Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Smoke Clouds on the Horizon

It's been such a rainy spring and summer here that everything is still bright green. Everything, that is, except the wheat.

By now the wheat should have been harvested and all that should remain is stubble. Instead, field after field still contains its crop...or what remains of its crop. After decades of living in Kansas, I've never seen the wheat look this bad. Instead of golden brown, it's gray and thin and scraggly. As each week passes and more rain comes, keeping it impossible to get into the fields, more and more weeds are poking their heads through and the wheat itself gets grayer and skimpier and sadder.

I've wondered what the farmers will do. It doesn't even look like you could harvest these fields for hay - too much of it is bent and all of it looks like it's rotting in place. However, leaving the wheat standing and eventually plowing it under doesn't seem like a good option either, because that would just leave seeds in place to contaminate next year's crop.

This weekend I got my answer: smoke clouds started appearing in several different directions. Many farmers have made the painful decision to burn the remnants of their wheat as it stands.

Hopefully most of the farmers will have crop insurance and will thus be able to weather this disastrous year. However, there's certainly not much diversity built into farming any more to allow them to weather it the traditional way, through the offset of a different crop thriving under these weather conditions.

In fact, the condition of the wheat is quite ironic, really. So many other plants are thriving this year: the wildflowers have been outstanding, lawns and gardens are lush even without watering, and many trees are putting on strong growth. This year is pointing out the biological vulnerabilities that underlie our country's current agricultural system: the economy of scale (literally putting all our eggs into one or two baskets) provides phenomenal results when the conditions are right...but provides colossal failure when those conditions aren't perfect.

It reminds me of the stock market debacle of several years ago: tech stocks "couldn't fail" for several years...then suddenly they did fail, wiping out entire portfolios of investors who had concentrated on only the "best performing" stocks. It also reminds me of the loss of so many communities' trees when Dutch elm disease wiped out most American elms; many communities had planted little but elms because they were such a "perfect" street tree.

So the smoke clouds send signals to me. They signal me that what works most of the time doesn't work all of the time, and to plan for that. They signal me that, in the midst of plenty, things can still go wrong and be hard for others, and to take that into consideration in my dealings with them. They signal me to celebrate courage, and to cultivate the courage to cut my losses and move on when things don't go well. Most of all, the smoke clouds signal me to celebrate diversity and to work to incorporate it into my life wherever I can.

(Does this mean I've got some loss cutting and diversity increasing that I need to do right now? Hmmm. Much as I hate to admit it, I suspect that it does and that I do. If I'm going to interpret the smoke signals and write about them publicly, the least I can do is actually pay attention to them myself...as irritating as that is!)

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