Cain Kills Abel

[Cain, a crop farmer, kills his brother Abel, a shepherd.]

Are we intrinsically hostile to Mother Earth? Can we save her?

I was concerned going into my panel Saturday, “Return to Nature: Nonfiction,” at the Ohioana Book Festival. Although farming still brings many of its practitioners into intimate daily contact with the natural world, farming is now seen mostly as hostile to nature. A necessary evil, at best. Yet so much else seems grandfathered in its deleterious environmental effects! Am I being thin-skinned here? I can’t tell.

Gill and Richard, Ohioana 14

[Ohio University Press Director Gillian Berchowitz visits me at Ohioana Book Festival.]

As a former farmer and author of a book that portrays farming, I’m sure of one thing. Farming has become an exotic activity in America. People have heard too much to fully trust the mainstream, which engages in what’s become mysterious. But those seeking alternatives often seem lost. There they stand, looking at labels—pay extra for organic? what does grass-raised mean? are cage-free eggs better? And I’m among the uncertain: the man who knows too much. I know that organic farms are only as good as the farmers who run them. That such farms can be a sham, abuse the environment. And I fret about monster farms taking over the value-added organic market.

On balance, I’ve decided, a vote for organic-sustainable-pastoral-humane methods, the odd scammer among them notwithstanding, is a vote for a better system and will foster its emergence. Surely we’re all coming to know these things.

Such musing didn’t prepare me for my session with my lone fellow panelist (our third speaker was a no-show). A panel on nature and farming can mean anything. I was wondering about reading one of my rapturous landscape descriptions, when the moderator’s introduction turned me in a different direction.

I had yearned to farm, I heard myself saying, after my father’s loss of my boyhood farm. After my discovery as a teenager of Pleasant Valley and Malabar Farm, by Louis Bromfield, two of the most romantic (and nature-saturated) books ever written about agriculture. I spoke of landing in Appalachian Ohio, an ecologically abused region where 1970s hippie back-to-landers rooted and which was being touted as a pastoral Mecca by The Stockman Grassfarmer.

“I have a different view,” began Frank W. Porter, author of a lovely little book, Back to Eden: Landscaping with Native Plants.

Frank runs a nursery, Porterbrook Native Plants, in impoverished Meigs County, Ohio, which abuts where my book, Shepherd: A Memoir, is set, in Athens County. Since his book is coded Gardening / Native Plants / Eastern U.S. and mine is coded Nature and Animals / Horticulture / Memoir, they’ll probably be shelved near each other in bookstores.

Frank, who himself epitomized my just-expressed vision of southeastern Ohio’s alternative culture, said people there were as ignorant about plants as anyplace else. Fair enough. Does a tiny minority offset America’s juggernaut culture? Frank’s rebuke stung, all the same—I’m an avid planter of native species, and my father, in retirement, ran a successful native-plants nursery in Florida.

Below the simmering conflict I sensed between Frank and me may have been the issue of native plants and farming. Aside from farming’s presumed hostility to nature, it likes exotics. Just to name a few livestock species being raised in America which didn’t originate here: cattle, sheep, swine, chickens. Look out the window. Every blade of grass you see isn’t native: the South’s Bermuda grass came from Africa; Kentucky 31 fescue, which grows almost everywhere East of the Mississippi, came from Europe; ditto for Bluegrass—and dandelions and plantain.

Gene Logsdon-Man Who Created

[Gene Logsdon’s agrarian eco-fable.]

 And Frank, a Native American himself, has declared war on exotic species. Rip out your non-natives and plant natives, he urged; natives attract birds and butterflies, and neighbors seeing this transformation will ape you—changing whole neighborhoods. He reminded me of The Man Who Planted Trees, by Jean Giono, a sublime fable about reversing desertification. I might have told him that Gillian Berchowitz and I published, 13 years ago, under the imprint of Swallow Press, Gene Logsdon’s takeoff on that book, The Man Who Created Paradise, which is set in strip-mined southern Ohio landscapes.

In Shepherd I depict my sweaty, bloody efforts to clear multiflora rose thickets. I beat them back, on my land. The rampant Asian species, promoted in the 1940s by the U.S. Soil Conservation Agency and Louis Bromfield, cannot be eradicated, however. Probably no exotic species that successfully establishes can be wiped out. Right now, the Emerald Ash Borer, from Asia, is busy killing every ash tree in Ohio. And as I write, Asian stinkbugs are creeping around my living room’s crown molding over my head. My family knows my obsession with the fact that Florida’s Everglades are crawling with giant Asian and some African boa constrictors. They’re crossbreeding—not only exotics but a new hybrid species.

Farming as The Fall from innocence, from Eden.

But as a guilty former exotic-grass-growing farmer, I knew how deep Frank’s argument truly went. What he really was talking about. The Fall. Which is inescapably tied to Homo sapiens’ turn to agriculture some 10,000 years ago. Now, as the Bible has it, we dwell not in Eden, an effortless cornucopia, but must earn our bread “in the sweat of our faces.”

Daniel Quinn-Ishmael

[Farming as the Fall.]

With my “Green Thoughts” class this semester at Otterbein University, I read the visionary novel Ishmael—1.5 million copies in print!—in which author Daniel Quinn depicts a genius gorilla who explains this shift to a human pupil. With farming, Ishmael says, we became Takers, and began to destroy the Earth and its native peoples, the Leavers. It’s a powerful parable, right out of the Bible’s Book of Genesis in which crop farmer Cain, Adam and Eve’s firstborn, killed his brother Abel, the founding couple’s second-born, a wandering herder. Which means he was a shepherd. The first murderer, a tiller; the first murder victim, a gentle pastoralist. I find it fascinating, of course, that my ilk is Biblically portrayed as a compromise between Edenic hunter-gatherers and evil dirt farmers.

