Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Ruby and Roy

They were the perfect campground neighbors. Roy had a great life--just great. One wife, three kids, several grandkids. Hle had lived in the same house for most of his life. There were just a couple of things around the campground that were not that great.


I backed in through the shade of the trees and stopped at the far end of the paved drive. A travel trailer walled me in on the west; an RV, supported by a family-sized tent and a small herd of pickup trucks, did the same on the east. Most of the other campsites at Village Creek State Park roiled with Boy Scouts on a Friday afternoon last June.

I had worked my way from the convection oven of West Texas to the sauna of East Texas. Air conditioners droned in stereo and young RVers argued with their parents. The trailer was quiet, its retired couple relaxing indoors: my favorite kind of campground neighbor. I set up my tent and got out my chair and book.

An air-conditioned woman in shorts threaded her way through the shrubs between the travel trailer’s site and mine and apologized for interrupting my reading. She and her husband couldn't possibly eat all the fajitas...could I come help them out with dinner? I would like nothing better. I followed her back through the shrubs to a circle of lawn chairs near a tablecloth-draped picnic table. The trailer loomed over us.

Roy and Ruby1, had been teenagers when they married. He worked in an auto parts store and she stayed home with their children. Entertainment was a tank-full of 30-cent-a-gallon gasoline for a road trip. One Sunday they headed southeast to Avery Island, Louisiana. The McIlhenny family ferments white oak barrels full of red peppers into Tabasco sauce on the island and welcomes visitors to their gardens, aviaries, and factory.

"But we got there and I didn’t even have a dollar to get across the bridge onto the island," Roy said. His embarrassment was mixed with nostalgia.

"But now," said Roy, "Life is great. Just great."

Ruby came out of the trailer with plates and silverware and put them on the table. Roy and Ruby built a house together when they were 25 and their three children were young. They still live the house, 45 years later.

"It’s a great house," Roy said.

Ruby brought out the fajitas fixings. She assembled one for Roy, added potato salad to his plate, and took it to him. He thanked her and set to work adding the dinner to the half century of Ruby’s good cooking that stretched his polo shirt tight across his torso.

Ruby prepared her own plate and sat down. When I poured a good-sized glug of salsa on my fajita Ruby asked, "Do you like hot sauce? I meant to get mild salsa; we don’t eat the hot stuff. You can take it!" I assured her I would give the salsa a good home.

After their children were well into school, Ruby went to college, got an art degree and taught a generation of students at the nearby high school.

When it was my turn to share the high points of my life I said that I was a scientist--a plant ecologist. That was the end of my turn.


On Sunday morning I chatted with Roy as he worked on one of the anti-sway bars for the trailer he was hitching up. The hitching process was not going great and he could not seem to find the correct wrench in his toolbox. I could not offer any mechanical advice, so I provided moral support.

Roy remembered another thing that was not as great as it could be: he asked if I liked to read about science. Well, of course! He went inside and returned with a booklet, which he handed to me.

“Are you done with it?” I asked, not wanting to take it if he wasn’t.

“Oh yes. You can have it,” he said.

On the front of the booklet, a palm tree-studded tropical island and a coral reef inhabited by blue, orange, and red fish were separated by a white banner that asked, "Was Life Created?" A sea turtle swam toward the bottom right corner, pointing the way to the answer.

"Oh, it’s anti-evolution," I said. Although my comment lacked tact, it was accurate.

"Well, what do you believe?" Roy asked.

I gave my standard answer: "Evolution isn’t a belief system. All science does is describe how the world works."

I provided another few minutes of moral support, but the weather was just great for a hike to see the three species of southern pines in the park. I left Roy getting the anti-sway bar back to great.


The booklet Roy gave me was from the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, the publishing arm of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The booklet described how everything on Earth is just right to support our lives: the right distance from the sun, the right-sized moon to create tides and stabilize the Earth’s rotation, the right planetary tilt to drive seasonal changes, and a magnetic field and ozone layer to let through just the right amount of radiation.

The booklet did not ask, "Was the Earth created for us or were we created for the Earth?"

Despite earning three degrees in biological fields, I did not know until I read "Was Life Created?" that researchers have tried to create new species by irradiating organisms. Nor did I know that their failure to do this proved that genetic mutations, which we all have, do not provide the raw material for natural selection.

I do know that plant breeders have irradiated crop plants to produce genetic mutations they hope might code for useful traits. Although this approach has produced several improved crop varieties, such as Alamo-X oats, many of the mutations produced by radiation are either lethal or simply not useful in plant breeding.

Although I have written about the origin of a new plant species I had not heard that natural selection had been proven not to exist when Galapagos finches did not evolve into new species during a 30-year study.

Perhaps Roy’s great life would be only a so-so life if random genetic changes and natural selection over billions of years produced the astonishing complexity of life on Earth. I find evolution to be the most parsimonious explanation, requiring the fewest unexplained miracles. The miracle of evolution seems like a really great one to me.


1Not their real names. I have also changed a few other minor details in this story.

Monday, July 9, 2012

New Agrarians in Quivira

The week after college graduation I achieved my longest-held dream: I started working on a dairy farm. I milked cows and drove tractors for the next three summers. Placid Holsteins learned to interpret my words and gestures as I moved through the barn with milking machines in the morning and evening. Alfalfa folded into neat swaths behind my haybine as the sun turned both the hay and my shoulders brown. It was the 1970s, when women got into the business by marrying a farmer. But I didn’t have time for a husband and family: I went to grad school, became a researcher, and lived in Africa.

If I had been born a Millennial instead of a Boomer, I might have been one of the New Agrarians. Like me, many of these young people grew up in cities and yearned for a closer relationship with the land than hiking and camping provide.

I met some of these creative, connected, and confident young farmers at the Quivira Coalition’s November, 2011 conference. I heard their stories and envied their lives connecting people to the land through food.

The New Agrarians are reversing the trend of fewer farmers using more inputs to cultivate larger farms. Today’s small farmers are using fewer inputs of iron and oil and closer management to intensively raise high quality foods that they sell directly to consumers. These producers are combining techniques and equipment used by earlier generations with current scientific understanding of natural systems to raise livestock and crops in more sustainable ways.

I introduced the readers of Rangelands magazine to these New Agrarians in my June, 2012 column.