stayers get meager educational support, and at worst, indifference from the community.

Yet another self-defeating aspect of the Stayer class is their tendency to pursue work while in school so that they might acquire symbols of adulthood: cars, motorcycles, guns, clothing, etc. The Stayers are often admired for their hard work and diligence, while the opportunity cost is ignored: Hours spent working in the convenience store, or at the feed mill, are hours not devoted to classwork and extra-curricular activities that could lead the Stayers to higher paying careers. The hard working Stayers may be first out of the gate, but the Achievers catch them at the turn and run away on the back stretch. The Achievers are clearly better able to defer immediate, superficial, gratification in anticipation of greater long term rewards. Stayers, on the other hand, are admired for self-limiting behavior.

When the Ellis school board and administrators were confronted with this assertion, rather than disagree, the high school principal replied that "that this is what we set out to do."

Next, are the Seekers--As Carr and Kefalas put it, "What the Seekers know, with the utmost certainty, is that they do not want to stay in the countryside all of their lives." Like achievers, the Seekers know that they want to get the hell out of Ellis. However, like the Stayers, Seekers have missed out on the educational opportunities that would make life on the outside viable.

As a result, the Seekers are easy prey for military recruiters. An 18 year-old high school senior, contemplating life as a waitress or a gut puller at the local slaughterhouse, is extremely vulnerable to trim, articulate, and well-dressed recruiters armed with videos and pamphlets promising excitement, travel, employment, money, and something that the community of Ellis has denied them: educational opportunites both during and after their hitch.

Next in the Carr/Kefalas taxonomy are the Returners: The Returners may be either Achievers or Seekers, but in either case, they are willing to forgo greater career opportunities elsewhere in exchange for the familiar comfort of living in their home town.

Examples of returners may include a few health care professionals, but there's a reason why 60% of Iowa's counties are short of doctors: It's hard to pay off a half million in student loans treating diabetic geezers on Medicare. Other returners might be people who can telecommute, but broadband Internet access is spotty in the hinterlands. Air travel opportunities are sparse. (On the other hand, Iowa's farm-to-market blacktops are a bicyclist's paradise!)

In any case, Achievers who choose to return typically forgo a higher standard of living, as well as urban amenities, for the familiarity of rural Iowa.

Some returners are female Seekers, wanting to marry high school sweethearts and raise families in their home town. However, those sweethearts are likely to be poorly skilled blue collar workers whose economic prospects grow dimmer with each passing year.

The primary purpose of the Carr and Kefalas's project was to describe the decision making processes of Sumner's youngsters. However, as Carr and Kefalas observed what was happening in Ellis, and realized that the town was emblematic of rural decline across rural America, they became horrified by the enormity of the implications of the demographic shift to an older, poorer, less well-educated, and less fertile population and were thus moved to write Hollowing out the Middle.

What difference does the rural brain-drain make? Why should we care? According to Carr and Kefalas's interviews with rural Iowans concerned about the decline of rural America, and seeking solutions, we should care because much of the nation's natural resources and the world's food comes from this region and this alone should be reason to devote resources to reversing the trend towards depopulation.


In fact, if we've learned anything from the past 100 years or so of agricultural progress, fewer people can grow more as mechanization and science supplant physical labor. For most individuals, moving to town means moving up in life.

Carr and Kefalas's research also yields claims by locals that alternative forms of energy and food production are waves of the future and that Midwestern farms are "ground zero" for rolling out the green economy and sustainable agriculture. Once again, a non-sequitur. Alternative forms of energy, especially biomass based, are not now, nor will they be in the future, economically viable solutions to either national energy needs or to rural depopulation. And, even if they were viable, neither solution will be based on masses of human labor. The economics of gathering biomass and transforming it into usable energy are problematic.


[mention the futility of bio-diesel and wind energy without huge subsidies]

Carr and Kefalas's subjects note that rural America has a "historical centrality" that is essential to the health of the nation, and that manufacturing might come back and if it does, "thousands of small towns could, with the right policies in place, once again thrum with success."

