So Near, So Far

Paul Gruchow
Grass Roots: The Universe of Home
Milkweed Editions

WHY DO THE people who live closest to the land these days seem to know the least about it? I'm not talking about planting tables, feedlots, and yield-per-acre. I'm talking about historical and spiritual knowledge of the space we inhabit. The question can be framed another way: Why is it near impossible to buy organic produce anywhere but in the heart of the city?

These are complicated questions that Paul Gruchow handles with the dexterity and precision of a surgeon. A local treasure and unsung hero, Gruchow has been quietly working for years in Worthington and Northfield. His work has appeared in such modest and down-to-earth publications as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' Volunteer, and the Cenex/Land O Lakes company newsletter. But ever since his last book, The Necessity of Empty Places, he's been widely--and correctly--hailed as one of the nation's best essayists.

At the core of his writing there's always a fundamental question: Does the environment exist for us, or do we exist for the environment? No doubt slash-and-burn has only recently passed out of vogue as a valid approach to land management. Only a generation ago, the environment was considered a ruthless foe, a constant threat, and a formidable proving ground. "Stewardship," "conservation," and (gasp!) "environmentalism" entered our vocabulary just when we began to notice with some uneasiness that nature may be a lot more vulnerable than we once thought.

On the other hand, there's certainly a virulent strain of sentimentality attached to the Great Outdoors, one that many nature essayists inherited from the Romantics. Sappy writers such as Gretel Ehrlich and Annie Dillard carry on the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau, where nature is a sort of spiritual jungle gym. The language has been updated, but the sentiment is the same: wilderness travel as self-improvement, "centering" oneself through backpacking or canoeing, finding our "true nature" out under the stars.

All of which is fine, except that we run the risk of valuing nature not for itself, but for what it can do for us. This is precisely the isthmus upon which Gruchow pitches his tent. Grass Roots is a collection of personal and political essays concerned with that endlessly mythologized American institution, the family farm. For Gruchow, raised on a subsistence farm near Montevideo, it was a place of privilege where people were an integral part of the natural landscape. To be sure, it was a world of lazy Sunday afternoons, lemonade, and a light breeze in the cottonwoods--as well as biting insects, dizzying heat, and the constant tedium of tasks like weeding the fields. Where Grass Roots does have a certain nostalgia for life on a mid-century, Midwestern family farm, Gruchow avoids the sepia tones and leavens it instead with plenty of politics, history, and botany.

The fulcrum of the collection is Gruchow's fascinating account of the transformation of agriculture into agribusiness, the sea change in rural America that's taken place in the last 50 years. He explains the effects on farmers of the first pesticides and herbicides in the years after World War II, as 80-acre family holdings gave way to consolidated plots of single crops on increasingly large tracts of land. Before agribusiness practices took hold, 80 acres would have been considered a larger-than-average chunk of land, almost a third of which would have lain fallow each year, with wide, overgrown fencerows encouraging biodiversity (long before that word existed). Subsidies were nonexistent: The idea of throwing away surplus or paying farmers not to farm would have seemed foolish at best, obscene at worst.

But why should farming be any different than other sectors of our economy? The bottom line has become the measure of all things. And so Gruchow doesn't necessarily take issue with the dubious ethics of chemically engineered agribusiness so much as with the motive behind it: capitalism's obsession with absurd and unsustainable growth. The resulting population shift from the land to the city has not only destroyed a culture in the process, but also stands a pretty good chance of destroying the agri (Latin for "field").

Ultimately Grass Roots is about the poor state of relations between the species, particularly between fauna and flora, in North America. There's a wake-up call in the title of this book: The only connection we have to the universe that really matters is the Earth--or more specifically, that particular place on it where we choose to plant our ass. We should learn as much as we can about that specific physical location and what can be done to safeguard it, not only for our children, but for its own sake.

Gruchow's book is depressing, but not because of any deficiency. On the contrary: It's his knack for hitting nails squarely on the head that highlights the tragic trajectory our food production and land management have taken for most of this century. Like a good cup of coffee--make that a double shot of organic espresso--Paul Gruchow is both sobering and exhilarating; his essays make you anxious to do something impulsive and unusual. Like maybe figure out precisely where it is you--and we--fit in the grand scheme of things. CP

Gruchow reads at the Hungry Mind Bookstore on Tuesday at 8 p.m.; call 699-0587 for details.

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