Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Variety is More than Spice

It's been a long time coming, but I have to admit that it's true.

Diversity is a good thing.

Once in my college years I completed a business intership in a nursing home. As an intern, I was included in the daily staff meetings that the administration would have. Often, different employees would give presentations to teach us all about some new aspect of nursing home management. One day, one of the other interns passed out little plastic baggies with various nicknacks and baubles contained in them. The different items were supposed to be a teaching tool for the employees to embrace diversity in the workplace. Eye rolling and gagging gesticulations could not express strongly enough my disdain for such a display of overt political correctness.

I have changed my tune--almost completely. The political correctness still makes my eyes roll.

Diversity is actually a strengthening agent and something to be celebrated, not despised.

The problem is, much of the diversity that is out there is either seen as something subversive and damaging to the whole, or it is overlooked for wider brushstrokes on the canvas of life.

That's the problem with the Great Plains.

People view the Great Plains as "flyover states" between one coast and the other. (Cheryl Unruh has a wonderful site devoted to this very topic right here:http://www.flyoverpeople.net ). The dismissal of the Plains as only worth a small footnote in our culture is almost universally pandemic. Those of us who live here have a problem, too: we don't acknowledge and taut the rich mosaic of diversity and life that resides in and with the plains.

When you think of diversity, you generally don't come up with an "empty" grassland as the best example. We like big, action-packed things. We don't like seemingly static, empty things--even if they are full of infinite variety and diversity.

Take the dirt of the Great Plains.

The greatest resource that the Great Plains has is not its wind potential (although this is wonderful, too). It is not its hard working people or its rich cultural diversity from the first peoples who persevered in this place. It is something that is foundational to every other life system on the planet: the soil.

Soil filters water. Its nutrients allow plants to grow and root systems to mesh life together. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different chemicals and elements contained within it. The animals and people eat the plants that grow on it. They die and the nutrient cycle continues ad infinitum.

Aldo Leopold had a wonderful metaphor in 'A Sand County Almanac'. The "Round River" that flowed in a neverending circle was tended by Paul Bunyan in the folk tales of these parts. Although physics deny the literal existence of such a river, figuritively it makes a good discription of soil. The soil never runs out of stuff that makes it live and thrive! But only if the other things that are connected to that soil are healthy and thriving, too.

When a person thrusts a hand into the sod of the prairie, and rips out the top layer of soil, it is a piece of the collective life that resides there. If you put your nose up to the life in your hands and breathe deeply in, you will smell the sweet-pithy bouquet of diverse life that is there. It's more than the sum of the parts that make the whole. It is the whole itself. The soil IS alive! It's alive!
If you do the same in your front-yard monoculture of Kentucky Bluegrass, you will smell a combination of various chemicals and a slightly off, water-soaked cardboard smell. That's soil that has life in it, but it is not diverse, healthy life.

The person who taught me this is a farmer-rancher from Turtle Lake, North Dakota. Gene Goven got started a few decades ago trying to figure out how to get more cows in a parcel of land to feed on the grass without destroying the forage that was there. What he found was far more than he had planned for.

As it turns out, by mimicking the grazing patterns of Bison by the use of "cells" within different paddocks, and moving the cattle around to grind the carbon life back into the soil, the soil responds with more microbial diversity and more plant varieties. This, in turn, allows more tonnage of feed to be produced. That translates to sustainable larger herd sizes, which drives more carbon back into the soil. So the cycle of life and the sequestration of carbon creates one huge conglomerate of a life form called soil.

Gene also found out that the healthy, diverse soil was filtering water much better than the unhealty soils.

One season the Northern Plains got a proverbial "gully gusher" of a rain storm. Gene complained that all his neighbors stock ponds had filled up so quickly and their cows were all drinking already. His ponds, however, were still dry a day after the rain. (It had been a dry, hot year). Eventually, his ponds did fill up. The water, it turns out, was being filtered and used by the plants in the healthy, diverse soil. The diverse, healthy soil was 'catching more water where it fell.'

For an great read about diversity and Gene's system of rotational grazing go here: http://www.holisticmanagement.org/

Interestingly, farmers are finding that diversity is healthier for the soil, too. If you came to the plains eighty years ago, you would see the process of desertification gaining a foothold. The dust bowl happened for a reason: people didn't know the soil and its needs--that it needed diversity.

