Farming in the Radical Center

America has never felt more divided. But in the midst of all the acrimony comes one of the most promising movements in our country’s history. People of all races, faiths, and political persuasions are coming together to restore America’s natural wealth: its ability to produce healthy foods.

In Food from the Radical Center (Island Press, 2018), Gary Nabhan tells the stories of diverse communities who are getting their hands dirty and bringing back North America’s unique fare: bison, sturgeon, camas lilies, ancient grains, turkeys, and more. These efforts have united people from the left and right, rural and urban, faith-based and science-based, in game-changing collaborations. Their successes are extraordinary by any measure, whether economic, ecological, or social. In fact, the restoration of land and rare species has provided—dollar for dollar—one of the best returns on investment of any conservation initiative.

Following is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of Food from the Radical Center.

Read Bioneers’ Arty Mangan’s review of Food from the Radical Center here.

Have you ever savored the ripe fruits or fresh vegetables from land that you yourself had begun to restore perhaps just a few years before? If not, does land restoration seem like an abstract concept with which you have no hands-on experience? Do habitat restoration and species recovery feel like things that happen off in the distance, beyond your sight, your earshot, your taste buds, and your nostrils?

Ironically, the fruits of restoration are already all around you, though they may not be explicitly presented to you in that manner.

In North America today, you can partake of some 628 species of cultivated food plants and 14 species of livestock, in addition to at least 4,000 types of wild plants and species of fish and game. Your increased access to this diversity of foods is largely due to the collaborative conservation and restoration efforts of a variety of farmers, fishers, foresters, foragers, ranchers, chefs, orchard keepers, and discerning eaters on this continent.

Over the course of the following stories, I’ll be encouraging you to savor some of that great diversity of foods, but I’ll also be inviting you to taste and see the world from which those foods spring in an entirely different manner: Tasting the huckleberries with a sense of when fire last moved through that patch of berry bushes . . . Digging for camas after seeing their wet prairie habitat freed from the competition of invasive species . . . Hooking a Chinook salmon and smoking it over alder wood after learning how stream restoration allowed it to migrate up into the headwaters from the sea . . . Grilling a bison burger after helping bring down the fences to let the buffalo roam, creating wallows that other creatures and plants use along the way . . .

Such place-based foods may begin to bless your table more frequently than they did in the past, but the fruits of restoration do not appear all at once, nor are all of them edible. Some of the rewards, in fact, are social, for the roots of the trees we plant with neighbors begin to bind us together. Most importantly, these efforts can break down our stereotypes, as a woman from a salmon restoration project once brought home to me.

I encountered her in a workshop of the Society for Ecological Restoration, and although I no longer remember her name, I will never forget how humbled I felt by her message. This middle-aged woman came into our workshop to offer a twenty-minute talk after half of the session was over. She sat down in a crowded room among a couple dozen young environmentalists excited by the fact that President Clinton and Forest Service director Jack Ward Thomas had just put twenty-four million acres of old growth forests in their region under ecosystem management. It was not long after the federal listing of northern spotted owls had forced the closure of industrial-scale logging in many national forests, and thousands of loggers had lost their jobs. The youth in the room were not only jazzed that “their side” had won a major environmental victory. They were also hopeful that now forest restoration would be funded on an unprecedented scale—the equivalent land area of four Connecticuts.

As this latecomer stood up to be introduced and offer the next talk, the mood in the room shifted. I perked up. Perhaps it was because the next speaker looked so different from many others at the conference. While the vast majority of participants wore Teva sandals, khaki shorts, green fleeces, and brightly colored T-shirts with outrageous drawings and in-your-face slogans in defense of mother earth, she wore a pastel, Western-style pantsuit, a silk blouse, and boots. As she spoke her very first word to us, I could sense male attendees dismissing her because of her dress, her beauty-parlor hairdo, and her vaguely rural Western accent.

She started off by explaining that she was there because her husband had been one of the loggers who had lost his job when the FEMAT logging closures began to go into effect. Just hearing that she was from a family of loggers made the group uncomfortable. Their collective body language grew irritated, even hostile. Even when she began to describe how she and her husband had recruited jobless loggers to join them in restoring salmon streams, most of the men in the room were tapping their pencils, looking out the windows, or staring at their laptop screens.

But then this “stranger in a strange land” did the most flabbergasting thing, right in the middle of the twenty minutes allotted to her. She asked if we could take a two-minute break so that she could use the women’s room and suggested that because she could still finish her talk in the allotted time, we should all stay put. When she abruptly left the room, there were curses, barbs, and wisecracks that do not bear repeating. And yet everyone stayed in the room as they had been politely asked to do.

When the woman returned, she was dressed in a fleece, T-shirt, khaki shorts, and Tevas; her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. She moved out in front of the podium, and to the best of my recollection, said something like this:

“Listen up. A few minutes ago, you dismissed me on the basis of my dress and my accent. But I’ll tell you what: I will not let you dismiss the work that the fine men that my husband and I have recruited are doing in this region. They are healing the very streams and wildlife habitats that some of you in this room have worked to protect! You need their work as much as they need yours. But to join forces on behalf of the fish and wildlife we all want to see survive, you have to first acknowledge the value of the men and women who care about the same things you do but who don’t talk about them with the same words you do.”

