A portrait of the artist as an old man: Wes Jackson in conversation with Robert Jensen

By Robert Jensen

Published in The Ecological Citizen · July, 2022

Vol 5 No 2 2022 | Pages 160-166

by Robert Jensen
Wes Jackson and I spent a good part of 2019-20 working on two books—his collection of stories titled Hogs Are Up: Stories of the Land, with Digressions and my The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability, which summarizes Jackson’s key ideas developed over the past half-century.
Those ideas include Natural Systems Agriculture—perennial grains grown in polycultures to replace the ecologically destructive annual grains in monocultures, which provide the majority of humans’ calories. Jackson’s distinctive contribution to a sustainable agriculture has been recognized with a MacArthur Fellowship, a Pew Conservation Scholar Award, and the Right Livelihood Award.
While writing and editing, we talked on the phone almost every day, and after the books were finished we decided to capture those exchanges for “Podcast from the Prairie.” Jackson’s insights about human affairs and the larger living world come alive in his stories, starting with his early life on a Kansas farm, through his academic work and teaching career, to his four decades of leadership in the sustainable agriculture movement at The Land Institute.
In this episode, “The Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man,” Jackson starts by discussing the creativity of the non-human world. From there, he observes how scarcity spurs the creativity of ordinary people solving problems, a lesson he learned on the farm and ranch growing up. Jackson concludes by advocating for “art without ego,” how to recognize the art all around us in the natural world that needs no human intervention, and reminding us of the importance of beauty.

Conversation 5: A Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man

Robert Jensen: Our subject today is creativity, and I’m calling this conversation “The Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man.” I hope you don’t take offense at being called old, or at being called an artist. You aren’t an artist in the traditional sense of having a career creating art, but we’ll explore how everyday life is creative and how we may all be artists in some sense. The idea of creativity, like many concepts, can be hard to define. Most people think of creativity as involving imagination, the capacity to see something in a new way, to make connections in new ways. But rather than trying to define it, let’s start with a different question. Where do you think creativity comes from?

Wes Jackson: My first, and easy, answer is simply from everywhere. Something that didn’t exist a moment ago is now here. There’s a litter of kittens. There’s an asteroid that hits the Earth, wipes out the dinosaurs and makes it possible for a few small mammals to take off in an evolutionary sense. There’s the bonding of two gases, hydrogen, and oxygen, to yield water, creating wetness from gases, which we call emergence. Creativity can’t be stopped. The city of London burned in 1666 and came back as a different kind of city. And there’s Michelangelo’s David, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, what we would call professional art. But from my view, what one sees when looking out the window is artwork. Creativity is just everywhere.

RJ: When I asked you where you thought creativity came from, you immediately talked about the ecosphere, about the larger living world, what people sometimes call nature. Most people think of creativity as a human characteristic, but you went immediately to the ecosphere. Why does your thinking about creativity start with what is beyond the human?

WJ: Because I think that’s the most obvious. You look out at the world and it is constantly unfolding, bringing forth novelty. Creativity on the part of the ecosphere seems unstoppable, and humans just picked up on that. We like to create, too, in our own way, and there’s something deeply satisfying about that.

RJ: We’ve talked a lot about the importance of humility, about acknowledging our limits as human beings. Does your instinct to look first to the ecosphere have something to do with your concern about humans getting too uppity, too convinced of our own specialness? Am I reading too much into your answer?

WJ: No, that’s not reading too much into it. Whether it’s the tropical rainforest or a coral reef or a never-plowed native prairie, we’re looking at more than we can comprehend. And that generates an emotional jolt, as we ponder all that’s out there in the world. When I look out at the world, the lesson I see is that we shouldn’t take anything for granted. The only thing we can count on is change. Change is not necessarily surprising every time it comes, but there will always be a certain amount of amazement in watching it unfold.

RJ: Let’s focus for a bit on human creativity. What are the most creative things that you’ve done in your own life? What work of yours required the most creativity?

