Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


I live in a region that has been draining population for more than a century. From a time just after the Civil War up to the turn of the century, white folks deposed the Native people and set up Old McDonald farms hither and yon throughout the land. That story is clearly told by abandoned barns and houses and groves of, smudges on what remains, for the most part, an otherwise treeless landscape of row crops where once stood the old tall-grass prairie.

I don't think farming has ever been particularly easy, and some European immigrants, including my great-grandfather, a North Sea sailor from Holland, were dead wrong in thinking it was. He tried for a decade or two but eventually threw in the towel. My father-in-law farmed his whole life--and loved it and made a decent living at it, and today owns enough acres of rich Iowa soil to be a rich man, if he sells.

It wouldn't be foolish, I suppose, for him to do that right now; land prices have never been higher. Right now, his kids--that's us--would reap a grand harvest if he were to sell because we're in one of those parenthetical moments when farming--grain farming especially--is bringing in the sheaves. Most often, or so it seems to this non-farmer, farming itself is nip and tuck, one huge gamble. Casinos came to Iowa awhile ago already, but gambling has been a part of life out here since the first plow cut a swath through virgin prairie.

The cause of the windfall nowadays is ethanol, combustible fuel boiled up from corn. In the last decade, prophets here claimed that unless we used a hefty amount of our corn to generate liquid gold--fuel for our cars--we'd miss out royally on the sumptuous feasts that awaited those blessed with rich, productive land.

So farmers around here have been winning as of late, corn profits soaring to heights even those prophets wouldn't have dared to guess a decade ago. Beans are up too. The old Iowa tall-grass prairie eco-system, long gone, has for years been nothing but corn and soy beans; so today our coffers are running over, as are our grain bins, and land auctions bring in venture capitalists from this country beyond, people who really could care less about who lives here or why or how.

And now, this morning, one reads about resentment growing against the ethanol industry. Some of that resentment is misguided. Long ago already, field corn was fodder for animal fat. Nobody ate what grows here, except in their hamburgers. Sioux County corn hasn't been pulled from the hands of hungry children in order to poured down into empty gas tanks. That's silly.

But the price of food itself has risen dramatically; and it's easy to point at an industry (farming is an industry) which has, in the last ten years, directed its energy and product into powering engines and not feeding people. Even though the twinning of higher food prices with the greater production of ethanol isn't exactly fair, when people go hungry Siouxland producers, like those elsewhere, can start to look like bandits and shysters as they truck new-found profits off to the bank. It's a problem. All that glistens is not gold.

Not until I lived in Arizona did I know people who seemingly worshipped "private enteprise." Maybe, before those years, I wasn't old enough to think about such things, but in Barry Goldwater country, almost forty years ago, "free enteprise" was a mantra. But it's here too, in Siouxland. One of the virtues of our culture is that, truly, we can be who we will make ourselves. It's true.

But what if what we make of ourselves isn't responsible to others, to the land itself, to creation? What if, in all of our getting, we consider only ourselves? I don't know that the virtues of capitalism always outshine the virtues of social welfare. Look, by all accounts the U.S. of A. avoided economic catastrophe two weeks ago when the government bailed out a huge financial enterprise named Bear Stearns. Government to the rescue. Social welfare for the rich. So much for the free market.

I'm no socialist, but an unbridled free market has created a medical system that is just plain nuts in this country. We may well lead the world in medical research, but we also strangle people and their lives in the process. What everyone understands is that it can't go on the way it is. It just seems to me that in medical care as well as agriculture today, we need responsible social policy that looks out for the good of everyone. Even out here, now and always, we need somehow to balance freedom with justice.

I don't doubt for a moment that right now at the huge ethanol plant west of town some of the honchos are scratching their heads and trying to pencil out a plan for the future. According the NY Times this morning, "Biofuels are fast becoming a new flash point in global diplomacy, putting pressure on Western politicians to reconsider their policies, even as they argue that biofuels are only one factor in the seemingly inexorable rise in food prices." Things are not looking good just west of town.

Even though greed, or avarice, is in fourth place on the list of the seven deadlies as I learned them, it's there. And what we're talking about anyway, really, is pride--me first.

I don't know that any of us face a harder task in the whole world than putting others' welfare before our own. Selflessness is true virtue, practiced by saints. What I do know is that it doesn't come naturally. It is, of course, the central Christian virtue, whether or not Christians practice it. When Native people lost this land, many of them taught their children that they couldn't trust the white man's God because the actions of those who claimed they loved that God seemed to them to be, well, damnable.

I wish I were smart enough for answers to all these problems. I'm not. But I know, from experience, that, strangely enough, sometimes the lies we tell to others, we actually believe ourselves. And I know this too, from the wisdom of the ancients, that pride almost always goeth before the fall.

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