New Agrarian Voices

MORGAN ATKINSON, 2ND YEAR APPRENTICE, San Juan Ranch, CO

My Land Ethic

When I first sat down and tried to define what I consider to be my land ethic, I was unable to come up with something concrete. Each thought I had generated more questions and it became something too big to grab a hold of. What exactly is a land ethic? When did it begin developing? Have I always had some version of it? What are the influences in my life that shape it, both past and present?

The writer Anne Lamont talks about viewing the topic you want to write about as a polaroid picture. What the lens is aimed towards and, once taken, what comes into focus around the initial subject? When I point this lens towards my “land ethic” today, I choose the cow. When it comes to my current relationship with the land, she is standing in the foreground. I am not sure I intentionally put her there, but I take a mental picture of this cow because I know my day to day revolves around her and her needs. My actions are tied to her well-being.

I will wake up before the sun to see if she has had her calf or if she needs help. I will pound post holes in the frozen ground in order to move electric fence so she can get the feed to help her make it through the winter and into calving season in her best condition. I will spend my summer changing electric fence daily so she can get the best nutrition and the land can stay healthy for her and her new calf the following year.

In these past two years, her well-being became my own long before I realized it. Every new skill I learned was ultimately to her benefit. When I acknowledge the central role she plays in my life now, the land around her begins to come into sharper focus. Her well-being is the land’s well-being. They are entwined in their own relationship that I am allowed to be a part of. Having my own relationship with the land is something that has always been important to me. Now that I’ve chosen her as my guide, she changes that relationship for me.

So, what is my land ethic? Struggling to even define what a land ethic is, I turned to Aldo Leopold’s thoughts on what constitutes a land ethic. He emphasizes the necessity of community within ethics—without community there wouldn’t be any relationships to be impacted and an ethic would hold no value. Now when I think about my own land ethic, I am able to see all that this cow has illuminated for me. She has shown me community by showing me the way she is embedded in both the biological and the rural community. She has shown me what has always been important to me. Before I was involved in agriculture, I was taught to respect the open and beautiful landscapes of the West, and now she has given me a way to give back to it.

This cow’s relationship to community is currently shaping my land ethic, my ranching ethic. This is what I want my relationship with the land to be- one that involves animal, plant, and human and the way they are all interconnected. This is why I want to practice regenerative agriculture. I believe these ideas will not only shape my future in agriculture, but they will give me one. I can’t give a concise definition to what I believe my land ethic to be. It is not finished. I am not sure if it is something that can ever be finished, but I will continue to follow this cow.

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