Now, many farmers (at least the ones who want to stay in business) are turning to so-called no-till farming. No-till seeks to allow residual matter on top of the soil over the winter to hold the soil in place. Instead of turning the dirt over with a plow in the spring, the farmers drill the seed directly into the stubble. The residue holds more water in place and keeps the soil from blowing into the next state. In addition to more diverse rotations and cropping, farmers have found their yields to increase four or five fold on a what a particular piece of ground would produce in the 20s and 30s. Diversity in farming has increased profits, benefitted wildlife and water retention, and just overall makes a lot more sense than turning everything over every year.

The interesting relationship between diversity and health with other life systems is uncanny. For instance: What happens when a society yearns to create a so-called pure, racially "superior" monoculture in a human nation?

You get a nightmare.

It is a twisted thing to think of Nazism as comparible to a whole field of leafy spurge on the prairie (a non-native invader destroying range land), but this is a fair comparison. Both the plant community and the Nazi society are choking the life out of their foundations. (The ironic thing about the Nazis is that even their high holy Fuehrer wasn't exactly the epitome of health, beauty and vigor to begin with.)

The prairie can teach America to claim her rich asset and empowering strength. Diversity and variety in human societies are as strengthening and healthy as thousands of different species of microbes, insects, grazers, grasses, legumes, forbs and sedges that the good Lord spreads like a mat across the land to the Rockies. We should think twice when we seek to continually change others to our way of thinking and acting.

Their differences, rather than a chink the armor or a weak link we despise, just might be enriching the whole in ways of which we never conceived.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Feeling SAD?

One of the most difficult things that I have had to adjust to moving to the northern plains is the amount of daylight we receive in the winter months. After having grown up in Minnesota in the 1970s, I remember getting on the bus to go to school in the dark. But the sun was usually peaking through the clouds; dawn was well on its way when we reached school. This must have been about eight o'clock in the morning or so. The situation in Western North Dakota is far different.

There are days in December and January that officially begin at nine AM. And you still are tired, wishing that the warm covers and nirvana of sleep were washing over you in transcendent bliss. Certainly, Alaskans must experience this to the nth degree. I have never been to Alaska, but those winters have got to be tough.

Add to this the never-ending-constant-godforsaken-wind that ensues day in and day out on the plains, and you have a depressing day indeed.

I have always had the contention that any day that the wind does not blow on the plains is a good day. It doesn't matter if it's 20 below outside. No wind? Good. Wind? Wind bad. Very bad.

It's not that humans cannot benefit from the wind. Even our President recently said that Americans must look at developing wind energy as "a part of the equation" for future energy needs. I guess shrubs do waver a little when the wind blows, too.

Add into the mix of very little to do in rural North Dakota and you have a syrupy concoction of wind, darkness and boredom to give you a good recipe for ennui and purposelessness.

Some believe that depression is actually a evolutionary survival skill for our northern European ancestors. The metabolic processes certainly are reduced when you sleep an extra two hours per day. But there had to be some Norwegian up late stirring away to produce Aquavit to exacerbate and amplify depression even more. Certainly, those who came to the plains took this poison with them to whittle away those cold evenings in some sod house on the prairie.

North Dakota has the coveted #1 rank in the nation for per capita alcoholics.

Whether or not the sun has a whole lot to do with this is controversial.

DSM-IV states there is certainly a "pattern" of "depressive episodes" that are consistent with winter circadian rhythms. But the fact of the matter is that, "despite the heuristic appeal of a circadian hypothesis for SAD, there are as yet no consistently replicated data to support abnormal circadian rhythms as an etiology for SAD or for the therapeutic effects of light."

In the meantime, it seems, the people of the Northern Plains will have to learn to live with the winter blues. We can curse the wind, scream at what's on TV, and pour another bottle of HEET in the tank. But we will still have to live with the winter's lack of sun and fun. What many say here, "it keeps the riff-raff out" might actually be true.

At least it makes us feel a little better about ourselves that we actually are tough enough to 'like' depression.

Keep thinking of June...and those eleven o'clock sunsets.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Congratulations! You've won an all-expense paid trip to....North Dakota!