I don't think so.

During the industrial age, location and physical communications, like seaports, trains, canals, highways, mattered a lot. In the information age, adding value to data and moving it rapidly from place to place is what counts. High speed electronic communication allows us to effectively transcend time and space. Iowa, with its antique telecommunications infrastructure is lagging behind the nation in Internet access and future looks bleak. Don't believe me? Pull out your iPhone and look for your 3G access. Good luck!

Carr and Kefalas also claim that losing the Midwest would be as problematic as losing the South to rebellion in the mid 19th Century. As we approach the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, counter factual historians are not certain that the war was worth fighting. Before we sink vast treasure into saving those who will not help themselves, let's think it over.


Not satisfied with the arguments of the locals, Carr and Kefalas take a stab at explaining why national policy should be applied to save rural America. "[rural depopulation should be prevented] because we (Carr and Kefalas) believe that there are more than quaint postcard images of sepia-toned Main Streets at stake. We should care because the Heartland is the place that helps elect our Presidents--who would doubt the centrality of winning in Iowa for Barack Obama's campaign?--and it is the place that sends more than it's fair share of young men and women to fight for this country. The future of many towns that give the Heartland its shape and its sinews is of vital importance, and we believe that ignoring their hollowing out will be detrimental in the short and long terms."

I'm no better at counter factual history than I am at sociology, but who is to say that President Hillary Clinton wouldn't have been as good, or even better, than President Obama? Can we be certain that farm boys from Iowa make better cannon fodder than the boys from the ghettos or barrios? Maybe. Maybe not.

Carr and Kefalas do not share my indifference towards the end of the rural American culture. What they perceive as an oncoming disaster, I see as evolution. However, they see a problem and they want to fix it. Their solution? Small towns should take steps to foster the return of the creative class: Engineers, business owners, scientists, designers, artists, and, no doubt, sociologists. Making the Ellis's of the Midwest attractive to the creative class is easier said that done. Bike trails, fancy libraries, parks, latte bars, and DSL (seriously? Why not 4G?) are a start, but hardly enough to attract the critical mass of creative people necessary to sustain Ellis or any other small town.


Carr and Kefalas note that rural America is suffering from the effects of globalization. In order to survive, small towns must take steps to compete on a global scale. Obvious steps include getting rural America high speed Internet access and changing educational practices to exploit the possibilities of moving information long distances at high speed. In other words, human capital investment into the Stayers and Returners, namely bio-tech and digital, is the best bet for long term viability.

Maybe so, but recall that Ellis's high school principal was quite candid about where the resources were going: to the best and the brightest who would leave town at the earliest opportunity. Left unsaid was the huge disparity in resource allocation to different generations. Keeping a young person in a typical Iowa public school costs about $7-10,000 / year. When the elderly go on Social Security and Medicare, their actuarial burden on the government is estimated at around $25,000/year for the 17 or so years of remaining life. Any attempt to throttle growth in entitlement spending risks contact with the "third rail."

Meanwhile, we resent high property taxes to support schools and services to young people, who might actually derive some benefit for themselves and society.

If you drive down the main drag of Ellis you'll see a fabulous hospital, lovely, $6,000/month nursing homes, and schools that are starved of resources. What would Ellis look like if at birth, society were to allocate $25,000 a year toward that child's development through age 17? Would Ellis become a more attractive place for young parents?

We're getting what we're paying for: Vast numbers of elderly people consuming huge allocations of public treasure. Richard Lamm's suggestion that the elderly have "a duty to die" went too far and I'm not suggesting that we start bumping off geezers who seem to be circling the drain. However, if we pay people to grow old and dependent, why should we be amazed when that's what we do?

By the same token, if we ignore children in their developing years, why should we be amazed when they turn out badly?

If we do want to save Ellis from demographic oblivion, wouldn't it make some sense to expend the same effort on behalf of the dependent young as we do on the elderly?

