Cultivation Through the Wilderness

This story feels impossible to write. It’s mid-April and we’re neck deep in a mandatory shelter-in-place order given by the governor. We’re two months away from the summer solstice, and who knows what the world will look like by then. Some of my loved ones may be dead. I may be, too. Of course, this has always been the case. It’s just not usually at the forefront of our collective mind. Now, how can we imagine our present, let alone what’s to come?

Further, this is the year I took a sabbatical from farming and moved to the mountain mecca of McCall to attend the University of Idaho’s McCall Outdoor Science School (MOSS). As I write, it’s twenty degrees outside and there is still over a foot of snow on the ground. Summer is utterly unfathomable.

There are many reasons why I came here. An accident the summer before my 40th birthday left me without the use of one hand during the bulk of the farm’s harvest season, highlighting the precariousness of my farm model. My future lease is uncertain on the land I farm, and Boise’s breakneck growth makes me sure I will never be able to pay for a piece of farmland with the money I can make by farming it. It felt like a good time to reassess.

But there was another reason, too. After fifteen years of cultivating every square inch of my relationship to the natural world by building a livelihood and identity through working the land, I wanted an opportunity to explore wildness. To be in a place where plants grow where they are without intensive human intervention. A place where it is not my job to protect prey from predator. Could I feel satisfied by being a passive observer of the natural world rather than an active, cultivating participant?

So I loaded up sacks of squashes and buckets of potatoes and headed to the frosty middle of the state. There’s no way I could have guessed—none of us could have—that the year I left my farm would be the year of a global pandemic that throws into stark light the importance of having a robust regional food system. While I sit in this mountain quarantine, the folks at Snake River Seed Co-op and the woman running the farm in my absence are scrambling like mad to get seeds and garden starts to local people who are desperately trying to take a portion of their food security into their own hands. My winter stores are almost gone and for the first time in well over a decade I’m buying the bulk of my food from the grocery store, just like almost everyone else. No greenhouse full of plant babies popping up with a promise to feed me in the coming months. No fields of sprouting garlic or asparagus peeking up through the mulch. When the snow melts here, CSAs in the valley will be in full swing. Some people will actually be sick of greens.

And I know this sounds crazy, but I don’t actually miss farming right now. For weeks, I’ve been swirling around in a mass of guilt and confusion about this fact.My goal to reacquaint myself with wilder places has been easy to achieve in this place surrounded by wild lands. Nearly 70% of the land in Idaho is held in the public domain, mostly as wild lands managed by federal or state agencies. This includes the largest designated wilderness area in the lower 48 states—the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, which is separated by single lane roads from the Selway-Bitterroot and Gospel Hump Wildernesses, each impressive in their own right.

The first time I realized how unique Idaho was in this regard was on a spring trip with some friends as an 18-year-old. The eight of us who were living together in a rented house packed ourselves into two dumpy sedans and, armed with walkie talkies, headed off to explore California. The year was 1998. Our first destination was the redwoods. The plan: Drive all day and when we arrived, simply pull off the road, throw up some tents, and wake up in that majestic forest the next morning.

With the sun setting, we couldn’t find anywhere even remotely near the redwoods to camp, at least for free. The small swath of forest land limited camping to improved—as in, pay—spots, at a whopping $20 per space, per night. As broke teenagers, we had not budgeted money for lodging on our trip, and this first night was a wake-up call. Where was all the National Forest land, where you could camp wherever you wanted? The redwoods were entirely surrounded by private land with “No Camping” signs posted everywhere.

We ended up sleeping sitting up in the cars, parked in front of some houses in a suburban neighborhood—much to the dismay of the occupants as they left for work the next morning.

Over the years, I would travel to many other parts of the country with even less public land than California, and I pieced together how the land in Idaho shaped my upbringing. Growing up, I didn’t want for land. Our family had a little house and a little yard. We played rec soccer at the city park, and on summer weekends we often went camping in the mountains. It was normal to drive into the woods, pitch a tent, build a fire. I didn’t understand the concept of public versus private land. It was just the city and the forest.

As I got into farming, my relationship to land changed completely. Farming requires access to ground, and unlike much of the ranching in the state, virtually all the farming here is done on privately owned land. In the desert, that land also needs to include access to irrigation water. Irrigated land isn’t cheap and it isn’t getting cheaper as Idaho’s population swells. Boise, Idaho, the city where I farm, was the “hottest real estate market in the country” in every quarter of 2019 according to the Federal Housing and Finance Agency.[1] A recent study by Boise State University found that Ada County has lost over 100,000 acres of farmland to development since 1969, and will lose over half of its remaining farmland—roughly 200,000 more acres—by 2100, if current growth rates continue.[2]

So I’m walking the fence line between Idaho’s two defining identities—the cultivated and the wild. Potatoes and the Frank Church. Agriculture and Wilderness. I’ve heard agriculture, logging, and mining interests say that wilderness is an elitist concept, a privilege afforded to the lucky few recreationalists who can access it. I would argue that it is actually more accessible to us as Idahoans than privately-owned farmland. As long as I have a car or someone willing to drive me there, I can drive to a wild place and walk into it with my two feet. Technically, I own it by birthright, as do all citizens of the United States. This is true even as the ability to secure long-term access to a piece of farmland has eluded me.

So I take advantage of my birthright. Almost every day, I go to my favorite nearby outdoor place—Bear Basin, a swath of land in the Payette National Forest near my house that’s crisscrossed by Nordic ski trails in winter and hiking trails in summer. On my daily outings, I take specific trails so I can visit certain trees, rocks, and vistas. I say hello to the foxes and snowshoe hares as I pass the tracks that lead to their forest dens. The ski season is ending and I’m making an effort to go on every trail one last time, to say good bye to the friends along them until next winter. When the snow melts and the hiking trails re-emerge, I’ll get to say hello to friends I left when the snow started falling last autumn. I’ll get to see them leaf out, flower, and make seeds.

