The Land Institute Prairie Festival 2008
Article ID: 12948
Age Group: Adult
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Posted: November 2nd. 2008
Times Viewed: 3,926
Sponsored by: The Land Institute
Location: Salina, Kansas
Event Date(s): September 26, 27, 28, 2008
The Land Institute’s 30th Annual Prairie Festival 2008
“Words are but wind; and learning is nothing but words; ergo, learning is nothing but wind.” - Jonathan Swift
Salina, Kansas- On the Saturday evening of the 30th annual Prairie Festival at the internationally recognized Land Institute, some unscheduled bubbles were forming.
The lanky, bearded man stood in the big barn at the microphone, casting a film of statistics over the largely middle-aged audience of educators, gardeners and some young college students. Concerns and anecdotes rose up through the layers of his predictions of our living conditions, as they will be when our fossil fuels run out.
One young woman described the reality of life on the organic farms she had seen as “little bubbles of hell” in which the farmers are trapped in continuous 14-hour days of toil that are anything but idyllic and peaceful. Some chuckles greet her story, but are quickly stifled by the clear fear in her voice.
“It’s not funny, ” she cried, “I don’t wanna live like that!”
The truth of her fears carried her bubble onward, and it joined the other bubbles of different emotions and information that formed at the 3-day festival held this past September 26th, 27th, and 28th. The presentation that evening was called “Survival in the 21st Century” by Prairie Village, Kansas scientist Toby Grotz. It wasn’t officially included in the Land Institute’s schedule of speakers. The reality of the implications he presented lay like cold dishwater in my mind: We will be out of oil in 38 years. Passenger airlines will cease within the next ten years.
The 50% of our food, which we now import, will be gone. All that we have learned to take for granted will be over in most of our lifetimes. We will have to grow our own food, make our own energy from the wind and sun and live much as our great-grandparents did, only haunted by the memory of the days of convenience made possible by fossil fuels.
Then a new bubble formed. Grotz speculated that if we start increasing our wind and solar energy production now, we can use the slack time provided by our remaining fossil fuels to make a gradual, more comfortable transition into a sustainable economy, thus keeping a lifestyle more like what we have now. This bubble of hope mingled with the bubbles of despair, fear and cynicism.
It was Saturday night, clear sky, no wind and 75 degrees. I walked from the barn, glanced up at the gathering around the bonfire on the hill and decided to call it a day – my head was full of bubbles.
It had been some 35 years since I had visited The Land Institute property. Back then, it was just the Jackson place. Wes Jackson, plant geneticist, president and founder of the Institute was friends with my Dad, the late Nick Fent. Dad was a geologist and naturalist and was, as Wes told me, “very important” to him and the early research that led to Jackson’s Institute for developing sustainable agriculture and promoting a community that is prosperous and enduring.
Our land north of Salina was Jackson’s laboratory in the early seventies, and dad had a vast knowledge of the natural history of our prairie environment. Jackson’s 1994 book, “Becoming Native to This Place”, includes a long excerpt from Dad’s research of our land’s previous owners. Fourteen families in 70 years failed miserably on our 240 acres. Dad wrote: “The families who devoted their lives to losing this land might have prospered elsewhere had it remained ‘Buffalo Range’”.
Like bubbles from the past, large black and white photographs by Terry Evans of “the Fent Prairie” hung on the big barn’s walls at this year’s festival. In her presentation, Terry compared her pictures of plants to the real plants hanging from the rafters displaying ten-foot roots behind the podium.
“I wonder, ” she asked us, “which is the art and which is the science?” Some would say that both are both, and that they are also tools for ecotourism, symbols for education and hope for the future of a sustainable economy. On the same barn wall, a painted graph representing the 50-year farm bill showed just how long it will be until the Institute’s plant research affects the food we eat.
According to Jackson, his board of directors and his team of environmentalists, biologists, botanists, authors and educators it will be the year 2029. This is when perennial grain crops like perennial wheat grass, a soil-saving native hybrid being developed, will begin to replace annual grains in the nation’s fields. A solid bubble: The vast majority of festival attendees won’t be around then. We will, most likely, be around when the oil runs out and we will struggle with the shortages and hardships over the coming decade. Once I had only worried that I’d never collect my social security, I now wondered if I’d ever stop working at all.
The festival seems to be a microcosm of, as Jackson said at the podium, “the way the world IS and the way the world WORKS”. Abundance surrounded us. There were delicious, healthy and fresh meals for sale there. The highlight for me was the beef stew ladled out of huge cast iron cauldrons along with local greens and apple cobbler made from 20% intermediate wheat grain.
The chef to many Hollywood celebrities, Donna Prizgintas, used mostly Kansas-grown foods to feed about 800 people. It was superb! We sat on folding chairs, bleachers, hay bales, and on the ground as the hot day turned to comfortable evening.
