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The Milk House: The assessment of land

Ryan Dennis Published on 20 May 2013

Sometimes I am struck by how fields keep their past. No matter how thoroughly a dead furrow seems to be disked before new seeding, you can still find it after every cutting.

I can look from the top of the hill and count the times I got the haybine stuck because the holes left by the wheels turn into island marshes that can be hard to get rid of. Acts of good and bad farming are often still evident when spring comes again.

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Because of it, I sometimes wonder if man and ground are in some ways mirrors of each other – the field is a reflection of what the farmer puts into it and how he takes it out, and because my experience on a sidehill in New York is different from that of a peer on the Illinois plains, maybe the land equally shapes the man.

I suspect that man’s relationship to land is a particularly American paradigm. As one of the most recent developed nations to be “pioneered,” having one’s own piece of ground was often connected to his value.

At various moments in history it meant that he could survive, could vote, was a good citizen and sometimes risked the life of his family in the isolation of a new place.

The quality of the U.S. that European friends seem to remark on the most is its essence of open space. Simply, there is less undeveloped land in most countries, and to own part of that country is more unlikely.

When the urban world wants to understand agriculture, it tends to turn to Wendell Berry. Berry, perhaps known best for his agrarian essays and creative work, left the literary culture and academia in New York City to return to his home farm in Kentucky.

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From there, he made the argument that most of society’s failure stems from not supporting sustainable family agriculture. He was prophetic in a general way in that he voiced concerns that predated the acceptance of environmentalism in the U.S. and correctly predicted current trends in farming.

You often find Berry going back to his native hill in his writing, just as he did in real life. He pondered at length on his relationship to his surroundings, once concluding that the only way he and his family can come to know themselves is through the understanding of the place they live on. “It is a complex inheritance,” he wrote.

Perhaps one telling characteristic of modernity is the ability to monetize the most intangible abstractions. I didn’t believe so, until in a college economics class we found the value of a human life.

To do so, a theoretical community improvement was proposed that would statistically decrease the number of deaths in that community from five to four.

The community was surveyed as to how much more in taxes they would be willing to pay to make this improvement, and the figures were totaled. Such an exercise is largely tongue-in-cheek numbers play, but it does suggest to me that in a capitalistic society, a dollar sign can be put on anything.

At this time, residents of New York State are being asked to consider the value of their land. My area, in particular, is a battleground over the highly publicized slick water hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” that can be used to extract previously inaccessible natural gas.

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Horizontal drilling and pressurized water (heavy with chemicals) is used to fissure the shale and capture the gas. Proponents point out the economic benefits to currently economically depressed areas of the state, while those against it fear its environmental ramifications.

It is contentious at all levels. The film industry has taken a stand with documentaries and movies, such as “Gasland” and “Promised Land,” and have actors, such as Robert Redford, speaking out against it. Politicians have fallen into expected party roles, each side supposedly the voice of American citizens.

The local newspaper generally carries a front-page feature on it, and people often show up at our door with flyers. Some neighbors adamantly argue that it is safe, while others warn against selling our future.

On such a divisive issue, one tends to hear a lot of stories. It’s hard to tell how many of them are true. Regardless, one that has stuck with me is this: They drilled on an old farmer’s land.

To do so, they poured a large concrete pad in his field, put a chain-link fence around it and kept a 24-hour armed guard on-site. The farmer wandered over to see the fracking process in action.

The guard pointed his pistol at him and asked for his identification. “This is my land,” the farmer said. “I own it.” The guard laughed out loud. “The hell you do,” he replied.

Citing cases from the Ogallala Aquifer depletion to the use of atomic weapons, Berry states that “Always the assumption is that we can first set demons at large and then, somehow, become smart enough to control them.”

Regarding whether hydrofracking is going to be another DDT or asbestos insulation that we thought was safe, I can add nothing to the debate at this point.

Two facts seem indisputable: There will be a portion of people who will become wealthy, and a portion of the land that will be damaged – perhaps some of it irreparably so.

There will be a dollar assessment of the land given, a personal value that every owner must calculate for himself, and a range of possible outcomes between them.

Each man must do what he thinks is best for his family, and it is hardly up to anyone else to judge him for the decision he will make.

Nonetheless, perhaps the argument should first be subtly re-contextualized, if only in suggesting that what is being gambled is not just the health of the land but one’s elaborate relationship with it.

Many still have the complex inheritance with their surroundings that was given by those that preceded them. One way or another, the land will still be telling the story of what was done to it to the next generation. PD

Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.

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