Collaborating with friend and author Courtney White, in the publication of his new book Grassroots: The Rise of the Radical Center, a collection of the original essays that gave rise to the formation of the Quivira Coalition – has given me cause to reflect upon my experiences with this group – and how my work was inspired by the amazing conversation that I found myself a part of.
Q U I V I R A
Wikipedia: “ Quivira is a place named by explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in 1541, for the mythical “Seven Cities of Gold” which he never found.”
The elusive golden dream. A word that came into existence as an exploring culture searched for prosperity – albeit of plunderous nature – in a new world full of mystery. Today, the goal we seek is not material, but rather, philosophical, cultural – spiritual even – a richness of dialogue, resulting in another kind of discovery: one of shared value and love, one of existing common sense of place, and purpose.
The original participants of the Quivira Coalition came together not as conquerors, but as fellow journeyers, searching for collaborative solutions to a bitter conflict. In 1997, ranching and environmentalism were polar opposites at war, but they shared a common dream – to increase land health and agricultural productivity, and to find social harmony in a world of changing values. With just a little humbled interaction, they quickly realized they were on the same side of the fence, and rapidly moved on to address their greater common concerns: protecting open space and working wilderness landscapes across the nation. Soon they were joined by practitioners of progressive agriculture worldwide. The resulting momentum gained the embrace of the ‘Young Agrarian’ movement – a whole new generation of agriculturalist – now numbering in the many thousands, with chapters worldwide. All of this, in a mere 15 years.
Perhaps the greatest gift I received as a participant with the Coalition’s meetings was the opportunity to hear, firsthand, the voices of so many different ranchers and farmers and land managers – many of whom might never have spoken publicly before being asked to do so here. Through their stories, so generously shared, I was able to get a glimpse into the workings of watersheds throughout the North American continent – from Canada to Mexico. I began to realize that grasses were both the language through which we could interpret the wellbeing of the earth, and the tool with which we could begin to restore it – the water and the soil. Their willingness to share, and my ability to listen, gave me a way to explore a world which was not my own.
I discovered a beauty based in stewardship knowledge, and its selfless concern for the natural world. Out of values that were screaming to be heard, my creative vision took form.
Now I offer that all of these grasses have their own stories to tell. You have to glean their narratives – observe their graceful forms, their diversity. Learn their habits over time and place. Surrender your biases at the gate, and open your eyes, and heart, and soul, and reconnect to the conversation that our ancestors began some 12,500 years ago, when they discovered that grasses would permit domestication – hence the dawn of agriculture. We need to let these wild grasses domesticate us now – to lend their examples of resilience and tolerance, and harmony.
As Americans, we are blessed with a precious landscape, which, if we can reconnect to it with reverence, stands to unite us now. Perhaps my elusive golden dream takes more the ornament of rubies and emeralds – as L Frank Baum’s Dorothy, in her adventures to Oz, would remind us – there’s no place like home, and we are already there. We just need to wake up and realize it.
It is an honor to participate with Courtney in the publication of his book – with my art for its cover – for I certainly would not have gained my insights and inspirations without the extraordinary opportunity of ‘sitting round the table’ with these great stewards, whose sharing no doubt defined their own values in a new light as well.
Below are some descriptions of the grasses we are offering as Kickstarter Rewards:
BLUE GRAMA – Winter
The very first grass I identified, and the first that I portrayed – this print led to the unfolding of a whole new genre in my creative expression. The telltale pair of arcs –(remains of an inflorescence) – is a well-known sight throughout the greater American west, reaching from Montana to Texas, and as fear northeast as Maine. In the Apache Highlands of southeast AZ, where I live, this grass is considered a baseline indicator of range health. It is usually surrounded by healthy diversity, and its forage value – to the world of grazing – has a very high protein content even after it has cured, as in this wintry version.
This grama is a perennial bunchgrass, which means that its roots extend much further below ground than do its stems and leaves above. The average lifespan of an individual might be as many as a dozen years. It knows how to survive drought, if not overgrazed during the growing season, when it uses its root reserves. If overgrazed early on, when it is tastiest to all consumers, the plant will exhaust itself and not be able to grow enough foliage to replenish its underground nutrients for the next annual cycle. Like any economy, it builds up assets, and uses them wisely.
A favorite of John Donaldson, rancher and visionary steward, whose pioneering work in riparian restoration on the Empire Ranch has gained national recognition, he called it “the Queen of the Prairie”. It was my early conversations with John, one of them on horseback, that enabled me to realize the relation between grass roots and water retention. Hearing his reflections, after some 30 years of restoration grazing, on witnessing the return of the ground-waters under his stewardship, is one of the greatest expressions of spiritual satisfaction I have ever known.
One of the great challenges of learning grasses is being able to see small detail. This inflorescence was not even one inch in length – only visible upon kneeling down and closely examining. The reward of patient exploration, it took more than a year for me to be able to recognize this most subtle grama. Small in stature, it is particularly resilient in the arid southwest, as expressed in the posture and dynamic of this tiny inflorescence.
As much as my quest for understanding grasses has focused on seeing individual identity – uniqueness of character – it is what the species do together, naturally, that holds the greatest beauty. Both above and below ground, this grouping was growing together, blooming profusely in response to great rains, and below ground, I would imagine, their roots entwined and reaching towards the same nutrients – hence the common colors. Astonished as I walked across a hillside thickly blanketed with these grasses – I collected and presented this grouping – one handful – exactly as they occurred – no arrangement by me.
The abundance of this pasture begs a deeper mention of its background: my neighboring ranch, the Diamond C, managed by Rukin Jelks II and III, is one of the original examples of a ‘Savory Cell System’ in North America. Having hosted Alan Savory back in the 1970’s, and implemented his methods. Now 30 years later, the harmonious evolution between landscape, manager and mob-herd grazing has resulted in a very dense ground-cover.
The inspiration to portray a group came from Wes Jackson and the Land Institute, who hosted a showed of my work during the 30th annual Prairie Festival that year, the theme of which was ‘Perennial Polyculture’.
The beauty of these native grasslands is that they show us a harmony – a strength – of community that is based upon diversity. Together, the roots of these vast expanses are what holds the soil in place and filters the water. Like the sounds in an orchestra, each different grass becomes part of the greater whole. Like a Gregorian chant in the history of western music, this plant community is the ecological baseline upon which everything else depends. It is primordial memory that nudges us to feel good when we look out across those amber waves of grain – we evolved in part because the grasses allowed us to domesticate them. Now we need to let these wild grasses domesticate us – to lend their examples of resilience and tolerance, and harmony.
Blue grama – Bouteloua gracilis
Sideoats grama – Bouteloua curtipendula
Plains lovegrass – Eragrostis intermedia
Wolftail – Lycurus setosus
Yellow bluestem – Bothriochloa ischaemum
Purple threeawn – Aristida purpurea
Additional Links related to this writing:
Quivira Coalition http://www.quiviracoalition.org
Alan Savory – Holistic Resource Management http://savory.global
Wes Jackson – the Land Institute https://landinstitute.org
Empire Ranch – Las Cienegas National Conservation Area https://www.blm.gov/az/st/en/prog/blm_special_areas/ncarea/lascienegas.html