“If we lose genetic diversity, we make it less likely that species can adapt to change.”
On a recent trip to northern Idaho attending a conference of the Association of Literature and the Environment, I got the privilege of hiking Kamiak Butte, a rare protected area in a place almost entirely overrun by industrial agriculture. Along with our group of environmental writers came a pair of plant biologists who gave us some rare insights into prairie ecology. It’s exciting to get to walk in wild spaces with experts on the countryside. They point out things most of us would never notice. Though I’m an avid hiker, I know less about the plant world around me than I should. I generally assume that if the landscape looks healthy and full, it must be. Unfortunately, that’s most often not the case.
While the thickly forested and plant heavy trail seems hale and hearty, one of the biologists tells me Kamiak might be about 50% diversified, a fair distance from a climax ecosystem. We pass a dazzling array of plant life: ferns, common flowering plants like yarrow, serviceberry, bigleaf sandwort, and western mountain aster, to name only a few. Tall trees cover the butte: western larch, ponderosa pine, Douglas fir. We take our time climbing as our party varies in age from early 20s to mid-70s. Hiking at a slower pace allows us to soak in the life around us, the many colored blooms of flowers, the sounds of birdcalls. Hard to imagine this seeming fecundity as endangered.
From the summit, we break for snacks and water, and the landscape spreads out like a green sea: legumes of many varieties like lentils, various grains, the beautiful yellow flowers that top canola. Between our butte and the next range the space is filled with agriculture and a few roads to connect the fields with the larger world.
This land is incredibly fertile because the old prairies are essentially loess deposits. The ancient Columbia River would overflow its banks, leaving massive silt sediments when the flooding was done, and the prevailing wind blew it here, piling the loess a hundred feet deep. This old prairie is entirely developed—only .01% of it has resisted the plow and axe—hard to imagine plant and animal life that vanished. We can see it from the top, this small island of fading diversity surrounded on all sides by monocultures. Cheat grass is a major problem here, as it is all across the West, and seeds blow. It may be inevitable that these last islands in this agricultural sea will slowly lose their genetic diversity and become much less than what they once were.
The larger problem is that this is happening all across our planet, little by little, acre by acre—diversity sacrificed to the bland uniformity of seed patents, corporate agribusiness, and the dumbing down of the industrial palate. As we walk down I pinch a mix of seeds from a small sunflower and chew them: they coat my tongue like smoky dust. Yeah, this—this is what we need, I think. These fading islands still have much to give back to us, for rewilding ourselves means changing not only the way we eat but the way we grow our food. If we’re lucky, maybe that’s what will not only save places like Kamiak Butte but help these places save us: relearning to trust and treasure the ancient grains, save and maintain our own seeds, and find fertile ground in which to sow them.