Our Community is Bigger Than We Think

A few weeks back my picture graced the front page of this very paper. It was a shot of me looking quite important in my soiled yellow firefighter garb with smoke from a prescribed fire billowing in the background. I’m kind of a big deal. People know me.

But that’s not the point of this story. Today I’m sort of expanding on the idea of interconnectedness I discussed last month and showing that our “community” is much larger than we think. And in the spirit of the season, that’s certainly something to be thankful for.

First, some background regarding the prescribed fire mentioned above. I’ve mentioned before that the fires we light mimic the wildfires that historically burned across this landscape before settlement. The local wildlife evolved with such disturbances and thrive when those natural systems are emulated. After we burn, the forest floor grows new plants that deer and countless other wildlife feed on. Squirrel-planted acorns sprout and start a new generation of oak trees which provide food, shelter, and nest-building materials for future generations of squirrels.

Every year, trees produce leaves and the prairies we also manage with fire produce grasses, drawing carbon from the atmosphere and water from the ground. Then those leaves and grasses fall, locking that carbon into the soil and providing the soil-building nutrients needed for future trees and plants. Left to itself in the right conditions, an oak tree will do this for a century or more. Eventually the tree dies, creating more opportunity for other species of wildlife. Bats roost in its slipping bark. Woodpeckers feast on the bugs which feast on the tree, slowly breaking it down and returning its biomass to the earth.

Or maybe someone from the conservation department will cut it down, chop it up, and offer it to campers for firewood. Then some family will bask in its warmth, roast marshmallows over its flames, and create memories that just might make them appreciate the natural world a bit more for having had such experiences. It’s all one big interconnected system.

Such interconnectedness is not confined to the natural world. Many of us probably had a pretty sizeable feast this week on account of the holiday. Ever stop to think just how that food connects us to the land upon which we walk and the people we share it with? That turkey you had probably came from a factory farm somewhere in the Midwest. Those turkeys, far different from the wild ones that roost in the branches of oak trees, were probably fed with processed grain grown on midwestern soil. That soil, the most productive soil on earth, is the product of eons of prairie plants or forests that grew, died, burned, and were occasionally grazed and subsequently fertilized by herds of bison.

In other words, that turkey is the product of the prairies and forests that built this land. And by extension, so are we.

Look at the other ingredients on your dinner plate. Anything that contains high fructose corn syrup is again due to the productive soils we have. Heck, the fuel you burned going to the store is probably blended with ethanol derived from the very plants grown on these midwestern soils.

We are products of the land upon which we live. We’re also products of our community. But that community is bigger than we think.

That turkey you ate was fed with grain grown by farmers on a farm that was, at some point, likely converted from native prairie to farmland by people only a few generations prior. Other people we seldom think of hauled that grain from field, to silo, to processing plant, to feed store, to industrial turkey feeding operation. Then more people hauled those fat turkeys to a processing plant where more people turned the birds into the food products we find on local store shelves, which, incidentally, were stocked by people from right here in what we traditionally consider our “community”.

So when you really stop to think about it, our community is much bigger and includes many more people than we normally think. And interwoven through it all is that connection to the land.

Aldo Leopold, the “Father of Wildlife Management” once said, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” Care to guess where Aldo Leopold was from? Hint, there’s a school in Burlington named after him for a reason.

So as we reflect on all the things we’re thankful for this holiday, let’s expand that gratitude to the broader community. The community of unseen farmers, workers, meat processors, drivers, shelf stockers, and of course, the land upon which we all depend.

This is a modified piece that originally appeared in my "Living Land" column in The Hawk Eye.