The Working Wilderness

[An excerpt from Chapter 18 of my book The Age of Consequences]

During a conservation tour of the well-managed U Bar Ranch near Silver City, New Mexico, I was asked to say a few words about a map a friend had recently given to me.

We were taking a break in the shade of a large piñon tree, and I rose a bit reluctantly (the day being hot and the shade being deep) to explain that the map was commissioned by an alliance of ranchers concerned about the creep of urban sprawl into the five-hundred-thousand-acre Altar Valley, located southwest of Tucson, Arizona. What was different about this map, I told them, was what it measured: indicators of rangeland health, such as grass cover (positive) and bare soil (negative), and what they might tell us about livestock management in arid environments.

What was important about the map, I continued, was what it said about a large watershed. Drawn up in multiple colors, the map expressed the intersection of three variables: soil stability, biotic integrity, and hydrological function—soil, grass, and water, in other words. The map displayed three conditions for each variable—“Stable,” “At Risk,” and “Unstable”—with a color representing a particular intersection of conditions. Deep red designated an unstable, or unhealthy, condition for soil, grass (vegetation), and water, for example, while deep green represented stability in all three. Other colors represented conditions between these extremes.

In the middle of the map was a privately owned ranch called the Palo Alto. Visiting it recently, I told them, I had been shocked by its condition. It had been overgrazed by cattle to the point of being nearly “cowburnt,” to use author Ed Abbey’s famous phrase. As one might expect, the Palo Alto’s color on the map was blood red, and there was plenty of it.

I paused briefly—now came the controversial part. This big splotch of blood red continued well below the southern boundary of the Palo Alto, I said. However, this was not a ranch, but part of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, a large chunk of protected land that had been cattle-free for nearly sixteen years.

That was as far as I got. Taking offense at the suggestion that the refuge might be ecologically unfit, a young woman from Tucson cut me off. She knew the refuge, she explained, having worked hard as a volunteer with an environmental organization to help “heal” it from decades of abuse by cows.

The map did not blame anyone for current conditions, I responded; nor did it offer opinions on any particular remedy. All it did was ask a simple question: Is the land functioning properly at the fundamental level of soil, grass, and water? For a portion of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, the answer was “no.” For portions of the adjacent privately owned ranches, which were deep green on the map, the answer was “yes.”

Why was that a problem?

I knew why. I strayed too closely to a core belief of my fellow conservationists—that protected areas, such as national parks, wilderness areas, and wildlife refuges, must always be rated, by definition, as being in better ecological condition than adjacent “working” landscapes.

Yet the Altar Valley map challenged this paradigm at a basic level, and when the tour commenced again on a ranch that would undoubtedly encompass more deep greens than deep reds on a similar map, I saw in the reaction of the young activist a reason to rethink the conservation movement in the American West.

From the ground up.   Here’s the map:


Here’s a view of the ranch:


Here’s a view of the wildlife refuge:


My decision received a boost a few weeks later while sitting around a campfire after a tour of the beautiful one-hundred-thousand-acre CS Ranch located in northeastern New Mexico. Staring into the flames, I found myself thinking about ethics. I believed at the time, as do many conservationists, that the chore of ending overgrazing by cattle in the West was a matter of getting ranchers to adopt an ecological ethic along the lines that Aldo Leopold suggested in his famous essay “The Land Ethic,” where he argued that humans had a moral obligation to be good stewards of nature.

The question, it seemed to me, was how to accomplish this lofty goal.

I decided to ask Julia Davis-Stafford, our host, for advice. Years earlier, Julia and her sister Kim talked their family into switching to holistic management of the land, a decision that over time caused the ranch to flourish economically and ecologically. In fact, the idea for my query came earlier that day when I couldn’t decide which was more impressive: the sight of a new beaver dam on the ranch or Julia’s strong support for its presence.

The Davis family, it seemed to me, had embraced Leopold’s land ethic big time. So, over the crackle of the campfire, I asked Julia, “How do we get other ranchers to change their ethics too?”

Her answer altered everything I had been thinking up until that moment.

“We didn’t change our ethics,” she replied. “We’re the same people we were fifteen years ago. What changed was our knowledge. We went back to school, in a sense, and we came back to the ranch with new ideas.”

Knowledge and ethics, neither without the other, I suddenly saw, are the key to good land stewardship. Her point confirmed what I had observed during visits to livestock operations across the region: many ranchers do have an environmental ethic, as they have claimed for so long. Often their ethic is a powerful one. But it has to be matched with new knowledge—especially ecological knowledge—so that an operation can adjust to meet changing conditions, both on the ground and in the arena of public opinion. Of course, a willingness on the part of a rancher to “go back to school” is a prerequisite to gaining new insights. Tradition, however, seemed to have a lock on many ranchers.

The same thing is true of many conservationists. In the years since I cofounded the Quivira Coalition, I came to the conclusion that it had been a long time since any of us had been back to school ourselves. Tradition was just as much an obstacle in the environmental community as it was in agriculture. It wasn’t just the persistence of various degrees of bovine bigotry among activists, despite examples of healthy, grazed landscape like the U Bar, either. It was more a stubbornness about the relation between humans and nature—they should be kept as far apart as possible—expressed in the long-standing dualism of environmentalism that said recreation and play in nature were preferable to work and use.

If conservationists went back to school, as the Davis family did, what could we learn? Aldo Leopold had a suggestion that can help us today: study the fundamental principle of land health, which he described as “the capacity of the land for self-renewal,” with conservation being “our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”

By studying the elements of land health, especially as they change over time, conservationists could learn that grazing is a natural process. The consumption of grass by ungulates in North America has been going on for millions of years—not by cattle, of course, but by bison, elk, and deer (and grasshoppers, rabbits, and even ants)—resulting in a complex relationship between grass and grazer that is ecologically self-renewing. We could learn that a re-creation of this relationship with domesticated cattle lies at the heart of the new ranching movement, which is why many progressive ranchers think of themselves as “grass farmers” instead of beef producers.

We could also learn that many landscapes need periodic pulses of energy, in the form of natural disturbance—such as fires and floods (but not the catastrophic kind)—to keep things ecologically vibrant. Many conservationists know that low-intensity fires are a beneficial form of disturbance in ecosystems because they reduce tree density, burn up old grass, and aid nutrient cycling in the soil. But many of us don’t know that small flood events can be positive agents of change too, as can drought, windstorms, and even insect infestation. Or that animal impact caused by grazers, including cattle, can be a beneficial form of disturbance.

We could further learn, as the Davis family did, that the key to healthy disturbance with cattle is to control the timing, intensity, and frequency of their impact on the land. The CS, and other progressive ranches, bunch their cattle together and keep them on the move, rotating the animals frequently through numerous pastures. Ideally, under this system, no single piece of ground is grazed by cattle more than once a year, thus ensuring plenty of time for the plants to recover.

The keys are regulating where cattle go, which can be done with fencing or a herder, and the timing of their movement, in which the herd moves are carefully planned and monitored. In fact, as many ranchers have learned, overgrazing is more a function of timing than it is of numbers of cattle. For example, imagine the impact 365 cows would have in one day of grazing in one small pasture versus what one cow would do in 365 days of grazing in the same pasture. Which is more likely to be overgrazed? Hint: have you ever seen what a backyard lot looks like after a single horse has grazed it for a whole year?

We could also learn, as I did, that much of the damage we see today on the land is historical—a legacy of the “boom years” of cattle grazing in the West. Between 1880 and 1920, millions of hungry animals roamed uncontrolled across the range, and the overgrazing they caused was so extensive, and so alarming, that by 1910, the U.S. government was already setting up programs to slow and to heal the damage. Today, cattle numbers are down, way down, from historic highs—a fact not commonly voiced in the heat of the cattle debate.

A willingness to adopt new knowledge allowed the Davis family to maintain their ethic yet stay in business. Not only did it improve their bottom line; it also helped them meet evolving values in society, such as a rising concern among the pubic about overgrazing. Rather than fight change, they had switched.

As the embers of the campfire burned softly into the night, I wondered if the conservation movement could do the same.File00171

Age of Consequences:

Courtney’s web site:

Life Is Great

[excerpt from Chapter 9 of The Age of Consequences]

With a flick of the switch, I banish the darkness.

It’s four a.m. on a Monday—time to get some work done before the sun, or the kids, stir. In the bathroom, I twist both faucet handles at the sink and watch groggily for a few seconds as the water twirls merrily down the drain. Where does this water from come? An ancient aquifer nearby, as I recall. Can’t be rainwater, I say to myself as I splash water onto my face in an attempt to ward off a desire to go back to bed; we only get twelve inches of precipitation a year here, if we’re lucky. Which reminds me. Drying my face with a cotton towel, fresh from yesterday’s laundry, I make a mental note to buy rain barrels for our roof’s downspouts, adding it to a lengthy to-do list.

Leaving the bathroom, I wend my way into the kitchen, where I make an unsteady beeline for the coffeemaker. I didn’t touch a drop of the evil brew until I was thirty-one, giving in only after a move to our home at seven thousand feet and a subsequent snow storm that winter. I grew up in the desert and lived in Los Angeles for years, so snow was a difficult concept for me to grasp initially, requiring what has since become a comfort food—a warm cup of coffee. In any case, I am grateful that a steady and apparently endless supply of the evil roast is available to someone who lives far, far away from a coffee plantation. If there were a coffee god, my daily ritual would include an oblation of thanksgiving, perhaps in the form of a teaspoon of sugar.

Mug in hand, I drift into the living room and settle into a chair at the computer desk, waiting for the caffeine to work its magic. Although it’s not quite summer yet, the windows are cracked open enough to let dryland smells into the house. It’s a remarkable privilege to live here in this beautiful place, in what geographers call a high, cold desert. Prehistorically, there was only enough food, water, wood, and arable land to support small populations of people, most of who had to move frequently to find fresh resources or dodge a drought. It’s totally different today, of course—except for the same sparse amounts of local food, water, fuel, and arable land. Thankfully we have oil, without which I wouldn’t be able to live here. Perhaps another offering is in order, this time to the gods of petrochemicals, who we never, ever want to anger.

Two hours later, I shut down the computer, rise from the chair, stretch my stiff muscles, then stride purposefully toward the kitchen to start the breakfast marathon. I switch on a lot of lights, even though the dawn is brightening quickly outside. I stab our old radio to life and reel instantly at the news: terror threats, political gridlock, greed, avarice, unemployment, upcoming elections. After a few minutes, I stab the radio off, not wanting to scare the kids. I switch on the CD player instead, filling the kitchen with the reassuring strains of a Mozart concerto. Then I turn to the main event of the morning: the breakfast menu.

Like many of their friends, our twins will only eat from a short list of acceptable items, very few of which correspond with anyone else’s preferences, necessitating a kind of daily food ballet. For example, our daughter likes sausage, which we buy organically and locally, soaked in maple syrup from Vermont. She’ll eat English muffins too. But our son won’t touch either one. He prefers industrially produced corn dogs, which no one else will eat (for various reasons). However, he likes Mexican meals, so burritos are popular in our house—except with our daughter. Gen prefers granola with yoghurt, or polenta, or Irish oatmeal, none of which the kids will touch.

I like eggs, which we procure from our small flock of chickens in the backyard. Gen loves them too, but the kids told us the other day that they are tired of eggs. Our daughter still likes homemade waffles, though our son is tired of them as well. He’ll eat fried potatoes, but she won’t. She likes cereal, but he doesn’t, of course. They are united, however, in their opposition to anything green at suppertime, which we force them to eat anyway. We do agree on organic milk, butter, hamburger, pasta, and rice, fortunately. Otherwise, we might starve.

