Lessons learned and art created at ‘Homestead National Monument of America’

The Homestead National Monument of America, established in 1936, presents the homesteading story of the United States. In 1862 Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, including land Native Americans occupied and given to them through treaties. They were forced from those lands and onto reservations as immigrants flooded in to homestead. Encouraged by the expansionist fervor promoted by the railroads and other business interests, millions were anxious to escape a feudal or other dehumanizing system and have a chance to obtain “free land”, civil freedom, the perception of unlimited resources, independence and a chance for free education. The National Monument strives to tell the story from all sides. Quoting from the Homestead site brochure:

Despite immigrants’ practical skills and willingness to work, not everyone welcomed them. Today’s Twitter feeds could be responding to an opinion the New York Times published in 1907: “The opposition to the present immigrant is uneconomic, illogical, and un-American.”

In 1976, the US Congress repealed the Homestead Act. Over 123 years, homesteading gave hope to many. It offered immigrants a road map that took them from serfdom to citizen-and-property ownership. It offered the nation’s own disenfranchised – the formerly enslaved, veterans of civil and world wars, emigrants from northeastern factory towns and southern share-croppers – men and women alike – a chance.

Unfortunately, homesteading required “improving” the land, tearing out native trees and plants and tilling. After the Stock Market crash of 1929, 40,000 land office patents were issued between 1930 and 1940, many in the Southwest. The Dust Bowl occurred from 1934-1936. Current farming practices continue to make “soil” our biggest export. It drains down our rivers to the Gulf of Mexico making for an annually recurring hypoxic zone created by excess nutrient pollution. Suzanne Boothby writes that more than 90% of all government subsidies go to 5 crops: wheat, cotton, corn, soybeans and rice. These subsidies create a surplus of these crops, which are mostly used to make processed junk food or to feed livestock in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). Meanwhile we import more than half our fresh fruit and a third of our fresh vegetables from other countries.

There is a quote by Aldo Leopold on the Hedge row at Homestead. “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see the land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

The Land Institute’s founder, Wes Jackson, says its time to say “NO to big AG”. We need a constituency that leads to political change providing production controls and price supports with a parity equation for folks that work the land. Encouraging folks to “pick a home”, stay there, allowing affection for “place” to grow, sharing in community. Figure out how to live intelligently with limits, capping our carbon output. Acknowledge our ignorance and ask questions out of categories. Discovering new solutions for meeting bonified human needs in a “no growth” economy. If you can be content with modest reward, you’ve been rewarded.” Maybe Wendell Berry was the author of that last sentence.

You’re reading some of the points I would make in public talks, using my landscapes as illustrations, closing with this chilling statement written by Elizabeth Kolbert in “The 6th Extinction”. …..life is extremely resilient, but not infinitely so. Humans are a weedy species. Right now, we are at an amazing moment, deciding, without meaning to, which evolutionary pathway remains open and which will be forever closed.”

During my two weeks at Homestead, I found time to contemplate place, life cycles, inter-connectedness and disconnects. It was a gift. The Monarch butterflies were migrating south, fighting a strong headwind and hanging on to prairie plants or the Hedge tree branches. The old growth forest along to creek included giant cottonwoods and burr-oaks while the restored native prairie, in its 80th year and in glorious bloom, was going to seed. The Heritage Center allows you to check Census as well as Homesteading records. I found my 32 year old great-grandfather and 22 year old great-grandmother in the 1870 Census. It’s a treasure. Try to visit and give yourself a day for research and another to earn your “not so junior ranger” badge. Write and tell me about your experience.

Below are a few pieces I created on-site during my two week residency. Over the next year I will be creating a piece incorporating some of the ideas I’ve written about here.

Butterfly Milkweed with Monarchs at Sunset
Triptych – 12″ x 12″, Total 36″ x 12″
Acrylic and Ink on Cardboard
$300
Prairie Cottonwood and Homestead National Monument of America Heritage Center
Approx 25″ x 22″
Pastel on Charcoal Paper
$200
Giant Cottonwood with Wild Plums
Approx 25″ x 22″
Pastel on Charcoal Paper
$200
Speed Queen Wringer Washer
Approx 12″ x 8″
Pastel on Charcoal Paper
$100
Tallgrass Prairie with Hedge Row
Oil on Paper
Approx 17″ x 21″
$300
Mowed path along Hedge Row at Homestead National Monument of America
Oil on Paper
Approx. 17″ x 21″
$300
Storm at Homestead National Monument of America
Oil on Paper
Approx 17″ x 21″
$300

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