Climate Change Gathering Visions of the End of the World
Everyone talks about sea levels and temperatures rising, but there’s also the more tangible inevitability of the soil running out.
Perhaps it is living where I do now, out among the places where most of our food comes from. Or perhaps it is that I am listening to my grandma, who has been sounding the alarm even with her compromised mind. And I’m starting to wonder: How quickly will the end of the world arrive? Aside from the sea levels and the temperatures rising, which are hard to predict and impossible to forecast, there is the more solid, tangible inevitability of the soil running out. Apparently, the plants we have grown to love eating have been eating, too. They have been munching on the nitrogen and phosphorus in the dirt and when they die, they are ripped out before they can give anything back to the land that made them.
I wake up at 5:15 a.m. to drive to Kansas. It’s March, cold in Iowa. I drive in darkness for over an hour, anxious for the sun to rise so I can see what’s around me and where I am going. I’m headed to The Land Institute, in Salina, Kansas, because the people there think about the soil and how it is degrading, but they are different from me in that they have a plan.
When the sun rises, I see rows and rows of crops. Right now they are yellow and brown, but even at the end of their lives you can see the order to them. Turns out you can drive seven hours in one direction and see almost entirely fields. I did it the other day and ended up in Kansas. People in Kansas live in houses just the same way they live in them in Iowa, though I do see one with its front painted bright blue and when I walk around the side of it, the blue paint stops in a jagged line, the rest of the house stark white. It looks like the painter just lost interest, or skipped town and forgot to finish the job.
I am a city kid. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. I grew up in a suburb of New York, and so crossing the street is no big deal. The cars on the east coast are prepared for dashing people. But now I live in the Midwest, and the roads are different here. They are four-lane deals with crosswalks three blocks apart. If I want to dash quickly from where I am to where I want to go, I have to take my life in my hands.
When I call my grandma on the east coast, I tell her things like this. The roads are wider here, and there is more space, I say. Space between houses, space between tables at the café, space between people in check-out lines. You can really spread out over the land where I am. Grandma listens and asks if I can get to a grocery store. I tell her yes, there’s one right down the street, and I can drive there. She is relieved. How bad could it be, if there’s a grocery store. Then Grandma tells me about her car and how she can’t drive it anymore.
“It’s a bit of a shock. I try not to think about it,” she says. I can imagine where she is standing while she is talking to me: at the counter in her kitchen, her elbows resting next to the phone. She is surrounded by scraps of paper taped to the tissue box and to the pillar next to the coffee cup full of pencils and pens. The papers tell her where her children and grandchildren are, because she has started forgetting. In practiced cursive, she has written down the phone numbers, addresses and defunct beepers of her children’s and grandchildren’s homes and works and schools. They have been written multiple times on different scraps, just in case. She is terrified she will lose us.
“Apparently, I don’t see distances and that’s very important for driving, I gather,” Grandma says. “I won’t go blind. But I’m not seeing distances, apparently, enough to drive.”
Grandma is always “gathering” and pointing out what is apparent. It’s a speech pattern that leaves a lot up to mystery, as if she is feeling her way through a dark forest. It could be this way or the other. Just gathering up the evidence, a feather dropped here, a tree bent there. A person shouldn’t suppose she can see too well what is coming or where she is going.
When I pull into the dirt parking lot at the top of one of Kansas’s few hills, Tim Crews is there. Tim is the director of research at The Land Institute, a middle-aged man dressed like an academic in corduroys and a sweater vest. He stands just outside The Land Institute headquarters, a small house built in the 1970s. The scientists’ offices and labs are scattered around the main house and beyond that, over the hill, is a very small prairie. It is there that Tim takes me first. He points to the grasses around us in the prairie, all matted and jostling each other, competing for the chance to take over the pathway and go.
The best soil on the planet is made by grasses because their roots go deep, Tim says. They are ten, fifteen feet below these two-foot plants, messy like unbrushed hair. They hug carbon to themselves, and nitrogen too.
Only one tenth of the grassland is left in the Midwest. In Iowa, only one out of every thousand grass plants remains clinging to the land. Because, of course, a girl’s gotta eat. And a girl can’t eat the prairie; she needs legumes and grains.
“Corn and wheat are comforting to look at,” Tim says. He is absent-mindedly fiddling with the tip of a prairie grass. “They make us feel secure. But in reality, they’re a disaster.”
Annual, short-rooted crops—the yummy ones like wheat, soybeans, corn, and sunflowers, which we tear out of the ground at the end of every year—degrade the soil sixteen to three-hundred-and-sixty times quicker than the soil can regenerate. (Science, clearly, cannot see the numbers too precisely yet.) Waving grasses and the bodies of all kinds of bugs created a nutritious soil across the Midwest, sixteen inches deep in some places. It took millions of years of taking and giving to build up stores of the good stuff underground. Now, most of the soil here is only six inches deep.
“Is it true that in sixty years, all the soil will be gone?” I ask the back of Tim’s head as he leads the way to the next part of the tour. I had read the number somewhere online and imagined myself at eighty-four, brown blotchy spots on my face, no longer able to drive to the grocery store.
