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Walking Through the Biotic Community

Posted on Saturday, May 20, 2006 at 06:21PM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , | Comments5 Comments

What did I think about while I waited for treatment in Corning? I thought about what Aldo Leopold called “the biotic community” in his most famous essay, “The Land Ethic”.

The “biotic community” is the community of animals, plants and people who share a given region of the Earth’s surface. Leopold had been concerned about human beings’ good citizenship in this community. The “land ethic”, as he’d enunciated it, is this:

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

I asked myself: What had I seen of the land ethic on my walk so far?

Well, the carnage I’d seen had at times seemed unbelievable.

On a single mile of highway along the Missouri River, I saw three separate deer carcasses, in various stages of decomposition. The oldest must have been winter kill.

Twice I saw an entire opossum family — Mom, Dad, and babies — flattened within a few yards of one another.

Raccoons, squirrels, skunks, birds, dogs, cats, bumblebees —

The bodies were just left there. There was never a skid mark, no sign whatsoever that the killer had slowed. The deer had been heaved off the side of the road to rot, as fallen boulders are heaved off the road in Colorado, without any sign of human feeling. Cars and trucks went roaring past as I stood over the small bodies; I heard their roar as the roar of a single great power that unites all cars and trucks, indeed all human industry, in one entity: a vast world-spanning beast bellowing its strength and its indifference.

The carnage had been the first thing that hit me on my walk. A few days into my journey, though, and it had ceased to be the only thing that weighed on me.

I mentioned the Loess Hills in an earlier posting; this is a range of hills paralleling the Missouri river on the Iowa side, running (if my memory serves) for a couple of hundred miles. They are several hundred feet high, and are unique in the Western hemisphere in being made entirely of loess, the dust of which dust storms are composed. They date back to a period in the Ice Ages when the center of North America was dried out and dust storms were quite frequent.

Loess erodes in rain or wind as easily as it blew in. The native Americans wisely left the Loess Hills tree-covered; but when the Europeans settlers came, they cut the trees and the hills started eroding catastrophically. In time, more enlightened tenants, encouraged by more enlightened governments, took up better practices, and the erosion slowed.

But erosion is far from stopped. When I walked over the Loess Hills I saw the streamwater below me running chocolate brown: the flesh of the hills washing fast away.

Past the Loess Hills, which I crossed my second day, I’d been traversing the dissected landscape of southwest Iowa. Here was once a pænaplain, a near-flat landscape sloping gently eastward from the Rockies down to the sea. Then came geologic uplift, raising the land high while still leaving it nearly flat, and the streams and rivers upon it began cutting down through it. Little remnants of the old pænaplain now form the highest ridges separating the streams; the irregularites of the long, south-trending ridges give the traveller the illusion that he is crossing rolling hills.

This too is highly erodible country, if not so much so as the Loess Hills. The slopes of the ridges are often steep, the soil soft; plowing exposes the vulnerable earth; when it rains the runoff cuts gullies into the bare hillsides, and away the topsoil goes. Gullies are everywhere. Parts of western Iowa have lost many, many feet of good soil this way in the last century and a half. There’s not that much topsoil to spare.

The farmers I’d guested with, as I’d crossed this landscape, had told me plowing is now mostly out of fashion; most farmers here have turned to low-till and no-till methods to keep the soil under vegetative cover and slow the erosion down.

The weak side of low-till and no-till, though, is that weeds that aren’t chopped up by tillage have to be controlled some other way, and thus the farmers pour on herbicides by the bucketful. And herbicides are nasty stuff. Human cancer rates are high. One farmer told me of animal species that have run scarce in his area lately — foxes, for example. Might herbicides be partly to blame? He’s wiser than to speculate. Certainly there’s much that just cannot be known. Anyway, it’s better than losing the topsoil and making a desert. But his own son has gone into organic farming.

And then there are the absentee farmers — people from cities outside Iowa who buy up the land here at a premium. They don’t get to know the land; they don’t learn to care about keeping it for generations to come; they only seek a good return on their investment. Theirs are the fields that will turn to desert first.