I've said my piece, and I've asked asked my question. Now, it's your turn.


A "Tree View" Revisted: Loree Rackstraw

A “TREE VIEW” REVISITED:

SPECULATIONS ON THE FUTURE OF LIFE ON EARTH

Supper Club Speech

March 23, 2010

Pulitzer Prize winning author, Marilynne Robinson, recently observed that “Nothing could be more miraculous than that we have a consciousness that makes the world intelligible to us and we are moved by what is beautiful.”

I was moved by that statement, and found it interestingly parallel to the view of the late author Joseph Campbell, who wrote The Power of Myth. Campbell famously revealed that “myths are metaphors of spiritual potentiality in the human being… the same powers that animate our life animate the life of the world.”


This past summer I was invited by the organization called Humanities Iowa to discuss how Iowa had influenced my writing. That led me to focus on just what it is that animates my life and has helped make my world intelligible. I found it a rewarding effort I’d like to share with you tonight.


Since I’ve lived in Iowa most of my lifetime I began with my earliest memories, recalling my concerns as a five year old during the time of the Great Depression. I had moved with my parents to Forest City, Iowa, in 1935, where my father had a new job -- I think with a loan company -- which often required his absence from home. My mother’s pregnancy at that time was complicated by fragile health. Whenever I felt frightened or lonely, what always comforted me was playing outdoors in the sensory beauty of trees and birds and butterflies. Three plump goldfish lived in a little pond in our shady backyard. If I held bread crumbs near the pond’s surface, the fish nibbled from my fingers. They were my first friends in Forest City, a town so-named because of its plentiful wooded areas.

Once kindergarten began, I would pretend to read stories to my fish like my teacher did to our class. Our wonderfully kind teacher was Miss Fahr, who even let us children tell our own stories.


The first time it was my turn to tell a story in class, I told about my Native American grandfather who had taught me how to make a fishing boat. (I actually didn’t have any grandfather at all, but my dad had read me a story about how Indians made canoes by hollowing out a seasoned tree log with fire.) I had trouble making my Indian story credible until dear Miss Fahr rescued me with some kind of closure. I agonized several days of guilt after that, until she convinced me that making up stories was different from telling lies.

And as I think of it now, I realize the story I made up really might have been what I later learned from Joseph Campbell – about how myths can empower us. He said a myth is “a song of imagination inspired by the energies of the body.” I never did get over loving stories, whether they were true or only made up.


The more I think about ways Iowa’s natural environment inspired my young life, the more I realize how nature functions much like myths do, by giving meaning and purpose to the cultural and intellectual values that connect me to the world I inhabit, then as well as now.

After my new baby sister was born, my mom needed extra help, so by the time of second grade, we moved to Mason City to live with my grandmother. To get to my new school I had to walk several blocks along River Heights Drive, a street separated by dense woods from the limestone bluffs overlooking Willow Creek below.


I was the only new pupil in Garfield Elementary. My classmates teased me and definitely didn’t want me to walk home from school with them. So, I began walking home alone through the woods. I especially loved finding wild flowers to make a bouquet for my mom. By the time I was in third grade, my dad had a room built onto the back of my grandma’s house, where mom could live in a quiet, sunny place until she got well.


Those woods were my welcoming refuge. I created a path down to the Creek that ran under the wooden foot bridge spanning the water. Once down by the river, I could walk along its edge to a limestone cave I’d discovered. That shallow cave was a secret I never told anybody. I loved to watch the flowing water and daydream about ancient times when only wild animals lived here, or about early pioneers who built a mill downstream to grind up grain for making bread. Once I even found what looked like a bed in my cave that someone had built out of a pile of soft pine boughs. I pretended it had been made by a friendly Indian who was exploring the Creek in his dugout canoe.


