Forty three years ago, when folks in the USA celebrated the first Earth Day, I was stationed in Stuttgart, West Germany – the country was still divided then. Back then I had little opportunity to carry signs that championed the abstract idea of protecting something as vast as our planet. Heck, I didn’t even hear about Earth Day until I returned a couple years later.
Instead, I was busy marching with a rifle in Western Europe – doing my small part to keep our planet and my country safe from the Russkies so my buddies back home could celebrate the first Earth Day for me.
Well, guess what?
Four decades later, I’m a writer and I’d like to share my thoughts with readers throughout Kansas and the Midwest as I pen this week’s column on Earth Day 2013 celebrated April 22.
Protecting our planet can be somewhat of a struggle. Like each day’s sunrise and sunset, we often take it for granted. Conservation of our planet can be a challenge because some regard the land as a commodity that belongs to them.
Others see the planet as a community to which they belong. They love, care for and respect the land. They adhere to an ethic that enlarges the boundaries of their community to include soils, waters, plants and animals.
There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man. Let us never forget that while our land yields fruits, grains and vegetables, it also yields a cultural harvest; one we as inhabitants all share and must nurture.
The late Aldo Leopold, who championed the conservation ethic more than 70 years ago, defined it as a state of harmony between men and the land. In his book “A Sand County Almanac”, Leopold urged us to strive for such harmony and make sure our words do not override our work.
Let’s make sure our progress does not consist of “letterhead pieties and convention oratory,” Leopold cautioned.
Taking this one step further, let’s make certain our educational and economic systems are headed toward, rather than away from, an increased consciousness of the land.
Today only a handful of our population makes its living from the land – primarily farmers and ranchers. Most people are separated from the land by several generations.
Few have a vital relation to the land. To many, the land is the space between cities on which crops and grass grow or cattle graze.
“Turn him loose for a day on the land and if the spot does not happen to be a golf links or a scenic area, he is bored stiff,” Leopold wrote. “If crops could be grown by hydroponics, instead of farming it would suit him well. Synthetic substitutes for wool, leather, wood and other natural land products suit him better than the originals. In short, land is something he has outgrown.”
As we celebrate Earth Day on April 22, let’s remember land use is not solely an economic question. Let’s think of it in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient.
Leopold said, a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the living community. It is wrong when it does otherwise.
The bulk of all land usage hinges on investments of time, forethought, skill and faith, rather than only capital investment. We have continually modernized our farms with equipment, plant food, insecticides and other production inputs. We are proud, as well we should be with the abundance of crops we produce in Kansas and across our country.
We can never throw away the tools, technology and stewardship that have provided so much for so many. On this Earth Day 2013 let’s renew our commitment to their successful use in harmony with our life-giving land. Let’s display for all to see we have not outgrown the land.
John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.