The native farmers here, unlike the absentees, generally work hard to try to inhabit the land rightly, and to be responsible members of the land community, while still making ends meet, paying the bills and the mortgages — very much as I am working hard to try to inhabit my body rightly while still covering the long miles to Virginia. Yet despite their good efforts, as despite mine, this land is still abraded as my feet and hips are; the gullies and muddy streams and missing species all are measures of it.

Doing the job right is not an easy thing.

And the condition of the fields held by absentee owners — like the thrum of the highway, and the dead creatures all along its banks — speak of the vast indifference of the world economy beyond, and the pressures that that economy imposes on the local situation.

The fact that so much of the problem is seated in the drivers willing to drive too fast, in the absentee owners willing to work the land too hard, in the elected officials willing to write policies that bleed the rural population white in order to enrich agribusinesses — all this needs to be taken into account.

I can’t believe it’s enough to do things right personally or locally, if that world-economy beast is not also tamed somehow. One of the things I suppose I am doing, not just on this walk but through my whole life, is wondering how the beast might be tamed.

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Reader Comments (5)

Marshall, I hope your hip situation will resolve itself soon. I found your description of “the roar of a single great power that unites all cars and trucks…” to be very eloquent.

-- comment posted by Ken Lawrence
May 20th, 2006 at 7:09 p.m.
Sep 2, 2006 at 02:03PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

Greetings Friend Marshall,

Thee is very much in my thoughts and prayers. I am saddened by thy report of the carnage along the highways. I too mourn the utter lack of acknowledgment and respect for our fellow inhabitants. I always tell them “i’m sorry” as I pass; it isn’t much, but it is true. And the dear land, the seed bed for life, so dependent our our care and we on it’s fertility. Tomorrow I will be reminding Fall Creek Friends that thee is on thy way. We shall be glad to meet thee and take care of thee for a while. And we hope to have some Friends to join thee for a part of thy journey. Be safe in Christ’s care. Diann Herzog

-- comment posted by Diann Herzog
May 20th, 2006 at 7:11 p.m.

Sep 2, 2006 at 02:03PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
Some thoughts to add (my last long(er) contribution did not “take” so I was discouraged ..but here goes another thought.)

The problem you posed put another way is the need to raise the consciousness of the whole world. Now the underlying nature of the world is holographic — every part contains the other. As you may know, if you shine a light through just a piece of a photographic holographic plate that is broken off, the whole image will form nonetheless. So it is with world consciousness.

From this comes the obvious corollary — as we change “just” ourselves, the whole universe is changed to a degree. And through expanding our own “intentions” we can accentuate our holograhic impact. So in summary, radically changing ourselves is something utterly crucial and world-shattering even if we can not perceive it. No action is ever lost, no word unheard, even in the desert. Onward with your journey however it unfolds. Every step changes the world.

-- comment posted by Steve Evans, http://sevansgsm-usa.com/
May 24th, 2006 at 12:29 a.m.
Sep 2, 2006 at 02:05PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
I keep leaving replies, but they do not show up .. here goes one more time:

You asked, “how to tame the beast.” I would suggest one answer can come from the recognition that the entire world is holographic. As we recall, break off any piece of a holographic plate and the whole image is still reproduced [albeit with less fidelity]. We are part of the holographic universe.

The corollary to this is that as we change but an iota, the entire Universe is changed. If we accentuate our change, the impact is greater. So every step is a change agent, and every word even uttered unheard in the desert is a force that reverberates through the Universe. How to tame the beast? Take one step forward. When able, repeat.

-- comment posted by Steve Evans, http://sevansgsm-usa.com/
May 24th, 2006 at 12:40 a.m.
Sep 2, 2006 at 02:06PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
Thank you, friends, for your positive words. It is helpful to me to know that my message has been well received.

Steve, your comments do show up. It’s just that this site is moderated, to prevent spam comments advertising Viagra and gambling and pederasty from appearing here. Since it is moderated, your comments don’t show up until I’ve had a chance to look at them, see that they’re not spam, and tell the site’s software to let them go through. Once I’m back on the road, this will mean that comments posted to this site may take a week or more to show up. When that is the case, Steve, friends everywhere, please be patient.

-- comment posted by Marshall
May 24th, 2006 at 7:59 a.m.
Sep 2, 2006 at 02:06PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

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