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Our Turn At This Earth: Wes Jackson And The Life Of The Mind

Julene Bair
Wes speaking to a Prairie Festival crowd.

What if you discovered that a genius, a visionary thinker who could string thoughts and words together that make you believe in your own potential and that of all humanity, had been living practically in your back yard for decades and you never even knew he existed?

Listening to this man awakens you to a greater sense of your own identity, to an appreciation of the place that created you and also created him. He gives voice to things you have felt and even tried to put into words, but he does it much better than you ever dreamed possible. He is a more refined expression of the place than you have yet become.

But because you’ve now been exposed to a person from that place who has a vital intellectual life directly linked to it, and because you feel your roots in that same soil, you are challenged to do better, to channel what the place has to teach, to sing its spirit into the wider world.

It is a bright new morning in the life of your mind.  No one you knew growing up ever told you that adventurous thinking was far more exciting than adventure travel or adventure TV. Oh, you had one exceptionally good high school English teacher who had you read 1984 and Brave New World, but never anything that drew its wisdom from your own world.

You think, “Wow, if I’d known that this man lived here and if I’d known this community and work had grown up around him, and if I’d known that I could come to this place every September along with about a thousand others from all over the world, perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so lonely here. Perhaps I would not have felt I had to leave in order to succeed.”

That’s how I felt the first time I heard Wes Jackson speak, at a Prairie Festival in Salina, Kansas, in about 2005. I was late to the party, since Prairie Festivals had been going on for over thirty years at that point. But like anything truly good in life, it doesn’t matter when you discover it. What matters is that you did.

Wes Jackson is a plant geneticist who grew up on a small, forty acre truck farm in eastern Kansas. As a young man, he left a well-established academic career in order to return to his Kansas roots. On land near Salina, he and his wife founded the Land Institute, today renowned in the scientific community for its work in the development of perennial grain crops. Those grains could prove essential in solving the crisis we humans have created by mining nature to feed ourselves rather than nurturing it to the same end.

But if Wes Jackson were only a scientist, he would not be nearly so well known. He is also a formidable writer and speaker, a poetic visionary. His ideas express the genius of nature as perfectly as any ideas I have ever run across. He never fails to take the large view, explaining through stirring examples that we are offspring of this planet and that our understanding of our interrelationship with it is crucial to both our physical and spiritual survival. These ideas grow as surely out of his Kansas roots as one of those grand old plains cottonwood trees that spreads its branches wide, granting welcome shade to all who come upon it.

To listen to Wes speak each September at the Prairie Festival, is to be brought face to face with the danger we present ourselves and virtually everything else that lives on the planet while also being convinced that we have the mental and spiritual capacity to overcome those threats. It is to be inspired to be part of the solution.

In next week’s commentary, I will do my best to map one of the journeys of the mind Wes has taken me on. Like every truly meaningful journey, it begins and ends in native soil.