Weeds: Study the past to change the future

We were nearing the end of a tough corn harvest, fighting through downed and snarled stalks. The weather was good, and the stress of the last month was receding. I was pulling a wagon and made the turn to the field. I was met with the warm glow of a low sun.

A thought came that shows up now and then. I looked at the corn stubble stretching to the west, and I thought of the tall grass prairie that was there for the 10,000 years since the glaciers receded. My ancestors started growing things here about a century ago, one per cent of that time.

The North American prairie was a remarkable ecosystem. An array of grasses and flora supported a complex stage of birds, insects, and critters that lived in balance for ten millennia. A small number of humans occasionally left a light footprint upon the landscape.

That changed drastically when Europeans arrived. The tall grass prairie is for all intents extinct, save for remnants and restorations, neither of which can duplicate the ocean of grass that was.

I enjoy raising corn and soybeans. It is challenging work in sync with the seasons. But I can feel loss for what was here. The wealth in these soils comes from prairie grasses dying into the ground and building the deep, fertile dirt I plant into. I am thankful for that.

I wonder if our ancestors could have found a way to preserve some of what was here. I’m not sure what that would look like, but it seems possible. Since the arrival of the plow, could farmers have done a better job preserving that soil? Again, I think that’s possible.

Could I have done better in my four decades farming? I tried alternative practices early on that mostly didn’t work and found myself farming conventionally. I try to do that responsibly. It’s dependent on fossil fuels and chemicals, more than I’d like.

There are positive signs for the future. Cover crops, less tillage, alternative crops, all hold possibilities. I hope younger generations get more things right than mine did.

The upshot? There is nothing I can do about the past. I wish we’d done better, including myself. And I’m hopeful for the future.

I suppose I could ignore the past, pretend the prairie wasn’t here. I could convince myself I’ve done everything perfectly, and that there is nothing wrong in agriculture. Deluding myself wouldn’t make any of that true.

Speaking of past, our nation has spent productive time opening books to the past. Some of those books were collecting dust; some were purposely hidden away. I’m talking about our discussion of race. The murder of George Floyd was a pivotal moment no one saw coming.

If you didn’t learn anything the last year, you had to be trying hard not to. Vague notions I had about being Black in the United States were given flesh, as I listened to and read Black men and women. COVID gets credit for giving me extra time.

Slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, right up to modern tools of suppression, were all things I learned more about. Looking back on my schooling and 65 years on this planet, it is amazing how little I knew. I am grateful to know more. With humility, I know my knowledge remains incomplete.

I learned in sixth grade that slavery ended in 1865. I didn’t learn how that awful institution was replaced with essentially the same economic and societal structure in the South. Ex-slaves and their descendants had no meaningful rights for most of the next century.

Efforts to change society were met harshly. Hanging the occasional Black man was effective in messaging. I read about church congregations that ended Sunday service in time so parishioners could attend a local lynching. The Tulsa race riots, when up to three hundred were killed, was never taught in my 17 years of school.

A black writer told of his father who fought and was decorated in World War II but wasn’t allowed in restaurants when he came home. That, despite wearing the uniform of the United States Army. I wondered how frustrating that would be.

That man took his family to the North, joining a great exodus. Through redlining and other manipulations, Blacks became disadvantaged there, too. Again, these were things I had faint understanding of. The truth is that most Blacks (and other minorities) for our entire history up to today had poorer housing, lesser schools, lower health care, and reduced wages.

That is simply true. Is racism the reason? The phenomenon is so consistent through time and place, it becomes clear it is. You have to perform serious mental contortions to deny that.

You might say that there is nothing today preventing minorities from chasing the American dream. Look around, and you will see yourself and most everyone you know has ended up in roughly the same economic class as their parents. There are exceptions. But most of us used advantages we were given to lead comfortable lives, advantages not proffered to Black, Hispanic, and Natives.

I didn’t grow up in the South, so the Black experience is distant. I don’t have that excuse for the Dakota who were here. The “Indian line fence” on the south side of our property is the border of a long-abandoned treaty. If you can look at the story of the Native people on this continent and not see hot racism, you’re looking through foggy lenses.

I’m grateful to know more than I did. There are those who will say I can’t love my country with these things in my head. I would challenge that to my deepest core. What kind of love is grounded in untruth, deception, and ignorance? Yes, I love this country. I love it enough to want it to be better.

Something no one had ever heard of six months ago has become a cause celebre of people who deny these truths. Critical Race Theory has come to be blamed for an absurd number of ills. It has ignited a craziness that I can only compare to the John Birchers of my youth. Instead of seeing a communist behind every bush, CRTers see a raving Antifa.

In this misty world view, “justice, equity, and inclusion” are bad words. Justice, “the quality of being just: righteousness, moral rightness,” according to the dictionary. How does the world have to be turned on its head for “justice” to be a bad thing?

Do I want my children to know the history of racism in this country? Damn straight. I hope and pray they are part of a better future. Why would I want them to learn less, not more? I hope they don’t wait till 65 to learn. If schools can’t teach the truth, what’s the point?

Does that mean that young people begin life as “oppressors and victims?” No, it means that armed with morality that we all have a part in passing to them, with full knowledge of what came before, they make this world better. God bless them in that.

I come to a place similar to my thoughts on the prairie. There is nothing I can do about the past. I wish we’d done better, including myself. And I’m hopeful for the future.


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