To say that I was appalled and embarrassed by my own prejudices is an understatement. My colleagues and I had hardly offered this courageous, compassionate, and intelligent woman the time of day, let alone any deeper listening. She simply did not look like a member of our “club” of conservationists. That was the day I decided that I needed to quit the club I had been in—consciously or unconsciously—for most of my life. To this day, I remain grateful to this performance artist who had found a novel way to speak truth to power—in this case, the power of the expertocracy.

In memory of that moment, I encourage all of us to imagine something other than the infamous zero-sum game that is stalemating our country. We need to interact with each other differently, taking a more inclusive approach to decision-making and restoration.

In Stitching the West Back Together, my old friends Tom Sheridan, Nathan Sayre, and David Seibert explain why it’s time we engage rather than alienate the diverse voices in our rural and urban communities. They want us to regard everyone—farmworkers and loggers, cafeteria cooks and wild foragers, hunters and fly-fishers, teachers and preachers, ranchers and career professionals in agencies—as equal partners in collective efforts to “stitch back together” our damaged landscapes and communities.

Each time such diverse players come together, we should get in the habit of asking six fundamental questions:

  • Do you sense that this restorative work might address the deepest practical needs that you, your family, and your neighbors must fill to continue living with dignity in your community?
  • Might it build toward some moral common ground that will allow your community members to be better lasting stewards of the resources in your home place?
  • Does it strengthen your community’s overall capacity to collectively solve problems, reduce disparities, and resolve conflicts with novel solutions?
  • Will working together through more equitable processes foster you and your neighbors’ own well-being, intellectual growth, neighborliness, and organizational capacity?
  • Will it help all of you to better safeguard what makes your place unique and offer you more lasting solutions in the face of uncertainty?
  • Will being engaged in this collaboration be pleasurable for you, allowing you to taste, see, smell, and hear the fruits of your collective labors? Or will it simply be another tedious obligation to attend seemingly endless meetings and hearings where no one really listens to anyone else?

If you choose to ask such questions, they may help you move toward some immediate reduction in conflicts. But you cannot count on pat answers or flash-in-the-pan solutions to carry you very far. Be cautious of instant claims of success, like We planted three hundred trees today and now the forest (or orchard) looks like it is restored!

A sequoia forest cannot be restored in a single a day, nor can a diverse pollinator guild be reassembled merely by sowing nectar-rich plants on a single farm. It takes efforts across administrative and property boundaries so that changes ripple out through an entire foodshed and patient capital can be invested over decades.

In the end, the benefits of restoration will be far more than what you grow on your farm, what you harvest from a nearby forest patch, or what ends up on your plate. Being part of collaborative restoration involves the slow-growing fruits and steady dividends of long-term social engagement. It is ultimately about place-making and peace-making—in your community’s meeting rooms and council halls, on farms and ranches, around forests and lakes, and at many tables. Its goal is that all may reap the many tangible and intangible benefits of community-based collaborations.

In the past, many of us who wanted to restore landscapes or help species recover were obsessed with outcomes; in other words, we were emphatically content-driven. We only began to pay sufficient attention to social process when our neglect of it began to trip us up and undermine our goals. Count me among the ranks of those content-driven geeks who must have seemed narrowly focused and marginally collaborative to members of the first few communities I worked within.

In fact, I initially missed the significance of a landmark event that occurred near my desert home in October 1999, when the Community- Based Collaborative Research Consortium was founded. Forty funders, facilitators, researchers, activists, and community members met in Tucson, Arizona, just a few miles from where I was working at the time. Did I even catch wind of their proximity?

How could I have neglected such an extraordinary convergence happening on my home ground? Well, it is probably because I was (and still am) a recovering “content geek.” As a matter of fact, if I had tried to write this story for you even a half dozen years ago, I would have led it off in a completely different manner that I am attempting today.

Perhaps I would have tried to baffle you with scholarly bullshit . . . or numb you with impressive numbers . . . or entangle you with technical assertions to convince you of how bright and right I was about how to conserve land, recover species, and farm sustainably.

But after suffering from a rash of concussions and various other personal setbacks a few years ago, I no longer “feel” that I was ever that bright or particularly right about anything at all . . . at least not when
I compare my insights to those of the many good people around me.

Instead, I feel grateful to still be alive during this precious moment on earth, when I can rub shoulders, fins, and wings with lives quite different from my own.

I am stunned and humbled by the capacity for innovation found in every heterogeneous community where I have had the chance to work. I no longer assume that I personally have some unique ability to provide answers to the nagging problems plaguing my community, our society at large, or the food-producing landscapes we depend on.

It’s not that I have lost complete confidence in all my old environmental values, skills, and convictions. It’s more that I have gained deep respect for the validity of values, skills, and convictions quite different from the ones I grew up with. And in this case, by “growing up,” I mean the maturation process that those of us who were involved in the environmental movement have undergone since that first Earth Day in 1970.

From Food from the Radical Center: Healing Our Land and Communities by Gary Nabhan. Copyright © 2018. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

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