Thinking big

The building has been there since 1900. It was home to different families including the Mercers after whom our road and the nearby creek were named. It was a café, a community center. It was a hardware store –- the iron beams of its scales still line our porch. Across from it was the two-story lumber yard. In later years, after it had closed business, people kept calling the complex “the lumber yard.” Ans and I renamed it, “The Old Lumberyard,” after we had torn down the ruins of the building and used all the boards that were still in good enough shape to build two new sheds, a patio, fences and big planters. We live in the old two-story hardware store. We made it into a wonderful home.

Before we showed up to renovate and beautify the building, it had a long and quite exciting history as a sort of hostel. It was the dépendance of Salina, Kansas based The Land Institute, “The country’s premier enclave of agricultural researchers seeking to mimic nature’s patterns,” from which its Matfield Green Project was managed. First Sara Miles, then Emily Hunter was its in-town coordinator, also serving morning coffee to the locals, and pizzas from its wood-fired bread and pizza oven. Emily is still around but nowadays lives in a lovely little cottage on the outskirts of town, and she is the executive director of The Symphony in the Flint Hills. This yearly phenomenon –-started in the 1990s by our buddy Jane Koger and revived and brought to maturity in the 2000s by our friends and present-day neighbors Phil and Kathy Miller, the unsung heroes– now attracts more than 6,000 people who sit far out in the grass and watch and listen to the Kansas City Symphony perform on a hot Saturday evening in June. To call it the Woodstock of classical music wouldn’t be right, for not only the sex, drugs and rock & roll are absent, so are the trash and the mud and the rain (so far, early summer deluges each time magically turned away from the Flint Hills concert locations). Each year, the orchestra invites a different guest performer. Last year it was Lyle Lovett who played along; in 2011 the actor Peter Coyote narrated ‘A Lincoln Portrait’. Sara and Emily also ran the “hostel.” At that time the house had five bedrooms and three bathrooms. Everyone has stayed there. The Land Institute attracted, or invited, scientists and young academics from all over the world. The philosopher and author Wendell Berry stayed in the house. ‘Biomimicry’ author Janine Benyus stayed here. Scholars such as Hans Jenny, Daniel Hillel, Don Worster and Bill Vitek stayed, as well as the agrarians Maury Telleen and Gene Logsdon. The protectors of wild ecosystems in Chile and Argentina, Doug and Kris Tompkins, came to Matfield Green. Ken Whealy, Seed Savers Exchange cofounder, came. Soil ecologist Jerry Glover, Jack Shoemaker of Counterpoint, philosopher Strachan Donelly, metallurgist Charles Washburn, geologist Ken Warren, and scores more, they all came. Environmentalist Bill Jones exchanged his first kiss with our dear friend and neighbor Elaine Shea, who would become his wife, on the landing above the stairs of the house. Elaine for years helped push and pull to keep the Matfield Green Project going. By chance, Ans and I, too, visited the lumber yard, in the mid-1990s, and again with my son Mizja and, at a different occasion, with friends Claudia and Andrew Sadler from Holland, who spent the night in one of the bedrooms, of which Ans and I last year took out the walls to create a large loft-studio – in fact, they slept where now my desk is.

During The Land Institute’s era, indeed hundreds of famous people came to stay in Matfield Green. They sought the company of Wes Jackson, Ph.D., “a large man with the metabolism of a hummingbird,” as someone described him. His main worksite may have been in Salinas, 90 minutes to the northwest, where he experimented to establish a new Natural Systems Agriculture, but Wes Jackson became also the man who set out to change Matfield Green. A now world-famous advocate for sustainable practices, organic agriculture, and environmental scientific understanding, Wes lectures nationwide as well as abroad. He has received many rewards including a Right Livelihood Award in 2000 and a MacArthur Fellowship in 1992, three years before Ans and I first showed up in the Flint Hills.