I read this post today on Aberdeen News' online site. Let the numbers speak for themselves. I don't think kids are breaking down the doors for this prize. Once again, this shows that perception is everything in a world of glitzy advertising and glamorous 'destinations'. For a direct link to this article, click here.

National Guard essay contest offers free trip to North Dakota

Associated Press
BISMARCK, N.D. - A National Guard essay contest is offering 10 selected high school students from every state and four territories a free trip to North Dakota this summer.

The Guard's Lewis and Clark Youth Rendezvous is being planned to bring the 540 students to North Dakota Aug. 13-18 to educate them about the journey of explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark nearly 200 years ago.

Two chaperones from each state and territory also will get the free trip, the Guard said.

The students will be selected based their thoughts about the military value of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The competition is open to those who will be high school juniors or seniors in August 2006.

"We're still looking for more entries," said Staff Sgt. Billie Jo Lorius of Bismarck, a Guard spokeswoman. "We're really encouraging creativity."

Only 26 students have sent in entries, with 12 from North Dakota. The deadline for entries is Feb. 28.

While in North Dakota, they will visit sites including Fort Abraham Lincoln south of Mandan, the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan in Washburn, and Medora.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Guns don't kill people--Vice Presidents do

I never thought that I would be defending our Vice President.

I dislike a lot of things about Mr. Cheney. His politics reflect the hyper-machismo that seems to infect the Republican party at this time. (For a very lucid, convincing argument of this, check out this link: here). Like any chronic infection, this self-righteous attitude seems to permeate every level of his politics. He obviously is not a puppet of Bush (or even a side-kick apparatchik, as I believe Gore was to Clinton). In the world of the neocons, Cheney is the great high priest while Bush is the less astute, but more approachable, big brother that puts all things right in his own viewpoint. "There, there little Joey. George's gonna make everything okay."

Dick Cheney also has that really annoying lip curl that he does when he talks. It's almost like he's smelling dog shit in the next room and is disgusted with the whole conversation, indeed, life itself.

And he's a hunter.

I recently had somebody ask me what my politics were. It seems that my friend had found from previous dialogue via e-mail that my viewpoints seem 'democratic'; yet North Dakota is a red state--as most prairie states are. Since I live here, this must be what I am. Also, it seemed that since I was a hunter, that that is also indicative of the GOP.

The more I think about it, hunting does seem like it is something that red-blooded American males do. Everybody knows red-blooded American males are not 'in touch with their feelings'; they go out and get what they want and repress emotions. They don't cry when they get a sliver. And if they're hungry, they reach behind the driver's seat of their pickup and take down old granddaddy's shotgun and blast whatever it is that they see. Blood and guts aside, the meat will be roasted on a spit, and he'll eat it off a stick as he cracks a new beer.

There is no doubt that my friend is not that dense to stereotype all hunters this way. But, you have to admit, hunters portray a certain image that doesn't match an east coast liberal about to go to a broadway show.

I don't belong to the NRA. I think that they're a bunch of paranoid freaks that don't see the destructiveness of guns in our culture--even from "responsible" gun owners. However, the antis are so misinformed about what ethical hunting is about, especially in the wide open of the prairie, that their arguments make me want to declare an open season on them.

Our Vice President was out enjoying himself hunting with some colleagues. It has been an activity that I myself have done hundreds of times. PETA and the antis are wrong that it is bloodlust. It's also not a sin to have fun doing it. The chase is a conditioned response that we have in us, precisely because our ancestors hunted and nourished themselves with protein that they killed. Many convincing studies indicate it was this protein in our diet which gives us now the ability to even have this abstract article printed over the ether. The chase excites us, because a powerful, natural drug is injected into our brains:it's called adrenaline. We are excited, because we are designed to be that way through natural selection.

The difficult thing a hunter MUST learn to master is shooting safely when under the influence of the excitement and the adrenaline. It is a difficult thing to do, as police officers under pursuit of a fleeing criminal will attest. A certain "tunnel-vision" is the result, allowing you to focus on the task at hand (killing), but also endangering you and others for a split second. This, no doubt, was the situation that Mr. Cheney experienced when he shot his colleague while out quail hunting recently.

All over the blogosphere there are articles denouncing Mr. Cheney for his irresponsibility and actions. In fact, the very words printed in the title of this article were the parting words of one such opinion.