But farming, it must be said, fueled the risen glory of human civilization. And having grown our numbers so, hunting and gathering won’t quite cut it. Nor will pastures alone feed us. This is a tough nut to crack, folks. Ishmael may be right, but who ya gonna call?

While Frank exhorted our listeners to rip out their Butterfly Bush and plant the native version, maybe Butterfly Weed, and even to eschew even their beloved hostas, I thought of the idiocy of a local group that rips out invasive Japanese honeysuckle from the banks of nearby Alum Creek. This makes them feel virtuous and creates instant erosion problems. To their credit, they sometimes plant a few natives, dogwood and redbud and such, a few of which survive—in areas heavily trafficked by mowing, weed-whacking humans.

Plant natives, sure—but enjoy your hostas, I almost cried out. Take some pleasure in one of England’s largely benign gifts, the herbaceous perennial border.

“We have to do something about global warming,” is what I did say.

How mightily I trumped Frank—how easily that’s done in these matters—and he’s working more actively to solve this puzzle than I am. But climate change really is my current obsession, and it has been fueled by my recent reading. Our assault on Earth has led us to the here and now, to a place where we’re reaping our planet’s revenge.

Meantime, I bought Frank’s book. He signed it for me, “Go native!” He didn’t buy mine. But he did visit my booth at the end of the day and shake my hand.

[Coming Soon: Julene Bair’s memoir of romance and eco-tragedy on the High Plains.]


  • shirleyhs says:

    Yes, this is a tough nut. Listening to birdsong and looking at the native grass (I think!) meadow across the fence, it’s easy to imagine that farming is innocuous. But just a little above the sloping meadow, I see a half dozen long white buildings all housing chickens in confined spaces. I support local farmers, but I know that is only a drop in the bucket. We can’t go back to hunting and gathering, except perhaps as survivors after an apocalypse. No wonder we have so much dystopian fiction.

    Frank, shame on you. The least we can do is buy each others’ books when speaking together.

  • J.V. Wylie says:

    Richard, You are my shepherd guiding me through the jungle of this moral morass, and I shall not want. We all need more of your sanity, so keep it coming. -John

  • A very thoughtful and incisive essay, Richard. By the by, I believe Daniel Quinn has written at least one follow-up to “Ishmael.” It discusses the same kinds of concerns. It sounds like you have your hands full with defending territory, not only on Mother Earth, but from the gentle topic nudges of fellow writers as well. But I trust you to be competent, because having read you this long, I know that you evolve with each other mind you are exposed to, and that is much the best kind of mind to have, one which can include what it learns elsewhere when it next goes back to teach itself.

    • Richard says:

      Thanks so much, Victoria. The issues are rather gray to me. I may have to check on using another Quinn book for my next “Green Thoughts” class, though Ishmael was pretty successful in getting us to think. The gorilla is kind of . . . didactic, though, I must say.

  • Another wonderful, insightful essay.

    I think I’m prone to liking ideas and people whose experience is similar to mine and who then support my own conclusions.

    Your encounter with Frank reminds me of an encounter I had with Native American Poet Lance Henson at the Geraldine R. Dodge Festival in 1992. Ours was a bit more overtly contentious, or rather, Lance was–I was younger and on the verge of tears. But the festival organizers had done a really, really bad job of educating themselves about Native American and held the panel in a museum chock-full of stolen Indian artifacts, many from graves. They panel members were justly upset, arrived early to do a sage-burning ceremony, and appeared conspicuously to be the festival’s “token Indians.” I was finishing up a minor in Native American studies, and was more aware than the average citizen of what was not being talked about. Later, Lance shook my hand and signed my book, “In Peace.”

    Also, in Wisconsin I worked with the DNR and US Fish & Wildlife on the restoration project of the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly; tons of money and labor went into pulling out non-native invasive species, and most of our restoration resources are still being allocated to that never-ending, mostly futile effort.

    But, I can hardly think about that any more. 3 -1/2 years ago we went car-free– an increased effort to DO what we are capable of doing about climate change; and that, too, feels futile. Everyone here in Rhode Island is talking about gay marriage and bond-default debate (fiasco!) going on in the legislature, while every weekend thousands of people cruise the beaches. One person in a car, just driving around and driving around, to get a view of the bay or ocean. They don’t get out of their cars; few of them even park and turn off their engines for a minute or two.

    I struggle to maintain a sense of hope, but I couldn’t live without hope. There are people who are concerned, and hopefully we’ll figure out a way to work together for some good effect. I recently found this witty approach (by a creative writing professor at Brown, Kate Shapira); I’m going to be stopping by her “booth” this week, just to cheer her on!

    • Richard says:

      Thank you for your wise and generous response, Tracy. It is sad and hurtful when so many of us on the same side fight and disparage each other. As a card-carrying liberal, the liberal fault—being smarmy—especially pains me. Some of my fellow liberals do not just condescend to conservatives but to their own ilk, their fellow travels, other true believers. I guess I’ll take this over the conservative fault, being an asshole, but just barely. And I think people hate smarminess worse, because at least, with the other, it seems merely selfish and not also, necessarily, superior.

      I for one thank you for your reduced driving. One of the great things about living in town is that I walk to work and go all week without starting an engine. However, my neighbors’ lawn services ensure that the whine of leaf blowers, mowers, edgers, and who knows what else, now bedevils us at all hours! Ah, well. The crisis will get worse, and mass behavior, including driving, will change.

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