Through this sustained contact, I’ve grown into a deep and satisfying relationship with this place, which makes me realize that my initial question of whether I can be satisfied as a passive observer of the natural world missed the mark. Observation is participation. In fact, farm life is so busy that I don’t have as much opportunity to observe when I’m farming. And there’s the irony of modern society—we’re so busy “participating” that we often forget to stop and look around. As Wendell Berry says, “We have never known what we are doing because we have never known what we are undoing.”

While some folks crave a constant influx of new experiences and adventures, I’ve realized that it’s familiarity with a place that nourishes me. Whether the land I farm in the valley or the land I visit every day here in the mountains, both bring me the similar satisfaction of being in the continued company of a diversity of species, of watching them grow and change, and having them bear witness to my growth as well.

Out the window, I watch the sun glitter off the snow blanketing the lake as I struggle to put these thoughts into words. Suddenly, it dawns on me: this agonizing over wild versus cultivated land has never actually been about land. It’s always been about people, and my right relationship to them. There is no question that I can find intrigue and wonder in the natural world. But work is a decidedly human construct. And when we talk about finding satisfaction in the span of a human life, we’re voicing a need to be useful, if not only to other humans, at least in relationship to them on behalf of other species. After all, it is humans who are accelerating climate change, humans who are bulldozing wild places for industrial agriculture and clearcutting forests for our mansions. If we love the land, we must engage with humanity to protect it.

For many reasons we family farmers have armored ourselves in the self-righteous story that the hard work we do is crucial, perhaps the most crucial work that humans do. But this pandemic has taught us so much about how many human endeavors are “essential” to our society. The world needs wild and cultivated land. It needs farmers and nurses, delivery drivers and retail clerks, all working together. This is perhaps the greatest comfort to me during this incomprehensible time. With so much at stake, it’s obvious how much there is to care for. The particulars aren’t important—relationships can be formed and care can be enacted in lands both cultivated and wild, in big cities and tiny towns. The earth has shrunk. Individuals can only be healthy through the health of the collective.  It’s not about me, but it is.

“Wild” land in Idaho hasn’t been wild, at least in the romantic, humans-haven’t-altered-it sense, for millennia. Long before my European ancestors arrived here, much of it had been shaped to a large degree by the interactions of Native people with it, people who have burned and tended it, eaten from its sustenance, organized rituals and societies around the principle of caring for it on behalf of the generations to come. European-descended ranchers brought cattle and sheep to Idaho and today the Bureau of Land Management authorizes livestock grazing through permits to private ranchers on over 11,500,000 acres of public land in Idaho.

My understanding of land use isn’t universal. It is a direct outcome of a life lived in this particular state, with its particular policies that have allocated the land contained herein to particular uses. One could argue we’re discussing apples and oranges here—the inherent purposes for wild and agricultural lands are different. But in the end, it is all land, and for better or worse we humans are constantly making decisions about how to interact with it.

In his seminal permaculture book Gaia’s Garden, Toby Hemenway notes that every square inch of land we can use to produce food, timber, and fiber in a city is one less square inch of wild land that needs to be destroyed to provide for our needs. Indeed, human activities in the United States have stretched our footprint across 24 million acres of wild lands between 2001 and 2017, according to a study by the Center for American Progress.[3] Every 30 seconds, the equivalent of a football field of wild lands are lost to human-serving activities like agriculture.  

There has been much talk of what our world will look like in the wake of this pandemic. As I write, efforts are underway to roll back many of the environmental protections of the past in the name of “getting America back to work.” The wild lands that make Idaho what it is will come increasingly under threat as more people move here, with evermore insatiable desires.

COVID is shining a spotlight on the inhumanity and vulnerability of this out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to feeding ourselves. Industrial poultry processing and slaughterhouse workers are being forced to work without adequate protective gear to make sure we keep the supply of cheap meat coming. We’ve got farmers digging massive pits with enormous tractors to bury truckloads of zucchinis and onions that they can’t sell because their vertically-rigid wholesale supply chains have been disrupted. At our tiny seed co-op, we are in the same boat as the rest of our seed industry peers—what we thought would be a 4- to 5-year supply of seeds has gone out the door in one season. It will take us years to regrow our inventory, which means the ripple effects will likely play out for years in the food system.

We can use this opportunity to be proactive in enacting policies that will preserve the agricultural lands in and near our metropolitan areas for agriculture, and work to entice willing and able regenerative farmers onto this land so that it can provide for our needs, or we can go down the other path, the one that leads to more subdivisions and strip malls, with wild lands being bulldozed around the world for our consumption.

So Idaho’s two identities aren’t as disconnected as they initially seem, and looking closely at them further blurs the line between passive observer and active participant. Observing the wild has much to teach us about how best to participate in its cultivation. And a person who drinks a cup of coffee that came from a place where a rainforest was burned and turned into a coffee plantation is an active participant, whether they’re hiking a trail in the wilderness, driving a tractor, or sitting in an office in a city. The earth has shrunk. Individuals can only be healthy through the health of the collective.  It’s not about me, but it is.

[1] Federal Housing and Finance Agency press release, 2/25/2020.

[2] Narducci, Jenna, et al. (2017). Projecting Urban Expansion in the Treasure Valley to 2100. Boise State University MILES program.

[3] Theobald, David M., et al. (2019). Loss and fragmentation of natural lands in the conterminous U.S. from 2001-2017. Center for American Progress.