WJ: I would say the most creative thing that I have come up with is the idea of building a grain agriculture based on the way that nature’s never-plowed prairie works. At the core of that is the ecosystem concept, the ecosystem as the primary unit of analysis. That came from a few particular experiences, pulling together a few ideas I had run into. In 1977 I was reading a General Accounting Office report on soil erosion, which was about as bad then as when the Soil Conservation Service was formed in the 1930s. I wondered how that could be. Around that same time, I took students here at The Land Institute on a field trip to the Konza Prairie, where we could see no soil erosion beyond replacement levels. When I got home, I was thinking about both those things. I grabbed a brown grocery sack and started thinking about what plants humans depend on for food. From some plants we eat the seeds, some we eat the fruit, some we eat the roots, and some we eat grass and broadleaf. I came up with a four-by-four matrix with the different combinations: polyculture versus monoculture, woody versus herbaceous, annual versus perennial, and fruit-seed versus vegetative parts. That makes 16 combinations in all, but four are irrational—that is, there are no woody annuals—and so that leaves 12 possible combinations. It turned out that 11 of the 12 combinations were being used by humans in some useful manner, but there were no perennial grains for direct human use. As I was working on this, I kept thinking of something my major professor at North Carolina State University, Ben Smith, said to me. One night he wandered into my office and said, “We need wilderness as a standard against which to judge our agricultural practices.” Then he just turned around and walked out. That statement stayed with me. Out of all that thinking eventually came my book New Roots for Agriculture, and now for several decades The Land Institute has been developing perennial grain crops that can be grown in mixtures, or polycultures.

RJ: People might hear that story and think, well, that’s science—ecology, agronomy, plant breeding. But you immediately put it in the realm of creativity. If you were to take away any one of those things—reading about soil erosion, going to the prairie, your professor’s comment—do you think you would have come up with the idea? Is it an idea you would have landed on eventually?

WJ: I’ve wondered and I don’t know. I just know that all those factors were there and the idea came to me. Why had that idea not emerged earlier from someone else? The Russians worked on perennial grains back in the late 1930s and ‘40s, but as far as I know they weren’t thinking about the ecosystem as fundamental. Why did humans not pursue this 10,000 years ago at the origins of agriculture? Annual grains have been the primary problem of agriculture, with erosion and soil degradation. Humans got dependent on those annual grains and we just kept on keeping on, and soil erosion continued, civilizations rose and fell. We really needed perennial grains right from the beginning.

RJ: Before we leave this subject, I have to ask about the grocery sack. You know that the old story about Abraham Lincoln writing the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope when he was riding the train to get there. That has been debunked. He worked on that speech for much longer. You say you sketched this matrix on the back of a grocery sack. Is that really how it happened?

WJ: Yes, that’s true. I’m not trying to sound like Abraham Lincoln. I just grabbed the sack because I didn’t have a piece of paper handy.

RJ: Let’s talk more about science and creativity. People often make a sharp distinction between the arts and the sciences, with the assumption that the arts are where we see real creativity and science is a more rational, almost plodding enterprise. Is creativity essential to the sciences as much as to art?

WJ: I think so. There’s a lot of creativity in the sciences, and in engineering, too. But you don’t find it in galleries. Some of the products of that creativity would be too big to put in a gallery. Take the Brooklyn Bridge, for instance. That is a product of creativity, a work of art for its time. There are aesthetic considerations in building it that took a lot thought and creativity. I think a lot of engineers come up with ways of doing things that are quite creative. You also see it in smaller operations, such as on the farm, how people solve a particular kind of problem. A lot of human creativity comes out of problem-solving. Maybe I’m making the term too all-inclusive for some folk, but it suits me. Nature is producing a lot of creativity all the time. It can’t be stopped.

RJ: Your comment about engineers reminds me of your house, which you built pretty much by yourself, with the help of friends and family, without blueprints or a contractor. You like to point out places in that house where you solved problems in a kind of ad-hoc fashion, often with salvaged materials. Is that house also the product of creativity?

