There is an 80-acre patch of ground in the center of our buffalo ranch that sometime in the past was plowed up and planted with crested wheatgrass. Whether the work was done using modern, John Deere–type equipment or by a couple of guys behind a mule pulling a beat-up harrow, hand-broadcasting seed, I do not know. But I’m pretty sure however it was done, the people that did it believed that they were improving the land.
Crested wheatgrass is an imported grass that germinates quickly in the spring and burns out just as fast in the summer. In a drought year, I’m sure it looked good to the guys that planted it. But it literally destroyed the biodiversity of those 80 acres by killing and replacing hundreds of native plants with an invasive. When those guys were done, the resilience of the land was gone. Insects no longer gathered there, which meant it was no longer a refuge for the dozens of native bird species that depended on those insects for food and the native grass for a safe rearing grounds for their chicks.
Sharp-tailed grouse, meadowlarks, lark buntings, longspurs, grass sparrows, curlews, plovers, burrowing owls, a half dozen species of ducks, short-eared owls, sandhill cranes and more were forced to move or simply perish. In just a few days of plowing and seeding, those two imagined guys did a huge amount of damage that cascaded into the 80-acre disaster that proved a bane for this ranch and the landscape that surrounds it. That is why, on the week before the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a friend and I were determined to reclaim it.
My old friend and former literature professor, Gervase, was there to help me. Of the hundreds of plant species that were plowed under when the original conversion took place, none remained, and we had only been able to find seed for eight of the native, mostly warm-season plants that once grew there. We had to simply hope that remnant strands of native grass could eventually fill in. It was a hard-two-day job as either of us had had in a decade and we couldn’t help comparing ourselves to the men we imagined had done the original damage. There was irony in the fact that the ATV we used to drag the harrow that planted the seed was a Kawasaki Mule and we joked that we were rewinding history.
On April 22, 1970, I was a senior at a small liberal arts college in Ohio. I was really just a hick kid who liked to spend time out of doors, but I was voted to be a co-chairman of the campus celebration on that first Earth Day. I had recently turned in my football uniform for a library card, and I was due to graduate and take my military physical in a few weeks. I was possessed with a soul-deep feeling of dread. Four weeks later, at Kent State University, not 90 miles from where I would be graduating, the United States government would kill four students and maim nine more. The protest at Kent State was in response to the bombing of neutral Cambodia but governmental ineptitude and societal nearsightedness had brought passions to a boil on many fronts. It was all fueled by the sense that capitalism had come off the rails and the needle of the country’s moral compass was spinning without restraint.
For me, back then and ever after, all those passions were connected. You couldn’t stick your thumb in Mother Nature’s eye and expect to come away unscathed. The same companies that were prosecuting the war in Southeast Asia were polluting the air and the water. Unchecked, sill and cynical greed pushed people toward life in cities that were as confined and stressful as cattle feedlots. The second thing I ever learned about animal husbandry was that crowded conditions made animals sick. The first thing I learned was that humans are animals, too. I also learned that Mother Nature would get even.
On this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, it is painful to look back at not just what we knew but when we knew it.
Selling wild pangolins and eating them for breakfast would eventually be avenged and crass, childish politics would ensure widespread suffering. I had recently read Silent Spring, The Population Bomb and Albert Camus’s The Plague. Later, along came Lori Garrett’s The Coming Plague, so before any of us had heard of a coronavirus we knew that a severe pandemic would eventually strike Earth. On this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, it is painful to look back at what we knew and when we knew it.
To repair the damage done by that thumb in Mother Nature’s eye is nearly impossible. It was hot and dusty and too much work for old men who were prime candidates for COVID-19. But we were caught up with the hope of restoration - the same desperate hope that the pandemic would soon be over and life would soon return to normal. We both knew that life would never return to normal because normal was suicidal ever since humanity failed to realize that “development” was almost always a destructive process.
Back and forth though the hot, dusty day, over the rough, jarring field, driven on by human hope. And above us, like flocks of albatrosses, flew sandhill cranes, over the shelled-out 80 acres, toward more peaceful places, away from humans to raise their young. Their hope puts ours to shame. But we pushed on and Gervase turned to me with his exhausted, dirt-caked face and just enough joy left to make a joke. He said, “Screw this brother, let’s move to California” and we both laughed because we knew we would never leave. We plan to stay right where we are, until that dusty, 80-acre field turns to lush grass, the birds return and the nightmare of the last two hundred years is forgotten.
Photo Credit: Dan O'Brien & Gervase Hittle (first four photos); Jill O'Brien (last photo) of Dan O'Brien assessing a pasture he started restoring thirteen years ago.