Learning to talk with the land


Contemporary author Jim Galvin made a stirring comment in an interview that was published in the “Conservation Voices” magazine last fall.

Every contact we have with the land is a conversation, Galvin said.

I like that. A conversation implies two-way communication. And there is much our natural resources are telling us.

“When we use technology or real estate to destroy wilderness, it’s like the conversation a rapist has with his victim – there is none,” Galvin told freelance writer Valerie Van Kooten. “But in small farm operations, the conversation between the farmer and the land is like the conversation between a married couple: There’s laughing, loving and fighting.”

Galvin, who now teaches at the University of Iowa, was raised along the Colorado/Wyoming border where ranches spread as far as the eye could see and then even farther. He says his neighbors “had an intimate relationship with their surroundings and they lived in a way that was very reverent.”

Those landowners are gone, replaced by urbanites who later realize “their land isn’t accessible in the winter, that there’s nothing to do out there and the first time a cow craps on their land, it’s not the peace and solace they thought they were buying,” Galvin says. “They get angry, not only with other landowners, but with those who own the cows and livestock.”

We see the same thing across rural regions here in the East, only they get angry at slow moving vehicles, manure odors and lack of cable.

From its recent research, the Fannie Mae Foundation, says the rural West is seeing expanding islands of “cappuccino lifestyles” in a shrinking sea of “cowboys.”

The Old West counties, the foundation explains, are working class places filled with miners, ranchers or farmers. The “New West” communities have a social and economic core of college-educated professionals, service workers, and retirees.

I won’t classify the trend as good or bad, but the demographic shifts in rural America are something for all “cowboys” to recognize, and (dare I say it?) perhaps embrace.

Jim Galvin spent three years setting up discussions between the cowboys and cappuccino drinkers in Montana and Wyoming, thanks to a grant from the Lila Wallace Readers’ Digest Foundation.

“Groups have more in common than they have to argue about,” Galvin observes. “People whose life is the land will not willfully abuse it. At the same time, environmentalists care too, and they want a healthy, diverse biosystem in place. But they really don’t know as much about the land as the people living on it do.”

Was the series of dialogues successful? To some degree. Unfortunately, Galvin says, talks between the two groups usually get hung up on insignificant things. “They spend buckets of time arguing about something like wolves or buffalo, and there are so many bigger things they could be spending their time on,” he told author Van Kooten.

You know, I’ve been known to stop at Dairy Mart (Starbucks for the masses) to get a cappuccino. But I put half a cup of coffee in it before I top it off with the frothy mixture. You gotta start somewhere.


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