Consulting the Genius of the Place – book review
From Chris Smith in the online Englewood Review of Books
Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has been of the leading voices of the agrarian movement over the last four decades. And yet, his books are relatively unknown. This fate, however, is perhaps about to change, with the recent release of what is perhaps his finest work, Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to the New Agriculture. The themes of place, biodiversity and the virtues of perennial plants that have abounded in Jackson’s previous books converge in Jackson’s thorough argument for a new approach to agriculture that is dictated not by market economies or agribusiness but rather by the land and ecology of a given place. Jackson’s argument is fairly simple: humanity needs to learn to shift our agricultural efforts away from large-scale monoculture operations which contribute to the catastrophic effects of erosion and of the chemicals in the fertilizers and pesticides that such monocultures demand. Instead, he argues, we should return to diverse plantings that include perennial crops and that fit with the land, climate and other ecological features of our particular places. He says in the book’s preface: “As our minds sweep over the past and back to the present, I want them to center on the natural ecosystems still with us as our primary teachers. They are our source of hope. Reduced in number and limited in scale, they still hold answers to countless questions we have not yet learned to ask” (xi). The primary natural ecosystem, of course, that Jackson and others at The Land Institute have trained their focus – given their home base in Kansas – is that of the prairie.
Although Jackson’s argument is relatively simple and concise, he takes his time developing it over the course of the book, leisurely narrating story after story that illustrate and flesh out the keys points of his argument. The stories he tells are literally all over the map, from his own experiences growing up in Kansas and spending summers working on a relative’s ranch in South Dakota, to those of Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to Roswell Garst’s hybrid seed farm in Iowa in 1959….
For followers of Christ, Jackson’s first story in this chapter (15), that of his friend Leland Lorenzen, a man who was convicted by reading Thoreau’s Walden to adopt a simple life of voluntary poverty, holds much fruit for reflection. For instance, Leland’s conviction that our lives of consumption are rooted in our constant “building or protecting of an image,” is a disturbing and challenging point that echoes some of William Stringfellow’s finest theological work on the powers.
Read the entire review at the link provided ……….