Doing right by Mother Nature

In a spring that was late-arriving, we had to watch our robins muck their way through several snows. They didn’t look like they were having any fun. But as has happened every year for my 57 now, spring did in fact arrive.

And we got busy. I get absorbed with the work that needs to be done when the weather breaks. The world spins around me without my noticing anything besides field maps, seed labels, and planter settings. One of those days, I looked up and noticed, hey, the barn swallows are back.

They always surprise me a little; I don’t know if they are as regular as their cousins at Capistrano. I do know they come later in the spring, and that means summer is near. Our place is swallow-friendly. There’s an old granary and machine shed that are perfect for their mud-nests, and I always make sure they have a way in. Some farmers don’t like their messiness, but anyone who eats mosquitoes for a living is a friend of mine.

On summer evenings, dozens of swallows dart above our farm yard. Their aerial acrobatics are impressive to watch, mini-Blue Angels. More will join in once the first brood becomes teenagers. We have one overhead electric wire, and by September, there might be a couple hundred congregating on it.

I make the swallows welcome, but I don’t put them here. They come from nature. Most of what I see looking around does not. The lawn, the flowers, the trees, the chickens, the horses were all put here by Pam and me, or my forebears. Out beyond the yard, crops are sprouting from the seeds I put in their place.

Not much is unintended. Very little is, strictly speaking, “from nature:” a few weeds, the birds (mostly the sparrows we call sputzies), bugs, I suppose. It’s not quite like looking out your window and seeing streets and houses, but in a way it is nearly as “unnatural.” As a farmer, I work with Mother Nature. I just don’t let her make any of the decisions.

I love this farm. I’m rooted here. Corn plants are up, and from now till October, I will spend parts of every day in my fields. Corn is exciting to grow, watching it climb to the sun and then yielding its bright, neon-yellow ear. Soybeans are relatively frumpy, but I can appreciate them, too.

I enjoy what is here. But sometimes out on the tractor, going back and forth, I try to imagine what was here years ago, before the arrival of our European immigrant-ancestors. It would be understatement to say it looked different. Nature called all the shots then. Tall grass prairie, shallow sloughs, and seasonal potholes were where my tractor churns. An array of birds, frogs, and animals from shrews to bison spent their lives here.

Years ago, in a wet spring when low spots kept filling with water, a mallard hen made a nest right next to an intake. Much of our land would have been sloughs historically. That duck was likely a descendant of ducks that nested on that very spot. Then my dad clipped the nest with the field cultivator. I felt bad. But, then, seven million people on Earth need to eat. It’s part of the complicated trade-off we make with nature.

The barn swallows that I welcome back descend from swallows that nested in caves and hollows along the river. Like all God’s creatures, they’re opportunists, and they adapted quite nicely to the farm buildings that were built on every 160 acres. The swallows are lucky; most of the species that were here didn’t find a place in the new order.

There was change here before our people arrived. There always is. Species shift and move around, new ones intrude. But change would have been gradual, over large breadths of time. We’ve totally recreated this landscape in decades, a blink of an eye in the life of a planet.

Like modern cities that are built on top of ancient cities, we’ve built on top of what was here before. The wealth that has been created on this place is the result of the deep soils. And those soils were created by thousands and thousands of generations of prairie life dying into the earth.

Last year, we commemorated the 150th Anniversary of the U. S. Dakota War of 1862. Remembrances of that event have evolved through the years. Years ago, the Dakota men were considered “savages” who took part in a “massacre.” They were an enemy to punish, and whole tribes were forced onto reservations on marginal lands. Now we view the War in more complex terms. The Dakota people are honored and respected. We talk of reconciliation.

Perhaps our relationship with the native plants and animals that were here needs to evolve in a similar fashion, a sort of reconciliation. Our ancestors saw this as a wilderness. First the uplands were tamed by the plow. Then the sloughs were drained, and more land went under the plow. Like the people who were here, remnants of the prairie were forced to the margins. Line fences, rocky pastures, hard to drain sloughs, these became “reservations” where the prairie survived, barely. An incredibly complex ecosystem was neglected and almost forgotten.

It’s possible to imagine that we could have done righter by the native people that were here. It’s also possible to imagine that we could have done better by the living things that were here. If tracts of the prairies and sloughs had been left, it would have given us a reference point for the cultivation that followed. Maybe we might have found value in some of the plants. Maybe it would have just been good to walk through.

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