Hogs Are Up: Stories of the Land, with Digressions Wes Jackson (foreword by Robert Jensen) University Press of Kansas, 2021
I picked up a copy of Hogs Are Up believing it might be a narrative of the creation of The Land Institute, by its founder, Wes Jackson. Or perhaps it might be a portrait of farming life in the 20th and early 21st century. Or maybe an autobiography of one of the preeminent voices for an alternative to industrial agriculture.
The book is so thin; and as the title insisted on there being digressions, I doubted Jackson could weave too much story into it. I learned otherwise. It is all the stories and more (digressions, after all). This is a dense tale of everything that Jackson has embodied and created in his very long and very busy life. Hogs Are Up (the title is itself a digression) is all his “stories with digressions” told in a series of spare and elliptical vignettes that can be read altogether in an afternoon.
Jackson’s friend and colleague, Robert Jensen, writes in the foreword for this book “Mention almost any topic, and Jackson will say, ‘Well, yes, and I’ve got a story about that’.” And I certainly believe it. I’ve heard him talk on diverse subjects — from rather dry descriptions of problems with annual root systems in prairie soils to a talk on the role of rootedness in the future of farming (alongside Wendell Berry, many digressions that night!) — and no matter the matter, he is always telling “a story with digressions”. He manages to amble off in all directions and yet never lose the path, though the audience might sometimes feel a bit bewildered. Then he deftly ties it all together with sly humor and slight of hand, and we in the audience see that he was all along circling the subject and fleshing out the central concern, gently revealing connections that we’d all missed before with a smile and a nod.
Jackson has lived his life searching for connections, questioning our received wisdom, and trying to manufacture a better toolkit — from perennial grain landraces to earth-centered (he might call it “science-centered”) economics. He is the author of many books (and many more speeches, essays and research articles), all of it essential reading in the deepest definition of that word, and all it a story with digressions. Mainly it is one story with digressions. This story can be summed up by one short passage (almost lacking digressions) from his essay “Sharon Stays at Home, Mostly”.
What do I hope for? Well, I do hope — and perhaps hope is a form of prayer — that our knowledge of the journey from our stardust origins to planet formation, the journey from minerals to cells, and the Darwinian selection story, which includes the new epigenetics, will inspire us all. This is verifiable information that the earth is — as the old hymn “O Worship the King” put it — our maker, our defender, and, with proper ecological restoration, our redeemer. It’s possible that all this knowledge can deepen our reverence for our Earth and help us see new opportunities to be participants in the creation, in the living earth.
At the same time he cautions:
… I have long discussed the problems caused by science’s reductionism… Enlightenment rationality has led us to believe we know more than we know and can control what we cannot. We should be wary of ‘grand narratives’ that purport to tell the whole story…
To Jackson every story has digressions, essential digressions that change the entire meaning. We live in a diverse world and we don’t know the half of it. There is no story that does not come interwoven with and altered by perspective. Not even the stories delivered to us by “hard science”. This, he hastens to tell us, is not mere post-modern irony. He says, “The water of the Pacific Ocean will be there no matter what we have to say about it.” But how we relate to that water is a story, not a fact. He asks, “Does it matter what anyone believes to be reality?” and then answers his own question: “Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.” Our duty as humans within a human society and within a more-than-human society is to determine the timing of consequence.
Laced within and around his stories (and digressions… in fact, mostly in the digressions), Jackson is continuously throwing out pithy pearls of wisdom. These tiny and simple gems must be heard, then internalized, and after a good deal of introspection you discover that you have encountered the profound. I imagine the students of Siddhārtha Gautama might have experienced a similar sense of earth-tilting re-equilibration. Take, for example, his chapter subtitles (more digressions). His Introduction is described by three brief fragments that could also describe the essence of our current moment in time when we are struggling to make sense of our world and our place in it:
Getting the story right can be complicated. Perspective matters. Sometimes the truth sneaks up on you.
I happen to share Jackson’s hope that we use our knowledge tempered in the perspective of experience to become native to our place. To find a reverence for our home planet and a way to participate in living, not merely skating along on the surface, but rooted into this world. There are strong parallels between his life and mine that likely have led both of us to this particular hope for the world of our children. But I don’t think this is a perspective that alters the truth. (Well, of course I wouldn’t…) In all seriousness though, this message can be found in wisdom traditions throughout human existence. It may be the core of our existence as humans. And we have lost that central idea in placing self and other tenuous human-centered distractions at the heart of our desires. Jackson would like to draw us back to Earth. His stories and digressions are a way to prepare us for that journey home.
In his conclusion he likens his work, and the continuing efforts at The Land Institute, to preparing our culture for this future by increasing — but gradual — exposure to new ideas, ideas that will flourish in our changing world, ideas that may wither — or cause us to wither — if we are not ready for them. He writes:
One might say that our main purpose at the Land Institute is to provide alternatives to the present for a cultural hardening-off process. … We hope that one day we may regard being whipped by the wind as being touched by the earth rather than threatened with wilt, but that can only happen if we have been properly hardened off.
I can think of no more beautiful and apt metaphor for adapting ourselves and our society to the planetary changes that we have set in motion. Here we are tremulously growing toward the sun in the protection of our safe shelters. But in his hands, we are slowly and carefully being carried out to full exposure in the fertile, fallow fields. And there we will set roots, awaiting the beginning of our next story — with digressions.
©Elizabeth Anker 2022