We won’t starve, of course. That’s because our food system is a miracle, I think to myself as I pull a package of frozen sausage from the freezer and place it in the microwave oven for defrosting. We can eat what we want—or refuse what we want—from wherever we want, at any time we want. Peaches in February? No problem. Shrimp in a high, cold desert? No sweat. Coffee from an obscure island in the South Pacific, chocolate from Europe, lettuce from California, plasticware from China, honey from Albuquerque, canned green beans from God knows where? No problem. Even the microwave is a miracle. Look: the sausage is defrosted in a minute, ready for frying. I pull out a nonstick pan—another miracle—and place it on the stove. Hash browns, eggs, English muffins, marmalade, corn dogs, sliced cheese and meat for lunches, and sandwich bread quickly follow. It makes for a heap of food on the kitchen table, suggesting that a prayer to the food gods is probably in order as well.

After a final round of good-bye kisses, the family pulls out, and I retreat to the kitchen to put things away. Later, after some bill paying, a walk with the dogs, and a shower, I settle down with a stack of maps and guidebooks to Europe. Gen and I turn fifty this fall, and we’ve decided to treat ourselves and the kids to a whirlwind tour of Rome, Venice, and Paris, with lots of Roman ruins and medieval castles in between. Ever since Gen and I visited Venice, it’s been a dream of mine to celebrate my birthday alongside the Rialto Bridge, which I’m determined to fulfill. Why not? Other than the expense, it’s easy to get to Europe, and once you’re there, it’s easy to get around. My plan is to use it all: planes, trains, buses, taxis, boats, and a rental car. Everything is in the guidebooks—where to go, what to eat, where to sleep.

Besides, it’ll be a history lesson for the kids. Us too—a firsthand look at Western civilization, including centuries of wars, hardships, political upheavals, religious rifts, technological breakthroughs, economic strife, and social progress . . . all so we can watch cable TV, surf the Internet, goof off with video games, and get diabetes and cancer.

And travel to Europe. Here’s a photo I took of the Rialto Bridge in Venice: ITALY-FRANCE 233

I put the map and guidebooks away, pack my travel bag quickly, check on the chickens, and head out the door. I jump into the truck and head into town, where I need to put in time at the day job and run a few errands before catching my flight. I settle down to work, which means I must stare, once more, deep into a computer screen.

Perhaps because I grew up in an archaic age, I stubbornly resist being sucked into the virtual 24/7 world that has consumed so much of our society. I’m still an eight-to-five guy, which means I don’t do much email on the weekends and I don’t do social media at all (no Twitter or Facebook accounts for me). My cell phone is just a phone. It doesn’t entertain me, check the stock market, or cook supper. I haven’t even programmed it with the phone numbers of friends and family. I’m required to memorize their numbers. That’s all right. I’m trying to inhabit as much of the 3-D universe as possible, fearful that our expanding obsession with the 2-D world is setting us up for a major fall. But that’s another topic for another day.

At noon, I shut down everything, pack up, say some quick good-byes, and jump back into the truck. I need to run a few errands in town, starting with a pit stop at the bank to cash a check. My next stop is a natural foods grocery store. I need snacks for the trip. Cruising briskly down the aisles, I realize the store is another mundane miracle of our modern era. It is packed to its organic gills with every conceivable type of food, all in impressive abundance. The cornucopia includes fresh French bread, humanely raised chicken, a dozen varieties of olive oil, wild salmon from Alaska, goat cheese from Switzerland, yoga magazines, wine galore, buffalo burgers, and an entire aisle dedicated to chips, salsas, and other snack foods. Today, I grab two apples, some organic dried apricots, a premade pesto-and-turkey sandwich, a bag of potato chips, and a cup of coffee to go. I’m in and out in under ten minutes.

That’s a miracle too.

Soon, I’m on the interstate, heading south. My mind drifts. The cornucopia in the natural foods store recalls a quote from the poet Ogden Nash that I read years ago. “Progress was good for a while,” I think he said, “but then it went on and on.”

Approaching the airport in Albuquerque, I sidle off the freeway and shake my head clear of road thoughts. It’s time to concentrate. Airports are miracles too, though increasingly stressful ones. The flight is uneventful, and I arrive at my destination a few minutes early. Deplaning, I pick up my suitcase at a carousel, secure my rental car from a generic company (I can only tell them apart by their colors), and hit the road—all in under thirty minutes. That’s amazing too, but it’s all so familiar and routine to me by now that I don’t pause to consider it.

I consult a map before driving to my hotel, which is conveniently located between the highway off-ramp and a large shopping mall. After checking in and depositing my belongings in the room, I drive over to the mall to explore supper options. The mall itself is ringed by chain restaurants, giving the impression that I’m entering an orbit around a giant, many-mooned planet. It certainly feels like a universe unto itself. Slipping beneath the outer ring of restaurants, I opt for a local sports-themed place on the planet’s surface instead.

After a successful landing, I walk inside the restaurant, where I am immediately assaulted by a dozen very large television screens, each blaring a different sporting event. As I wait for a table, I scan the mammoth room, noting that every available space on the walls is occupied by something neon, mostly beer advertisements. I feel like I’ve walked into a holy place—the Temple of Brew. Observing my awed expression, one of the temple’s acolytes approaches and guides me to a booth, where I plop down and dutifully order a beer from a very long list. I have no idea what I’m getting. I don’t drink much, but I don’t want to offend the beer gods either.

It’s a lovely evening. But the beer has made me droopy, so after three figure eights around the lot, I climb into the rental, drive back to the hotel, go to my room, grab a book from my bag, and slip into bed. There’s no reason to turn on the TV, not even curiosity. No need to catch up on pop culture tonight. Besides, it’s been a long, amazing day. It’s a remarkable world, I think to myself as the god of drowsiness begins to work its magic.

Progress is good . . . was good . . . still is. I know it went on too long probably, but that’s all right for the time being. Things are good—but for how much longer? The book slips in my hands. Despite our troubles, I feel fortunate to be alive today, now, here. I should give thanks to somebody, I think groggily. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, perhaps, or my parents. Perhaps an offering to another god is in order—maybe the god of rental cars. Or central heating. Or fluffy pillows. The book slips again. I put it down.

I reach for the light and, with a twist of a button, darkness engulfs me once more.

Age of Consequences:

Courtney’s web site: http://www.awestthatworks.comPicture 165



The New Ranch

[excerpt from Chapter 15 of The Age of Consequences]

“Ranching is one of the few western occupations that have been renewable and have produced a continuing way of life.”                          —Wallace Stegner

It was a bad year to be a blade of grass.

In 2002, the winter snows were late and meager, part of an emerging period of drought, experts said. Then May and June exploded into flame. Catastrophic crown fires scorched over a million acres of evergreens in the “four corner” states—New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah—making it a bad year to be a tree too.

The monsoon rains then failed to arrive in July, and by mid-August, hope for a “green-up” had vanished. The land looked tired, shriveled, and beat-up. It was hard to tell which plants were alive, dormant, or stunned, and which were dead. One range professional speculated that perhaps as much as 60 percent of the native bunch grasses in New Mexico would die. It was bad news for the ranchers he knew and cared about, insult added to injury in an industry already beset by one seemingly intractable challenge after another.

For some, it was the final blow. Ranching in the American West, much like the grass on which it depended that year, has been struggling for survival. Persistently poor economics, tenacious opponents, shifting values in public-land use, changing demographics, decreased political influence, and the temptation of rapidly rising private land values have all combined to push ranching right to the edge. And not just ranching; according to one analysis, the number of natural-resource jobs, including agriculture, as a share of total employment in the Rocky Mountain West has declined by two-thirds since the mid-1970s.

Today, less than one in thirty jobs in the region is in logging, mining, or agriculture. This fits a national trend. In 1993, the U.S. Census dropped its long-standing survey of farm residents. The farm population across the nation had dwindled from 40 percent of households in 1900 to a statistically insignificant 2 percent by 1990. The bureau decided that a survey was no longer relevant.

If the experts are correct—that the current multiyear drought could rival the decade-long “megadrought” of the 1950s for ecological, and thus economic, devastation—the tenuous grip of ranchers on the future will be loosened further, perhaps permanently. The ubiquitous “last cowboys,” mythologized in a seemingly endless stream of tabletop photography books, could ride into their final sunset once and for all.

Or would they?

After all, for millions of years, grass has always managed to return and flourish. James Ingalls, U.S. Senator from Kansas (1873-1891) once wrote:

Grass is the forgiveness of nature-her constant benediction. Fields trampled with battle, saturated with blood, torn with the ruts of cannon, grow green again with grass, and carnage is forgotten. Streets abandoned by traffic become grass grown like rural lanes, and are obliterated; forests decay, harvests perish, flowers vanish, but grass is immortal.

Few understand these words better than ranchers, who, because their cattle require grass, depend on the forgiveness of nature for a livelihood while simultaneously nurturing its beneficence. And like grass, ranching’s adaptive response to adversity over the years has been patience—to outlast its troubles. The key to survival for both has been endurance—the ability to hold things together until the next rainstorm. Evolution favors grit.

Or at least it used to.

Today, grit may still rule for grass, but for ranchers, it has become more hindrance than help. “Ranching selects for stubbornness,” a friend of mine likes to say. While admiring ranching and ranchers, he does not intend his quip to be taken as a tribute. What he means is this: stubbornness is not adaptive when it means rejecting new ideas or not adjusting to evolving values in a rapidly changing world.

This is where ranching and grass part ways ultimately—unlike grass, ranching may not be immortal.

Fortunately, a growing number of ranchers understand this and are embracing a cluster of new ideas and methods, often with the happy result of increased profits, restored land health, and repaired relationships with others. I call their work “the New Ranch”—a term I coined years back in a presumptuous attempt to describe a progressive ranching movement emerging in the region.

But what did it mean exactly? What were the new things ranchers were doing to stay in business while neighboring enterprises went under? How did they differ from new ranch to new ranch? What were the commonalities? What was the key? Technology, ideas, economics, increased attention to ecology, or all of the above?

During that summer of fire and heat, I decided to take a fourteen- hundred-mile drive from Santa Fe to Lander, Wyoming, and back, to see the New Ranch up close. I visited four families and was so inspired by what I saw and learned that I kept driving, in a sense, upon my return home. I needed to keep looking, listening, and learning. Since that summer, I have visited more ranchers, as well as environmentalists, scientists, and others, and asked more questions, all in a continuous quest for pieces to a jigsaw puzzle that eventually grew bigger than the New Ranch.

Initially, however, I wanted to know if ranching would survive this latest turn of the evolutionary wheel. Was it still renewable, as Stegner once observed, or were we destined to redefine a ranch as a mobile home park and a subdivision? But I also wanted to discover the outline of the future, and, with a little luck, find my real objective—hope—which, like grass, is sometimes required to lie quietly, waiting for rain.


The James Ranch
North of Durango, Colorado

One of the first things you notice about the James Ranch is how busy the water is. Everywhere you turn, there is water flowing, filling, spilling, irrigating, laughing. Whether it is the big, fast-flowing community ditch, the noisy network of smaller irrigation ditches, the deliberate spill of water on pasture, the refreshing fish ponds, or the low roar of the muscular Animas River, take a walk in any direction on the ranch during the summer and you are destined to intercept water at work. It is purposeful water too, growing trees, cooling chickens, quenching cattle, raising vegetables, and, above all, sustaining grass.

