RSR ~ ESSAYS
SOIL BUILDING/SOUL BUILDING
“She's going to die you know,” the hobo says matter of factly, motioning his cup towards the east, where she lives now. We hunker around a fire, jungled up in a rough clearing by the Burlington Northern main line. “That's the way it is!” he says for emphasis, steam from his coffee wrapping tendrils around rough beard and hard eyes. It’s a face I might have known from another more callously held life. The familiarity unsettles, and then awakens me.
The dream has stayed with me for days. The man at the fire somehow knew my sister Ginger struggled for life at the edges of death on the other side of my dreaming. “Got to go on living anyway,” he'd urged me, “Ain't nothing you can do to change matters.” Is the boundary really so thin between dream and waking? The span between what we normally consider disassociated grows infinitesimally small. I think about this intermingling of opposites, a boy who’d wandered thickly wooded Pennsylvania hill country now a man ranging this even Midwestern plain.
I'm poised at the edge of what used to be spacious grassland as if readying for a flight to freedom. Walt Whitman used grass as his metaphor for radical democracy. But Whitman had not traveled the Great Plains when he'd penned Leaves of Grass. Richard Manning points out that Whitman called for large scale forestry efforts to resolve “the tree problem” on the prairies he considered barren. But Manning contends that Whitman's earliest assertions remain closest to the truth. “I believe the grassland was where we destroyed democracy because of our inability to accept and understand freedom” he writes in Grasslands.[i]
My journey then conjures not just the pursuit of freedom but a stitching together of soil and soul with integrity. Species persisted on the vast grasslands of middle North America by virtue of their skill at movement as a means for surviving rapidly changing surface conditions. Shifting mosaics of wind, weather, climate and moisture selected plants that dug down deep in persistence or adapted rapidly in resilience to constant wind and periodic drought, fire, and ice. Those whose seed rode the wind, clung to the hides of migratory grazers, or stuck to the beaks or passed through the bellies of flitting songbirds became the most successful at colonizing the constantly changing plains.
With rainfall, temperature and other climatic gradients sometimes shifting hundreds of miles in a matter of years, animal species that could quickly shift territory and exploit new habitat were also selected for success.[ii] Humankind was born of the vast African savannahs. We are a species of the grassland, selected by our ability to adapt to rapidly changing and varied conditions, free because we are flexible. Yet we have always yearned for more.
Alchemists in the middle ages believed they could transform the primal substance of albumen into gold. By turning prairie soil into agricultural riches, one could argue that grasslands have fulfilled the alchemists dream. An alchemical fire ranges through every prairie stand, lent by the sun, rent by humankind in our attempt to borrow that fire as our own. To persist as a species in such places, we might need a reverse alchemical rendering, a co-mingling of soul with soil so that we inextricably belong to the prairie rather than only borrow against it. How do we begin to build more resilient bonds with a landscape we’ve so severely fragmented?
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A shoot of new bluestem pushes through the tangled mat of dead and desiccated overburden in a prairie. Chance suggests it might be eaten by some organism, beaten down by a hail storm, or consumed in a runaway wildfire before it can produce its robust head of seed. Perhaps there can be no consummation; the climax of harvest, the harvest of imagination, the imagining of new relationship, without exposed vulnerability. While deep roots sustain us through our vulnerable journey to fruition, without that tender reach into the perilous unknown, even our roots would eventually die for lack of sustenance. Less exposure in the calculus of relationship, we think, equals less pain, and so we hope by strategic retreat to become invulnerable to that unpleasant possibility. But grasslands do not spread this way, nor perhaps can we stretch into new romance, new communities, or new ideas.
There’s a kind of fullness that presents itself as emptiness. The mind, the heart, the skin can grow so satiated that they can’t take anything else in. In that overwhelm, we’re suspended in time and space, numbed to everything new that comes along – fullness turned inside out into emptiness. At their remote edges, things might sometimes turn themselves into their opposites. In such places, polarities may find coherence and coexistence. Humanity splintered the prairie’s integrity, but in the process of naming the rifts we also may become more capable of knitting it together – and ourselves along with it.
Somehow, my hobo dream, my sister's struggle through cancer, and my hopscotch journey through prairie remnants intertwine like some braided river sloping down to the Gulf. Indeed I must go on living, even if my sister fails to. What I discover from prairie paradox crisscrosses the borders between opposites, where death renews itself in life, solitude restores a sense of belonging, and my questions become perhaps their own answers.
As I stood earlier today at the edge of a central Iowa corn field, gazing west over miles of rattling stalks, while a river of grackles undulated from one stand of black locusts to another of sycamores, with the ululations of crickets and cicadas serenading soul and sounding the soil, I felt suffused with an unaccountable substance. Born of the grasslands a hundred thousand generations ago, gradients of fullness and emptiness, open and closed, deep and shallow, aloneness and belonging shifted constantly with the wind clattering through the corn. In such a way, I transcend polarity.
In many locales, the sublime soil has eroded to a shadow of its deeper self. Have prairie souls eroded as well? Skin of soil – skin of soul. The industrial plow tore through the skin of these soils, but also shredded the soul of this place.[iii] Commodity replaced diversity as the underlying ethos. There were freedoms lost when the sea of grass was stilled and drained. Perhaps the clear-cutting and commoditization of prairie land has also clear-cut and sold out our ideology, religious tolerance, grass-roots politics, and economic sustainability. Perhaps in restoring our relationship to prairie places, we need a soil worthy of the soul we desire.
If landscape processes form a kind of ecological consciousness, then can a place that loses more than 99 percent of its original integrity still claim to possess a mind of its own? And if the soil fundament of this region has been irrevocably changed, have the souls of the people who draw sustenance from it been inexorably altered as well? Here in this bread-basket of the nation, any of us that eat from the Midwest’s provender are implicated.
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[i] RichardManning, Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics and Promise of the American Prairie 9.
[ii] William H. Macleish, The Day before America: Changing the Nature of a Continent (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994) 32-55.
[iii] Edward H. Faulkner, Plowman's Folly (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1943). This was both literally and figuratively a "groundbreaking" work, published in the 40s, and exposing the environmental risk of destruction of soil integrity by over-zealous plowing.