Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture

CARBON IS THE JUICE that gives the jump to all creatures great and small. From bacteria in a petri dish to you and me, says Wes Jackson in Consulting the Genius of the Place, all life-forms operate under the 3.45-billion-year-old imperative: get carbon or die.

Our own hunt for carbon, whether it’s feeding our bodies or fueling our machines, has unleashed no end of troubles. Except for hunter-gatherers, Jackson believes all human civilizations are inherently extractive. Like those bacteria in a petri dish, we will keep gobbling and expanding until the cheap carbon runs out. Jackson is not calling for a return to loincloths and spear chucking, but there is one human activity that he believes has the potential to keep us from hitting the proverbial wall: agriculture.

But not agriculture as we know it. Jackson makes the case for a conceptual shift whereby we look to nature as the model for how to grow food. Looking to nature or, in the words of the poet Alexander Pope, “consulting the genius of the place,” means using nature’s ecosystems as an agricultural analogue. Over the past thirty years at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, Jackson has been developing what he and his fellow plant breeders call Natural Systems Agriculture, a result of their consultation with the genius of the native prairie.

How does the prairie farm? With perennials grown in polycultures fueled by contemporary sunlight. The prairie sequesters carbon. It builds soil.

How do humans farm? With annuals grown in monocultures, fueled with ancient sunlight in the form of fertilizers. Human agriculture burns carbon. It squanders soil.

That unnatural arrangement has left us with nearly one-third of the world’s arable land eroded, dead zones in our oceans from nitrogen runoff, aquifers depleted and poisoned, and a warming planet to which agriculture is one of the biggest contributors.

While watching industrial, and yes, even organic agriculture, wriggle in the oil-soaked straightjacket of annual tillage, Jackson and his colleagues at The Land Institute have been hatching a plan. Using classical plant-breeding techniques — “we’re not gene jockeys,” Jackson told me — they are taking annual grains, which we depend on for 70 percent of our calories, and breeding them with wild prairie relatives to create perennials. These perennial grains are planted into a symbiotic polyculture with nitrogen-fixing plants like Illinois bundleflower. The wheat grass called Kernza will be farmer-ready in a decade and, according to staff at The Land Institute, makes fantastic pancakes.

Jackson’s farm of the future would look a lot like the prairie it mimics — a diverse mixture of perennial crops from which the farmer would harvest seed year after year but would seldom till, thus obviating the need for fossil fuels. Carbon would be sequestered. Soil would be conserved. And we would halt, at least in agriculture, the “continual drawdown of the capital stock of the planet.”

Continuing the trajectory of Jackson’s earlier works, Consulting the Genius of the Place is a crucial addition to a conversation in which anyone who wants to keep eating has a stake. Combining memoir, scientific argument, and prophetic diatribe, this book is a bit like the prairie ecosystem it lauds: a sometimes gnarly, sometimes lovely mix of ideas whose roots go deep, and which possesses in its vitality emergent properties of its own. Only by consulting the genius of our own places instead of imposing our wills upon them, Jackson warns, can we carbon-hungry creatures avoid the fate of the petri dish.