He shakes his head. “I don’t know where that number came from.” He says the amount of dirt on the whole planet is too great to be able to calculate what’s left. What’s more, human action is impossible to predict. We could destroy the world a lot quicker—or we could be forward-thinking. It all depends. People are already starving because of no fertile soil, no good conditions to grow. How do we factor that into how much is left, when for many it is already gone?
My siblings and I used to visit my Grandma in the summer, when our parents would drop us off for a week or two. Grandma let us watch as much TV as we wanted and we could jump into the pool again and again, even well into dusk and darkness. What I liked, too, was lying on the grass in her backyard. With my eyes closed, belly to the ground, one cheek to the dirt, I imagined the layers beneath me: The grass and then dirt and then rock and then plasma. If I stayed long enough, getting dizzy in the heat of the sun, I could see all the way down to the core of the earth.
Grandma fed us well when we stayed with her. Egg salad sandwiches, banana bread toasted with margarine melted on the top, tomatoes from her garden sliced into thick circles and sprinkled with salt. She grew mint and basil next to the tomatoes, but that was all. The rest she could get at the store. She loved that you could get anything you wanted at the grocery store. But tomatoes, she insisted, you couldn’t get as good as the ones she grew. It was the way the sun slanted for just the right amount of time on that patch, and the fertilizer she bought in heavy rectangular bags. On her knees, moving rapidly like there were seven other chores to do before dawn, Grandma would pack the tomato plants into the earth. By the time she was finished, each plant had its own neat circle of soil, clear of weeds: clean, almost, among all that dirt.
“Without a doubt, there is going to be a breaking point,” Tim says. We are back by the Institute buildings now. Scientists’ kids are playing on their bikes by the dirt road.
It’s not the corn’s fault, or the wheat or the soybeans. It’s us, I promise it is. For one thing, there is the tilling we do. Tilling is the process by which farmers turn over soil, stirring, digging, and preparing the earth to receive seeds. Tilling means the soil is looser. Looser means that things seep out of it quicker. Nitrogen loves to leak out of the fields. Organic matter (the residues of once living, now dead things, decomposed recursively until the dead things are stable and no longer decay) breaks when plows slice through it, which makes it easier for microbes like bacteria and fungi to eat.
If we stopped where we are now, pulled up the annual crops that feed us, the ones that are eating our good soil, and returned the earth to grasses (all of Iowa, all of Kansas, most of the rest of the Midwest), climate change might be slowed: The roots on native grasses sequester excess carbon underground, sucking some of the damage we’ve done below the surface. There’d be no need to till because prairie grasses live for years, no need to replant, to re-fertilize, or to break up the soil so that it eats itself. Prairie grasses do better in changeable climates too, so the erratic weather we’ve been having because of the gases we are burning wouldn’t kill off the prairie. But if we did all that, of course, says Tim, we’d starve.
Tim pushes open the door to the greenhouse, where the science happens. Inside, three post-docs scurry along the rows and rows of plants. There are new species of perennial grains in here, tall and green and each in its own individual pot. The plants are raised on beds, nourished by water that trickles onto the bed. Most of the plants in here have their private parts covered by white paper pockets called privacy sleeves, lest their pollen unintentionally fertilize another. Scientists use tweezers and pluck all the anthers out of each plant, sixty of them per head. Sticky pieces of paper are hung around the plants too, with dead flies scattered on them like crumbs.
Each plant is tagged and labeled. Its progress will be tracked, heartiness noted, and productivity recorded. The Land Institute breeds ten to fifteen thousand individual plants of one species, and after one growing season, two hundred lucky guys are saved from the bunch. Then they go into a vernalization chamber, which induces spring and seeds.
Scientists started breeding one perennial grain called Kernza in the 1980s, and it’s one of their most successful species. Kernza has been introduced in parts of France and Minnesota where it is trying to repair the soil and give itself to us for food at the same time. There’s a beer on the market made partially with it, and General Mills has decided to green itself by making cereal with it—Kernza Flakes, perhaps, or Kernza O’s.
Kernza is getting there. You can make a decent loaf of bread with half-Kernza, half-wheat, Tim says. My stomach grumbles; I haven’t yet eaten lunch. The rows and rows of not-quite-ready-yet plants taunt me.
“That’s Spencer,” says Tim, gesturing to one of the three post-docs untangling a hose. He turns around and waves. “He’s about to choose a plant to cross-breed and develop. These things take so long that he’ll probably be tweaking one plant species for the rest of his life.”
I watch Spencer tending carefully to one of the plants, ducking low to check the moisture. I try to see him at fifty, at seventy-five, too close to a promising result to retire, with a family, perhaps, or a partner who loves him for his doggedness, his determined, steady research on perfecting one edible plant.
We reach the end of the greenhouse and Tim smiles. “One of these plants may be the one to save humanity,” he says. “It’s really exciting.” I smile, too, but when I leave the greenhouse and get back into the car, my mind gets stuck. When exactly will we start eating things that will save us? Will it be too late when we do? Since my mind cannot move forward, I focus on the lines on the road. Comforting, those lines, as are the rows of plants to either side, some perennial grains, some just plain old selfish annuals: delicious.