“Over a mere century of tilling the soils of North America,” wrote ecologist Jon Piper, “we have lost one third of its topsoil and up to 50 percent of the original fertility,” thanks to our fetish for production and our eagerness to turn a nature-based endeavor into a factory: the farm as machine. The farm as agribusiness is waging an escalating war of “crops and robbers,” with, as Janine Benyus wrote, the farms growing their crops “not so much in soil as in oil.” This disruption of a natural pattern, says botanist and genetecist Wes Jackson, is the definition of hubris. The soil has become as dependent on pesticides, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides as a junkie on his shot. Florida growers alone spray more than 360,000 kg of these chemicals every year.

Sweeping changes, that’s what Wes Jackson is aiming at. Sweeping changes in how we get our food. He can rightfully be called the leader of a movement, because for decades already he has taken it upon himself to speak for the land, to speak for the soil itself. His latest book, ‘Consulting the Genius of Place’, is an ecological approach to a new agriculture. It follows his ‘Becoming Native to This Place’, his ‘Meeting the Expectations of the Land’, and his ‘New Roots for Agriculture’, and is a manifesto toward a conceptual revolution as he asks us, “to look to natural ecosystems, or nature in general, as the measure against which we judge all of our agricultural practices.” Wes believes the time is right to “do away with annual monocultures of grains, which are vulnerable and partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs. Soil erosion and the poisons polluting our water and air –all associated with agriculture– foretell a population with its natural fertility greatly destroyed.”

Nature itself must lead us out of the mess we have made. Wes Jackson quotes Alexander Pope who, in 1731, coined the phrase that inspired the title of his latest book. Pope had great impact on English landscape gardening. “Any landscape architect who did not converse with the local genius would be castigated for his ignorance of ‘the genius of place’.” Pope was not thinking of agricultural landscapes. But Wes does: “Why not extend Pope’s ideas to the agricultural lands in our ecosphere? Let these ancient-beyond-memory ecosystems teach us how to be on earth.” For, the earth lives, doesn’t it?

For how long will the earth live if we continue to ravage the soil, the water and the air? Wes Jackson: “I don’t believe that humans can destroy the earth’s capacity for renewal. I do believe that full recovery from our abuse will come in ecological time (millions of years), not human time (200,000 years), certainly not agricultural time (10,000 years).” This may sound a little defeatist, but Wes nevertheless sees a glimpse of light: “The ecosystems are our source of hope. Reduced in number and limited in scale, they still hold answers to countless questions we have not yet learned to ask. The best place to begin to apply our knowledge is with agriculture.”

Wes isn’t just philosophizing, he’s not letting up hot air balloons, he is essentially a hands-on researcher who became a globetrotting visionary. He and his Salina team are bringing theory into practice. The Land Institute’s ‘Sunshine Farm’ was a first project; experiments with 1,000 intermediate wheatgrass perennial genotypes followed; hybrids were developed between annual wheat and relatives and went to show regrowth. The researchers set steps toward a winter-hardy perennial sorghum in their own nursery; they studied perennialized upland rice in China; they researched selective grazing and nonselective grazing as future tools of grasslands management. They are getting slowly where they’d hoped to get. Their efforts show they are on the right track, that a new agriculture with a healing power instead of a damaging force to earth is feasible, that perennials can produce as much seeds as annual crops without losing their perennial traits, that polyculture yields can stay even with those of monocultures.

But what exactly did Wes Jackson do for Matfield Green? Well, you can say he jumpstarted one of the right-living projects in the world. First, he and some friends bought all the empty houses he could get his hands on, including the school and its gymnasium. Including the hardware store and lumber yard, which in 2009 became ours. They paid a mere total of $4,000 for seven houses … $5,000 for the ten-thousand-square-foot brick schoolhouse … no more than $1,000 for the property we, twenty years later, alas, paid a little more for. Not that these guys pretended to be real estate developers. Their aim was to give village life a new chance by “promoting a community of life at once prosperous and enduring.” Wes and friends started with rebuilding and reviving the old homes, the schoolhouse and the hardware store.

