My family and I have been visiting relatives in Tucson, Arizona. Although there’s tremendous variation in the landscape of the northeast, both the dramatic changes from valley to mountain to ocean and subtler shifts in farmland and fauna, there’s a rough aesthetic continuity, or perhaps just familiarity on my part. By contrast, everything here is alien. The desert stretches out flat, covered with prickly pear, cholla, barrel cacti, and mesquite. Towering red mountains look bare and austere from a distance, but a drive of less than an hour up through them passes from the Sonoran desert through stands of saguaro, into chaparral, then pine forests all the way to the snowy summit.
This contrast with my usual environment brings some big questions into focus. I imagine trying to raise cattle in so dry a place and realize I would have no idea where to start. Besides a basic level of comfort with and knowledge about livestock, I posses little knowledge and none of the skills required. A bigger issue would be my ambivalence. Even my limited knowledge of the area’s natural history makes it clear that humans have dramatically changed the landscape, and not for the better. Springs have dried up, and rivers no longer flow. Grass used to be a major part of the low desert ecosystem, and now it is mostly limited to the mountains.
I would like to think cattle could be part of restoring the land, but it doesn’t take a deep dive into the controversy about the role of livestock in brittle environments to realize that it is far from settled. (Right now I am inclined to believe that ruminants can improve soil and plant health, but I am extremely skeptical that rangeland management can sequester more than a modest portion of global carbon emissions.) Compounding this uncertainty is that in arid climates changes last. If I mess up and overgraze in New York, even down to the dirt, something, even if it’s just a bunch of weeds, will soon grow on it. That is not the case here.
Yet as I think I find this uncertainty extending back to my own farm. After all, my area has undergone shifts every bit as profound, they’ve just taken a couple hundred years longer. And - this is more speculative - perhaps the old growth forest of three centuries ago was in part created by the extinction of megafauna millenia earlier. And before that it was under a glacier.
In other words, there isn’t some static, ideal state in which land should exist. One solution is to simply section off an area and let the plants and animals sort it out, which I think makes sense in certain cases. But people need to live somewhere, and we need to eat. What should our relationship to our yards and homes and golf courses be? How should we set a value on farming? How do we assess the productivity of place beyond a single year’s material production? What does a healthy community look like, and how does it relate to healthy land?
These are huge questions, and they have no easy answers. I often bemoan the difficulty of addressing them in a nuanced way, which isn’t particularly helpful. Instead, in the coming weeks, interspersed with my usual random posts about the life of the farm, I am going to discuss agrarianism and land ethics. They are interesting and fraught topics, and I hope you will join me in examining them.