Before that feast, the “rock star” of this year’s program, writer Barbara Kingsolver spoke to a packed crowd in the barn. Kingsolver’s award-winning books enjoy a worldwide readership. “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life” is her chronicle of her family’s experience with locally-grown food. She shared the podium with co-author and partner Steven L. Hopp, quoting from the book and delighting the audience.
Kingsolver began by confessing her “humus envy” for Kansas’s farmland, which seemingly caused her something akin to erotic rapture. As poet, her ability to compress complex ideas into beautiful phrases full of integrity won us over. “Green is really the new red, white and blue, ” Kingsolver said to applause. “We can run our cars on snake oil, can’t we?” she ironically offered to conspiratorial titters. More seriously, she said, “We have officially entered the long emergency.”
A dark bubble formed over me. “Our job, ” she said, “is to keep our hair on. Keep a level head. People are not paying attention to the information.” Of course, as I looked around the barn, I realized she was preaching to the choir. Indeed, one of the problems Jackson spoke of was the need to get “perennial polyculture into the formal culture as a succession” rather than it being a popular culture fad that comes and goes.
At the podium on Sunday, Jackson gave some of his favorite quotes from the festival speakers. From Kingsolver: “Take the flag down from the outlet mall and put it in the victory garden.” Applause. He also confessed his emotional reaction to Kingsolver’s daughter donating the money she had saved to buy a horse to, instead, the rain forest.
He took issue with the speech of Lieutenant Governor Mark Parkinson from the day before, who said that the need was to “focus on science, not politicians” to solve environmental issues. As Jackson’s fellow board member and scholar, Don Worster said, “Choices must be made not just by scientists but by a moral community.”
I would humbly add that people don’t pay attention to pamphlets but to political policy that pads their pocketbooks. (A bubble of alliteration always gets attention. You’re welcome! ) By that I mean that people need to be led to this “new earth” idea through tangible incentives such as that mentioned by Parkinson – long-lasting light bulbs and hybrid cars. Both save people money and both are better “perennials” for the environment.
After 30 years, The Land Institute Prairie Festival is solving its own public relations problem by inviting speakers like Kingsolver and chefs like Prizgintas. The public responds to people who provide a triple-punch of notoriety, accessibility and demonstrable practicality. They are the long-lasting light bulbs of formal culture that utilize but transcend pop culture. More inaccessible, the festival’s highest scientific and scholarly presentations were from Jackson, Worster, Angus Wright, Lee DeHaan, Jerry Glover, David Van Tassel, Curt Meine, Dana Beach, Doug Tompkins and Conn Nugent.
These “brains in a barn” are not for the casual festival goer. Despite the normal trappings of any festival, the porta johns, wine, beer, tents and bonfires, this is no casual festival. This is no laughing matter, and this year’s gathering was made more somber by being dedicated to the recently-passed board member Strachan (pronounced STRAWN) Donnelley. But Donnelley himself was quoted by Meine as stressing the need to “keep a sense of humor”.
There was much humor to be found bubbling through the complex, cerebral speeches given that weekend. Jackson introduced Worster by proclaiming his “capacity for the deep snarl” after which Worster obliged by snarling into the microphone. Angus Wright began his speech with a description of how elk males differ in their approaches to females.
“While the alpha males fight and females wait to see who is dominant, where are the beta males? They’re not stupid. They’re workin’ the fringes. It is not in the interest of the beta males to tell the alpha males what they’re up to.”
Then Wright seemed to extend the example to the big “alpha” agriculture corporations and the “beta” environmental, sustainability experts. What he called the “winner takes all” mentality permeates the corporate drive to be the showy, “heroic saviors of humanity”. In closing, he said to “all you dirty-minded people” in the audience that the beta male elk were “only trying to have a discussion with the females on perennial polyculture.”
In the seventies, it was “the energy crisis”. In the new millennium, it is “the long emergency.” As financial meltdown threatens the entire world, how will we cope with our immediate emergencies while planning for the coming, long-term changes?
In 1994, the last time I saw Wes and my Dad together at our home, Jackson asked me what I thought of him. While honored that he would care what I thought, I had no answer then. I have worked for environmental and civil liberties causes, and by then I had produced two festivals along those lines in Douglas County.
I feel that anything we do now is probably too little too late, as there are too many people and too much consumption. I see festivals, no matter how well-intentioned, as just more consumption, which produces little change in those who need the information the most. It is the old “preaching to the choir” conundrum. But I do believe in Jackson’s Institute, and if ecotourism helps keep his research and hope alive, then let the festival prosper. It does seem that we are in an emergency, a slow-motion collapse. Levelheaded leadership is needed, and it won’t come from the government but from each of us.
At the Friday night barn dance, there were Mennonites, Methodists, Pagans and at least one Wiccan. In an emergency, we forget our differences and work together. We will each dance to the tune that moves us, but we will all agree to step lightly on this fragile bubble we call home.
The 2009 Land Institute Prairie Festival is the last weekend of September. Check online at www.landinstitute.org
Copyright: copyright 2008 Ron Fent
Location: Salina, Kansas
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