Was Mr. Cheney responsible? Absolutely. It is bogus to say that it was Harry Whittington's fault because he didn't announce himself when he returned to the hunting party. If he had, he probably wouldn't have been shot. Nevertheless, there are always situations that pop up where you do not know what may happen in the seconds after the flush of game.

A buddy of mine and I were out hunting in North Dakota a while back. His dog went on point on a pheasant in a cattail slough. As he walked up for the flush, the bird sprang up on my side of the slough. I lifted my shotgun for a shot and just micro-moments before I pulled the trigger, his dog jumped straight up in the air in an attempt to catch the low flying pheasant. Had I shot, I almost certainly would have killed or seriously injured his dog.

With that being said, is something like this apt to happen to even the best, most responsible hunters? Yes. That's why they are called 'accidents'. Hunting, albeit a relatively safe sport (much safer than snowmobiling or even ice fishing statistically), is not without risk.

The pundits who take this opportunity to lambast the Vice President only show their ignorance of the hunting world. Which makes open-minded, articulate Democrats like myself look all the more like a rednecked Bushie.

Hunting with ethics is an honorable act. When a person steps outside into the great-wide-open with a goal to kill and eat, that one is closer to our true natural state than any dweeb sitting down and writing opinions in a blog on the internet.

Only 6 1/2 more months until fall hunting.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

I feel so much safer now

I recently found out that the Federal Department of Homeland Security has been doling out money since 2003 to states and state's emergency services to bolster our nation's security. Rural areas, as well as cities and municipalities, were offered available funding to help purchase equipment and pay for training.

In 2003, $750 million was made available for firefighter assistance grants from the '03 Budget to help rural, urban and suburban fire departments better train, prepare and equip themselves. Additional monies have been made available since then, and, our President is planning to have a six percent increase in Homeland Security's budget for 2007.

Sounds like a good idea, right?

I suppose it is good in theory. Fire departments, in particular, are one of the main responders to rescue and confront emergency situations. But that's just in theory.

We're dealing with the government here.

Somehow, the office of Homeland Security sees fit to prepare us from any terrorist threat that may be out there-anywhere and anytime. With emergency services better prepared we can not only impede terrorists from obtaining their destructive goals, but we can better respond to the aftermath of terrorist attacks. Aftermath: like smoldering cow turds.

The rural fire department of Golden Valley, North Dakota (pop. 176) was recently given $4,122 for "continued improvements and capital investments" of their fire department from the Department of Homeland Security. With these funds, the fire department has purchased practical items such as a door lock for the fire hall, a generator, two helmet protectors, and pagers.

One of the items on the recommended list that accompanied the check was binoculars. In theory, the fire department could use these to scan the horizon to look for enemy planes and strange activities taking place, that otherwise could not be readily seen with only the naked eye.

"We aren't going to use them for that though," said a member of Golden Valley's rural fire department. "We got something else we can look at," he added.

It seems that this part of the prairie is prone to wildfires from time to time. Fires that are not kept under control can advance very quickly in the prairie grasses. When there is a strong wind, it is even worse.

When the grass fires are all put out, there is one thing for the firefighters left to do. They climb up on the highest hilltop in view, and they survey the surrounding country with their newly purchased government binoculars to see if there are any stray fires to put out. Many of these fires continue to burn on cow droppings, especially if they are dry, since the grass contents of the poop are similar to those artificial logs a person puts in the fireplace.

"You'd be surprised how long those cow pies can burn," the Golden Valley volunteer informed me. "Sometimes, two, three days later they can fire up another blaze and then we'd just be out there again trying to put it out."

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain

I don't know much about Spain. I've never been there. I heard, though, that Spain was once convered with broad, rich grasslands and savannas before we got a taste for angel hair pasta, pistachos on the full shell, and Pinot Grigio. (What the hell do I know? I don't even drink wine, much less know where they grow that kind...)

That's the thing about the description of this place where I live: the plains; the great plains; the big flat. (It don' madder, Professor 'iggins, 'ow she sayz it!) What does that mean? Words derive their meaning not only from their original connotation, but the meaning they inherit from their use. *Goodness me, that's why 'gay as a jaybird' now means something more than your happy little pasttime in ornithology!*

Let's just look at what 'plain' means. Shall we?

