“What is the Grass?” the child asks, handing the white-bearded poet a gathered handful. Whose? the bard postulates to himself, choking on the word as it comes out. He fumbles through the handful of blades and notices some fescue and orchard grass along with a hint of Indian grass. He smells it and is himself once more a child, laying underneath the meadow that herself rested between the harbor and brickyard of Huntington. Wild mint, yes, I know this spot. Lost in youth, he is trying to buy time, knowing all too well it is not for sale.
Why are they called blades? his mind rambles. Why is something so simple, so common and so daily, at the same time so entirely complex? Looking down into the eyes of curiosity itself, Walt Whitman replies, “I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic” that “sprouts alike…among black folks as among white.” Hieroglyphic sprouts, yes, something natural that symbolizes equality, good job Whit. But the child says nothing, can say nothing. The year is 1855 and the child does not understand why Kansas is bleeding or why John is upset. And Whitman’s internal ramblings linger in his throat, himself unsatisfied with his answer. He is still laying in the meadow smelling the wild mint.
Poetry may be the marvel masked in the dailiness of the mundane—novel phrases constructed out of ordinary words—but, in this moment, America’s bard struggles to find any words at all. And so he dives deeper. Stumbling through the depths of life itself, Whitman sees it and is awarded a new language altogether. Peering into the child’s eyes, he claims, “[Grass is] the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” Grass of Graves—simply magical.
Whitman’s Song of Myself has been described as a true representation of his poetic vision, but it is Whitman’s simplicity that has always captivated me. Following his answer to the child, he continues:
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and from offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps,
And here you are the mothers’ laps.
The last line of this stanza is paralyzing. And here you are. Yes, the offspring that early were taken are here, here in the mothers’ laps—brilliantly magical. What Whitman achieves in a few words has taken modern science entire lifetimes to figure. Grass is not growth and it is neither vegetation nor nature’s solar panels. It is not the carbon sequestering mechanism that will save the world. Rather, it is the carbon and humanity and the world itself. Grass the is hair on the graves of the dead—our dead, nature’s dead, its own dead. In that way grass is also the ancestral legacy of regeneration itself.
Life lives on life, and what Whitman’s “cemetery meditation” is claiming is that death is not complete, but something completely necessary for growth. The web of life is the “uniform hieroglyphic”—the equality of all, the natural democracy of life—and its growth requires something we cannot produce or manufacture. Grass of Graves—in other words, the web of life is complete within itself and requires management, not control. You can spray pesticides on your fields, but to nurture death means to nurture life in all of its forms, not kill it. Pesticides kill; life nurtures. There is the difference and that difference is everything.
Wild like flowers. To be is to nourish, and death is a gift given and nothing more. It cannot be taken and it cannot be forced. This essay is about death and grass and equality and becoming the curiosity that is the child. It is an invitation to lay in the meadow and smell the wild mint. This essay is about hope.
Leave it to one of the greatest children’s novelists of the twentieth century to offer the ultimate critique of American life. While “half-pint Napoleons” argued that the foundation of American democracy was equality, Sterling North uprooted this notion and instead argued that freedom and its child, equality, are a derivative of the healthy functioning of all life. He argued, if “it takes a rich land to support a democracy,” then every time you see a dust cloud, or a muddy stream, a field scarred by erosion or a channel choked with silt, you are witnessing the passing of American democracy.
That is, North recognized that abundant human occupation is dependent on more than just freedom and equality, but also the free and equal functioning of the environment in which it acts. It is the natural rights of man written in Nature herself. Perhaps the natural rights of man exist only as a derivative of the rights of Nature, of creation, of life herself. We can have because she has first given. Either way it goes, it is clear that all of human action is anchored to the same lichen encrusted barge that transports the rural and distant occupation of agriculture to the principal bay of political and social affairs. Human function is free only if the whole of the ecosystem can function freely. Perhaps, knowing full well the mechanisms of man, North terminates his argument with a premonition. “The crop of Man can wither like any other.”
This transference of man as entity to man as crop is explosive, for it shifts the narrative from the rhetorical to the real. Walk out your front door and imagine a world without emeralds. Breathe the songs of spring but feel the enduring want of your lungs—that bottomless straining and pounding extinction of life. Spring without sparrows and leaves and songs is not spring at all but a day marked in the calendar that does not enthrall. It is death and graves without beautiful grass.
Wilderness is as distinctive in the American character as freedom and equality, argued Aldo Leopold, and, if North and Leopold are right, we are close to losing all of it. The “march of empire [is] a matter of gasoline and four-wheel brakes,” Leopold wrote in 1925, and, politics aside, all of modern culture is deeply imperial—agriculture not spared. If the wreckage of our wilderness—our wild places, our uncultivated seats—is also the forfeiture of our democratic life, then any question concerning the regeneration of wild places and wildness itself is a highly important one.
