Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Capitol of Light

I was feeling discombobulated on Sunday morning. It was hard to come home from a weeklong visit to our state capitol and find myself on the back of a feed truck in a piercing wind. But now it’s Tuesday and I’m back in the swing of things.  

We’ve been to the capitol building several times over the years. When the kids were little they loved climbing up and down the great marble stairways and standing in the rotunda, looking down over the railing to the bottom floor and up, up, to the tip-top of the dome. But this visit was special. As a member of this year’s class of Leadership Idaho Agriculture I got to tour the capitol in a somewhat official capacity.

We attended meetings of both the House and the Senate Agriculture Committees and visited the offices of the State Controller and the Attorney General. We walked around the Senate Chambers and the floor of the House. Our guide, Dorita, is on a first name basis with all the dignitaries including the chairs of the most powerful committee in the legislature, the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee (JFAC). Our timing was perfect as we arrived just as JFAC was adjourning, so we were able to have some time with the co-chairs, Representative Bell and Senator Cameron, before they hurried to their next engagement. They explained the challenges of setting the state budget and said that since Idaho is a balanced budget state the legislators can’t go home until the debits and credits line up.

The capitol was constructed in 1905 and due for an update in 1998 when the legislature approved a massive renovation/restoration effort. The building was restored inside and out and two new wings were constructed underground to the east and west. This allowed the existing footprint to stay the same. The only above ground structures visible over the hidden wings are the string of skylights modeling those of the original building. Because of the many skylights, a favorite of architect John Tourtellotte who along with Charles Hummel created the original design, the capitol is filled with light. It bounces around the white marble and shows off the deep mahogany accents.

Tourtellotte’s skylights were intentional, not only to illuminate the inner beauty of the building, but as a template for governance. His words ring true today, a hundred years after his work was realized: ”the great white light of conscience must be allowed to shine and . . . make clear the path of duty. . .”

Sunday, February 15, 2015

It Depends

I welcomed the red wing blackbirds back this week. I always think that “chortle” describes the sound they make, but I wondered if I had made that word up so I looked for it in a real old fashioned dictionary. Yup, it’s a word. It means “gleeful chuckling.” I took a photo of one of the newcomers sitting on a power line for this blog because one can appreciate only so many photos of cows eating hay. You can almost see the blackbird in the photo.

It was beautiful this morning. It has been in the 50’s and 60’s for days. Good grief. I want more winter. Our farm depends on in-flows to the river between the reservoir in the upper reaches and our valley home, so we need snowpack that feeds the soil profile throughout the spring. I look towards the mountains and see the snow receding before my eyes and I’m concerned. I can’t be like the town folk I see out rollerblading and celebrating the warm weather. It’s a burden sometimes to live off the land. 

I travel to my last week of Leadership Idaho Agriculture tomorrow. We spend time at the state capitol in Boise and meet our hard working legislators. I'm part of a panel doing a mock presentation in favor of labeling genetically modified organisms, GMO’s. I’ve been researching and the topic is huge.

So are you for or against them, GMO’s I mean? For me the answer is a resounding – it depends. It’s like home schooling, divorce, couples living together before marriage, and on and on - life actually. Tell me HOW you do it. Then I’ll tell you if I agree or not.

Of course the technology is here to stay. I think it holds vast potential to help this planet address what it faces in the future – drought, hunger, depleted soils, etc. Examples like the new Innate potato from Simplot, that through the addition of DNA from a wild potato makes it possible to turn off the tendency to bruise in transport or to go brown when cut, seem pretty benign to me.

But then we go to herbicide resistant crops which make up the bulk of genetically modified organisms and I become skeptical. Okay fine plant them, but good soil management practices and biodiversity should be our first priority, not year after year of spraying Round-up and now 2,4-D and Dicamba because our crops can now withstand it 

Then in my research I read about cloned holstein dairy cows in China and Argentina. Scientists have added human DNA and created cows that produce milk which is 80% the equivalent of human breast milk. That makes me squirm. Somewhere we need to stop, don’t we? Can anyone hear it but me? The screaming for common sense? You can’t replace mom with a GM cow? Ack!  

my gmo-free morning walk 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Wild about "Wild"

It was 63 degrees today - balmy for February. I have a certain dread about it. But hey, it’s wet right now so best not to buy trouble. On this date last year there was a bitter wind, snow cover, and it was 3 degrees below zero.

The meadowlarks are singing. Well, one anyway. Yesterday I couldn’t be sure of what I heard, but today on the feed ground the calls were unmistakable. We know these fine fellows can winter here, as we’ve seen groups of them flitting about the stackyard as we’re going back and forth feeding cows. But it is only when spring threatens that they go off by themselves and sing the melody we all know by heart.   

We had such fun last night watching public TV’s, Earth a New Wild. Wow, finally a show about the natural world that wasn’t a doomsday prediction. The show takes us from the Maasai in Kenya and a bat community in Austin, Texas, to black footed ferrets in South Dakota and the odd looking saiga antelope of Russia. The show celebrates man and his place within nature - as an active and caring participant.

We learned about the cherished cows of India, and that when they succumb to natural causes, their carcasses are moved to the outskirts of the city and left to decay. Their remains, once picked sanitizingly clean by hordes of vultures, are now rotting slowly, a putrid sight attracting feral dogs because the vultures are gone. Turns out they died from medicine given to the cows which left residuals in the meat. Once the medicine was banned, and with the help of man, the vultures are returning.

Another story profiled the reindeer of Norway and the hardy people that depend on them for their livelihood. Grazing keeps the tundra alive as the reindeer dig for lichen through the snow. Man assists by castrating some of the males. These males remain vigorous throughout the tough winters since they don’t expend energy on mating. They “break trail” through the ice to get at the lichen making way for the weaker animals of the herd to find food.

The second hour of the film concentrated on The Plains. And three (count’em three!) of the examples showed cows playing an important role in improving and maintaining landscapes that benefit wildlife. The host, Dr. M. Sanjayan, a conservation ecologist, admitted that he had been wrong in the past thinking that cattle and abundant wildlife could not exist in the same space.

I know of course that modern American ranching has its drawbacks. On our ranch we don’t herd cattle like the Maasai or keep our animals bunched like the Montana rancher profiled in the movie. Still, we keep learning, working on shortening the grazing period while lengthening the recovery period as much as we can within the constraints we find ourselves in.   

Our favorite story of the movie was about our hero, Allan Savory, from Zimbabwe, who founded the principles of Holistic Management and introduced the world to planned grazing whereby the needs of the “whole” are tended. Allan is shown in his homeland walking barefoot beside an elephant. He describes the need for more cattle, not less, if we want to reverse biodiversity loss and reinvigorate the brittle grasslands of the world. The key is managing those cattle.

It makes me happy to see an ecologist celebrate Savory’s work. Dr. Sanjayan, upon his visit to the Zimbabwean ranch which is populated with cows and wildlife, called the results, "spectacular.”

The show will continue on February 11. It and any repeat of the first episode should be required viewing, a place to start a conversation without arrows, but with hope.  

putting away some not so wild escapees