As most of you know, On Pasture author John Marble typically offers up an article every month, something about grazing management or ranching or some technical issue. But in January, John was busy with other tasks. In another life, John spent a significant amount of time working on drinking water problems in small communities across western America, and also in the region called Oceania. This is the big wet country that covers the globe between Hawai’i and Asia. John just returned from a visit there, to his “home island”, a magical place called Yap. He visited old friends and looked around for ways to help bring water to the people, and so, wasn’t able to contribute a story for the On Pasture readership.
But wait! We do have an essay from John, something we think you might find interesting. It’s about island life, islanders and…ranching. We hope you’ll enjoy it.
During the benevolent growing season of western Oregon, I find my mind, my heart, my soul focused on the business at hand: growing and managing grass. My days are filled with the day-to-day operational details of running an intensive grazing enterprise. Quiet moments (mostly early morning and evenings) I find my mind whirling as I plan my grazing strategy or work on marketing and relationships. This is a wonderfully engrossing life.
As the grazing season winds down, my mind drifts south and west toward a different pursuit. In my other life, I have the opportunity to work with small community utility workers, primarily on issues related to drinking water and wastewater. Much of my work has been in less-developed lands, specifically the island nations of the Pacific region. I find the tropics to be an especially attractive place to work when the icy hand of winter descends on my little valley.
Oddly enough, these two careers: grazier and water worker have remarkably similar foundations. Both deal with trying to balance the use of limited resources; basic things like water, soil, labor, and finances. I find these two endeavors- water resources and ranching actually complement and mirror each other, and I often draw inspiration from one world that transfers to the other.
A fine example of this connectivity of mission is my friend Francis Saufmai. Francis hails from the island of Woleai, a tiny speck of land 900 miles east of Guam. Over the years, I have spent many days in the field with Francis, working on technical problems involving pipes, parts and pumps. In the evenings, our focus is usually on more philosophical issues: intense discussions about the future of his people or the direction that his society is taking. It was during these late-night discussions I noticed that Francis, a man with modest academic training, seemed to have very little trouble thinking and talking about complex problems related to limited resources. He seemed to reach conclusions quickly, with little struggle, and his answers to difficult questions were usually simple and elegant. I will admit this puzzled me a bit.
One night, as we sat near the beach under a canopy of coconut palms I told him what was on my mind:
“Francis, how can it be that you seem to have so little trouble working out solutions to these problems? These are complicated issues. Why do you have all the answers?”
Francis thought for a few seconds, then responded:
“Well, maybe these kind of problems seem simple to me because I will be here forever.”
I will admit here that I was a bit flummoxed by his answer. Also, I knew the Francis was a magnificent storyteller. Thinking that this was simply a come-on line to some tropical tale, I waited. And waited. Nothing. Finally, I asked him what in the world he meant by that? I will be here forever….What’s that got to do with securing a proper water supply or finding a way to get people to stop putting oil in the lagoon?
Francis smiled, then began his story.
“Well, my people have been on these islands for a long, long time. Longer than we can remember. When I die, I will be buried right here, and I will become part of the soil, the water, the plants and animals of this island. The jungle will grow on my grave, and my great, great grandchildren will eat fruit from those trees. And their children will be born and die right here. So, you see, I will be here forever.”
I looked out at the blue water and thought about what he had said. I guess it made sense: he was going to be here forever, at least in some way. But what did that have to do with conserving resources or protecting the environment?
After a few seconds I turned to Francis and started to ask him about that, but he simply raised his hand and went on.
“Listen. Because I know that I am going to be here forever, and all of my family will be here forever, I know that when it comes to working on these difficult problems, all I have to do is ask myself a few simple questions:”
“What solution is in the best interest of my people? What solution will help ensure that my children and their children are happy and healthy? If I am going to be here forever, what do I want this place to look like? Questions like these, they usually make the answers very clear, and very simple. So you see, it is very simple: I will be here forever.”
Later that night I wandered back to my bunk and thought long and hard about what Francis had said, and I asked myself a few questions:
If I were certain that I was going to live in a place forever, would I do things differently? If so, what does that mean about the way I’m conducting my life now? What would I change? What should I be doing to prepare my place, my land, my home, for my descendants? What does it mean to operate a ranch as if you are going to live there forever?
Here I am reminded how handicapped I am (we are?) when it comes to taking the long-term view. American agriculturalists have traditionally been a transient lot. Our nomadic movement across the continent began some 300 years ago, and in it’s wake lies the worn out tobacco lands and cotton fields of the South and the blown-dust prairies of the Midwest. This geographical wandering was spurred by the “using up” of the soil nutrient resource, and the belief that there was always more land on ahead. The current fascination with chemical farming allows farmers to stay longer in one place, but the technology itself is certainly a temporary situation. Sixty years ago, author Aldo Leopold noted that we abuse land because we regard it as a commodity, and that only after we begin to see land as a community will we begin to use land with respect and love. American agriculture, for the most part, has clearly not bought in.
Unlike my friend Francis, I am rather slow to reach conclusions.
After returning home, I was soon engaged in the day-to-day life of ranching, preparing for the new grazing season. One early-spring afternoon I found myself sitting on a high point over looking some fine grass land, feeling the soil beneath me and asking myself: What would Francis do? Eventually, my ponderings led to some surprisingly simple conclusions, and some principles that guide my management decisions on our land and the lands we manage.
I am attempting to go forth with an economically and ecologically sustainable business model.
The health and mass of the soil that I work with is the ultimate expression of my wealth.
I intend to manage my lands in such a way as to increase the health, the productivity and the mass of the soil, as this is the only thing of substance I have to pass on to my people.
I will attempt to live on the land and with the land as if I will live here forever.
Now, when I walk through the grass, feel the soil, watch the birds, I sometimes think about my friend Francis and I wonder about his life. Here’s a fellow living in the middle of the ocean, always thinking about the land, the soil, the plants and animals, and the people. And he chooses to live as if these things matter.
Pretty smart for a guy that lives in a hut.