All this energy on one ranch is no coincidence—busy water is a good metaphor for the James family. The purposefulness starts at the top. Tall, handsome, and quick to smile, David James grew up in Southern California, where his father lived the American Dream as a successful engineer and inventor, dabbling a bit in ranching and agriculture on the side. David attended the University of Redlands in the late 1950s, where he majored in business, but cattle got into his blood, and he spent every summer on a ranch. David met Kay, a city girl, at Redlands, and after getting hitched, they decided to pursue their dream: to raise a large family in a rural setting.

In 1961, they bought a small ranch on the Animas River, twelve miles north of the sleepy town of Durango, located in a picturesque valley in mountainous southwestern Colorado, and got busy raising five children and hundreds of cows. Durango was in transition at the time from a mining and agricultural center to what it is today: a mecca for tourists, environmentalists, outdoor enthusiasts, students, retirees, and real estate brokers. Land along the river was productive for cattle and still relatively cheap in 1961, though a new type of crop—subdivisions—would be planted soon enough.

Not long after arriving, David secured a permit from the United States Forest Service to graze cattle on the nearby national forest. The permit allowed him to run a certain number of cattle on a forest allotment. Once on the forest, he managed his animals in the manner to which he had been taught: uncontrolled, continuous grazing.

“In the beginning, I ranched like everyone else,” said David, referring to his management style, “which means I lost money.”

David followed what is sometimes called the “Columbus school” of ranching: turn the cows out in May, and go discover them in October. It’s a strategy that often leads to overgrazing, especially along creeks and rivers, where cattle like to linger. Plants, once bitten, need time to recover and grow before being bitten again. If they are bitten too frequently, especially in dry times, they can use up their root reserves and die—which is bad news for the cattle (not to mention the plant). Since ranchers often work on a razor-thin profit margin, it doesn’t take too many months of drought and overgrazing before the bottom line begins to wither too.

Grass may be patient, but bankers are not.

Through the 1970s, David’s ranchlands, and his business, were on a downward spiral. When the Forest Service cut back his cattle numbers, as they invariably did in years of drought, the only option available to David was to run them on the home ranch, which meant running the risk of overgrazing their private land. Meanwhile, the costs of operating the ranch kept rising. It was a no-win bind typical of many ranches in the West.

“I thought the answer was to work harder,” he recalled, “but that was exactly the wrong thing to do.”

Slowly, David came to realize that he was depleting the land, and himself, to the point of no return. By 1978, things became so desperate that the family was forced to develop a sizeable portion of their property, visible from the highway today, as a residential subdivision called, ironically, “the Ranch.” It was a painful moment in their lives.

“I never wanted to do that again,” said David, “so I began to look for another way.”

In 1990, David enrolled in a seminar taught by Kirk Gadzia, a certified instructor in what was then called Holistic Resource

Management—a method of cattle management that emphasizes tight control over the timing, intensity, and frequency of cattle impact on the land, mimicking the behavior of wild herbivores, such as bison, so that both the land and the animals remain healthy. “Timing” means not only the time of year but how much time, measured in days rather than the standard unit of months, the cattle will spend in a particular paddock. “Intensity” means how many animals are in the herd for that period of time. “Frequency” means how long the land is rested before a herd returns.

All three elements are carefully mapped out on a chart, which is why this strategy of ranching is often called “planned grazing.” The movement of the cattle herd from one paddock or pasture to another is carefully designed, often with the needs of wildlife in mind. Paddocks can range from a few acres in size to hundreds of acres, depending on many variables, and are often created with permanent two-strand solar-powered electric fencing, which is lightweight, cost-effective, and easy on wildlife. It works too. Once zapped, cattle usually don’t go near an electric fence again (ditto with elephants in Africa, as I understand it). Alternative methods of control include herding by a human (an ancient activity) and single-strand electric polywire, which is temporary and highly mobile. In all cases, the goal is the same: to control the timing, intensity, and frequency of the animal impact on the land.

Planned grazing has other names—timed grazing, management-
intensive grazing, rapid rotational grazing, short-duration grazing, pulse grazing, cell grazing, or the “Savory system”—named after the Rhodesian biologist who came up with the basic idea.

Observing the migratory behavior of wild grazers in Africa, Allan Savory noticed that nature, often in the form of predators, kept herbivores on the move, which gives plants time to recover from the pressure of grazing. He also noticed that because herbivores tended to travel in large herds, their hooves had a significant ground-disturbing impact (think of what a patch of prairie would have looked like after a million-head herd of bison moved through), which he observed to be good for seed germination, among other things. In other words, plants can tolerate heavy grazing and perhaps even require it in certain circumstances. The key, of course, was that the animals moved on—and didn’t return for the rest of the year.

Savory also observed that too much rest was as bad for the land as too much grazing—meaning that plants can choke themselves with abundance in the absence of herbivory and fire, prohibiting juvenile plants from getting established (not mowing your lawn all summer is a crude, but apt, analogy). In dry climates, one of the chief ways old and dead grass gets recycled is through the stomachs of grazers, such as deer, antelope, bison, sheep, grasshoppers, or cattle. Animals, of course, return nutrients to the soil in the form of waste products. Fire is another way to recycle grass, though this can be risky business in a drought. If you’ve burned up all the grass, exposing the soil, and the rains don’t arrive on time—you and the land could be in trouble.

The bottom line of Savory’s thinking is this: animals should be managed in a manner consistent with nature’s model of herbivory.

David and Kay James did precisely that—they adopted a planned grazing system for both their private and public land operations. And they have thrived ecologically and economically as a result. They saved the ranch too—and today the four-hundred-acre James Ranch is noteworthy not only for its lush grass and busy water, but for its bucolic landscape in a valley that is dominated by development.

David and Kay insist, however, that adopting a new grazing system was only part of the equation, even if it had positive benefits for their bank account. The hardest part was setting an appropriate goal for their business. This was something new to the Jameses. As David noted wryly: “We really didn’t have a goal in the early days, other than not going broke.”

To remedy this, the entire James clan sat down in the early 1990s and composed a goal statement. It reads:

The integrity and distinction of the James Ranch is to be preserved for future generations by developing financially viable agricultural and related enterprises that sustain a profitable livelihood for the families directly involved while improving the land and encouraging the use of all resources, natural and human, to their highest and best potential.

It worked. Today, David profitably runs cattle on 220,000 acres of public land across two states. He is the largest permittee on the San Juan National Forest land, north and west of town. Using the diversity of the country to his advantage, David grazes his cattle in the low (dry) country only during the dormant (winter) season; then he moves them to the forests before finishing the cycle on the irrigated pastures of the home ranch.

That’s enough to keep anybody incredibly busy, of course, but David complicates the job by managing the whole operation according to planned grazing principles. Maps and charts cover a wall in their house. But David doesn’t see it as more work. “What’s harder,” he asked rhetorically, “spending all day on horseback looking for cattle scattered all over the county, like we used to, or knowing exactly where the herd is every day and moving them simply by opening a gate?”

It’s all about attitude, David observed. “It isn’t just about cattle,” he said, “it’s about the land. I feel like I’ve finally become the good steward that I kept telling everybody I was.”

Recently, the family refined their vision for the land and community one hundred years into the future. It looks like this:

  • “lands that are covered with biologically diverse vegetation”
  • “lands that boast functioning water, mineral, and solar cycles”
  • “abundant and diverse wildlife”
  • “a community benefiting from locally grown, healthy food”
  • “a community aware of the importance of agriculture to the environment”
  • “open space for family and community”

And they have summarized the lessons they have learned over the past dozen years:

  • “Imitating nature is healthy.”
  • “People like to know the source of their food.”
  • “Ranching with nature is socially responsible.”
  • “Ranching with nature gives the rancher sustainability.”

But it wasn’t all vision. It was practical economics too. For example, years ago, David and Kay told their kids that in order to return home, each had to bring a business with him or her. Today, son Danny owns and manages a successful artisanal dairy operation producing fancy cheeses on the home ranch that he began from scratch; son Justin owns a profitable BBQ restaurant in Durango; daughter Julie and her husband John own a successful tree farm on the home place; and daughter Jennifer and her husband grow and sell organic vegetables next door and plan to open a guest lodge across the highway.

In an era when more and more farm and ranch kids are leaving home, not to return, what the James clan has accomplished is significant. Not only are the kids staying close; they are also diversifying the ranch into sustainable businesses. Their attention is focused on the modern West, represented by Durango’s booming affluence and dependence on tourism. Whether it is artisan cheese, organic produce, decorative trees for landscaping, or a lodge for paying guests, the next generation of Jameses has their eyes firmly on new opportunities.

This raised a question. The Jameses enjoy what David calls many “unfair advantages” on the ranch—abundant grass, plentiful water, a busy highway right outside their front door, and close proximity to Durango—all of which contribute to their success. By contrast, many ranch families do not enjoy such advantages, which made me wonder: Beyond its fortunate circumstances, what can the James gang teach us?

I posed the question to David and Kay one evening.

“The key is community,” said Kay. “Sure, we’ve been blessed by a strong family and a special place, but our focus has always been on the larger community. We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘What can we do to help?’”

Answering their own question, David and Kay James decided ten years ago to get into the business of producing and selling grass-fed beef from their ranch—to make money, of course, but also as a way of contributing to the quality of their community’s life.

Grass-fed, or “grass-finished,” as they call it, is meat from animals that have eaten nothing but grass from birth to death. This is a radical idea because nearly all cattle in America end their days being fattened on corn (and assorted agricultural byproducts) in a feedlot before being slaughtered. Corn enables cattle to put on weight more quickly, thus increasing profits, while also adding more “marbling” to the meat—creating a taste that Americans have come to associate with quality beef. The trouble is that cows are not designed by nature to eat corn, so they require a cornucopia of drugs to maintain their health.

There’s another reason for going into the grass-fed business: it is more consistently profitable than regular beef. That’s because ranchers can market their beef directly to local customers, thus commanding premium prices in health-conscious towns such as Durango. It also provides a direct link between the consumer and the producer—a link that puts a human face on eating and agriculture.

For David and Kay, this link is crucial—it builds the bonds of community that hold everything together. “When local people are supporting local agriculture,” said David, “you know you’re doing something right.”

Every landscape is unique, and every ranch is different, so drawing lessons is a tricky business, but one overarching lesson of the James Ranch seems clear: traditions can be strengthened by a willingness to try new ideas. Later, while thumbing through a stack of information David and Kay had given me, I found a quote that seemed to sum up not only their philosophy, but also that of the New Ranch movement in general and the optimism it embodies. It came from a wall in an old church in Essex, England:

A vision without a task                                                                                            Is but a dream                                                                                                          A task without a vision                                                                                           Is drudgery                                                                                                                A vision and a task                                                                                                   Is the hope of the world.


Age of Consequences:

Westward Ho (II)

[The second half of a chapter from my book The Age of Consequences]

I want to return to the Old West for a moment. Specifically, I want to review the nineteenth-century idea of manifest destiny and explore its role in the creation of the sixty-year post–World War II economic and cultural blowout of the Fiesta, using Phoenix as a prism.

Manifest destiny was a phrase employed energetically in the mid-nineteenth century by a variety of politicians, journalists, and economic boosters to express the general belief that the United States had an unstoppable destiny to expand from sea to shining sea in accordance with God’s manifest will.

