Restore, Regenerate, Reclaim

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.

dan sitting a truck dusty from grass seeding wearing a red bandana

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.

dan with a red bandana around his face and neck leaning on an ATV out in dirt pasture

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.

gervase grass seeding and standing in a dirt pasture

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.

gervase grass seeding while sitting on the back of an ATV

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.

dan standing against a dark gray sky in a green restored prairie

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.

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    Thanks once again Dan for your thought provoking writings. Here is my somewhat related Earth Day reflection.
    I see our human existence on this earth as simply one life form in the biosphere. Life varies from the microscopic (bacteria, viruses…) to the macro life forms with which we cohabitate (insects, vegetation, other mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and aquatic creatures). The Earth itself pulses like a small organism (internal geologic forces, ocean and atmospheric currents). The pulsating life force is obviously the great mystery that humankind attempts to understand.

    All life in our biosphere embodies a drive to reproduce and thrive. When one form overpopulates, something else rises to check this growth. Here in the 21st Century we are living through an explosion of humankind, a population that has more than tripled in my lifetime. This is the primary cause of most ills facing our societies today. We’ve all seen nighttime images of Earth from space showing urban light as well as maps showing the thread of shipping and aircraft routes. These look like a viral web covering the planet. I believe we, the humans, are the dominant virus today and we have seen many signs that point to Nature trying to check our growth. We have delayed Nature’s balancing force by our recent advances in understanding biology and associated sciences, which have allowed our population to become unchecked.

    Nevertheless, something from the biosphere will check this pandemic of humans. It has been long known that it will take the form of one or a combination of forces. They might be the pressing problems of climate change caused by industrialization and population, conflict through war or genocide, desertification, disease, starvation, and/or widespread migration. We see many of these forces at play today. The current pandemic is just one additional indicator that we are the ones out of control.

    The Covid-19 Coronavirus is spreading worldwide due to our interconnected web of human travel. It has exploded in overcrowded urban areas and reaches it tentacles into all but the remotest locales. The death rate is growing exponentially and will continue until mitigating forces come into play.

    As the media is now advising, physical distancing is the only current mechanism that will curtail this tragedy. The concurrent step that needs to occur is convenient testing with rapid results for every person in the United States and retesting as needed. Taiwan has in place a complete and efficient system from which we could learn. See a short video segment on YouTube from NPR’s NewsHour 4/1/2020.

    The pandemic will linger and, as experts have advised, a 2nd wave can emerge.

    So, we are in this for the long haul. A vaccine will eventually be found but this is not a panacea. This pandemic will eventually diminish but we can expect other more virulent varieties to emerge if we don’t take precautions and adequately prepare.

    A prudent path will be to stockpile pandemic response supplies (PPE, ventilators, viral testing supplies) much as we did throughout our nation during the cold war with civil defense resources stored in most communities.

    Another needed path is to recognize the need to reduce our human population to a sustainable level. Researchers have estimated that a 1.5 billion world population would be in balance with the Earth. This can be done without the dire mechanisms mentioned earlier. Our will to tackle this and our ingenuity can reach this goal within several generations without violence and suffering. Simply promoting family planning, free contraception worldwide, and creative economic modeling to structure the contraction of consumption can alleviate the horrors of doing nothing.

    Robert Thompson
  • Never, never, never give up!

    Lisa Musgrave
  • Tell it, brother Dan.

  • So well put, Dan. I will be forwarding it far and wide as I so often do with what you and Jill tell and show us. BTW, I will also soon be wearing an Earthetrian T-shirt along with my “Make America Green Again” baseball hat from the Sierra Club

    Linda Clark
  • Your comment about “development,” especially economic development, is confirmed now by most scientists. We just need to watch and listen, as Dan… Thank you, especially in this time of a pandemic,

  • Your tenacity, perseverance, and determination, is quite admirable…..🌱

  • Heartbreaking yet hopeful. You speak my mind. Thank you.


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