Living With Nature

Essay by Kim Barker


I grew up on the farm I now live on.  I don’t think I’ve been away from this farm for more than thirty days at a time in my life.  Don’t get me wrong, I have been over a good bit of God’s green Earth; most of Europe, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine.  But the world I know best is the rolling, sandy hills north of the Cimarron in northwest Oklahoma.

My brothers and friends and I used to run and play, hunt and fish over those hills.  And later work as well.  Many thousands of hours of my life have been spent alone with nature.

As a boy I worked for a neighboring farmer.  I spent a lot of time going round and round on a tractor with an umbrella for shade, sharing Oklahoma’s heat and wind with nature from dawn till dark.  Or some days hauling hay or building fence.

Even before I graduated college with a BA in music I knew that I wanted to be on the land.  The long hours of heat and dirt and work seemed to draw me back instead of driving me away.

I learned a little about conservation and community.  I learned a little about nature and farming.  When the 1980’s came along with 22% interest and 20% inflation l learned that what I knew about farming only worked if everything was paid for, and that most of the things sold at the farm store couldn’t deliver what they promised.

There had to be a better way.

By the time I was 35 I had seen changes on the land.  Pastures had more weeds and brush, farm land was less productive and more eroded, I had seen good farming, poor farming, wildfires, chemicals, floods and droughts, and the effects of all these on people, land and communities.

Over the next few years I met folks who taught me about ecology, water and nutrient cycles, and the dynamics of the natural community.

Once I understood those things what I had seen on the land made more sense.  I had a better understanding of what my role as a land manager should be and life became easier.

I never deliberately set out to fight mother nature, I was more or less conscripted into the fight by the culture of the times.  I grew up with the admonition from Genesis that man was to subdue and till the Earth.  Later I learned that the word that is translated “till” is translated “serve” in other places.

Serving the Earth seems a more agreeable calling than subduing and tilling.  Serving implies and requires understanding.  Understanding requires humility, open eyes, an open heart, and compassion.

I don’t know who first coined the phrase “ Mother Nature”, but it is a good analogy.  Mother’s don’t tolerate arrogance, or know-it-alls, or disruptive behavior, and ignorance is only tolerated for a short time.  Mother’s do provide nurture, healing, and the eternal expectation that one day you will figure things out.  Mother’s generally tolerate the genius and the imbecile with an equal hope and knowledge that life goes on.  As with our own mother’s, life is better and easier when we get over being rebellious and realize consequences can be avoided with good behavior.

A friend of mine who is an organic farmer was asked, “What is the first thing you have to do to be organic?” He thought for a few moments and said, “You’ve got to learn where you live.” I spent a lot of years learning where I live, what that means, how to use that knowledge to work with nature.

I remember about 1964 there was a wildfire that burned about 60 acres of our farm.  That area was mostly weeds until the management changed in the early1990’s.  Now it is a diverse native grassland.  I also remember, my Dad signed up for a government programto spray weeds and brush in 1966.  Twenty years later the same species of brush were in the exact same places they were before.  Plum thickets in the same places, skunk brush and sage in the same places.  The management didn’t change till a little later, Mother Nature was just taking care of her own.

We started planning the grazing on this land about 26 years ago, improving pastures, cutting costs, still learning.

About 20 years ago it was becoming obvious that there was a market for food that was produced in unconventional, healthy ways.

The only way for folks that were thinking and doing as we were to take advantage of that fact, was to direct market our products.

We began by selling grass fed beef, lamb, and free-range eggs.

My daughter Juli moved home to Waynoka a few years ago.  And my daughter Lacey came back shortly after.  Regeneration comes in many forms.  Desire and enthusiasm are rejuvenating.  Younger, smarter, brains, and younger, stronger, bodies are essential for the future of life on the farm, both human and nature.  Desire and enthusiasm for life and health that include all life on the farm, and all life touched by the farm is a sign of true regeneration.

The goal of all this is health in everything, land, water, air, animals and people. Masanobu Fukuoka wrote in “The One Straw Revolution”,

“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops,

but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”

As farmers we raise our families on the land, we live in our communities and churches.  We often forget that farming is really about people.  That farming is one of the connections between people and nature.  Now more so than ever, since so many people know so little about nature and have so little contact. It is almost ludicrous to say, but many farmers have lost that  connection between what they do and what they eat.

A few years ago a farmer in the café was telling about spraying chemicals on his wheat field.  Someone asked him if he sprayed those on his garden.  He said, “No, I eat that stuff.”  So how do we square farming with the needs of man and the needs of nature?  I think very carefully and deliberately.  In 1939 USDA Bulletin 99  titled “Conquest of the Land Through 7,000 Years”  by W. C.  Lowdermilk was published.  This publication makes a very strong case that about 26 civilizations have vanished from the earth, destroyed by their own soil erosion.

None of these cultures set out to do this, it just happened so slowly it went unnoticed.  The same thing is happening today, here in the U.S.,

and other places around the world. We have the written history and we should know better.  We have knowledge and technology to do better.  But we don’t, we know soil erosion is worse than the dirty thirties. We know about the dead zone in the gulf of Mexico. We know about plants and animals becoming extinct.

But those who have the political clout to make necessary changes have a different agenda. So it is up to us on the land, and us as consumers to make and demand change.  We have knowledge and technology, and a growing number of us have the will.

That makes it sound too easy.  It is not.  Culture and agriculture are like big ships, and big ships turn very slowly.  That is no reason for us as land managers not to start to make changes, or as consumers to support the good changes with our choices as we shop.