More likely, the “bed” was an overnight resting place for one of the hoboes who sometimes rode in the box cars of the train that ran near my grandma’s house. (We called the train the “M and Saint L” for the Minneapolis and Saint Louis railroad.) Between the train tracks and my grandma’s house was an open field where a huge, gnarly old box elder tree grew. It was a great climbing tree and perfect for hiding.


On my tenth birthday, I got a bike of my own, so I could ride across the wooden foot bridge to the town’s beautiful new library built on the other side the Creek. Every Saturday afternoon, the Children’s Reading Room held a story hour where kids could sit on the semi-circle of window seats overlooking Creek and listen to a lady read stories. It was the most beautiful place I’d ever been. I even loved how it smelled, and I brought home new books to read up in my tree each week. I always felt safe there and nobody interrupted my stories. It was my most favorite reading place.


Several of the now-famous “Prairie School” homes and buildings were located near the Library in the Rock Glenn area across Willow Creek where my friend Doady lived. Doady’s mom was a beautiful opera singer, and her dad was a doctor who still had his old uniforms from the First World War.


Doady and I got to dress up in some of her dad’s old Army jackets to play WAR in the big grassy lot between my grandma’s house and the “M and Saint L” tracks. – and we could climb my big tree nearby to watch for pretend Nazi soldiers trying to blow up troop trains when they came through. I could always hide there if I was scared or lonely. Or I could pretend the tree was in a jungle where I was protected from “the Japs,” who had bombed Pearl Harbor and started the War. Sometimes my tree was a ship I steered from the captain’s lookout I built in the high fork of two big branches.


After I joined Girl Scouts, we pulled our coaster wagons through neighborhoods on weekends to help win the War by collecting cans of grease and pieces of foil and scrap metal to be recycled. In the summer I helped weed my Grandma’s “Victory garden” where we grew vegetables. After my mom started to feel better she and Grandma would seal boiling hot tomatoes and green beans and beets from the garden into glass jars, to save for eating later, when winter came. That way we could save our ration stamps for the things we couldn’t grow, like meat and butter.


Toward the end of World War Two, my dad had a house built for our family right in that big vacant lot next to my grandma’s house, and not far from my big box elder tree. I used leftover lumber scraps to build a shelf for my books and a sea captain’s helm for my fantasy sailing ventures. It was in that tree that I made my first attempts at writing stories just for fun.


And it was from that tree that I first spied the hoboes’ encampment a half- block away down the railroad tracks. I must have been in sixth grade when I first heard them one fall evening just before dusk. I could see the light of their campfire where they were cooking something and having great fun singing and laughing, even though they were poor homeless men. I knew about hoboes, because every time my grandma made doughnuts one would knock on her back door. My grandma called them “tramps,” but she gave them doughnuts anyway.


Grandma made cookies, too, and she even let me carry plates of them over to the railroad tracks when the troop train went through, so the soldiers could lean out the windows and take some. The soldiers were always hungry.


When I was in seventh grade, I had to ride my bike down Carolina Avenue across the railroad tracks to the Roosevelt Junior High School. I especially liked Miss Oliver’s Mythology class. We read about ancient gods and goddesses of the Greek people who lived even before Jesus. I knew about Jesus because I went to Sunday School at the Congregational Church where I had perfect attendance. But I liked mythology stories best, because they were a lot more interesting than Bible stories. By then my sister and I shared an upstairs bedroom in our new house, and I used to tell her some of those myths. Sometimes I even made up stories of my own.


So as a shy kid growing up in Iowa, I felt magically enfolded into the wooded neighborhood and natural heritage of my community, which strengthened my body and nourished my resourcefulness even as it stimulated my imagination and curiosity. In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, author Jonathan Haidt speaks of how the human mind is like a rider on an invisible elephant that empowers and drives one’s life. For me that elephant was the natural world – the fundamental base of life itself. It seemed like powerful magic to me and I never got bored by what the earth revealed.


I felt the same way about Iowa farms I visited with my dad when he became a John Deere dealer. Farmers in those days all practiced what we now call “sustainable farming.” I loved the sensory experience of new life budding out of those fields, from what seemed like an inexhaustible source.


