Of Paths and Prairies, Gods and Tears

Video created by my new Minnesota friends Tory and Rachel.  Reading is an excerpt of Wendell Berry’s “A Native Hill.”

In his interesting book on the collapse of community and the rise of the service industry, The Careless Society: Community and its Counterfeits, John McKnight begins with a story of a different collapse.  The following is an excerpt:

The story begins as the European pioneers crossed the Alleghenies and started to settle the Midwest.  The land they found was covered with forests.  With great effort they pulled up the trees, pulled up the stumps, and planted their crops in the rich, loamy soil.

When they finally reached the western edge of the place we now call Indiana, the forest stopped and ahead lay a thousand miles of the great grass prairie.  The Europeans were puzzled by this new environment.  Some even called it the Great Desert.  It seemed untillable.

The settlers found that the prairie sod could not be cut with their cast-iron plows, and that the wet earth stuck to their plowshares.  Even a team of the best oxen bogged down after a few yards of tugging.  The iron plow was a useless tool to farm the prairie soil.  The pioneers were stymied for nearly two decades.  Their western march was halted and they filled in the eastern regions of the Midwest.

In 1837, a blacksmith in the town of Grand Detour, Illinois, invented a new tool.  His name was John Deere, and the tool was a plow made of steel.  It was sharp enough to cut through matted grasses and smooth enough to cast off the mud.  It was a simple tool, the “sodbuster,” that opened the great prairies to agricultural development.

Sauk County, Wisconsin is named after the Sauk Indians.  In 1673, Father Marquette was the first European to lay eyes upon their land.  He found a village laid out in regular patterns on a plain beside the Wisconsin River.  He called the place Prairie du Sac.  The village was surrounded by fields that had provided maize, beans, and squash for the Sauk people for generations reaching back into unrecorded time.

When the European settlers arrived at the Sauk Prairie in 1837, the government forced the native Sauk people west of the Mississippi River.  The settlers came with John Deere’s new invention and used the tool to open the area to a new kind of agriculture.  They ignored the traditional ways of the Sauk Indians and used their sodbusting tool for planting wheat.

Initially, the soil was generous and the farmers thrived.  However, each year the soil lost more of its nurturing power.  It was only thirty years after the Europeans arrived with their new technology that the land was depleted.  Wheat farming became uneconomical and tens of thousands of farmers left Wisconsin seeking new land with sod to bust.

It took the Europeans and their new technology just one generation to make their homeland into a desert.  The Sauk Indians, who knew how to sustain themselves on the Sauk Prairie, were banished to another kind of desert called a reservation.  And even they forgot about the techniques and tools that had sustained them on the prairie for generations.

And that is how it was that three deserts were created: Wisconsin, the reservation, and the memories of a people.

A century and a half later, the land of the Sauks is now populated by the children of a second wave of European farmers who learned to replenish the soil through the regenerative powers of dairying, ground-cover crops, and animal manures.  These third- and fourth-generation farmers and townspeople do not realize, however, that a new settler is coming soon with an invention as powerful as John Deere’s plow.

The new technology is called “bereavement counseling.”  It is a tool forged at the great state university, an innovative technique to meet the needs of those experiencing the death of a loved one, a tool that can “process” the grief of the people who now live on the Prairie of the Sauk.

As one can imagine the final days of the village of the Sauk Indians before the arrival of the settlers with John Deere’s plow, one can also imagine these final days before the arrival of the first bereavement counselor at Prairie du Sac.  In these final days, the farmers and the townspeople mourn the death of a mother, brother, son, or friend.  The bereaved are joined by neighbors and kin.  They meet grief together in lamentation, prayer, and song.  They call upon the words of the clergy and surround themselves with community.

It is in these ways that they grieve and then go on with life.  Through their mourning they are assured of the bonds between them and renewed in the knowledge that this death is a part of the past and the future of the people on the Prairie of the Sauk.  Their grief is common property, an anguish from which the community draws strength and which gives it the courage to move ahead.

Into this prairie community the bereavement counselor arrives with the new grief technology.  The counselor calls the intervention a service and assures the prairie folk of its effectiveness and superiority by invoking the name of the great university while displaying a diploma and license.

At first, we can imagine that the local people will be puzzled by the bereavement counselor’s claims.  However, the counselor will tell a few of them that the new technique is merely to assist the bereaved’s community at the time of death.  To some other prairie folk who are isolated or forgotten, the counselor will offer help in grief processing.  These lonely souls will accept the intervention, mistaking the counselor for a friend.