WJ: As I was building it, I wasn’t thinking, “I’m creative.” I was thinking about how to get a house built when you don’t have much money. I suppose one could say that it involved some creativity. I certainly did things that were rather unconventional. For instance, I didn’t have enough money to buy rebar, reinforcement bar, to go in the concrete. I used old bicycles and cast-off metal that I stuck down in there. That junk was my rebar. I didn’t have enough money to rent forms for the concrete. So, I tried to build my own forms, but they broke, and then I finally had to rent some forms and finish it off because mine were just too weak. I used a lot of native wood that I ran through a sawmill. My kids and I tore down an old granary and pulled the nails to use. That’s how we put together a 36-by-36-foot house, pushed back into a bank, with a flat roof, which served us well as a home. I suppose there was creativity involved, but most people would say that it involved not just unconventional craftsmanship but poor craftsmanship. I had a motto, “If it has to be done right, I can’t do it.” That’s what you do if you don’t have money, which we didn’t. But it was exciting, and there was something about it that was satisfying.

RJ: What made it satisfying?

WJ: I’m not exactly sure why, but it felt good doing the work. That’s how life should be. My son has become an outstanding carpenter. Just recently he told me that the first day that he worked as a carpenter, as he was going home that day, he knew that’s what he wanted to do, to be a carpenter. He’s got a background in ecology, did his undergraduate work at the University of Kansas, and he could have gone on to become one of those professor types. But he chose carpentry as satisfying work, which he is good at. Consequently, he’s kind of an artist himself. It’s a matter of finding something that is satisfying to you, and we hope that at the same time it’s work that is essential in some way.

RJ: Some of the work on your house might be unconventional, but it’s still standing more than four decades later. When people think about creativity in something like architecture, they tend to think of some fabulous, famous house. Those kinds of projects usually have a lot of money behind them, with rich people paying architects to design creative houses. But you’re talking about creativity that comes out of scarcity. Is there a relationship between scarcity and creativity?

WJ: There can be. I was in Oklahoma once, visiting a farm that had chickens and fish, and the farmer had come up with an elegant design in which the chicken manure dropped down into the water and the fish would eat it. I asked the man how he came up with that, and he said, “By being raised without having much money.” He was a creative guy, and he got a certain satisfaction from doing without. It’s like seeing the potential in a scrapyard. I have always liked going to the scrapyard, usually when I’m taking something to sell. I see pieces in the scrapyard and my mind begins to wonder about what I might do with that. If you’re not careful, you end up buying more scrap than you brought in to sell. Scrapyards are one of the great places for increasing the imagination.

RJ: As we go into the down-powering, a future in which we will have to live with less energy, do you think scrapyards will become more important?

WJ: Absolutely. There’s just too much stuff being junked. We’re going to have to learn to use all that. I often wish I had a very big barn to store all the stuff I see, for somebody to use someday. I am sort of doing that right now, going over my property and bringing wood inside that has piled up outside over the years, getting it in out of the rain. I find that satisfying, not because I’m part of a movement that says I ought to be saving and recycling but because it just feels good to do it. It’s something about the nature of the materials, my relationship to that wood. That reminds me of when E.F. Schumacher [author of the 1973 book Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as If People Mattered] came here in 1977 to give a talk. I gave him a tour, and we had a whole bunch of junk lying around because we were in the middle of putting together The Land Institute, putting up buildings. I had bought a whole bunch of patio doors, probably more than 200, that were surplus somewhere. I didn’t know how I was going to use them, but I figured they would come in handy for solar collectors or whatever. As we passed by those doors, I asked Schumacher if it was proper to be using the products of the Industrial Revolution to plan for a sunshine future. He thought about it for a minute and said, “Don’t worry. Materials want to be used. They will show you how.” That was his Buddhist mind at work. He called his approach Buddhist economics. I would say it a little differently, that materials are there available to be used and you will find out how to use them. But it’s alright to put it in the Buddhist way, too.