The term was coined in 1845 by John O’Sullivan, a prominent New York journalist, as part of his argument for the annexation of the Republic of Texas and for American claims to the whole of Oregon, whose northern boundary was disputed by Britain at the time. These claims, he wrote, were logical and necessary “by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”

It was a moral call to action that was quickly picked up by less salubrious expansionists who used it to fan the patriotic flames of what became the Mexican-American War in 1846—a conflict that netted California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Utah and Colorado for the nation. The clarion call of manifest destiny eventually brought Hawaii and Alaska into the union too, as well as provided cover for our colonial adventures in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century. It has even been used by some analysts to defend (or criticize) American military adventurism in the twenty-first century, including our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to historians, one of the reasons why manifest destiny had such a big impact is because it resonated strongly with the concept of American exceptionalism among citizens. This is the idea that America, by virtue of its development as a revolutionary democracy, its novel Constitution, and its perceived divinely directed “destiny” to spread liberty as far and wide as possible, is different from every other nation on the planet and thus exempt from the normal rules of history.

The idea that America is exceptional has its roots in the colonial Puritans’ vision of a virtuous “shining city on a hill”—a vision that stood in deliberate contrast to the decadence of the recently abandoned Old World. This vision was reinforced by pamphleteer Thomas Paine, who in 1776 argued that the American Revolution was an opportunity, for the first time since the “days of Noah,” to “begin the world over again.” Abraham Lincoln reiterated this idea in a message to Congress in 1862, arguing that the nation’s great experiment in liberty and democracy—the triumph of republicanism over monarchy and oppression—made America “the last, best hope of Earth.” In his famous address two years later at Gettysburg, Lincoln would call the Civil War a great test to see if American ideals would survive.

That they did survive that bloody conflagration served to bolster our sense of exceptionalism and destiny, providing a great deal of motivation for much of what Americans did henceforth, including the abolition of slavery and the settling of the American West. These ideals created a desire to extend freedom and democracy not only throughout the continent, but to the world as well, and became, in the process, an important part of our national mission in the twentieth century. Historical events confirmed this calling, from our triumph over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II to our victory over the despised Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Like a yeasty loaf of bread dough, our sense of exceptionalism kept growing. Mix in our unparalleled economic prosperity, abundant natural resources, a high standard of living, and a huge helping of technological prowess, and you have a recipe for an undisputed American self-confidence that serves millions.

I know, because I saw it all over my hometown. Here’s the basic idea:homeon16

Phoenix officially came into being on May 4, 1868. The original town site was located on 320 acres of scorching desert. In 1870, the U.S. Census found only 240 people living in what today is called the “Valley of the Sun.” By 1950, largely thanks to the invention of air-conditioning, there were over one hundred thousand people within the city limits, plus many more in surrounding communities. There were 148 miles of paved streets. Today, the Phoenix metro area is home to more than four million residents, making it the twelfth-largest city by population in the United States. It covers over five hundred square miles, making it the largest in the nation physically, even beating Los Angeles (at a mere 469 square miles). Since 2000, Phoenix’s population has grown by 24 percent, second only to Las Vegas, which grew by nearly 30 percent, and is expected to keep growing by double digits well into the future. That sounds like manifest destiny at work to me.

One of my indelible memories of growing up on the edge of Phoenix was the procession of hardware-laded pickup trucks zooming ceaselessly to construction sites everywhere. Festooned with ladders, water igloos, tool boxes, and whatnot, they zipped up and down the fresh streets like bees buzzing around a very large hive. They didn’t have to fly far to find nectar either. Cheap housing developments, mini-malls, and office complexes exploded across the desert with a fury that had all the hallmarks of an Old West land rush, only without the horses and revolvers. Certainly, the zeal was the same, as was the sense of unstoppable destiny, though perhaps without the religious motivation. Instead, we worshipped a lesser god—Moola—whose divine will directed us to overflow Phoenix with homes, schools, businesses, churches, restaurants, fast-food joints, sports bars, shopping malls, and highways. The only things an Old West miner or cowboy would have missed in 1966 were brothels and livery stables.

If Phoenix in the late 1960s represented a new frontier, marching to the updated tune of manifest destiny, it differed in one important respect from its predecessor: it exhibited a palpable sense of loss. I have a vivid memory from my teenage years of a silent protest. All over the edge of town, numerous real estate signs, each announcing vacant land for sale, had been defaced with a spray-painted lament: save our desert. During a visit one day to a dilapidated horse stable my parents rented way out in the desert, I asked my father what the protest meant. I don’t recall his response, but I do recall my feeling of uneasiness, especially as the signs were pushed farther and farther into my beloved desert.

A torn feeling crept into me. I was a suburban kid. I loved all that asphalt and the liberty and convenience it symbolized, especially when behind the wheel of my adventurous Jeep Cherokee. But I also lamented the disappearing desert, its living edge harder to find with each passing month. I understood that my two halves were linked together—one depended on the other—and were like squabbling siblings doomed to quarrel endlessly. As I grew older, however, this torn feeling deepened, until I didn’t know what to make of the tension anymore. So I did what many of my peers did to resolve their teenage angst—I moved away and went to college.

The torn feeling nagged at me, however. On trips home, I tried to shield myself from the expanding signs of manifest destiny that I saw everywhere, preferring to cocoon with my parents in their downtown apartment, far from the still-vigorous frontier. It helped that my mother had finally made peace with Phoenix. They now lived close to the main library, the art museum, and other cultural amenities, which had encouraged her to engage once more in the outside world constructively. She became cheerful again, and I recall many happy conversations in their living room revolving around books, authors, movies, and current events.

My father, too, had made peace of a sort with his shortcomings, though not with his deteriorating health. He had contracted adult-onset diabetes in the 1970s, and by the time he was due to retire, his health had declined substantially, requiring daily dialysis treatments. It made him cranky. At the end of their lives, they had reversed roles—my sweet-tempered, generous, optimistic father became grumpy and despondent, while my conflicted, restless, unsatisfied mother mellowed into a cheerful, if still reclusive, angel.

It made for unpredictable visits home.

In a way, their lives continued to reflect the changes consuming Phoenix. Rapid growth, especially the proliferation of new highways in and around the city, created a type of urban-onset diabetes that required daily transfusions of fossil fuel and water to keep the megalopolis alive. It also mocked the proclamation I heard throughout my youth that “We’ll never be another Los Angeles!” This type of daily dialysis made residents cranky too, especially those citizens who felt helpless to stop, or even slow, the city’s relentless growth. At the same time, Phoenix tried to make peace with itself, or at least with its expectations. It stopped pretending it was still a frontier cow town and embraced instead its role as a major cosmopolitan city, with all the traffic congestion and good coffee that came with it. But most of all, it stopped trying to have its desert and eat it too.

It just ate and ate.

It was manifest destiny at work, of course, but it was also the American sense of exceptionalism in action. Not only did we believe in the “rightness” of our cause—to conquer and overspread the continent—we grew increasingly confident that we were exempt from any negative consequences of our actions. If they existed, we were told they either would be (1) fixed by the free market, (2) fixed by government regulation, or (3) pushed far enough into the future to not matter. Phoenix was a perfect illustration. At no time did I hear any second-guessing about limits to growth in a desert. Nothing checked Phoenix’s destiny—not concerns about water supplies, cheap gasoline, loss of local agriculture, smog, or what it would take to keep four million people alive in a desert. It was as if we ignored the laws of physics along with the lessons of history.

Progress was good for my parents. They came to a strange land as poor pioneers and prospered along with Phoenix. They lived the American Dream—not the pursuit of material manifestations of success as much as their steady improvement over time. Their lives were better than their parents’; they had more security, more opportunity, more comfort. They didn’t do without, go hungry, or stand in unemployment lines; they were well-educated, well-fed, and well-blessed with the fruits of a robust and expanding economy. Best of all, especially for my mother, they could travel, and they saw parts of the globe that deeply impressed them. If they had second thoughts or misgivings about progress, I never heard a word. For them, the future was always bright.

I developed a different perspective. I came of age during the heyday of progress, witnessing the good, the bad, and the ugly. Impressed at first, I have now lived long enough to see that manifest destiny was not necessarily a positive force in our history. I will likely live long enough to see evidence that America is not exceptional after all—that despite this nation’s many admirable qualities, it is subject to the same historical forces that have worn down all great nations and empires throughout the ages. I know that I’ve already lived long enough to see us enter the Age of Consequences.

Here’s a photo I took (from

Age of Consequences:



Westward Ho

[First half of a chapter from my new book The Age of Consequence]

This is a personal story about manifest destiny.

In 1966, my family and I emigrated from Philadelphia to Phoenix in a covered station wagon, becoming part of a great flood of latter-day pioneers who would change this great nation in ways no one could have imagined at the time. We crossed the Great Plains in a steady caravan of moving vans, sedans, and station wagons—dad behind the wheel, mom navigating, quarrelsome kids in the middle seat, dogs in the back.

We had one goal in mind—opportunity. There were innumerable reasons for leaving home: dank cities, dead-end jobs, misty woods, milk barns, slums, high-rises, boring parents, angry lovers, Eastern snobbery, northern snows, southern humidity, and anything else that humdrummed our lives. Seeking a brighter horizon, we went west as young men and women, drawn by the desert’s promise of light, space, warmth, and a swimming pool in every backyard.

We were met with open arms. Homesteading a new land called Suburbia, we were greeted by town leaders who enthusiastically cleared the desert for settlement while their industrious partners planted cheap homes in the newly disturbed soil like row crops. Everywhere we looked, shopping malls and commercial clusters were springing up like patches of flowers (or weeds) after a spring shower. All was fresh, clean, and hopeful.

Clearly, we had found the promised land. Cheap food and gasoline overflowed in conveniently located grocery stores and filling stations; wide, car-friendly boulevards stretched to the edge of the receding wilderness; the dust of a thousand construction projects filled the air like pollination; water flowed magically from our taps despite the near absence of rainfall; seductive carpets of flood-irrigated Bermuda grass lawns tickled our toes; and glorious year-round sunshine fell on our peeling shoulders. Best of all, if it grew too hot while errand-running across the blazing asphalt, we could slip inside our new homes and relax in air-conditioned bliss.

I loved it.

For a young boy, pioneering Suburbia was a great adventure. Our first home backed onto a golf course, and I recall long, restless walks with my mother in late evenings across the trimmed fairways, dodging “tsk-tsking” water cannons and ducking into fairytale forests of oleanders and eucalyptus. A few years later, when we moved across town to a cinder-block house, I discovered the desert. Our new home sat on five acres of backyard wilderness that became both a personal refuge and a stage for elaborate games (alone, alas) that I created among the palo verde trees, creosote bushes, and sandy washes.

Later, we moved again, this time to a townhome in a generic subdivision with no wilderness anywhere. When I went outside to escape various family disharmonies, all I could do was go into the backyard to bounce a ball off the building’s sloped roof, over and over, or ride my bike around the cul-de-sacs. The move required that I switch high schools, which disoriented me as much as losing my cherished desert, though it eventually netted me a spot on the soccer team, the presidency of the backpacking club, and a girlfriend.

Soon, we moved again, this time to a spacious house near what was then the last stoplight on the edge of town. I could smell the desert. Liberated at last by a driver’s license and a new but mechanically challenged Jeep Cherokee (a source of many adventures in its own right), I began to explore the rapidly expanding boundaries of Suburbia with delight. I dug in archaeological sites with an amateur society, prospected for photographs among the cactus and rattlesnakes, climbed hills, hiked trails, and drove that damn Cherokee back and forth relentlessly on unending blacktopped streets and highways, luxuriating in every unleaded moment.

It was 1976, our nation’s bicentennial year, and the world was definitely my oyster.


I never asked, but I’m certain my parents enjoyed their roles as homesteaders too—at least in the beginning. Both had humble roots; my father was born in a shack in a dairy field near Hope, Arkansas, in 1926, and my mother grew up middle class in Charleston, West Virginia. Their journey from want and need to hard-earned success and (for a time) modest affluence was typical of their generation, my father’s story especially.