Emily Hunter once said, “The cultural capacity to live sustainably resides right here, in the residents of Matfield Green, those people who decided to stay after the boom-and-bust and figured out how. If we newcomers want to join them, we must not make the mistakes of the extractors. We have to live in a way that doesn’t spend the ecological capital of the Flint Hills. Our oldtimer neighbors know what phase of the moon is best for planting potatoes. New homecomers can learn from them, a lot.”

The Land Institute not only invited scholars and young academics, but also artists and writers, such as Janine Benyus, who finished her acclaimed book while staying in “the lumber yard,” and Terry Evans, photographer of fame, who came once a month from Chicago to work on her photo essay of Matfield Green and to develop and print the images in her basement darkroom at the schoolhouse. Also, they started looking for newcomers to join the revival of the town. Wes Jackson: “The newcomers are the new pioneers, bent on the most important work of the 21st century: a massive salvage operation to save the vulnerable but necessary pieces of nature and culture and keep the good and artful examples before us.”

The Land Institute’s staff also conducted an environmental history of the area to see decade by decade how land use has changed. Yet, the action slowed down in the 2000s. The workshops stopped, no more conferences were organized, the visitors stopped coming to Matfield Green. The Land Institute’s main site in Salina demanded more and more attention, and more of the funds. Luckily by 2008, at the time that The Land Institute decided to sell its Matfield Green properties, new energy was brought to the area when Bill McBride, the Chicago architect and artist, who calls Wes Jackson his mentor, assembled friends to collectively buy the old Pioneer Bluffs ranch. Now it is a foundation with more than fifty volunteers working hard at the renovation of the old ranch buildings and making these available for various activities, and at running a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in the 36,000-square-foot garden. “History — Community — Sustainability” is the foundation’s Leitmotiv, to which Ans and I add contemporary art with a direct or indirect relationship with the earth or the region. With the support of many in the community and elsewhere we also hope to bring land art projects and other in situ art to the prairie. Dreams …

In recent years, five or six other individuals and families have decided to settle in Matfield Green, which is quite an influx if you know that the town has no more than fifty names in the phone book. More will follow. Nowadays, real estate in town must be acquired for a few dollars more than what Wes Jackson paid in the 1980s, but the prices are still amazingly reasonable compared to elsewhere in the U.S. I can take you to really nice places for which the asking price of $30,000 or $50,000 can be negotiated. With the new “boom” already in motion, I feel the future of Matfield Green will eventually close in on Wes Jackson’s dream.

Wes Jackson is one of Rolling Stones Magazine’s “100 Agents of Change,” one on the Smithonian’s list of “35 Who Made a Difference.” His job, to overthrow agriculture as we know it, is far from finished. “Farming is humanity’s original sin. We, not the devil, eroded the ecological capital of the soil — we ourselves did,” says Wes Jackson. “I intend to blaze the path to redemption.” He knows he has a long way to go: “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”

Alas, his second dream, his second job, of returning life to old communities such as Matfield Green, was arrested in the bud. Wes the visionary talks about community as a reflection of the native prairie, the symbiotic relationship, the tallgrass supporting the shorter species seeking sunlight; plants growing together by cooperation and communities surviving through cooperation. Yet Wes the visionary is not a very good communicator and never seemed to grab that the “old” people of Matfield Green worried about what he was doing. He should have calmed their fears, yet he never explained what was happening. Maybe he didn’t want to put as much effort in community change as in the new agriculture. Others had to pick up the pieces after The Land Institute pulled out. We, the new pioneers, have to carry on this “job.”

Nevertheless, Wes Jackson was the one who chose Matfield Green and pulled in all these knowledgeable, interesting, enthusiast, sensitive, thinking people, the big names and the small names. It was Wes who kept all those buildings from going to ruin. Genius loci in classical Roman religion was the protective spirit of place, of a place. Wes Jackson with all his shortcomings –-he is a man much loved because he is so flawed– may well be called Matfield Green’s own genius loci.

Ton Haak,
Matfield Green, KS, August 2011