Isabella Tree defined rewilding as a return of nature to the farmed landscape. Her book, Wilding, sits on my desk and is a constant draw of inspiration and encouragement. But our farm’s interest in nature’s return—in rewilding—began during a winter blizzard and without us knowing that our decision had a definition—let alone a name or a book.
Standing outside in the snow and covered in freezing mud, Morgan and I tried to calm down our bull. Although he was alone in his paddock, the alluring smell of a herd in heat was in the air, and the storm wafted the smell of intimacy straight at this lonely testosterone-fueled engine. The winter’s grazing rotations had brought the main herd closer to his paddock than anyone was comfortable with, and just seven wires of high-tensile formed his only impediment. Our bull was my favorite in all the herd. Most days you could lay with him, scratch his nose, neck, and belly, and he would follow you around like a puppy. Menacing was simply not a word to describe him. During this blizzard, however, his head dropped, his ears flared, and his hooves paced in a frenzy. He was stressed and lonely; his testosterone was building but had no release—no real community. Bovines are herding animals and he had no herd. As farmers, we were angry and wet and cold and tired and decently scared. Our boots were stuck in the mud in such a way that, if he were to charge, there would be no escape. Yet, in the complexity of it all, we call this “natural farming.” Like any bit of this was natural.
Stressed and tired ourselves, we decided to move the main herd two days ahead in their paddock. This relocation would put the herd down-wind from our bull and over the hillside. It solved the symptoms of the blizzard but not the foundation of the disease. That came next.
Morgan and I spent the next few days thawing and researching. We thought about bringing some steers into the bull’s winter paddock—to keep him company—but all of our steers were young and still nursing. We considered bringing in our herd of dairy goats, but what would our goats eat in a frozen grassland? After considering a multitude of options and talking with a good number of much-smarter “regenerative” farmers than ourselves, Morgan and I decided something different altogether. Instead of trying to do something, we decided to not do anything at all. The next morning, we led our bull into the main herd’s paddock and shut the gate.
Our decision to embark on the rewilding journey was, in many ways far too real, an accident. We did not know if it would work; we did not know what our bull would do; we did not know the science behind it; we knew no one who let nature be; we had never heard the term, “rewilding;” and, after the word got out, we were mocked and ridiculed. “We have spent hundreds of years domesticating bovines for our purposes and you are ruining it!” blubbered one email. Another emailer called us “idle, lazy farmers!” Yes, Morgan said reading it, this person has got it!
The basis of rewilding is founded within the scientific understanding of epigenetics, which concentrates on the changing genetic expressions of living organisms given external climatic pressures. Understood in the human-to-animal context, epigenetics focuses on the genetic and behavioral interaction and adaptions between animals and their environment. This very holistic system seeks to uncover the relationship between a local species and its biosphere. Just as every farm differs in its biogeochemical sonata, so too differs the adapted genome of its domesticated livestock—or, undomesticated livestock—resulting in unique and ecologic-driven genomic expressions. If animals are the drivers of ecosystem succession, the energy propelling abundant biodiversity, and source of systems resilience, then the unhindered connection between the animal and its environment is the most important factor in ecosystem health.
In his book, The Call of the Reed Warbler, Charles Massy discusses biosphere driven genes in terms of a flock of Australian sheep that were fed “saltbush for the full term of their pregnancy.” After their term of exposure to a forage high in salt content, the study concluded that the lambs born demonstrated a “capacity to more efficiently excrete salt” from their forage. Additionally, their kidneys showed “clear changes in renal structure, which enabled this higher salt-excretion capacity.” In both form and function, the genetic expressions of these ewes had adapted to their environment and passed those adaptions to their lambs, although their DNA sequencing remained static. The lambs thrived in the same environment that tested the ewes because the pregnant ewes were allowed to test their environment. This is epigenetics in action, and this may be the most important factor in a changing world. Perhaps, it is the most important factor to change the world.
Historically, epigenetics has always flowed toward domestication and false environmental pressures. Conventional cattle management is intensive. You have your brood herd, your yearling heifer herd, and your stocker or bull herd. You then expand, contract, and combine these herds according to breeding calendars, market pressures, seasonal needs and lifestyle choices. For spring calving operations, summer means castration and early autumn means weaning. On to the next breeding cycle—drum of production’s dictum. If cows do not breed-back fast enough, they are culled, as though haste is a measurement for productivity. For some, winter means genetic testing, pregnancy checking, and breed registrating, as though the animal does not exist until it has a number in some online database.
But the foundation of regenerative agriculture is humility, and it is important to leave a space for context. Growth emerges out of being humble enough to stop and listen—to consider and observe the beautiful patterns of the natural world. Regenerative agriculture is about honing our senses and learning to listen and not about no-till drills and subsoilers and topographic maps—those are tools, not foundations. Its abundance arises from working within the natural world to enhance that world’s—our world’s—abundance altogether. Is man the subjugator of the wilderness or is he the subject of the wilderness’s aegis? The winter blizzard forced Morgan and I to stop—the observations came next.
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