After enduring a hardscrabble childhood spent knocking around Tennessee, North Carolina, and Louisiana with an itinerant dad who at times was a teacher, lumberman, football coach, and preacher, my father determined at a young age to cut a different path. Over his mother’s objections, he signed up with the Army, completed a tour of duty in Allied-occupied Berlin, and then attended Vanderbilt University on the GI Bill. Medical school and an MD in neurology followed. After graduating, he won a national award as an up-and-coming doctor, which he parlayed into an opportunity to cofound what is today a highly regarded national center of neurological medicine in Phoenix—a job he held for the rest of his life, earning the accolades of peers and patients alike.

Not bad for a boy born in a dairy field shack.

My mother’s journey was no less typical, though it illuminates a darker side of her generation’s saga. As a spirited youth, raised in a book-loving but modest and unhappy family (the Great Depression knocked her father back on his heels emotionally as well as financially), my mother yearned to soak up the bright lights of big cities. After marrying my father in 1950, she spent the next decade absorbing every ounce of culture provided by Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other places my father took them to complete his medical training. They attended plays in New York City, vacationed in Boston, traveled to Paris and Prague, all of which made an indelible cosmopolitan impression on her expectations. She especially loved literature and ate up the lives of writers. Judging by the vast quantity and high quality of her correspondence during these years, as I discovered later, I’m certain she harbored ambitions to be a writer herself.

However, things got in her way—children, for instance. My father too, who held old-fashioned opinions about gender roles despite his liberal nature. Then there were my mother’s personal demons, including bouts of crippling self-doubt. Part of her situation was beyond her control. As a young woman in the 1950s, she was caught between social riptides, liberation coming ashore and tradition ebbing out to sea. She felt confused, frustrated, and at times angry about both the opportunities and challenges confronting her, as did many women of her generation, I suspect. It also fed her demons.

Phoenix made it all worse. Moving to the suburban frontier in a desert was not on her “to do” list, and after an initial burst of enthusiasm for her new home, she came to resent the city, as well as her fate. Like other pioneering women who “went West” reluctantly but dutifully, leaving the sophisticated “East” far behind, my mother never got over her dislocation or her disappointment. She endured, but not well. She never found the footing she desperately craved in those vigorous times, slipped, and eventually fell.

My father also struggled, especially toward the end of his life, despite his achievements. I think they had trouble keeping pace with the rate of change both in Phoenix and in the world at large. Like many pioneers, my parents were engulfed by the economic fire they helped to light, though I’m certain they didn’t see things that way. To my father, it was all progress—which he considered uncritically to be a good thing (recall the shack in the dairy field). To my mother, the changes were just part of her general discontent. Progress dog-piled her diminishing expectations, and as a consequence, she recoiled physically and emotionally, eventually embarking on a general retreat. Their home, in fact, became a sort of hermitage from which she emerged only occasionally. By the end of her life, I believe she was content to be engulfed by the city’s expanding flames, perhaps hoping to rise again some day from the ashes.

It was much the same with Phoenix itself. What was once a small city with big dreams grew into a big city with big problems—and was ultimately consumed by its own success, though most residents didn’t see it that way either, I suspect. Phoenix, too, endured, and not well.


To be continued…   To buy the book see:

The Age of Consequences

I have a new book out from Counterpoint Press! It is titled The Age of Consequences: a Chronicle of Concern and Hope and it includes an Introduction by Wendell Berry. Here is a brief description, followed by a selection from the Prologue. For a review (and to order) see:

This is a book about questions and answers.

We live in what sustainability pioneer Wes Jackson calls “the most important moment in human history,” meaning we live at a decisive moment of action. The various challenges confronting us are like a bright warning light shining in the dashboard of a speeding vehicle called Civilization, accompanied by an insistent and annoying buzzing sound, requiring immediate attention. I call this moment the Age of Consequences – a time when the worrying consequences of our hard partying over the past sixty years have begun to bite hard, raising difficult and anguished questions.

How do you explain to your children, for example, what we’ve done to the planet – to their planet? How do you explain to them not only our actions but our inaction as well? It’s not enough simply to say that adults behave in complex, confusing, and often contradictory ways because children today can see the warning light in Civilization’s dashboard for themselves. When they point, what do we say?

As a parent and as a writer, this anguished question created a strong desire to document the sequence of events that I was witnessing as well as attempt to explain our behavior as a society. Hopefully, we would manage to turn off the warning light in the dashboard, but if we did not I was certain that future generations would want an accounting of our behavior. So, in 2008 I began to write, blending headlines with narrative and observation, travel and research into chronological installments, crossing my fingers.

Meanwhile, my work with the nonprofit Quivira Coalition provided hopeful answers to various Age of Consequences concerns, including many ‘low-tech’ solutions involving sunlight, grass, dirt, creeks and animals. These answers included ecological restoration, grassfed beef production, local food systems and carbon sequestration in soils, all part of what is being called a ‘new agrarianism.’ We saw it as connected – cattle, soil, grass, water, food, people – all working in nature’s image of health and regeneration.

Eventually, I viewed these anguished questions and hopeful answers as two sides of the same coin and pulled them together into this book. Answers exist if we’re willing to work together and try new ideas (and some old ones). While there’s much to worry about these days, there’s also a lot that we can do together at the grassroots – beginning literally with the grass and the roots.


This book was born on a sunny summer day in 2006 when I stepped out of a movie theater with my wife into the warm embrace of a lazy afternoon.

Gen and I had finally found a convenient time to see former vice president Al Gore’s inconvenient documentary on global warming, with its dire warnings of environmental and social turmoil ahead if we maintained the status quo. Like millions of others, we were unnerved by what we saw. I was especially disturbed by the graphic images of rising seawater snaking through the streets of Manhattan, Shanghai, and other low-lying cities around the globe. As we stepped off the curb into the parking lot, blinking in the bright sunlight after the movie, I quipped to Gen, “We’d better see Venice, quick.”

The film’s message wasn’t exactly news to us. My work as a conservationist, first with the New Mexico chapter of the Sierra Club and then as a cofounder of the Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to building bridges between ranchers, environmentalists, and others around practices that improved land health, had taught me a great deal about the precarious state of our planet. I knew challenges abounded, but Mr. Gore managed to raise my anxiety to a new level. The core issue, I realized, was that sooner or later, Business As Usual would mean serious trouble for every living thing on the planet.

Watching the documentary, an image popped into my mind of a bright warning light—in the shape of a thermometer—shining in the dashboard of a speeding vehicle called Civilization, accompanied by an insistent and annoying buzzing sound. And like all warning lights, I knew we ignored it at our peril.

As I sat in the dark theater, listening to the former vice president lecture us about our responsibilities and watching the charts and maps of our discontents, I suspected we were seeing only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. It wasn’t just global warming—a great deal more lurked unseen, below the rising waterline. So when Mr. Gore quoted Winston Churchill as describing the run-up to World War II as an “era of consequences”—because Hitler’s rise was a pickle of our own making—I immediately thought of the phrase “the age of consequences” to describe our current period.

I mentioned my idea to Gen as we approached the car after the movie. As an archaeologist, I knew she would understand its appeal. History is replete with Eras, Ages, Periods, and Revolutions—Agricultural, Industrial, Technological. Consider all the monikers that have been attached to the current epoch, including the now infamous “Information Age”—infamous because it feels like we’re drowning in information while the world unravels. Why not the Age of Consequences? Gen agreed. I filed the thought away.

We climbed into the car and drove home.

The idea to start a chronicle happened a year later, sparked by two events. The first took place over breakfast one morning when our eight-year-old twins, Sterling and Olivia, heard a story on public radio about the possibility of all polar bears dying out as a result of global warming. After a minute or two, the kids froze as they listened, their faces ashen as the disembodied voice of a biologist explained that disappearing sea ice at the North Pole likely spelled doom for the bears. They turned their faces to us, their expressions saying it all: The polar bears are going to die?

My heart sank. What could we say? We tried to explain to them that no one really knows if the polar bears are doomed or not. The biologist might be wrong. After all, polar bears have been around for a very long time and have survived a variety of adverse conditions before, including other episodes of severe climate change. Maybe they’ll pull through again. This mollified them, and they trooped off to school with their spirits restored.

It didn’t mollify me, however.

I turned the incident over in my mind after their departure. What if the polar bears did die off? What if Sterling and Olivia never got to see one in the wild, ever? Worse, how do you explain to your children what we’ve done to the planet—to their planet—over the past sixty years or so as a consequence of our hard partying? How do you explain to them not only our actions but our inaction as well? It’s not enough simply to say that adults behave in complex, confusing, and often contradictory ways, because children today can see the warning light in Civilization’s dashboard for themselves. When they point, what do we say?

I didn’t know, but finding some way to answer these anguished questions suddenly became a priority.

The second event happened a few months later, while lunching with Wes Jackson and his wife at their home near Salina, Kansas. Wes is founder and director of the Land Institute, which is dedicated to the important business of reinventing the nation’s agriculture along regenerative and sustainable lines, so when he said, “We live at the most important moment in human history,” I paused between bites of my ham sandwich. That’s because a similar thought had occurred to me recently. I asked him what he meant. Wes said that we live at a decisive moment of action. The various challenges confronting humanity now require, like a long line of airplanes waiting to land at a busy airport, attention—immediate attention. Time is short. Hurry up.

“What sort of action do you recommend?” I asked.

“It means we have to practice restraint,” he replied. “That’s not something humans do very well, of course. But it’s something we’ve got to learn, or things will get much worse.”

Was it possible? I knew that two generations ago, during an era of privation and global conflict, restraint was not only possible but widely practiced. Gas rationing. Victory gardens. Meat twice a week. Prudence and frugality ruled. But everything changed after World War II. The arrow of Progress tipped upward dramatically. We were encouraged at every level to be unrestrained in all that we did—how far we traveled, how much we ate, what we built, or where we sprawled. “Just Do It” became the unofficial motto of my generation, courtesy of a shoe company. Progress, we were told, had no limits and no consequences. Viva la fiesta! Enjoy the party, there won’t be a hangover.

They were wrong.

I thought about Sterling and Olivia again. It wasn’t anguish I felt this time, however, but indignation. What sort of world will they be inheriting from us? One more bountiful and secure than the one I inherited from my parents, or one more diminished and dangerous? Reports already said that Sterling and Olivia’s generation would be less healthy than my generation was at their age—a first in American history, unhappily. Dread began to mix with anger. As a parent, there is perhaps no greater fear than the sense that your children’s lives may be worse off than yours. And that’s a real worry today, especially knowing it was up to us to handle this important moment in history properly. So far, we weren’t doing such a bang-up job.

I know what Wes thinks about it.

Shortly after my visit, I read an essay he wrote based on a commencement address he gave a month earlier at Washington College in Maryland, in which he told the students they were “the children of depletion” and warned them of the inevitable, upcoming contraction of American society. Not surprisingly, the president of the college came rushing up to him after his speech sputtering: “You can’t say those things!”

Indeed. That’s the trouble with calls to action these days—they can’t avoid the umbra of doom and gloom. I’ve been there myself. In fact, I’ve heard the mantra of coming trouble so often that I began to suffer from the early signs of what I call “future fatigue.” It’s a dispiriting affliction that often results in listlessness and apathy. If not caught quickly (usually by sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears), it can spread quickly, sometimes disabling friends and loved ones. However, when I read Wes’s commencement address, I realized that his call to action needed to be heard and shared.