RJ: The creativity is in the interaction between the person and the materials. Back to that lumber you are salvaging on your property. You don’t have a use for that lumber today, correct? Do you know what you are saving it for?

WJ: That’s right. I don’t have a specific use in mind. I don’t know that it will ever get used. But I know that if I leave it out, eventually it will rot. I was talking to Wendell Berry about that the other day on the phone, about working to save lumber that I will never use. Very quickly he said something like, “It’s the right thing to do. It is sane.” I thought, well, that’s an interesting word to use there. Some people might look at me and say, “Good grief, this guy is going to be 85 years old. He must be insane to do all that work for no reason.” But Wendell already had the response, recognizing that it is sane to be saving things. It’s like planting a tree knowing full well that you won’t be around to harvest the fruit. Part of life’s mystery, and one of the beautiful mysteries, I think.

RJ: You are saving lumber that has been outside and needs to come inside to be stored properly if it’s going to be useful in the future. But you don’t even know that your children or grandchildren will have a use for it.

WJ: Whatever the outcome, it’s just the right thing to do. Someday there may be an auction, and someone may figure out a use for it. But it probably won’t bring much money. It’s certainly not worth my time in the way that money rewards our effort. But you just do it. I suppose you would say there’s an existential reason. And now you’re back into the realm of mystery.

RJ: I introduced this conversation by saying that you’re not an artist in the conventional sense, but you recently had an art exhibition at the Birger Sandzén Gallery in Lindsborg, Kansas, to display what you call your “art without ego” pieces. What is art without ego?

WJ: I have a sawmill, though I haven’t been using it much lately, and if you run off a slab of a tree trunk and turn it over, of course you have a flat side to examine. A lot of what’s available now are Ash trees because the Ash borer is killing a lot of trees. So, I had an Ash tree that had gone down and I sawed it up. I had a piece about a foot wide and seven feet long. As you go down the board, you see where the borers have penetrated that tree and created a design. I took one piece, which I have hanging on the wall, and explained how in that design you could see the story of the universe. There’s a big hole where a branch had been, and I called that the big bang. And down the board are patterns that I call galaxies being formed, and planets, and stars. Your imagination can go to work and say, by golly, this is the universe in miniature. It helps if you have a sense of humor and don’t take yourself too seriously. But your imagination goes to work, and I find that satisfying. I put that piece in the exhibit. After the sawmill, the only thing I might do to a piece is apply some oil to sharpen up the design a bit. Then I hang them up. They show the workings of those creatures that are producing elegant designs in the course of just getting a meal. That’s why I call it art without ego. Those insects don’t know what they’re doing, but the beauty is there.

RJ: The Ash borer is engaged in an act that is killing the tree and, in the process, creating a kind of art.

WJ: But the art is not visible to us until I run it through the sawmill. I’m running it through, but I’m not doing any of the design. Over in the corner of my office, I have the branch of a tree that is loaded with shelf fungi, white shelf fungi. All I did was pick up that branch of the tree, and I give it standing as art by placing it near the window in a certain way. And there it is, one of the dominant things in my office. I had nothing to do with that. The limb, or the whole tree, had died and the fungi went to work on that.

RJ: Is it fair to say that your creative contribution is to see the design? I can imagine another person looking at that same piece of wood and seeing nothing but some Ash borer marks.

WJ: I have a certain conception of beauty, sure, that leads me to think that board ought to be saved. It’s hard for me to throw out pieces of wood, though I’m burning up wood in this stove in front of me as we’re talking. I have a lot of little pieces that I’ve saved. They all hold a certain charm, and you count the rings and admire them. I’ve got a big basket of little pieces that have been sawed off the end of Osage orange fence posts. I just like the way they look. One day I’ll probably throw all those in the fire. But for now, there they are.