Joseph Campbell said experiences like these are “Life stories,” what he called sustainable myths –natural cyclic powers that energize humans who themselves are participants in the same natural cycles. As a child I felt newly alive when new leaf buds appeared on seemingly dead branches after a long winter. I still do. AND as an ADULT I now know that forty percent of the world’s oxygen comes from our forests, which absorb deadly carbon dioxide and recycle it as life-giving oxygen. No wonder they made me feel alive.

But the problem, as we’re now realizing, is that dangerous imbalances in crucial cycles like these are increasing. Our whole world’s climate is being altered, largely by our increasing overuse and overpopulation of land without adequately sustaining soils and forests and rivers. And too many of us are transforming minerals extracted from the earth, like coal or oil, into fuel for heat and power. Forests replaced by concrete and cities cannot absorb the poisons which ensue and threaten the purity of air and water on which we all depend, to say nothing of climate stability.


I had the great opportunity this past fall to visit the Peruvian Amazon rainforest, a small part of worldwide forests like these that cover five percent of our planet, a total area about the size of our 48 United States. Here’s one of the things I learned: although these forests provide nearly half the world’s oxygen, more than 80 thousand acres of trees every day are now being destroyed by lumbering. I find that pretty shocking. And scary.


In a little more than a year I’ll be eighty years old. But as a somewhat fragile child growing up in Iowa, I was lucky enough to experience with some intimacy a part of the natural world whose life force and cyclic energies both comforted and empowered me. It was a gift of consciousness that made the natural world intuitively intelligible to my own childhood and still has a major influence on my intellectual and spiritual life. In the tenuous steps I made as a child, a student, a mother, and eventually a teacher and writer, I continue to be grateful for and strengthened by what I find beautiful and wise in nature, as well as in the human creative arts. I recognize the insignificant role I play in the vast and awesome universe I inhabit, but I’m inspired by how and what it continues to teach me. I only wish it were inspiring my grandchildren as much as their Ipods and Facebooks are.

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As a retiree, recently I’ve had the leisure to read some of the work of writers outside my discipline, including that of Janine Benyus, a biologist who shares this sense of nature’s wisdom, and has refined the ancient way of understanding and benefiting from the powers of nature into a new discipline she calls “BIOMIMICRY.” It is defined as


“The science and art of imitating Nature’s best biological ideas or nature’s wisdom, to solve human problems: like non-toxic adhesives inspired by geckos, energy efficient buildings modeled after termite mounds, and resistance free antibiotics invented by studying red seaweed. These are all examples of biomimicry happening today.”

Imitating nature’s ideas makes a whole lot of sense. Dr. Benyus has clarified Nature’s abundance of wisdom and processes from which we can learn: photosynthesis is one, along with natural selection, and self-sustaining ecosystems. Entrepreneurs are beginning to copy these natural designs as manufacturing processes to solve our own need to live in balance with the natural world. Innovation inspired by nature provides sustainable models for changing the way we grow food, make materials, harness energy, heal ourselves, store information and conduct business. We live on an intelligible Earth as well as a beautiful one.


But Dr. Benyus’ new science of biomimicry is doing more than just teaching us new ways to sustain our daily economies. It’s quite insistently clarifying our need to recalibrate the laws of humans to harmonize with the laws of nature to assure the future rights of human and all life in regard to what is obviously an evolving planetary climate change. This change can dramatically threaten the very Nature that fundamentally sustains us unless we undertake a significant paradigm shift to get our legal rules and guidelines re-aligned with environmental realities.


Nature’s laws are showing us that what is “good for us” can no longer be simply (or only) “profitable.” Instead, Nature provides imperative design guidelines such as: “How does it fit in?” “Will it last?” “Does it use only the energy it needs?” “Does it fit form to function?” and “Does it reward cooperation?” “Does it curb excess from within?” And perhaps most importantly, “Is it beautiful?”

