Life as Usual: We Need to Talk

Mother and Child, Sun and Soil

I found myself staring at this image with the strong notion that in it was a message, a lesson, a cautionary tale. But what could it be, such a simple scene, a straightforward composition so common in this rural setting. But the more I pondered the particulars of this mother-and-calf portrait over my morning coffee, the more I was amazed at the intricacies here, the product of time, the alchemy of biology and a certain amount of chance that have made this view of relationships possible. Its roots go back millions of years; its future will be determined in the next few.

Consider all you see here. This ecological portrait starts in the earth, well below the surface of pasture off the Blue Ridge Parkway, where parent rock–bedrock deposited as the earth formed and mashed up, continent against continent–breaks up over time, calving stones, then pebbles and sand to the surface. From above, wind and heat, water and ice provide a living place for microbes little changed since life first appeared on land a few hundred million years ago. Their work, over long expanses of time, creates living dirt we call soil. A foot or two below the hooves of mother and child is the spine of the Appalachians. Sun shines, rain falls, grasses grow, fields flourish.

I won’t even venture to wonder about the ancient history of this most valuable “domesticated” beast upon which, in one of its forms or another, civilizations have been formed. The hide and bone, blood, meat and dung of ruminants have laid the foundations for human history. Here are a mere two, a mother and child, doing what their species has always done; they can do no other, each designed wonderfully suited for their individual performances in this old dance.

The cow, from stem to stern, is a nutrient-processing machine. Tooth structure for grinding high-cellulose grasses; cervical framework and musculature to hold with little effort a neck just long enough to get the teeth to ground–every waking minute–because that is what it takes to make a living. The flaring pelvis is heavy-boned, necessary to support a 55 gallon drum of stomach, a grinding-churning chemical vat, equipped with a few trillion bacteria of a very specific mix. Their job: break down cellulose, generate sugars. And methane. What’s left exits under the fly-swatter, nourishes the soil organisms, perpetuates the food source.

The calf, this year’s young, still takes his nourishment directly from the mother, his own feeding hardware not quite yet ready. His neck is too short to reach the ground. To reach his mother’s nipples, his legs must splay, should blades riding high up on his rib cage. Just when he gets in position, she moves to another clump of grass growing around the edges of a decomposed paddy. The movement and coordination of it all prepares him for adulthood.

Take any one element of this little story and change it at random–the skeletal particulars, the microbes in soil and omentum, the behaviors of mother and child, the generative powers of light and rain. Do so, and the system fails. That’s the nature of complex systems. Our world is full of them. Many of them are failing because one or more of the elements are broken, and we approach–or have passed–the point of repair and recovery. Those balance spots are called “tipping points” where the capacity of the land to supply has been exceeded by the demands placed on it.

Tipping points and overshoot
For some cliffs, we can avoid the edge, even yet

That’s not to say that life grinds to a halt where carrying capacity is exceeded by consumption. It can go on as if everything is as it always was, because, for a time, today’s needs are met out of the reserves of tomorrow–and from the stock of generations to come. That would be your children and mine.

A farmer can eat his seed corn. That situation is called an “overshoot.” There won’t be a big bang when it happens. We are overshot with respect to several of the efficiently-operating natural systems and resources we rely on.

We, dear hearts, are Wile. E. Coyote, just beyond the edge of the precipice. Some few have that look of “oh crap” on their faces, while most, suspended in thin air are oblivious, text messaging their friends about American Idol.

People, let’s get off the phone and start talking to each other about this, shall we?

PS: Wile.E will tell us: even the falling is not bad. It’s the rocky bottom of the ravine that gets your attention.

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Published by fred

Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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