“Sangamon” translates loosely from the native Potowatomie language as “the place where there is plenty to eat.”
And indeed, our little neck of the woods is a land of plenty.
Surrounded by farms, we live in one of the most productive agricultural regions of the world by some measures. And the Sangamon River runs through it all, at the bottom of the fertile Sangamon Valley.
Like many people, Carol and I have a small garden plot at our home, and this year we were overwhelmed with tomatoes and zucchini all summer. Now we have jars of salsa, tomatoes, and tomato soup to consume all during the fresh-tomato-less winter.
A few years back we converted an old pick-up truck bed rack into a chicken coop. After coming to an understanding with the indigenous raccoon population regarding their behavior around our chickens (not murdering them), the chickens now maintain a reliable 2-3 egg a day production quota. More than enough for our little family.
All around our Sangamon Valley home, gardens, farms and farmers abound. During the summer we get even more interesting and varied fresh produce every week in our farm share from our neighbors down the road at Tomahnous Farm.
Our friend Phil maintains an amazingly beautiful rambling garden with broad winding pathways through native prairie plantings and plots of vegetables, fruits and berries. His 5 acres yields tomatoes, blackberries, butternut squash, peppers, and much more, some of which he sells at the Food Co-op, some he donates to the Food Bank, and some of the excess he shares with us.
And our friend Alan’s pear trees produced an over-abundance this year that he generously shared with us. Now we have fresh pears in jars for consumption during the fresh-pear-less winter.
And this year, our neighbor Mark installed a community garden for some of the neighbors who own less property. It produced an abundance of corn, squash and tomatoes and more for everyone involved.
And this is not to mention the large farming operations that surround us. This year, the average corn yield was predicted to be about 165 bushels per acre. For the measurement-challenged, that’s more than 4 and a half tons of corn per acre.
Yes, we can’t deny that we live in a land of plenty and that the Sangamon Valley lives up to its name as “the place where there is plenty to eat.” But amidst all of the plenty are we cautious and mindful of our lands? Our wetlands? Our waterways? Our rivers?
Conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote that the greatest challenge of human beings is to live well off the land. Finding a balance of how to live well off the land is about sustainability for future generations. Or, according to the Great Law of the Iroquois: “to make sure every decision that we make relates to the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation to come. . . .”
One study of a native Nebraska prairie identified 237 different plant species in one square mile. Is it wise to convert those 460 diverse acres to growing a single crop for an entire year (while working to eradicate any and all “weeds” that attempt to invade it)? Perhaps. It’s certainly profitable. But do we take time to ponder this question?
Sometimes I wonder: Much of our Central Illinois corn apparently heads out west, rapidly fattening Western cattle that come back to us in the form of drive through bacon-double-cheeseburgers and juicy (fatty) cuts of meat in our grocery-store meat counters. Other corn comes back as corn oils and the high fructose corn syrup that is causing rapid rises in obesity and type II diabetes. Is this a healthy way to live off the land?
And now we read in the News-Gazette about how government’s push for biofuels (mainly corn-based ethanol) has “forced” Iowa corn growers to plow under grasslands and riparian corridors on sloping, erodible hillsides to plant ever more corn. They have apparently even taken land out of Conservation Reserves (an area equivalent to several large National Parks) to plant ever more corn. Ironically, these practices can harm the land so much that they reduce the environmental benefits of the renewable ethanol they produce.
And what of the Sangamon River? Flowing at the bottom of the Sangamon Valley, the Sangamon drains off the results of our intensely farmed land of plenty. And so the River feels the downstream results of how we as a people choose to live off the land. And while right now, the river is flowing a deep, rich, orange-black shade of tea from the tannins in autumn leaves, most of the time it flows a thick cappuccino brown with the soils of area farms, along with fertilizers and pesticides. Is this healthy for our river?
Leopold encourages us not to think of the wild community as one thing and the human community another. He asks: “Who is the land?”, encouraging us to think of humans and the land as one community; a community that can be more or less healthy. Leopold writes “In addition to healthy soil, crops and livestock, the farmer should know and feel a pride in a healthy sample of marsh, woodlot, pond, stream, bog, or roadside prairie.”
As the natives who lived here long before the advent of modern farming knew, we live in a highly productive land of plenty. But as Leopold writes, are we living well off the land? And are we thinking about conserving our abundance for future generations? As the Iroquois ask: “What about the seventh generation? Where are you taking them? What will they have?”
As we finish licking our fingers and washing the last of the Thanksgiving dishes; as we prepare for a week of turkey sandwiches and casseroles, we should remind ourselves to live with an attitude of gratitude for all that surrounds us, including our river, our land, and our productive soils. We should be thankful that we all live in a land of plenty where we can live well off the land. But we should also continuously ask ourselves: are we?
Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, Nov 25, 2013, by Scott P. Hays