Looks wild enough, except that cornfield peeking out on the right.

Recently, I read a book* by a nobel-prize winning author that raised my hackles a bit. Without giving away any plot twists, the book is an exploration of the territory between common senior crotchety and mental illness. The protagonist is an elderly woman who identifies more with the animal kingdom than with mainstream culture and expresses that anger towards a societal mindset that abuses and kills animals for its own convenience and sport. I didn’t particularly enjoy the book, but in some ways, I can identify. That I’m still thinking about it means it must have struck a chord.

I have my own bones to pick with mainstream culture–and often find myself at odds in ways that “normal” people would never understand.

The front ten acres of our property is where we mostly live. Our home, barn, apiary, garden, dooryard orchard and most of the hazelnut orchard all fall within the boundary of our front ten-acre panhandle. Our view out the front looks all wild, but, in fact, we have neighbors quite close. One of those adjacent neighbors leases the twelve acres around her house to a local rancher, who uses it to grow corn for his cattle. He only grows corn, year in, and year out. No crop rotation. There’s nothing unusual about this arrangement, or about his farming practices, and that is the crux of my problem.

Like most American farmers, he grows GMO corn with seed pre-treated with systemic neonicotinoids. Even the dust from that seed is enough to kill bees, not to mention the corn chaff itself. Like many farmers, he sprays and soaks the field with glyphosate, to combat weeds. This kills any weeds and many natural soil organisms. To my way of thinking, that parcel is dead and toxic. His corn survives only because it is grown in an applied chemical soup. Crops, on IV fluids. In part because of those practices, a few years ago we moved our bees up the hill.

We live on fragile, ancient dune soils. In the forest, the topsoils are deep and rich. But in the open, and especially on slopes, the topsoil is a whisper of a thin skin, holding our dune sands in place. This land was never meant to see a plow. Good soil isn’t just dirt. It’s a complex interwoven and dynamic community of plant, mineral and single-cell organisms. At its best, this magical, top six inches of the planet sustain us all. Alternatively, we can kill it in short order, by treating it as an extractive resource, instead of working with nature. At its worst, we have dustbowl. Historically, we know the dangers of farming practices that lead to dustbowl conditions. And yet, the common practices of “conventional” agriculture have us losing our topsoils at an alarming rate. I don’t have to look far, to see this in action.

So far this season, our neighboring farmer has plowed three times before planting. I don’t know why–the soil is so dead that no weeds dare grow there. Conventional agriculture plows excessively, to eliminate weeds, to aerate the soil and to bring nutrients to the surface. When our spring winds kick up, those soils take flight, in billowing, choking clouds of sand and dust (and Lord only knows what else) that blanket our front acreage. When I purchased the property, 30 years ago, the front ten acres were clear–timber cutover, they call it. It’s not lost on me that most of that is still clear, with a belt of pioneer trees in the middle, directly in the wind-shadow of our neighbor’s house. I have no proof that her airborne, chemically laden soils are poisoning our property, and there’s really no point in undertaking the expensive testing processes which would only confirm my suspicions. In a farming community that embraces chemical farming, my complaints would fall on deaf ears. But we are planting orchard trees there now, and it will be interesting to see how they do. The soils there have not been farmed in over forty years, and are our “bottomlands.” They should be rich and fertile. We shall see.

When I see the dustbowl clouds across our lower ten, I feel a level of disgust and anger that tightens my chest and clenches my jaw. Spitting mad. I am furious that his choice of toxic agriculture, frames our ability to enjoy and use our land in ways that are harmonious with nature. It crystalizes my general rejection of, and anger at, so many of the consumptive and exploitive aspects of our culture. And it echoes the crotchety righteous indignation of the protagonist in the book. Have I matured to curmudgeon phase? Is crazy settling in? Or am I sane, in a world that is not? 

“Someday we shall look back on this dark era of agriculture and shake our heads. How could we have ever believed that it was a good idea to grow our food with poisons?” 

—Dr. Jane Goodall

* Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Olga Tokarczuk