Change will come one farm, and one person at a time. One decision at a time. We humans are free to do whatever we want to do  However, there are natural consequences and nothing can change that fact. We can build bigger machinery, nastier chemicals, and genetically modify more plants.  Mother Nature will still prevail.

Living with nature is a little like living in our own homes. We learn all the various things that can go wrong that will burn our house down and we try real hard not to do that,  It doesn’t matter if I burn my house down on purpose, out of ignorance, or by accident,  my house is still gone.  The natural world is the same.

At Walnut Creek Farms we think and plan how we are going to live with nature while both improving the land and making a living.  I don’t think in terms of grass and cattle, I think in terms of ecological processes, whether my management makes them healthier, or whether they are declining.  Health on the land is very visible if you know what to look for.

When I leave the house to check cattle I look forward to seeing a covey of quail, a flock of wild turkeys,  a bobcat or even a bug.  I may complain about a grasshopper on my windshield, but that too is a measure of health.  A few years ago I drove across southern Indiana in late summer, the corn was high and green,, and in several hours of driving there was not a single bug on my windshield.  That is not healthy, it is not normal.

God’s creation is of health and abundance. Of complexity and diversity. Of love and care and wonder and awe.  Of Re-Creation every new day.  Complexity is extremely important.

I don’t remember anyone ever teaching me that Turtle Doves usually lay two little white eggs in a grassy nest on the ground, or that Killdeer’s lay 3 or 4 brown speckled eggs on a bare patch of dirt, or that if you get too close the mother will fly a short distance as if she is crippled to lead the predator’s away from the nest.  I don’t remember anyone teaching me that Robin’s eggs are blue, with specks on them, in a tree or bush a few feet off the ground.  As kids we spent so much time out in the pastures, we just seemed to absorb these kinds of things.

Later on I read up on the native grasses and legumes and I’m still learning the names of weeds that are common to our area.  There is a lot to learn if you want to know,  If you don’t want to know all the names, that’s OK too.  We need to know that nature is very complex, and it  is supposed to be that way.  Complexity is stability, endurance.  Simplicity is fragility, and dangerous.  

Every crop disaster that had consequences severe enough to cause a disaster for the human food supply was the result of a lack of genetic diversity.  A couple of examples are the Irish potato famine of centuries ago and the corn blight of 1973.  The cause of the Irish potato famine was that all the potatoes were too much alike genetically, and there was a crop failure.  In 1973 corn blight decimated most of the corn in the U.S. because it was too closely related genetically.  There was not enough genetic diversity to prevent a crop failure, to prevent disease.

We humans tend to expect nature to provide what we want, when we want it. We are kind of like babies in that regard, I guess.  Babies don’t care if Mom gets enough sleep, or gets a night out, or that she might need one, they just want to be fed right now, and to be warm and dry.   Right now.  Our modern culture doesn’t seem to care if nature gets rejuvenated or needs to be.

If we are to re-vision stewardship, we need to remember what stewardship means. I think we lost our way after WW II. The use of chemicals and fertilizers increased dramatically because of the work of the scientists of Hitler’s Germany. Many of Hitler’s concoctions made their way to American chemical companies and to America’s farmlands.

We used to speak of Animal Husbandry, now we speak of Animal Science. We used to speak of Agriculture, now we speak of Agri-Business.

Farmers used to speak of their farms, now they speak of their operations.  We have lost the language of stewardship.  Stewardship begins with purpose.  If the purpose, as Fukuoka said, is “the cultivation and perfection of human beings” where is the health? Where is the concern for future generations?

Shouldn’t we contemplate the consequences of our actions before we take them?  There are examples of stewardship that does not need a re-vision. I have a friend in Louisiana named Jackie Judice who is a sugar farmer.  I heard him say about 15 years ago that his family has been on the same farm for 200 years.  He intends for his family to be on that same farm for 200 more years.  That means there are some things that he simply cannot do.  There are Indian tribes in the northern U.S. that are managing forests sustainably which are thinking seven generations ahead.

The Amish of Holmes County, Ohio have been there for over 200 years. They have strong, healthy communities, and they have extremely healthy soils.  One farmer there told me he had to change his crop rotation because his soil was too fertile.  They typically have fields in hay, which is clover, alfalfa, and cool season grasses for two or three years, followed by one year of corn, then oats, then wheat, barley, or spelt. He had to plant two years of corn because his oats would fall over and he could not harvest them. You never hear conventional, industrial farmers say their ground is too fertile.

The farmer I mentioned earlier who said, “You’ve got to learn where you live” told me his father used chemical fertilizers for two years in the 1950’s. His father told him, “They have sold you a bill of goods, this is destroying your soil.”  No fertilizers have been used on that farm since then.

These examples of true stewardship that works for people and for nature are from four different states.  I know many more examples from many more places where people are successfully living with nature.

If we are to live with nature, we have to serve.  It can’t always be about us. If I were to eliminate every weed in my pasture, and every bug on my farm, who would do their jobs? Who even knows what their jobs are? Same with the snakes, and birds, and all those soil organisms.  I have enough to do, I can’t do all their jobs too.  I can serve though, I can do the best I know how to make sure they have what they need to do their jobs. I can stay out of the way and let them live and work. I can consider nature in all my decisions.

If we are to live with nature, we must first recognize that we are certainly not going to live without nature.

In the beginning God created a garden. Nature is one great garden party. We are not invited guests to this garden party that is nature, because we are part of the garden. Just as the bees and ants and butterflies.  We are organisms, too.

To continue to have a place in the garden, we just have to play by the rules, serve as we see the need, think before we act, be thankful and enjoy.