Glaciers gave way to mammoths
Who gave way to Clovis People
Who gave way to the Plains People and buffalo
Who gave way to immigrants from Scandinavia, Germany
Who are giving way to ___________
With each turning there must have been great grief. Each marked an end- some terminal. Like the last mammoth that was felled. Elders recounting to their grandchildren how it was in their day- a time of abundant mammoths. There have been people on this very landscape for more than 10,000+ years. Their remains found and named Brown's Valley Man and Minnesota Woman.
It is -20F this morning. That's not counting the wind chill. And thank G_d the wind is not blowing. It makes me wonder how our Dakota forbearers and forerunners lived and thrived on this land before radiators/central heat.
I don't know, but I imagine that the native people still living here live with the deep grief of seeing their world and culture give way. Prairies- gone. (News last week of another 1.3 million acres of marginal/prairie remnant plowed under between 2006-2011). Language and culture- disappearing. Hanging on through the good souls that take a stand to preserve and protect those traditions.
And so I find myself staving off grief. The grief of the end of a short, hopeful period of our times- of land grant universities and agrarian populism. The end of a people ennobled and civil who once populated this landscape in numbers.
(NOTE: The Land-grant University system was created by President Lincoln in 1862 and established in every state to conduct research (largely agricultural), educate all of the nation's people, and provide outreach to bring practical knowledge and civic structure to every corner of our nation- think the U of M, 4-H and county Extension agents)
This grief is most acute after spending a few days in Rochester MN, which appears rich and thriving compared to where I live. Maybe it is the perspective of age- of aging. I now see and feel the change around me.
Uncle Mick, now in his late 80's, talks about how the many changes he saw in his lifetime brought more comfort and were welcomed. He moved to the Big Stone County farm (he still lives on) with his father, mother, and a couple baby siblings in a horse drawn wagon. They went from farming with horses to tractors. The tractors went from metal wheels to rubber wheels- which were so much less jarring to the body and hurt so much less to ride on. Rural electricity came. A heater that wasn't fueled by corn cobs. Running water. Pesticides helped save a wheat crop from being overrun with weeds.
And so here we are in 2013. Granted- it is a bitterly cold February day when all the land is devoid of all relief and color. Blankets of white and brown. And too cold to do anything but huddle against the dangerous cold. So maybe my thoughts are also huddling as well.
But I have driven many hundreds of miles this week through western Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas. I drive down the Main Streets. I stop along the way. I pray over these streets "Oh Lord- bless them." Because they are dying. Some already dead.
I am watching a culture and a way of life disappear. It was a heyday of the common man. Family farming in the age of enlightenment, science, faith, civility, and Lincoln's land-grant university idealism. It was as close to Thomas Jefferson's dream of America come true- a dream where abundant
"Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands."
Should we grieve each passing? The mammoths are gone- never to return. I, for one, miss them. I see their ghosts on this landscape. They would do well today at -20F grazing in the slough grass.
I am bearing witness to the passing of an agrarian country (a populism), the last remnants of which are disappearing. Like many recent cultures, it is not dead. It is still being carried by the few who are still gathering at cafes for coffee at 3pm or 4pm, depending on what time your people had historically milked cows (every 12 hours).
I met this week with a group of men- idealists really- who are grieving over the loss of some of the soul of our land-grant university. The land-grant, an idea so burning and bright and pure and good that it inspires these men to tears even 150 years after its birth.
We have, all of us, benefited from what the land-grant universities brought to this nation, to the common man. My grandma read classic literature in Latin in a one room school house in Dodge County, Minnesota. Thanks to a country school teacher educated at a land-grant university.
This is what I see speeding by my car windows. This is what is keeping me awake on dark, life-threateningly cold Minnesota mornings. That this short run of immigrant farmers is over. It started in earnest in the 1870's, peaked in the 1920's, had its crisis in the 1980's, hung on until 2013, and now with each death of an elder is disappearing.
I remember, as a child, riding in the back of my parents' car down dark country roads in Dodge County. Looking at the lit up barns as the farmers finished their milking. Farms dotted every 80 to 160 acres on those fertile SE Minnesota soils. Those days are gone, most likely never to return.
And these men I met with, these men who believe so fervently in the land-grant mission and the dignity of Every Man, they want us (me) to stop these death throes. They want us/me/the University to provide not just solace and succor to a dying culture, but to revitalize and repurpose it. Take it back to what we remember as a thriving, vital, wholesome and proud way of life.
But the landscape is dark this morning. There are almost no lights in the 360 degree horizon around my open prairie farm. I'm not sure that having a county Extension agent again in Big Stone County would be the answer. Then again, I'm not sure it wouldn't be. And that is not even what they are asking for.
I'm grateful to these men- though they play with fire (or more aptly dying embers). One, a lawyer, threatens to divorce the U of M from its land-grant mantel. This is the highest insult he could seek to inflict upon a University that is not living up to its land-grant expectations. And my gut fear- the constricting in my chest brought on by his intent is......... no one would care..........
Am I nostalgic for a farming era that was hard, dirty, uncomfortable? No. I am nostalgic for a peopled landscape of independent family businesses (farms) every 160 acres that provided a culture of work, faith, family and education. All that- the realization of that past- was made possible in large part due to the land-grant university that informed and educated people in every single corner of this state. Not just through a University education, but through its research and its 'outreach' which was present as part of the fabric of rural communities. Minnesota's land-grant brought civic infrastructure, trained teachers and farmers, and placed agricultural specialists to every single county for the public and common good of ALL.
The "Minnesota Miracle" (1971) wasn't an outcome of any one action or event in our State. It was the natural impact and evoluation of all those rural/farming/land-grant cultures combined. What a great recipe for success! And now we've lost a fair amount of the ingredients. Going. Going. Gone.
Gentlemen. Please drive to Big Stone County via the back roads. Stop on every Main Street and see what you find. Bring me your ideas, your hopes for what can sustain us in rural places and beyond ubiquitous family farms. Because they were her, they thrived, and are now nearly gone. Rest in peace.