Even before the eye doctor took away Grandma’s license, she would let me drive the car when I visited her. The story we told each other was that I love cars, and especially her red one—I just wanted to drive it. When I’d sit in the driver’s seat, I’d laugh and laugh and we’d pretend it was the funniest thing in the world, that I was the one behind the wheel.
The rotary by Grandma’s house used to be the deadliest in the state, but they’ve been fixing it for over a decade (according to Grandma, who of course has just gathered this). Now it is not a rotary at all, but a series of ramps and lights and bridges.
A few months ago, we got into her car to drop Bowser the dog off at her daughter’s house. When the cornfields behind Grandma’s house were ripped up, a development was erected (generations of annual plants had sucked the soil dry, so what else was there to do?) and this daughter with the dog, my Aunt Jen, bought a house back there, big and blue and only a hundred yards from Grandma’s house. She could almost see Grandma pick up the phone when she called every night, at midnight, on the dot. Everyone likes to check in on Grandma, make sure she is still where she should be.
It was a short drive, two minutes to get to Jen’s house. I entered the former rotary and let Grandma direct me. If she couldn’t drive, at least she could be in charge of directions. We were chatting about the dog, or maybe about the rotary, now gone (apparently, it had taken a decade) and I asked, Left or right? Left. We drove down the road and I recognized the cemetery where my grandfather was buried. We were way off course, but I didn’t know the area well enough to correct.
“Where to now?” I asked Grandma. She had gone quiet.
“Keep going,” she said, so I did. It is rare for her not to be chatty. We were in a part of town I vaguely recognized from childhood, when I would buckle myself in the back seat of her burgundy station wagon and go with her to pick up what she called “Syrian” bread and I now know to be pita. She loves how it perfectly pockets egg salad.
“Should I turn left here?” I asked, because my internal compass was vaguely telling me a left turn would do us good.
“No, no, keep going,” she said. She wasn’t looking at me anymore, only out the window at the passing buildings. We had reached the next town.
“Strange,” she said.
A few more seconds of silence, and then, “Do you have your gadget with you?” She meant my phone. I did, and she asked me to plug it in. I typed Aunt Jen’s address into Google maps. Only after a few minutes of the automated voice showing us the way could we laugh.
Getting lost in your own town! we laughed. It was that rotary-that-wasn’t-a-rotary. You had to be careful or you could end up in Dracut or Lawrence or Lowell. Grandma had just been confused, that’s all. I nodded.
In some ways I can imagine how Grandma feels when she is confused and when she forgets things. It’s worse when she has to plan for the future. A few months ago, I was assigned to help her pack for a short trip we were taking together, to visit family in another state.
“How many days will we be gone?” she asked.
“Five,” I said, looking into the open suitcase on her bedroom floor. She had lost her glasses in the flurry of packing. They were somewhere in the house, but she had stayed up all night packing and repacking the suitcase and could not remember the last time she had seen them.
We were supposed to be leaving soon, so the more immediate problem was her clothing. Somehow, overnight, the number of black pants in her suitcase had ballooned to twenty. I tried to talk her through which pairs to take and which to leave behind. She was concerned about the weather where we were going, and in truth I couldn’t say what it would be. Instead, I tried editing her pants when she was out of the room, but she caught me in the act of removing a pair.
“What are you doing? I need that pair.” I was stuck holding the long-legged things and could not remember what I should say. She was alarmed, uncertain. Who was I to tell her what she needs? I gave in and let her stuff several plastic bags full of pants. We shoved it all into the trunk of the car. We’d figure out how to get onto the plane later.
“How many days will we be gone?” she asked again.
“Five. Just five.”
I do not know where to go from here, where it will end. Grandma’s mind and her eyes will degrade more and more. But how much, and for how long?
Me? I cannot stop thinking about grasses. All of this used to be grassland, I think, as I walk to class on land that used to be corn and soybeans and wheat. Before that, it was all prairie. Strange.
Waving, full of flowers, the grasses made themselves into one mass. It was like the sea, and in it were spittlebugs and monarchs, ants to aerate the soil and bees to tend the blooms. But it is too much to see in one gulp, so I try to think about just one at a time.
Take, for instance, the compass plant, which used to rule the roost around here. It has tall, sturdy stems and grows only one leaf in its first year of life. After investing two or three years into root growth, the compass plant produces large yellow flowers. Future leaves will be wiser, clasping and hairy, their tips pointing north and south to avoid the hottest sweep of the sun.
None of us know where to go from here. We can see vaguely what is coming, but from where we are standing it is impossible to tell how far away any of it is. The plants point out the cardinal directions. The people eat and eat. Some of them plan, experiment, take the optimistic view.
“It’s the distance that you lose, I gather,” says Grandma in my head, on the phone, at the counter, “what you need for driving.”
It’s hard to see the bigger story. It’s a problem of scale. When I try to imagine the larger things, my brain shuts down. It returns to the tomatoes and the single compass plant and my grandma fussing over the number of pants in her suitcase, wanting to be prepared but not knowing enough about the past, not being able to see ahead or where she put her glasses, not knowing what questions to ask except how long, how long we will be gone.