“In painting you this bleak picture, I hope you understand that I am honoring you as adults,” he told the students. “You were born on the upslope of energy and economic growth, but much of your life is likely to be on the downslope in the use of nonrenewable energy.”

That’s because we’re depleting the five pools of carbon—soil, wood, coal, oil, and natural gas—at an unsustainable rate, he said. We’ve burned up, for instance, half the planet’s known reserves of oil—one trillion barrels—in less than a century. Technology is not likely to ride to the rescue either. Energy, after all, cannot be created or destroyed, just transformed, according to the first law of thermodynamics. So, when sources of energy-rich carbon go into decline, as they will, we either find a suitable replacement, or society goes into decline too.

That’s when a second warning light in Civilization’s dashboard flickered on in my mind—in the shape of a “low oil” pressure gauge. Urgent action was required here too. Then a third warning light appeared, blinking rapidly. It was the engine warning light, indicating it was time for an overhaul of the main economic means of Civilization’s propulsion down the path of Progress.

As a parent and as a writer, the anguish embedded in both of these events created a strong desire to do something beyond my day job with the Quivira Coalition. At the very least, I wanted to document what I was witnessing so that Sterling and Olivia and their cohort could get a sense of why we did what we did—or didn’t do—as a society. Hopefully, I would be documenting how we managed to turn off those warning lights in the dashboard. If we failed, however, I was certain that future generations would be asking anguished (and angry) questions of their own.

As someone living through this important moment in time, I felt an obligation to chronicle the flow of current events in case it might be useful, now or later. At the same time, I felt compelled to recount my own journey. So, on Earth Day 2008, I began to write, blending headlines, narrative, and observation with travel and research to shape chronological installments, which I posted in an online publication I called A Chronicle of the Age of Consequences.

Here’s a photo I took for the Chronicle:

NM 016

Another Reason for a Carbon Tax

How do we create a marketplace that will pay landowners and others to double the carbon content of their soil?

Think of all the good things that would happen if the carbon content of the world’s soils were doubled from 1% to 2%, or from 2% to 4%. Think of the abundance that would happen as a result. Consider the amount of food that could be produced on the same stretch of land, or how much water could be stored in the soil. Think about no-till and organic cover-cropping and the amount of life that would be present in the soil if we let mycorrhizal fungi do their thing. Think about all the nutrients that would be available once more to plants and animals and us as a consequence of doubled carbon.

Think about the above-ground wildlife that would benefit from a vibrant, diverse, and abundant below-ground ecosystem. Think about all the ecosystem services that would be provided to all living things if we doubled the carbon content of our soils. Then think about how much CO2 we could sequester in the ground. Not first – but last, meaning sequestration as a co-benefit of stimulating life. Think of all the positive things that would happen if we looked at carbon as a Good Guy, instead of simply the Bad Guy, as we do now.

How would we make this happen economically? We know how to do it ecologically, as I have detailed throughout this book, and thanks to scientists and others we now have ways to monitor our carbon’s progress, which is the last piece of the land management puzzle, I believe. Now how do we get our economy to help?

One answer, of course, is an incentive-based carbon offset marketplace or a compliance-based system guided largely by cap-and-trade mechanisms, such as the one being developed in California. However, these marketplaces are complicated, bureaucratic, and politically vulnerable, as a recent general election in Australia demonstrated when a change in government brought in a new leader who promptly dismantled the carbon marketplace.

And when considering cap-and-trade schemes, don’t forget the aggregating sharks – those speculators, investors, and middlemen who insert themselves into the transaction. Additionally, it is proving difficult to get offset money into the hands of farmers and ranchers to compensate them their carbon work. The money tends to flow toward technological solutions instead, such as energy efficiency, emissions reduction schemes, “green” infrastructure, and the like. Not much, I bet, has made its way into new soil carbon.

Could there be another model? I’ll propose one here, modestly: what if we paid farmers, ranchers, and other landowners or managers directly to double the carbon content of their soils?

What if we said to a farmer or rancher “We’ll pay you $100,000 for every one percent of soil carbon increase above a baseline measurement” – what would happen? Let’s leave the details out for a moment and fantasize about the big picture. If soil carbon had a high value to society and we were willing to pay to have it increased over time, wouldn’t a landowner respond? Wouldn’t they say, “Hell yes, I can do that!” Better yet, if society didn’t dictate which tool to use to achieve this goal, via regulation say, and left it up to the landowner to choose, wouldn’t the incentive be even greater to give it a go?

What if we said to a landowner: We’ll enter into a contract to pay you $200,000 to double the carbon content of your soil in ten years and how you accomplish this goal is up to you, whether you use cattle, goats, beavers, pasture cropping, solar panels, wetland restoration, edible backyard forests, holistic livestock management, flerds, grassfed beef, drought-tolerant seeds, milpas, water harvesting, rooftop farms, no-till organic farming, cover crops, spiders, permaculture, satellite imagery, food cooperatives, biodiesel, open-source software, mycorrhizal fungi, nematodes, earthworms, beer, sheep, podcasts, weed dating, ecosystem services, inspirational lectures, or sweaty dancing.

You choose.

It wouldn’t matter what they chose because you can’t increase soil carbon with a practice that degrades the land. The only way to double soil carbon is with practices that are regenerative and make the land healthier.

Take cattle, for instance. If you overgraze the range, carbon stocks will fall, not increase. Plants will suffer, roots will wither, and carbon will leak away. To increase soil carbon with livestock, you must manage them in such a way that promotes plant vigor and thus strengthens the carbon cycle, especially in a drought. Ditto with wetlands and backyard forests and riparian areas.

If, after ten years, the carbon content of a farm or ranch’s soil has doubled, fulfilling the terms of the contract, then you can feel assured that the landowner got there with sustainable, regenerative practices of his or her own choosing.

The reason is simple: carbon doesn’t lie. It is readily measured and quantified, whether by the spoonful or by a satellite. It either increases or decreases, or stays the same. It can’t be negotiated, fudged, bullied, bribed, denied, or fooled. It’s there or it’s not. Either you doubled the amount of carbon in your soil, or you did not.

That’s the beauty of the idea: offer to pay a landowner to double the carbon content of their soil then stand back as they choose from the regenerative toolbox, knowing that no matter what methods they choose they’ll be creating a cascade of co-benefits, including food, fuel, fiber, forage, water, and fun. Better yet, if you can get a beaver, grass plant, or nematode to do most of the work, they’ll do it for free and never ask for a vacation!

It’s all about renewing life. Carbon is life. Grow carbon and you grow life. Do things that encourage life and you’ll grow carbon – blue, green, or brown carbon, take your pick.

 Here’s how it works:image description

Many people will raise objections to my idea, undoubtedly. What about drought? What about variability in weather patterns? What if carbon stocks fall, does a landowner have to pay the money back? What if a landowner intentionally degrades his or her land just so they can bring it back and make money? What about the good stewards, how will they be compensated for the good work they’ve already accomplished? Whose protocols will be used? That’s too much money! That’s not enough! It’ll never work!

There will be other objections, ones that people won’t likely shout out loud, but ones that will be just as difficult to overcome. For example, you can’t get rich making soil carbon. Not filthy rich. Wealthy in the Wall Street sense. It won’t help you get something for nothing either. It’s hard work. Carbon doesn’t come out of a slot machine or a lottery wheel; it can’t be discovered in big, thick seams in your backyard to be mined and sold as a commodity making you unexpectedly rich; it can’t be hawked to you by a corporation, controlled by a government, or cornered by a conglomerate. It’ll never have an Initial Public Offering, a stock split, or pay a dividend – except as healthy soil.

There’s nothing virtual about soil carbon; you can’t Google it, Tweet it, or stick an annoying virtual ad on it, unless you can figure out a way to get protozoa to carry microscopic signs. Carbon is relentlessly 3-D and it won’t make you a millionaire, which makes it a hard sell in our current economy. Carbon’s abundance and ubiquity, much like sunlight, also makes it confoundingly democratic. These are good things, I believe.

As the century wears on and the effects of climate change begin to bite, as they have already begun to do, then redefinitions of wealth, success, and happiness will begin to shift, I’m certain. As the global population surges toward nine billion in just a few short decades, soil carbon will begin to look more and more valuable, not as a way to become wealthy, but as a way of ensuring our well-being. Ditto with adaptation to climate change. Strategies to cope with drought, feed more people, create new habitats for wild animals, store more water in the soil, abate heat waves, floods, and other weather extremes, and adjust to “new normals” in general will depend, at their core, on carbon.

The sooner we get started, the better.

There will be one more objection to my idea: it isn’t practical. The toolbox isn’t diverse enough, people will say, or big enough to work at scale. Or they’ll simply disagree about the regenerative nature of the practices. More fertilizer!, they’ll say. More diesel! More business-as-usual! We need more technology and engineering to solve the rising challenges of the twenty-first century, people will insist, not more mychorrizal fungi.

My response is simple: It is practical. We can do this at scale. We’re an ingenious species, the most ingenious ever in the history of the planet (alas). Give us a problem to solve and some tools to do the job and then stand back.

There is another objection, however, that’s 100% legit: where will the money come from? If we are going to double the carbon contents of America’s soils, we’re going to need a lot of money. That’s because we’re talking about a lot of soil. I’m not even going to attempt the math. So where is the money going to come from? I’m not an economist, but two thoughts come to mind:

One, we’re a rich nation. A really rich nation. We have tons of money. Maybe we could use part of our vast wealth to double soil carbon, restore degraded watersheds and rangelands, increase biodiversity, lower agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, produce renewable energy, mentor a generation of young agrarians, and grow a lot of healthy, local food. Maybe by steering a tiny portion of the Defense Department’s budget to agriculture and conservation in the name of genuine national security. Silly me!

Second, we could impose a carbon tax and use a portion of the proceedings to pay landowners to double the carbon content of their soils.

I’m not going to go into the specifics surrounding a carbon tax here, except to say that if we ever get serious about climate change – which we will some day – then a carbon tax is probably inevitable. It’s the only strategy that makes sense. And in a way it parallels my carbon payment idea: tax carbon at its source and let market forces respond; make carbon payments available and let landowners respond.

A big portion of a carbon tax will be needed to offset the rise in the cost of fossil fuels, probably through a reduction in payroll income taxes or payment as an annual dividend (as they do in Alaska), but a portion could be set aside to fund soil carbon projects, with the goal of doubling carbon in soils in ten years, say. I have no idea of how much money would be necessary, but I bet it would be a fairly small percentage of the revenues generated by a carbon tax. And the poetic justice of using a black carbon tax to fund brown or blue carbon projects would be delicious.

Simple. Tax fossil fuels at a fairly high rate and stand back as the economy shifts to cheaper renewable energy sources. Greenhouse gas emissions would fall. Efficiency would rise. No complicated regulations or rules or mandates for this or that would be necessary. People would adjust. Other taxes would decline. A bunch of money would be generated. It could be used for the communal good, such as doubling soil carbon. Simple.

And very hard.

Here’s my idea in a nutshell:SoilNG

Excerpted from Soil, Grass, Hope: a Journey Through Carbon Country


Land Literacy

How many people could recognize an ecological wound if they saw one?

Could we tell a natural arroyo from an eroding gully? Could we tell if plant pedestaling was a sign of proper land function or a sign of erosion? If we recognized a headcut in a wet meadow, would we be able to deduce why it was there or where it originated? Could we tell if a channel was aggrading or degrading or why we should care?