For those who are penniless, the counselor will approach the County Board and advocate the “right to treatment” for these unfortunate souls.  This right will be guaranteed by the Board’s decision to reimburse those too poor to pay for counseling services.

There will be others, schooled to believe in the innovative new tools certified by universities and medical centers, who will seek out the bereavement counselor by force of habit.  And one of these people will tell a bereaved neighbor who is unschooled that unless his grief is processed by a counselor, he will probably have major psychological problems later in life.

Finally, one day the aged father of a local woman will die.  And the next-door neighbor will not drop by because he doesn’t want to interrupt the bereavement counselor.  The woman’s kin will stay home because they will have learned that only the bereavement counselor knows how to process grief in the proper way.  The local clergy will seek technical assistance from the bereavement counselor to learn the correct form of service to deal with guilt and grief.  And the grieving daughter will know that it is the bereavement counselor who really cares for her, because only the bereavement counselor appears when death visits this family on the Prairie of the Sauk.

It will be only one generation between the time the bereavement counselor arrives and the disappearance of the community of mourners.  The counselor’s new tool will cut through the social fabric, throwing aside kinship, care, neighborly obligations, and community ways of coming together and going on.  Like John Deere’s plow, the tools of bereavement counseling will create a desert where a community once flourished.

And finally, even the bereavement counselor will see the impossibility of restoring hope in clients once they are genuinely alone, with nothing but a service for a consolation.  In the inevitable failure of the service, the bereavement counselor will find the desert even in herself.

The professional co-optation of community efforts to invent appropriate techniques for citizens to care in the community has been pervasive.  We need to identify the characteristics of those social forms that are resistant to colonization by service technologies while enabling communities to cultivate care.  These authentic social forms are characterized by three basic dimensions:  They tend to be uncommodified, unmanaged, and uncurricularized.

The tools of the bereavement counselor have made grief into a commodity rather than an opportunity for community.  Service technologies convert conditions into commodities, and care into service.  [note: this is only one example of a professionalized service industry, and McKnight goes into others in more detail]

How will we learn again to cultivate community?  E. F. Schumacher concluded that “the guidance we need. . . can still be found in the traditional wisdom.”  Therefore we can return to those who understand how to allow the Sauk Prairie to bloom and sustain a people.

One of their leaders, a chief of the Sauk, was named Blackhawk.  After his people were exiled to the land west of the Mississippi and their resistance movement was broken at the Battle of Bad Axe, Blackhawk said of the prairie:

There, we always had plenty; our children never cried from hunger, neither were our people in want.  The rapids of our river furnished us with an abundance of excellent fish and the land, being very fertile, never failed to produce good crops of corn, beans, pumpkins, and squash.  Here our village stood for more than a hundred years.  Our village was healthy and there was no place in the country possessing such advantages, nor hunting grounds better than ours.  If a prophet had come to our village in those days and told us that the things were to take place which have since come to pass, none of our people would have believed the prophecy.

But the settlers came with their new tools and the prophecy was fulfilled.  One of Blackhawk’s Wintu sisters described the result:

The white people never cared for land or deer or bear.  When we kill meat, we eat it all.  When we dig roots, we make little holes.  When we build houses, we make little holes.  When we burn grass for grasshoppers, we don’t ruin things.  We shake down acorns and pinenuts.  We don’t chop down trees.  We only use dead weed.  But the whites plow up the ground, pull down the trees, kill everything.
The tree says, “Don’t.  I am sore.  Don’t hurt me!”  But they chop it down and cut it up.
The spirit of the land hates them.  They blast out trees and stir it up to its depths.  They saw up the trees.  That hurts them. . .  They blast rocks and scatter them on the ground.  The rock says, “Don’t.  You are hurting me!”  But the while people pay no attention.  When [we] use rocks, we take only little round ones for cooking. . . .
How can the spirit of the earth like the white man?  Everywhere they have touched the earth, it is sore.

Blackhawk and his Wintu sister tell us that the land has a Spirit.  Their community on the prairie, their ecology, was a people guided by that Spirit.

When John Deere’s people came to the Sauk Prairie, they exorcised the Prairie Spirit in the name of a new god, Technology.  Because it was a god of their making, they believed they were gods.

And they made a desert.

There are incredible possibilities if we are willing to fail to be gods.


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