Book Review: "Consulting the Genius of the Place" by Wes Jackson

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Review by Matt Low

 An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture by Wes Jackson“Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture”
Author: Wes Jackson
Publisher: Counterpoint

Even before the publication of his new book “Consulting the Genius of the Place” (Counterpoint, 2010), Wes Jackson had solidified his place among the most prominent and effective advocates of American environmental thought and practice. As director of the Land Institute in Salina, Kan. (since 1976), as a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (in 1992) and as the author of such influential books as “New Roots for Agriculture” (1980) and “Becoming Native to This Place” (1994), Jackson’s career exemplifies personal success as the upshot of public service. His most recent book brings details of that career to new light, while furthering the cause to which he has devoted his life: namely, replacing the monocultural practices of modern industrial agriculture with a perennial polyculture that prioritizes sustainability, longevity and the health of both the environment and rural America.

Subtitled “An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture,” “Consulting the Genius of the Place” forgoes the narrowed focus and compressed argumentation of Jackson’s earlier writing, especially “Becoming Native to This Place,” in favor of a more meandering and loosely organized collection of autobiography, personal reflection, cut-and-dried agricultural policy, the occasional polemic against modern farming practices and a handful of fully realized solutions to the problems facing contemporary American agriculture. The most effective portions of the book tend to be the latter, as anyone committed to substantially revising the scope and intent of farming practice in America will find inspiration in Jackson’s assertion that “we built an agriculture that was at once simple and simplifying, disrupting countless subtle, ancient processes that had been reliable over millions of years. We can’t go back to the crossroads where our ancestors took that wrong turn, or to a golden age of folk agriculture that never existed. But we can now envision an agriculture in which we bring the ecological processes embodied within biodiversity to the farm, rather than forcing agriculture to relentlessly chip away wild ecosystems” (152). Jackson may lack the same fluidity and precision of prose as his friend Wendell Berry, who plays a prominent role in “Consulting the Genius of the Place,” but passages like this show that he matches Berry in conviction and sincerity. Indeed, one of the more compelling chapters of this work is the recreation of the “50-year farm bill” that Jackson and Berry presented to the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture in 2009, showing that together the two constitute a formidable tandem that transcends the substantial written work each has produced. Given that this bill, and other portions of the book, present agriculture and food production as matters of national security demonstrates a savvy author familiar enough with modern-day politics to get the attention of those in power.

But readers will probably find the most interest in those sections where Jackson slows down and narrows in on localized examples where he has witnessed successful sustainable agriculture at work. Early in the book he recounts a summer spent working on the South Dakota ranch of distant relatives. Because so much of his later work is associated with the native ecology of the Great Plains and Midwest, it is of great significance that Jackson notes, “It was there that I got my first intimate engagement with a prairie landscape whose vegetative structure, or physiognomy, was determined more by its ecology than by its culture” (20). Much later in the work Jackson gives a brief account of how he settled on the part of Saline County, Kan., that would eventually become the Land Institute. Contextualized alongside the biblical story of Eden, Jackson’s reflection here includes a contemplation as to how, “as a technological creature, [he] had destroyed something whole, which is to say, holy,” through his acts of converting prairie and riparian ecosystems into a suitable place for his family to live (241, his emphasis). A noticeable vulnerability enters the work at this point, a fitting bookend to the autobiographical material that opens “Consulting the Genius of the Place.” Jackson wrangles over whether his “perceived need” matched his “real need” at the time he broke ground, but one cannot argue with the good that has since come over the last three-and-a-half decades of his work with the Land Institute.

Finally, some might find Jackson’s tone in this book to be too dire or overly pessimistic, as filled as it is with examples of soil depletion, hypoxic zones, misapplication of pesticides, overpopulation and other threats posed by an omnipresent industrialized agriculture over-reliant on fossil fuels. But pessimism implies hopelessness, an attitude that fails to characterize Jackson and his work. Like those with whom his work most closely compares—Berry certainly, but also Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, maybe even Thoreau—Jackson works hard to keep the reader’s head above water, in spite of the innumerable man-made environmental calamities we now face or will be faced with shortly. Above all else, the model for sustainable agriculture illuminated in “Consulting the Genius of the Place” demands that the reader lend a measure of both hope and faith to Jackson’s confident proclamation that “when down-powering is thrust upon the world, our infrastructure will be in place and we will be better prepared to handle it gracefully” (234). These are not the words of a prophet of doom, but one who has come to terms with his role in permanently altering Eden and now is trying his hardest to make the most of it.

 

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