“If you have time to stop for a minute, I’ve got something to show you back at the bus,” my new friend Peter says. “Something that fell from the sky.”
“Is it bigger than a breadbox?” I ask.
His blue eyes spark as his usually stone-still face lifts with the hint of a smile. “Yep,” he says, “bigger than a breadbox.”
We are sitting across from one another in a red vinyl booth of a time-warp café where stepping across a threshold leaves you smack in the middle of the 1960’s — chrome, vinyl, black and white tile. This particular café is in San Juan Bautista, California. Today it absorbs the bright sunshine falling from the January sky that stretches across the enormous bowl of land known as California’s Central Coast Range. I am here to listen and learn from ranchers.
Peter Donovan has made a career of listening to ranchers. He also listens to soils and to the things that make and emerge from them. That means he listens to the whole Earth.
I’m not sure what kinds of formal degrees Peter has, but I know he is both possessing of and generous with vast intelligence – the kind of intelligence that arises from unobstructed attention to the world and the guidance revealed in its way of being. Peter sees and learns from circumstances unfolding every day, every moment – things most of us don’t know how to notice. He pays close attention and conveys what he sees to people who also tend the land – to ranchers.
The ranchers who gathered yesterday are passionate about the health of everyone and everything. They are responsible for vast spreads of land in the Central Coast Range where they raise livestock for trade. Over the past decades, these ranchers, with the help of people like Peter Donovan, have developed their skills for listening to and supporting the health of soils, grasses, livestock and by extension, everything.
From what I could understand, a primary strategy all of these ranchers apply involves systematically shifting grazing herds from pasture to pasture to encourage and ensure the presence and of healthy native grasses. As a result, they are having significant success. They are helping return the land to its original ecology in concert with raising livestock that provide plentiful and healthy meat for human consumption. They are also experiencing economic viability.
These successes seem anomalous in a time when the prevailing belief among ranchers is that to do the work they love is to accept financial difficulty. “If you want to make a living, don’t be a rancher” is the way the belief has gone for a few generations, now. To make matters worse, there’s the simultaneous belief among many environmental and food activist groups that ranchers are coldhearted, scientifically clueless, subdue-the-Earth types who are only in it for money and power.
My opportunity to spend a few days with these people listening to what they prize and what they want has provided yet another echo confirming the lessons learned in the 100 Voices project. Any time I think I’ve got someone figured out by their work, their appearance, their language or religion, who they love or where they sleep at night I’m most probably wrong. Over and over, listening reveals the essential intelligence and kindness of people – the profoundly similar desires we all carry for health, happiness, and peace. I have yet to speak with anyone who is not willing to do what it takes to ensure these things, but it appears we as humans have lots to learn about the ways we are living that contribute to disease and hopelessness – to endless conflict, isolation, alienation and fear.
The primary question facing these ranchers this weekend is how to engage their peers in consideration and application of what they have named holistic land management. It seems to me they want to appeal to the essential intelligence, kindness and devotion to wellbeing of other ranchers in this area and, really, around the world.
Here’s where Peter Donovan comes in – for the ranchers and for all of us. Peter offers evidence of the relationship we’re all in with everything else in the world (and the universe, for that matter).
Peter lives in a school bus that he’s converted into an entirely self-sufficient home. Among the off-the-grid features is his portable solar set-up for electricity and for heating water. In his bright yellow home, Peter drives around the lower 48 states, parking from time to time for long periods and listening to the land. Sometimes he plays Bach on the piano near the front door. And these days there’s a single wire of tiny red, green and yellow lights in keeping with holiday festivity associated with winter.
“Follow me,” he says as we step out of the car and onto the pasture land serves as is his current front yard. He walks around the back side of a barn and points up at the large gutter. Arching clusters of grass rise out of the guttering. Many strands are a foot long or more, the row sandy brown with subtle hints of green, red and purple. “There it is,” he says, “that’s what fell from the sky.”
Peter goes on to describe the rich organic soil – 2 inches or more – lining the stretch of gutter and nurturing the growth of those native grasses from seed to maturity. “Science tells us that it takes at least 1000 years for an inch of soil to form,” Peter explains. “If that’s so, this rancher hasn’t cleaned his gutters in 2000 years.”
“Does that mean everything comes from the sky?” I ask.
“Yep. You come from the sky, I come from the sky. Everything comes from the sky and everything returns to the sky.”
“So it’s important to take good care of everything,” I say.
Peter looks up at the grasses, at the blue sky behind the grasses. His face is bright with the midday sun. He doesn’t say anything. What falls from the sky speaks for itself.
Later he explains it all this way. “All living organisms on land are made up about 80 to 90 percent from carbon and oxygen. Those two elements come from the atmosphere via CO2 – carbon dioxide that, through plants and rainwater produces the complex carbon compounds that are the basis for all life.”
This is what Peter Donovan knows and teaches from listening directly to the land. Ranchers and all the rest of us are free, of course, to pay attention or not. But it seems to me that, like listening to each other, listening to our world along with Peter and the ranchers I met in the Central California Coast Range is essential for sustaining the health, happiness and peace that they and the 100 Voices across America hold most dear.