This issue hit home for me years ago when I heard Dan Dagget, an environmental activist, tell a story about a professor of environmental studies he knew who took a group of students for a walk one day in the woods near Flagstaff, Arizona. Stopping in a meadow, the professor pointed at the ground and asked the students, not so rhetorically, “Can anyone tell me if this land is healthy or not?” After a few moments of awkward silence, one student finally spoke up. “Tell us first if it’s grazed by cows or not,” he demanded.

The implication was clear: if cows grazed here, the land had to be unhealthy. If cows did not graze there, then things were “natural” and therefore fine. Dan’s point was that the actual condition of the land, visible as signs of health or ill-health, had become secondary to the political positions of the observers. The point that stuck with me over the years, however, was this one: we’ve become mostly land illiterate.

But reading the landscape is not as hard as it sounds. As an example, let’s take a walk together.

I’ll start at the back fence of our property near Santa Fe, but before I take a step I’m going to ask myself a question (as you might): Where do I live? I don’t mean my city, county, or state, but rather the geography or landform of my home ground. I live on 2.5 acres of gently sloping cold desert dominated by juniper and pinon trees, bunch grasses and annual weeds. The elevation is 7000 feet above sea level and the annual precipitation over the past one hundred years has averaged 12 to 14 inches. The landforms around our house include small hills and dry washes called arroyos.

If I wanted to, I could do some research to answer a few questions before starting my walk: What is the geology of the land where I live? What are the actual soil types? What plants and animals might have existed here before humans began to make their mark? What were the historical uses of this land before it became a 2000-home subdivision spread out over 13,000 acres? How have precipitation patterns changed in recent years, and if they have what effect has it had on the land?

I know the soil here is easily eroded, and I’ve noticed that after a rain it caps in bare spots, meaning it forms a thin, hard crust. I know from experience that capping can be a problem if left undisturbed because crusts inhibit seeds from making it into the soil where they can germinate and grow. It also accelerates water runoff – and as I look around from our property line I can see bare spots on the land.

Now we begin to walk – and as we do, let’s pretend to be a raindrop for a moment. Everyone lives in a watershed – everyone – and thinking like a watershed is key to reading any landscape. All water that falls on the ground wants to go to the sea, thanks to gravity, so if you were a raindrop, how would you get there? In this case, our house sits at the tippy top of small drainage, called a greenbelt here, which means it’s easy to tell which direction the raindrop wants to flow: west.

Water coming off our grassless backyard (thanks to our chickens) gathers together not far from the bottom of our property into a tiny stream that picks up other tiny streams as it goes. A mile downstream it will merge with the Arroyo Pueblo, coming in from the north, which merges eventually with the Galisteo River, to the south, and then on to a final merge with the mighty Rio Grande near Santo Domingo Pueblo, thirty miles from my house. Technically, we’re part of the 460,000-acre Galisteo River watershed, but that’s too much for this raindrop to comprehend, so we’ll stick to our narrow greenbelt below my house.

Here’s a photo of capped soil near my house (a sign of poor land health):Copy of IMG_2927

The first thing I notice on our walk is that the footpath coming in from the right has captured most of the water flow in the greenbelt, causing it to become entrenched and as a consequence difficult to walk in! In many places, people have stepped out of the footpath as they walk, creating a parallel track, which has begun to erode as well.

On a steep section, I can see that water has spilled from the trail into the small channel, which is good, but I can also see grass pedestaling (grass plants that are confined to small pedestals of soil) and small rills in the soil on my right as I walk, which are signs of sheet erosion. I can see the sediment it creates deposited on the trail, where it is picked up by subsequent storms and carried downhill by rushing water, scouring the trail as it goes. I also know that storms in recent years have been much more intense than normal – and I can see the cumulative effects throughout the greenbelt.

This isn’t an idle issue. There are no live streams in our subdivision, which means the 16 million gallons of water our community consumes each month on average during the summer must be pumped from underground aquifers, some shallow and some deep. The deep ones are comprised of fossil water, meaning it’s been down there for a very long time, but the shallow aquifers are recharged by surface water, snow especially. The condition of the watershed directly influences the rates of recharge. If rain or snowmelt sinks into the soil, thanks to gentle gradients, decent vegetative cover, and uncapped soil, it boosts the recharge rate. If its shoots down eroded trails and washes off the land, however, the recharge rate drops significantly. In a high, cold desert that is enduring a low-grade but persistent drought, what’s happening in our micro-watersheds should be a concern to every resident.

My walk brings me to an intersection with another trail, where the greenbelt widens. Near the junction are two tree stumps, both rough-cut by an axe, which suggests they were chopped down decades ago. It serves as a reminder that this area has been in use for a long time, first by prehistoric Native Americans, then by Spanish colonists, starting four centuries years ago, and now by the houses that line both sides of the greenbelt, including the dogs, cats, and people that live in them.

I walk on.

Land Literacy Pop Quiz: which side of the fence below looks healthier? Next question: which side is grazed by cattle?IMG_1756Answer to both: the left side. The right has been rested for 20+ years from livestock grazing. (location: central Texas)

I follow an old road that parallels the railroad track, then I turn right and head up a big arroyo on a footpath. As I keep going I begin to wonder if I’m walking in what used to be an old ranch road. It’s wide enough for a truck, but it’s sunk three to four feet below the old floodplain, suggesting that if it had been a road at one point it caught the water flow and eroded downwards. I knew this was a quick way to alter the natural hydrology of arid environments, thanks to our easily erodible soils.

I keep going. The trail bobs and weaves around trees, rising out of the wash for a while, then slipping back down. Eventually, the arroyo fans out and I begin to see more traces of old ranch roads. Fifty years ago, most of this country was one big ranch, and if you look carefully you can see traces of old irrigation ditches on the land. Unfortunately, I can also see two- and three-foot headcuts in the old roads, each of which suddenly appeared three summers ago as the result of intense rainstorms. When I began walking in this arroyo ten years ago, none of the roads had a headcut. That tells a story of troubling changes in the region – but not the first sign of trouble.

As I walk, I also notice that long stretches the arroyo’s bottom rest well below the old floodplain, though not in an old road, indicating there have been serious erosion problems here in the past, likely the consequence of overgrazing by unmanaged livestock. It’s another familiar story – too many cows, too little grass. The remedies are familiar as well. There are three large earthen dams in the greenbelt, each constructed, I’m certain, in an attempt by the ranch owner to impound floodwater and slow the erosion. They probably doubled as stock tanks, but standing on them I definitely get the sense that humans were struggling to keep the land from unraveling here – and to some degree they succeeded. The arroyo’s edges have laid back over the years and are now nicely vegetated, meaning they are no longer actively eroding. The dams didn’t breach, which suggests the floods were kept under control, and the old roads were still in decent shape – at least until very recently.

As I near my exit point from the arroyo, I wonder what other questions I should be asking about the land as I walk? How about the plants that I see? What do the different species, age-class distribution, and vigor of the plants tell me? Does the area look like it’s getting wetter or drier? Are there visible impacts caused by deer or other wildlife, besides the ubiquitous coyotes and rabbits? Has there been a fire recently? Any other natural disturbances? What other cultural impacts are there? What about the impacts of the modern roads? The mountain bike tracks I see? What about all the dog poop?!

I come to another headcut – a big one. What would we do if we wanted to repair it and restore the water and carbon cycles here? There are no wet meadows or riparian areas in this greenbelt that I know of (except behind the earth dams after a good rain), so carbon sequestration isn’t really an issue. The land could certainly grow more grass than it has, and thus store more carbon than it does currently, but that would be a tall order for a subdivision like ours. Most homeowners don’t venture into the greenbelts, from my experience, much less try to “read” them from a land-health perspective. The headcuts don’t threaten anyone’s home (not yet), so there’s no need to raise alarm bells. Still, reading the landscape on my walk tells me it could be in better shape – if we wanted to make it so.

Do we?

A few years ago, the homeowners association hired a herd of goats, plus two handlers, to chow down on the weeds in the greenbelts, with great effect. The goats were popular, and for a while I felt optimistic about getting our greenbelts into better shape. Then came the chicken wars. Last year, an ugly row over backyard hens erupted in our community, dividing neighbors and effectively putting an end to using livestock to improve the land’s health. It’s a sign both of ignorance and illiteracy, I’m afraid. Not only do we not know how to read a landscape very well, we’ve lost sense for the positive role animals can play on the land.

The dirt road gives way to pavement and I turn left at an intersection. It’s been a wonderful walk on a warm, late afternoon and as I look up into the sky I see the clouds beginning to assemble themselves into another evening performance. The pinks and grays and oranges and maroons of our sunrises and sunsets remind me almost daily that the world is full of color, light, sound, touch, and other positive energy. It’s an inspiring and hopeful time to be alive – if we choose to make it so. We can be rich. It also reminds me that we can’t be spending all our time looking at our feet. We need to be looking up, at the clouds, at a world that is infinitely beautiful. IMG_2308

Excerpted from Soil, Grass, Hope: a Journey Through Carbon Country



The power of carbon + coexistence struck me while visiting a farm in New South Wales, Australia, a few years ago. It hit when I learned that the number of native grass species on the farm had increased from seven to 130 in only seven years! The key? Using cattle and sheep managed together as one herd.

The man responsible for this accomplishment was Eric Harvey, a gregarious former wool trader who had decided to try his hand at the other end of the supply chain by purchasing a 7000-acre farm called Gilgai, located a few miles from the crossroads city of Dubbo. Shortly after buying Gilgai in 2004, however, Eric nearly “bought the farm” himself when he had a massive heart attack, as he explained to me on the drive in from Dubbo. After recovering, Eric was astonished to learn from his doctor that his body was almost completely devoid of minerals, which are essential to human health. He knew there weren’t many minerals in rainwater – due to water scarcity Australians collect and drink a lot of rainwater – but he assumed he was getting enough minerals from the plants and animals he ate, which in turn get their minerals from the soil. Ninety-five tests showed he wasn’t. This was a huge eye-opener, he said.

Eric had soil tests conducted at Gilgai, discovering that it too was depleted of essential minerals, including carbon. This meant that the farm and Eric’s health were now one and the same – both had to recover. But where were the minerals going to come from, he wondered? A mine? A factory? That didn’t sound very practical or economical. And what about carbon? Was he supposed to spread compost over all 7000 acres of land? That didn’t sound economical either.

A chance conversation with a neighbor provided Eric with an unexpected answer: the sky. Carbon was freely available in the air, his neighbor said, in the form of carbon dioxide, and all Eric had to do was get it into the soil via photosynthesis, livestock, and planned grazing practices. The goal, he told Eric, was to grow native grass –diverse and copious amounts of it.

So that’s what he did. First, he studied the principles of planned grazing and then, after deciding to put them to work, he made another unconventional decision: to run cattle and sheep together as one grazing unit. It’s called a flerd – a flock of sheep and a herd of cattle, comingled. Years ago, he saw sheep and cattle grazing on a farm in Africa and thought “that makes sense.” Maybe to Eric – but not to many others. To say that it is not traditional to run cows and sheep together would be a huge understatement. It’s hardly done anywhere. Not only do many in agriculture consider the two types of herbivores to be incompatible with each other from a grazing perspective, most sheep and cattle farmers consider each other to be incompatible as well. In fact, Australia endured its share of range wars between sheepmen and stockmen over the decades, much like America did in the nineteenth century.

Eric ignored all that and in 2005 he put together his first flerd, eventually comingling 5000 sheep and 600 cows. His goal was to use the different grazing behaviors of sheep and cattle to benefit plant vigor, diversity, and density. Nature likes mixed-species grazing, Eric said, because animals often complement each other in what they will eat, the composition of their manure and the way their hooves interact with the soil. As Eric described it, herbivory creates an organic “pulse” below the ground surface as roots expand and contract with grazing. This feeds carbon to hungry fungi, protozoa, and nematodes, which in turn feed grass plants. The manure “pulse” aboveground helps too, especially with nutrient cycling. His plan with the flerd was to make both “pulses” beat stronger and more steadily.