1. Would you like chocolate, rocky-road, or mint ice cream, DeAnn? No thanks. I just want plain.

2. Dearie me. She used to have such curly locks, but look at her now! She's so plain-Jane.

3. No, no! Sonny! If you wanna make it flat you gotta use a wood plane! (So, it's a homonym...sue me.)

4. Well, anyone can see that! Of course his hand is falling off. That's rather plain to see, isn't it?

The Great Plains = The Really Big, Boring Place between the two coasts. Sometimes has buffalo in it. A place of obvious little cultural value. After all, here's where we put our nukes!

Looks like this:

Well...it does! At least it did in the movie 'Fargo'. (May I remind the blogreader that the psychopaths came from MINNESOTA, as most of the film was made there, too.)

'Image' in the collective opinion, of course, does not reflect reality. Which is really okay with me. My hunting, fishing, birdwatching, and my xeriscaped garden are all the better because of this. I wouldn't mind if you visited, though.

Do you know that Bobolinks have a particular dance that they do in the spring of a mixed grass prairie? You don't read that in books. It's sort of a flying, jumping thing.

Do you know of the green flash? It happens almost every night in late June in the Northern Plains at a quarter to eleven at night.

I've never been to the Kanza, but a buddy of mine has. He said the prairie chicken's booming made him laugh and laugh and almost cry for 15 minutes. He wasn't even stoned at the time. (Which is sort of amazing, in itself...)

Tah-Kah-Uh-Kuty was the place where the Sioux "Killed the Deer". There's a hole at the top that is magic. I'm not kidding. It's the same place the Hidatsa called Singer Butte, where the medicine hole opened up for the spotted owl to name creation forth.

Andropogon Gerardii (my namesake) covers Eastern Montana on the cutbanks of the Yellowstone and Missouri. It's a tall grass species. What the hell is it doing there? (And it's not because of global warming...)

There's treasure in that-which-America-will-never-call-treasure. I'm glad...because if it were any better (or at least not so ball-bustin' cold) 'it' wouldn't be. It barely is....

Monday, February 06, 2006

Strange February

I drove to Pick City today with a friend of mine to go pick up some lunch. The diner was closed; this is not necessarily a bad thing in rural North Dakota. Our menu would only have consisted of something fried on a butter-smeared bun. Haphazardly tossed on a scratched chinet plate there would be the greasy remains of potato strips--many rural diners in NoDak still call them "freedom fries." It seems that rural North Dakotans take their president's claim that the French are uppity socialist scum quite seriously. So much so, that I'm sure that the signs that advertize these fries will still bear the marks of "we support our troops" well into 2010.

So we went to his place to have DiGiorno pizza. I asked my buddy if it was delivery...

We watched the remainder of Coretta Scott King's funeral on MSNBC, while I looked at pictures I took the previous spring for a turkey hunt. I came to think, "what a thing this is...I'm sitting here, watching a funeral, eating pizza on a couch, and its forty degrees outside in February in North Dakota...I should have really shot that turkey with my bow, too..." That's strange all by itself, but it seems like the strangeness is infecting us and all of our country. Strange, in that we want everything to become the same.

When will America be so generic, that anywhere you find yourself will conviently have one-thousand channels, plastic-wrapped food, box-shaped stores and strip malls, wireless internet access to surf endless free porn? Life will have reached its apex. Our experiences will be bar-coded and we will travel place to place not to change venue but only slip into another store that is found just a few minutes away. Or if not there, just open up and paypal your way into your own.

Ironic, isn't it? We are sold the package of goods that promises to deliver freedom, happiness, and independence. But the store that sells it is just the same as new delvopments that Shanghai or Addis Abbaba wants on the outskirts to give them the same freedom, happiness, and independence. We will build ourselves into monotony. Our dreams will consist of clean-pleated, smiley-white women offering more convienience, speed, and glamor. Go to them and find that you travelled nowhere to noplace.

Maybe those rural, backwater diners aren't so bad. Maybe age, quirk and backwardness have something to them--something that allows a distinction of place. The plastic coating can't prevent the spoilage there. Maybe the uniqueness is what God is about, no matter how strange or ugly that might be. After all, there was a different air-freshener scent next to sink in the bathroom at the diner last week. Yeah, that plug-in right next to the sink with the used chew on the drain.