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CHAPTER 1 Fundamentals It seems right to begin with the oldest elements. From the beginning, the Sumerians were right, the ancient Greeks were right, the American Indians were right, the Chinese were right: in the beginning, there were earth, air, fire, and water. We may all know these, but some in our cities and urban bureaucracies—and even some farmers—may have forgotten them. It is no disservice to either language or thought to speak of soil as earth, and light as fire, for soil provides the earth a skin of healthy nourishment that enables life, and light takes its origin in distant fire, is but fire spent by distance. For farmers, soil, air, sunlight, and water are perhaps the more pertinent names for the ancient elements, for any farmer knows profoundly that everything depends on them. Lao Tzu thought water offered a good model for human behavior because "it does not contend," as one translator ends chapter 8 of Tao Te Ching. "The best way to live / is to be like water / For water benefits all things / and goes against none of them," Jonathon Star begins his translation of that chapter. "No fight, no blame," concludes another, by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English.1 1 love that chapter, especially its central description of a way to live, and have turned to it often over the years,grasping, as always, for straws that may help me create a life worth living. Farming is clearly a life worth living, but most farmers I know are on a constant quest to find "the way" to live it. Nevertheless, Minnesotans—and practically all others—know that Lao Tzu was wrong. Water does contend. It contends with earth as spring's snow melt floods our rivers and summer In the Beginning rains move tons of topsoil off our fields. Water not only contends but often wins, rearranging earth with a power that increases geometrically as its volume increases arithmetically, moving allbut the most basic geologic forms before it in that eternal war that Heraclitus said was the beginning of everything. In northern climes, even those rocks we think eternal surrender to water, which seeps into cracks, freezes, and breaks them apart with its sheer expansive power. Water and soil are in balance when we are fortunate and do not abuse either, in contention when we are careless or uncaring, stripping the cover off soil, exposing it to the power of rain's erosion. As contentious as water has been and increasingly will become, "there is a lot of nonsense about water being our most important resource ," says lawprofessor Charles Wilkinson, who specializes in western water issues and American Indians' water rights. He convinced me with one question: "Which would you rather be without for the next half hour, water or air?" How we love air. Tofillone's lungs with air after exertion , to come up from under water not sure if our lungs will burst before we reach the surface, to inhale deeply after an asthma attack: such experiences remind us of the sacredness of air. Without air there can be no water, and fire suffocates and dies. Air is the great respirator, for fire and for plants and animals and soil. When air combines with bacteria that cling to the roots of plants in healthy soil, nitrogen is formed, and all life becomes possible. So air is another of the great elements essential to life, and it too has its own power. Air in motion can wear down rock, pick up earth enough to hide the sun, carry strontium 90 to warp the genes of our children, or bear the pollen dust from genetically modified crops to corrupt our vegetation. And when it really kicks off its shoes and starts to dance, it can knock houses off their foundations, throw cows over phone lines, and level towns. But do without air? Not a chance. Divine fire, nurtured by air, was wrested from the light of the gods by Prometheus, according to one useful early story. Prometheus pays dearly for that service to us, spending eternity chained to a rock while birds pluck out his liver every day, only to have it grow back every night, repeating the agony over and over. Imagine those birds clawing right now, asyou read this. Think of the pained body, chained to rock, knitting through the long night, trying to heal itself before the next day's tearing of flesh. The interpretations of the Prometheus story I...


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