To accomplish this goal, Eric divided the 7000-acre farm into 196 paddocks, mostly with electric fencing, creating an average paddock size of 140 acres (the smallest is six acres). The flerd moves from paddock to paddock every few days, giving each paddock plenty of time to grow more grass. And with only one “mob” to watch, Eric is often back home by 10 am. As further work reduction, Eric monitors the watering troughs remotely via sensors linked to the computer in his office, as he showed me, which supply up-to-the-minute data. He also pays for a service that provides aerial infrared images of his farm daily, which allows Eric to monitor the growth rate in his paddocks at a 7-acre scale. He calls this service “pastures from space” and says it gives him an invaluable snapshot of forage conditions, which helps adjust his grazing schedule.

Eric also ground-truths the monitoring data he receives. That’s how he knows he has been able to expand the number of plant species on Gilgai from seven to 130. This improvement in diversity has substantially enhanced the mineral content of the plants, since they can now access nutrients more widely, as well as deeper in the soil profile, and process them more effectively. And when these plants are eaten by animals, which are in turn eaten by us, the minerals enter our bodies, as Eric can personally attest (his physical health has improved dramatically). That’s why Eric and his family grow and sell only grassfed products from their farm. By definition, grassfed means an animal has spent its entire life on grass or other green plants, from birth to death. This contrasts with the feedlot model in which an animal finishes its life in confinement, fattened on grain and assorted agricultural by-products and pumped full of medication and other chemicals.

Thanks to a lot of digging in the scientific literature over two decades by Jo Robinson, an independent researcher (, the health benefits of grassfed over feedlot meat have become widely known. They include:

  • More omega-3 fatty acids (“good” fats) and fewer omega-6 (“bad” fats)
  • Lower in the saturated fats linked with heart disease
  • Much higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a cancer fighter
  • Much more vitamin A
  • Much more vitamin E
  • Higher in beta-carotene
  • Higher in the B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin
  • Higher in calcium, magnesium, and potassium
  • Enhanced immunity, increased bone density, and suppression of cancer cells
  • Does not contain traces of added hormones, antibiotics, or other drugs

As Jo Robinson says, “If it’s in their feed, it’s in our food” – which means if you’re a meat-eater, it’s in us.

 Here is a photo of Eric’s flerd in action at Gilgai:Copy of sheep

As for the flerd itself, Eric Harvey has hardly had any trouble running sheep and cattle together. The key is to raise them as one family, he said, especially the lambs. Sheep will bond with cows at a young age and remain bonded for the rest of their lives. As a result, the sheep follow the cattle wherever they go, which means they’ll move from paddock to paddock with the herd without much fuss. This is great news for a multi-paddock farm like Gilgai. It also means Eric doesn’t have to train any sheep to electric fencing, only the cattle. “Needless to say, moving one herd of livestock is a lot easier than moving two,” he said. “You just make to make sure there’s enough forage and water ahead of them.”

The only trouble he’s had, other than an occasional grumpy cow who doesn’t like sheep – quickly culled – happens during calving, when mama cows become highly protective and might kill a ewe that comes too close. Eric solves this by separating the cattle from the sheep during their respective birthing seasons. “The only other conflict I’ve ever seen is over shade,” says Eric. “And that’s been minor. Otherwise, they get along great.”

We went to see for ourselves. After quick stop for a look inside a sheep-shearing shed (which I had only seen in Australian movies), Eric and I walked down a dirt lane, crossed through a gate, and entered a grassy field. The cattle saw us coming. A number of them jogged hopefully towards us until it became clear that we weren’t going to open a gate so they could move to fresh grass. They drifted off, followed closely by small flocks of sheep. We stopped in the middle of the paddock. Looking around, I saw cattle and sheep everywhere. “Look how they spread themselves out,” Eric said. “Cattle prefer grass over forbs [broad-leaf plants], but it’s vice versa with the sheep. If you keep them in a paddock just the right amount of time, everything gets a nibble. That’s good for the plants and the soil.”

“They’ll all be out of here tomorrow,” he added.

Although Eric doesn’t run goats as part of the flerd, he said there’s no reason it couldn’t be done. Not only do goats get along with sheep and cattle just fine, but, if bonded properly, goats prefer brush and weeds over grass and forbs, which means they would add another level of grazing diversity to a pasture – also good for the soil.

According to some research I had done prior to my trip, another benefit to a flerd is protection from predators, such as coyotes. In the American West, coyotes are the scourge of sheep, lambs especially, which is one reason why sheep-only ranching has declined steadily over the decades as predator populations rebounded, wolves especially. Experiments, however, have shown that when sheep are bonded to cattle they are protected from predation by coyotes, which are reluctant to take their chances with a closely packed herd of bovines. Experiments have also demonstrated that sheep gain weight faster when grouped with cattle compared with sheep that are managed as a separate flock. Wool production was also greater with the flerd than with sheep foraging alone – a fact that Eric said he could confirm.

He attributed both improvements to the healthier soil and increased diversity of plants on Gilgai – a result of his careful stewardship.

Here’s a photo of Eric that I took:OZ2 165

Excerpted from Soil, Grass, Hope: a Journey Through Carbon Countryby Courtney White


Abundance Thinking

On a fine August day, I flew to New England in search of abundance.

I was on the road to visit Dorn Cox, a young farmer who lives and works on his family’s 250-acre organic farm, called Tuckaway, near Lee, New Hampshire. Dorn calls himself a “carbon farmer,” meaning he thinks about carbon in everything he does. Confronting agriculture’s addiction to hydrocarbons, for example, Tuckaway produces a significant amount of its energy needs on-farm. Dorn does it with biodiesel – canola specifically – which he and his family grow on only 10 percent of the farm’s land. This was big news, so I thought a visit would be worthwhile.

I met Dorn in a hayfield behind a home belonging to a University of New Hampshire professor, spreading wood ash carefully among a grid of study plots. He gave me a wave as I parked the car, putting the ash can on the ground. Farmer-thin, wearing muddy jeans, a yellow shirt, and a floppy straw hat that shaded intense blue eyes, Dorn extended a hand and gave me an energetic grin.

“What’s going on here?” I asked nodding at the gridded plots, though I knew it was part of his Ph.D research. “Just trying to figure out the best way to turn a hayfield into a farm without tilling it,” he replied. “And create a food and energy system that puts more carbon into the soil than comes out.” Was the professor okay with this? I asked. He’s fine with it, Dorn reassured me. “There are a lot of these little fields behind people’s houses. With some work they could be growing a great deal of produce,” he said. “We just need to figure out a way to do it without using a plow.”

As we walked across his study plots, Dorn explained his thinking.

Conventionally, a modern farm requires a tractor and a plow in order to turn over the soil and furrow the land in preparation for seeding and fertilizing. In contrast, a no-till approach means a farmer can plant the seed directly into the soil, usually with a mechanical drill pulled behind a tractor or a horse. A thin slice is made in the soil by the drill as it moves along, but nothing resembling a furrow. The soil is not turned over, and whatever is growing on the surface is largely left intact.

In fact, many no-till farmers plant a cover crop in the fall so that the soil will be kept cool, moist, and protected from the elements as the cash crop emerges from the ground in the spring or early summer. Dorn pointed at the hayfield as an example, indicating that the cover crop here was grass. He wants to know under what no-till conditions the cash crop – grains in this case – will grow best.

In these goals, Dorn is attempting to combine his knowledge of organic farming with his training in high finance. I knew that Dorn had left Tuckaway after college for a job on Wall Street and then moved on to a private company in the high-tech sector. What I didn’t know was that, like a good businessman, Dorn is trying to increase the return on his investment in the hayfield – the investment in this case being carbon, in the form of wood ash. Over the decades, carbon had drained away from New Hampshire’s soils, largely as a result of plowing and erosion, and Dorn is trying to figure out what amounts are necessary, and in what proportion to other elements, such as nitrogen, to revitalize the soil’s fertility once again.

“The soil here is like a bank to which I’m making a deposit of carbon which will create a natural form of compound interest,” he explained. “Invest one seed, get one hundred back, return the carbon residue to the soil, and invest seed once again next season, and get one hundred twenty back. This absolute return is the real discount rate, and the carbon the real collateral. Any economic returns achieved above the real biological rate of return are by definition extractive and, therefore unearned.” 

And it’s earned income that Dorn is after, which he calls the basis for real wealth.      

Here are two photos from my visit:Copy of NE 162Copy of NE 190

In America, as in most nations, economic theory and practice is dominated by scarcity thinking, which is the belief that there’s not enough of something to go around. Oil is a classic example. As oil becomes scarcer and more difficult to extract from underground, it becomes more valuable, and thus more profitable to those who supply it – and more expensive to those who need it. This creates an important social impact to go along with the economic one.

When a commodity becomes scarce, we as a society start thinking about it obsessively – Where is it? How do we get at it? Why does it cost so damn much? – instead of investigating more abundant alternatives, such as solar energy. Psychologically, scarcity thinking is fear-based; it compels us to do things like hoard, compete, fight, and act greedy, selfish, and dishonest. It creates winners and losers. In contrast, abundance thinking is the belief that there’s plenty for everyone. Soil is a classic example. There’s a lot of good, rich soil in the nation, Dorn pointed out. It could be doing so much more for us if we would only look at it through the lens of abundance, not scarcity.

For example, once upon a time New Hampshire grew much of its own food. In the 1830s, Dorn said, two towns raised more sheep than are raised in all of New England today, and for many decades New Hampshire farmers grew thousands of acres of wheat, more than enough to feed its citizens. Unfortunately, short-sighted management created a legacy of overgrazing and overlogging in the state, resulting in depleted soils and eroded land – a story common throughout the region (and elsewhere). Over time, nearly all the grain and dairy farmers trickled away to greener pastures, and New Hampshire’s ability to feed and heat itself steadily declined.

The collapse of the state’s industrial economy in the late 19th century led to a general exodus of population, a trend reversed only recently as high-tech companies, telecommuters, and wealthy second-home owners began to move in. Today, only 5 percent of New Hampshire is in farmland, which means agriculture is essentially a cottage industry.

“New Hampshire is the Live Free or Die state, known for the independent spirit of its citizens,” Dorn said. “But despite this heritage, it is now one of the most dependent states in the union, relying almost wholly on imported food and fuel.”

New Hampshire has a population of 1.3 million people. If only 13,000 of them became new farmers the state could feed itself, Dorn said. This is possible because New Hampshire has: (1) lots of rain and snow; (2) good agricultural soils; (3) plenty of market potential; (4) a strong educational system; and (5) wealth – i.e., capital – which is necessary to reinvest in new food systems.

In other words, the state has an abundance of possibility. What it lacks, he said, is knowledge and a willingness to change its ways of thinking. Over 40 percent of New Hampshire’s soils are rich enough to be producing food, and yet only a tiny fraction of the population is engaged in farming. It’s the same situation with fuel. The majority of homes in the state are heated with oil, Dorn told me, and yet two of the most common complaints he hears are about the high cost of oil and the low price for wood – in one of the most heavily forested states in the nation.

Scarcity in a land of plenty.

“It’s a cultural paradox,” said Dorn. “With lots of fertile soil, forests, water, and capable people, why can’t we make an independent, abundant living once more?”

Excerpted from Soil, Grass, Hope: a Journey Through Carbon Country by Courtney White






Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 90 other followers