Black snow drifts

Last Tuesday, April 22, was Earth Day. The first Earth Day was held in 1970 as concern for the health of the planet grew. Cities were often covered in smog. Air quality alerts were not uncommon. Lakes, rivers and streams were polluted to the point of being unfit for recreational use. The world became aware of the extinction or near extinction of many species of animals. Roadsides were often littered with garbage tossed out of car windows.

Over the last 44 years, we have come a long way. Air quality in American cities and many cities around the world has greatly improved. Many rivers have been cleaned up and run cleaner than they have for a century. The efforts to save species close to extinction have been successful in some cases. Our roadsides, while not perfect, are far cleaner than they were before the 1970s.

We have made improvements in how much pollution our cars and trucks spew out. Factories and generation plants are more efficient and their smokestacks are cleaner. Our refrigerators are more energy efficient. Ozone destroying aerosols and freon are no longer used. Lead paints and asbestos are a thing of the past.

Becoming more aware of how our lives affect the rest of the earth has made a difference. We have more work to do if future generations are going to have a good place to live.

Scientists agree that we need to reduce our production and release of greenhouse gases such a carbon dioxide and methane and we need to do it soon. Other scientists point to the loss of rain forests and grasslands as sources of atmospheric carbon. All agree that loss of habitat for wildlife, such as the Asian elephant, the monarch butterfly and thousands of other species will have earth-wide affects in the future.

It is difficult to understand how we are all interconnected and interdependent. Day to day, life just seems to go on. When we are faced with a crisis, we step up and do what is needed. During WW I and WW II, citizens coped with rationed food, gasoline, steel and more. Homeowners grew Victory Gardens in their back yards and bought bonds to fund the war efforts. When faced with the disastrous results of the agricultural mismanagement and drought of the 1930s, farmers found better ways to protect the soil from the erosion of wind and pounding rain. We planted shelter belts and grew cover crops and strips in our fields. We developed shorter varieties of grains that took less moisture and stood up better in the wind. When our fertilizers showed up in rivers and lakes and produced dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, we found ways to use just the amount of fertilizer needed, when it is needed.

We made progress. In the drought of the 1980s, we had bulldozed some of the tree rows and neglected the soil until the dust began blowing again. Then in this part of the prairie, we had rain, much rain, and we again forgot those springs with dirty snow and blowing topsoil. For the next decade or more we had more than enough moisture to keep the wind from blowing our soil away. A bigger problem was dirt being washed away as snow melted, rivers and streams flooded and ditches overflowed. Things have again changed. In spite of what seemed like an abundance of snow last winter, the soil surface is dry. Even before this year’s snow was completely melted, dirt began to blow from unprotected fields. The possibility of drought worries us as we plan our crops and think about pastures for the summer.

When Congress debated conservation compliance being linked with eligibility for crop insurance, farmers’ love for the land and careful stewardship was held up as a rational for not “telling us how to farm.” Indeed, many farmers fit those descriptions. Not all fields are blowing in the wind. Those fields neighboring road ditches with drift dirt piling up along the edge, however, are visible evidence that there may be justification for conservation requirements and call into question the image of farmers as careful stewards.

It is not our land to do with as we please. It is not our earth to use up and to throw away. The Bible says the earth is the Lord’s, as is everything in it. Our ownership is temporary at best. At some point, we will sell our land or leave it to the next generation. We are just the short term caretakers. As such, we must make sure we steward this great gift with love and care and conserve it’s bounty for the future.

Black snow and drifting topsoil are signs that we are not taking care of what we have borrowed from our children and their children. We are called to do better.

Copyright © 2014 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains