Last month, I served as the artist-in-residence at Homestead National Monument outside of Beatrice, Nebraska. Having come to believe that constraints catalyze creativity, I chose the number 160 to shape my writing—the number of acres that a pioneer could claim under the Homestead Act of 1862. Some days I worked with schoolchildren and every day I took a walk equivalent to circumambulating the border of a homestead through the restored tall-grass prairie while contemplating American culture and pondering the meaning of land. And then I condensed my day into exactly 160 syllables. Here are a few of the results:
Homesteaders had to steward every resource,
stretch meals, mend clothes,
store food, improve housing,
and safeguard finances.
Home economics was essential to their flourishing.
It is time
to resurrect home economics
to expand it from a local to a global scale
to take seriously our oceans, forests, and rivers.
Eco- from the Greek oikos,
meaning “household” or “place to live.”
Ecology is the study of home, the Earth.
It is time
for ecological home economics (triply redundant!)—
a planetary course in
frugality, prudence, mending,
conservation, cleaning, thrift—
and that most vital and rare resource:
What we intended to teach:
sitting quietly amidst restored prairie
provides wired, anxious adolescents with
What they experienced:
94o + 78% humidity = misery;
ticks and poison ivy are nasty;
grass blades and clover mites are itchy;
a soggy butt is uncomfortable.
What they might have learned:
Homesteading was hard,
prairies weren’t soft,
It’s not “Mother Nature”
but rather: “Mutha Nature”—
and she ain’t gonna nurse your green soul,
or pamper your recycling ass.
So homesteaders had to huddle together
and take care of one another—and her.
A century ago,
we tried (but failed) to change the climate,
believing that “the rain follows the plow”
or rainfall increased with:
smoke from trains,
metal from telegraph wires,
and cloud-forming vibrations—
which led to dynamiting the air
across the Great Plains in the 1870s. Really.)
we are trying (but failing) not to change the climate,
understanding that “the heat follows the carbon dioxide”
(as well as:
water vapor, methane, and nitrous oxide
from almost everything we do—
which is leading to proposals
to geoengineer the Earth. Really.)
Homo sapiens is a confused, confusing, and darkly funny species.