Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Book Review: Bad Land

Here is a special guest post from someone who is APLS-tastic. Melissa, who blogs at Better Living, picked up this book for a book club discussion and was surprised to find that it was ecologically relevant and eye opening. Melissa, thank you for sharing your thoughts on Bad Land.

Bad Land: An American Romance by Jonathan Raban is an intriguing look at the movement of large numbers of families to the Great American Desert – Eastern Montana – in the early twentieth century. It’s a look at a period in American history that I knew essentially nothing about prior to this green read.

What makes this a “green” book? It may not have been intended as such, but it’s basically a look at a human effort to force the earth in this region to sustain a larger population than it was capable of. The US Congress of the day teamed up with the railroad companies to use the promise of land ownership to lure families to the region. Plots of 320 acres were given to virtually anybody willing to undertake the adventure. Even this amount of land usually proved not enough to sustain a family(!). There wasn’t enough reliable rainfall, and the quality of the soil was not of a high enough quality to farm in the manner attempted. In the end, most of the families who settled here left within little more than two decades with a sense of profound failure and bitterness.

It was almost eerie how many parallels there are between the experience of these homesteaders and modern American society. The first was the heavy reliance on credit to buy things that one could not afford. Instead of flat screen televisions and fast cars, it was newer and fancier tractors and farming equipment, but the inability to repay bank loans proved a major downfall for many of these families. Farm machinery was heavily marketed to the homesteaders, and there was always a newer, prettier, shinier model to strive for – the homesteaders version of keeping up with the Jones’. Raban attributes this mentality to the idea that “Self-sufficiency is politically dangerous. Good citizens need to meet monthly payments…[there] was powerful government encouragement to farmers to get into as much debt as they could manage to service.” Sound familiar?

It was well known that the Great American Desert had never produced the amount of crops that were being promised to the homesteaders, but a new science of soil was touted as the wonder child that would allow man to overcome nature. (GMOs anybody?) In the end, this method proved to be not only unsuccessful but in fact ended up stripping what precious little topsoil did exist on the land, making farming after the first few years next to impossible.

Facing starvation and living in poverty during the Great Depression, the homesteaders left en masse for greener pastures. It was later realized that rather than the 320 acres given to each family, the amount of land realistically needed to sustain a family in this region was closer to 3,840 acres – meaning that the land could feed less than one tenth of the number of people that had originally been convinced to migrate there.

There were a few promising messages to be taken from the book, one of which was the importance of community to the survival of these farms. Shared labor, tools, and resources were all vital to these homesteaders. Many people aiming to live a more sustainable lifestyle in modern society have recognized the importance of community building as an effort to reduce the impact of our modern lifestyles.

There is also a discussion of how those few who did remain on the family homesteads live an especially frugal lifestyle, and avoided the consumerism that many of their former neighbors fell prey to. Raban writes that the current homesteaders he met were not “self-consciously reverencing the past. They simply disliked throwing things away and lived convivially with the past because it was still serviceable.”

Those who attempted to make a life in the Great American Desert “tried to shape it according to their imported ideas of science, progress, community, landscape.” In the end, they were forced to acknowledge that “The land would wear just so much architecture and society, and no more. In the platonic republic of the United States, the land of limitless imagining…nature was not supposed to dictate the terms on which mankind could live with it. Of course, nature often struck petulantly back at man, with earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and fires” – it was near starvation and poverty that forced the homesteaders to make this realization. For the sake of all of us, I hope that those of us living on this planet today come to this same realization before it is too late.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars. Recommended for: at least medium green readers, or history lovers.


Bobbi said...

Great review - thanks!

Donna said...

Thanks for a great review! The book sounds really interesting. I'm wondering why it only got 3.5 stars.

Melissa said...

bobbi, thank you!

donna, you're right, I didn't really explain why I gave it only 3.5 - one reason is because there were a few parts that lost me for fairly long stretches. There was a rather in depth discussion about photography and the special challenges presented to the photographer by this particular landscape, for example. These kinds of tangents tend to lose my interest pretty quickly. Another complaint I had was that he told the history through the use of personal stories, which is great, except for I didn't feel like there was enough character development and I had a hard time keeping them all straight in my head.

All that being said, I know I can be pretty brutal in my expectations from books, and a 3.5 is actually a pretty good score for me to give to a book. I did enjoy it!