Why I Went to the Land Institute

“So what exactly is your interest with all of this?”

It was a question I got many times at the Land Institute’s 2016 Prairie Festival. For this majority plant scientist crowd, a graduate student of English just seemed out of place. This was a scientific research center working on developing a perennial polyculture grain crop—what could this possibly have to do with novels or poetry? I should have been in a library, elbow patches and all.

I did my best to explain my interest. The fact that Wendell Berry was speaking seemed like an important part, after all I had been using his writings as a model for my own students. The other was my interest in the Land Institute’s Ecosphere Studies project, which aims to revamp the entire education system around what it means to live in a place, such a change demands every discipline take part in the conversation. Some got it, still others simply did not.

It is not surprising that so many people struggled to understand my purpose at such an event. After all, academia has put in a lot of time and effort attempting to divorce the sciences from the arts. It is a separation that has only been increased by specialization and professionalization. Believe it or not, there was a time when scientific reports were written with a poetic pen. But most of the renaissance men have been killed off, and the rest have gone into exile.

Around the bon-fire I came across two graduate students in plant science from Winnipeg. We got talking about the mission of the Land Institute is not being realized in the majority of the plant science community. These students were frustrated by what they see as practices that are accelerating the destruction of soil and bio-diversity across the continent, and the lack of response from their fellow scientists. It ultimately came down to the manner in which their research was funded. Major corporations (mostly big ag and chemical companies) fund the research at many universities. Despite being from the polar opposite discipline, these students understood my role–to communicate, to provide the ethical decision making, to pause and think about scientific decision making. As my mother made very clear to me when I was growing up, the health of the family is dependent upon our ability to communicate with one another. This same maxim can be extended to the entire human family. We spend a lot of time working, but we don’t spend much time talking about it. The irony is that with our social media networks and wireless connectivity it feels that we are always talking, always connected, never unplugged, but what is it exactly that we are plugged into? Maybe the problem is not that we are not talking, it seems we do plenty of that, but maybe it is that we do not listen.

As both Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson made clear through their speeches during the Prairie Festival, no amount of technology can save us from the mess we have created within our food system. It occurred to me that Wes Jackson’s idea of developing a perennial polyculture grain crop was not just a scientific idea, but a philosophical one. Kernza, the perennial wheat that the institute has developed, may seem like a marker of scientific progress, which it is, but it is also a testament to the thinking holistically. The problem with our incredibly specialized society is that most people think that a single occupation, usually their own, has the power to change the world for the better. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, no such panacea exists. The change we want to see in the world requires paradigmatic shifts. Individual entities can adapt, but it is not until all aspects of our culture adapt that we can experience true change. Science, art, commerce, spirituality, need to come together to re-envision how we live on this planet. It will certainly not be easy to get them on the same page, but perhaps they were never too different to begin with. That is why I went to the Land Institute, because we all need to be a part of this conversation. We can no longer defer to someone or something else to save us.