Starving land (my second epiphany)

I’m looking at an ocean of sagebrush and wondering what it would be like to starve to death.

I remember myself at six, thrilled when I could convince my vegetarian mother to cook hot dogs for dinner. I stopped eating meat when I was eight, no longer able to stand the thought of killing a cow to feed myself. I saw Finding Nemo and cut out fish too. I lived secure in the knowledge that no animals were being killed to feed me. I lied to myself for eleven years.

I’m looking at an ocean of corn and seeing death. I see Bhopal, India, 1984, where a Union Carbide pesticide plant leaked methyl isocyanate and 2,259 people lay dead in the street while the company denied the chemical had been leaked, then denied it was toxic. Years later, with the death toll estimated at 20,000 the CEO would be convicted of negligence in a US court and fined $2000: the maximum allowed by law, or about $10 per human life. I see a river where walls of concrete stop salmon from spawning and take the water away to irrigate fields growing crops we don’t need or want. I see workers in a “natural foods” plant with neurological diseases from breathing in too much hexane, the gasoline refinement byproduct used to extract protein from soybeans. These are the things we allow in the name of cheap food. This is our hierarchy of values, etched on the land.

I’m looking at an ocean of sagebrush and thinking about eating a cow. Cows eat grass where they find it, transforming grasslands into a mosaic of sagebrush and bare ground. Cows put the cost of their existence in front of us, and we cry foul at the moonscape of incised channels and cowpies that results. Seeing this reality, we’re willing to stop eating beef. If our fields were lined with billboards showing every Superfund site where pesticides have been manufactured, every rainforest clearcut to grow soy, every mother who has had to watch her child die of cancer caused by exposure to agricultural runoff, would we give up monocrops?

I’m looking into the eyes of a cow and seeing a violation of nature. Here, in the feedlot, nine calories of blood-soaked corn will be shoved down its throat for every calorie I will eventually eat. Here, the water runs brown and pregnant women are told not to drink it. Here, the names Tyson, Cargill, Monsanto and Simplot are carved into the land, deeper than the channels their cows incise.

I’m walking through a farmer’s market and trying to have hope. Know my farmers, have a garden and a goat, learn how to can fruit and buy local—I know how to feed myself. If I become a locovore, grow my own vegetables and only eat grass-fed, organic meat, will I feel any better when the next Bhopal happens? If I never touch another drop of high fructose corn syrup, will it wash the blood of Indian children off my hands?

I’m scanning packages of 99 cent ground beef and praying for revolution. More often than not, this is what food stamps pay for. Lentils and quinoa may be cheap, but they take time, and time is a precious commodity for someone with three kids, two jobs and a green card that expired ten years ago. Sometimes, at 10pm, a mother will come through my line with two screaming toddlers who should be in bed and tell me she just got off work. She buys a gallon of milk, some candy to quiet the screaming, and her food stamp card is declined—not enough left to cover the three dollar purchase. As she counts quarters and dimes out on the counter, I wonder at the optimistic liberals who think we can save the world with local, organic, grass-finished beef that costs $6 a pound.

I’m looking at an ocean of sagebrush, knowing seven billion people have to eat. In the name of feeding the world, we razed the grasslands, plowed the soil, and replaced rain with dams. Maybe it’s time to cut my losses and accept reality. People live in the Mojave and the Sonoran. They have to eat, so we pipe water in from the Colorado or truck food in from the East. I can’t force Phoenix to relocate, make farm subsidies go away or bring back the salmon.

I’m dreaming of a grassland I have never seen. A carpet of switchgrass, swaying gracefully in the breeze, so beautiful I almost forget I am starving. My stomach aches, crying out for food, but there is nothing I know how to eat here. Panicked, I start to run, and collapse, exhausted. The grass encircles me, stroking my hair, whispering to me, and I know I will die here. Resigned, comforted, I lie down, no longer feeling the emptiness of my belly. And a bulldozer comes, plows up the grass and plants wheat in its place. Someone hands me a piece of bread. I eat, ravenous, only looking up when it’s too late. The grass has vanished, and I wake up from a nightmare where I can eat to my heart’s content.

I’m looking at an ocean of sagebrush and hoping against hope we can turn it back into grass. Maybe we can teach people to keep chickens in the city, turn food deserts back into Eden with a bit of compost and a lot of love. Maybe we can take kids outside and show them the beauty of a pronghorn sprinting, whisper that sometimes at night, you can hear wolves howl here. Maybe we can share our knowledge and our kale with neighbors, take it to food banks, preach it in church, on the bus, and in the classroom. Maybe, if everyone with a dream in one hand and dirt in the other decided to do more than just opt out, we could learn to feed ourselves and take care of each other. Maybe we could make space for wild grasslands in the West.

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