By observing a healthy natural system, we learn that any properly scaled economy must allow a rich diversity of other creatures to thrive within it. But as Earth’s diversity is now eroding, it could soon smother the natural wellspring of good ideas, if not life itself. Some indisputable (and terrifying) facts warn us that: 95% of all virgin forest has been cut down in the last 200 years; 60% of all wetlands have been drained and filled; half of all native ecosystems are degraded to the point of endangerment. These are current facts. The human addiction to simply “growing the economy” is childishly and pitifully na├»ve given the inevitable consequences of imbalance and self-endangerment in what’s left of the natural world.


Predictions have it that under our present system, we will be doubling our population before we level off between 9 and 10 billion by mid-century. (presently: 6 billion 808 million) [U.S: almost 398 million]


Even so, if current rates of deforestation are maintained, only 10% of our forests will be left by 2050 (40 years from now). We depend on these existing natural patterns, but we’re only partially accommodating their complexity and diversity. Of crucial importance is that the only way to LEARN from nature is to both recognize and safeguard its naturalness – its complexity -- (both its and our own).

Unfortunately, here in Iowa, cash crop agriculture usually mimics industry, not nature. And the more we hybridize and shelter our annual crops, the more they depend on human care and lose their natural, inborn defense, which we mostly try to shore up with destructive pesticides and fertilizers, which in the end are inevitably DEnaturalizing .


This is why the prairie diversity of perennial agriculture being developed by Wes Jackson at his famous Land Institute in Kansas is so important. Perennial plants hold the soil against wind, and break the force of rain. They improve seed yield, re-establish growth without replanting, and increase yield. By contrast, a typical wheat field produces eight times more eroding run-off than Jackson’s prairie. And he has proved that diversity is also the cheapest form of pest control. Wes practices living off of nature’s wisdom: the best hedge against disaster is variety. It reduces competition for rain, increases yield, improves plant health, fights off disease naturally, contains invasions, and reduces erosion. Get this: Every component on Jackson’s land has multiple functions of shading, fertilizing and stabilizing, which all enhance its ability to adapt well to changes.


This is to suggest that learning from natural systems: “Biomimicry” can function as a new MYTHIC system to energize and sustain life, but also to give new meaning and purpose to the enterprise of modern agriculture. Dr. Benyus notes: “The more our world functions like the natural world, the more likely we are to endure on this home that is ours, but not ours alone.”

As I think back on it, I realize how my childhood in the woods and my tree helped sustain my rather fragile life as a child, and connected me with the powerful energy and regenerative intelligence of nature. In his book, The Living Universe, Duane Elgin says that “the entire universe is being continuously regenerated” and is “permeated and sustained by an unimaginably immense amount of flowing energy… [what he calls] the primary reality.” The energies of the universe and those of our bodies are the same. ALL of life depends fundamentally upon that energy, even though many of us are still out of synch with it, as dramatic changes in weather and climate continue to make their case. But our planet’s environmental realities dramatically reveal that only a recalibration of both values and laws can assure the natural regeneration of life on our planet. Climate change is real, even though not all our leaders take this as a serious priority.


Recalling my childhood has helped me understand it truly IS miraculous that we have a consciousness capable of perceiving the intelligibility of our world. And that we are “moved by what is beautiful.” NOW, more than anytime in my life, I believe it is crucially important for us to USE our miracle of consciousness to learn from the rich intelligibility of nature and help to sustain ITS life-enhancing wisdom. And beauty.

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Afterword: I live in a sort of forest of my own:

When my husband and I bought our house on Walnut Street in 1970, it had three big oaks on the property PLUS a huge old box elder tree like the one I grew up with/in. It was the oldest box elder tree in Iowa, may it rest in peace. Since then I have planted 13 more trees and several dozen high shrubs. (Alas, the box elder died naturally, probably aided by carpenter ants. But it served our children (AND ME) very well until then.)

finis