RJ: I just imagined someone saying, “Wes, those are really nice, but that’s not really art.” And then I immediately thought about Jackson Pollack and his abstract splatter and drip paintings, which sell for millions of dollars. Those look pretty random to most of us. If I gave you a choice between your Ash borer art without ego and a Jackson Pollack, which one would you find more creative or more interesting?

WJ: More interesting to me would be the Ash borer. Your question reminds me of a challenge that I like to run by my artist friends. Imagine one acre of never-plowed native prairie, and think about the Mona Lisa. You’re given a choice—you either have to plow that prairie or you have to burn the Mona Lisa. Which do you do? I say you hang on to the one acre and don’t plow. This isn’t a real choice, of course, it’s just a thought experiment. People might say the Mona Lisa is irreplaceable, but it’s more replaceable than the ecosystem of that one acre, which you can never recreate once it’s disrupted with a plow. That landscape is somewhere between 1.8 million years and say 400,000 years old, as the ice pushed down a lot of that ground from Canada and parked it here in Kansas. How old is the Mona Lisa? Maybe 500 years. And we have a lot of photographs of it, and so why do we need the original Mona Lisa? What kind of species egocentrism is that? That material on that prairie was there before Homo sapiens. What’s all this fuss about the Mona Lisa? I like having that discussion, but people mostly want to move on. It’s an uncomfortable question.

RJ: So, who or what was more creative? Leonardo da Vinci or the glaciers that advanced and retreated, and in the process created that landscape?

WJ: And those glaciers also gave us the fertility of those soils, which make agriculture possible. This connects to question of how we see the concept of God. Gordon Kaufman [author of the 2004 book In the Beginning…Creativity], who was a professor in the Harvard Divinity School, thought it was most productive to think of God as creativity, rather than as a creator. That’s the kind of thing that brings theology into alignment with the discoveries of the cosmologists, and maybe it is through creativity that we can connect religion and science in a new way. The universe seems to be all about process, and creativity as a result of process. There are novel, complex realities that arise from simpler realities through what scientists call emergence. A sperm and an egg unite, and a process gets underway that means those cells will never return to a former state. If we were to plow that prairie, it could never return to that former state, any more than a frog can become a tadpole. Kaufman wanted us to acknowledge that this unfolding universe is still unfolding around us all the time. We should appreciate the creation, wherever it presents itself, and have gratitude. There is so much for us to be celebrating all the time, including branches that have fallen down on our path in a walk in the woods that can bring us delight that is every bit as powerful as the best work in an art gallery.

RJ: I now live in the mountains of northern New Mexico, and that’s pretty obvious to me every time I step outside. I’m seeing things that are more beautiful than anything that could ever be in an art gallery. You’re saying that is everywhere, not just with a stunning mountain view.

WJ: And I want to be clear that I’m not objecting to art galleries. People like to create. I think people really can’t stop creating, though everything humans create is not beautiful, of course. Atomic bombs are not beautiful. I have a hard time seeing the power lines going across the landscape as beautiful. But if one of those power poles came down in a storm, and I hooked it onto the back of my pickup with a chain and brought it home to run through the sawmill, I may find something absolutely beautiful in the same object that I considered to be ugly on the landscape. I’m just saying that the beauty is available, and it’s our job to find it.

RJ: That sounds like the beginning of a kind of theology.

WJ: We appreciate the beauty of the landscape, but it does not appreciate us back. That’s the way it is with this world. We may love this Earth, but this Earth does not care about us. We may want the Earth to care for us, to give us purpose. But instead of thinking that God or the universe gives us purpose, we can acknowledge that the universe gives us the opportunity to create purpose. I don’t think you can ask for more than that.

RJ: Several times, usually when you are taking a walk and looking at the landscape, you’ve said, “Why is this not enough?” When you’ve been immersed in the beauty and the creativity of the world, that question seems to come to you. Why is this not enough for the modern world? Why do we need theme parks and casinos and cruise vacations? What’s your answer to that question? Why is this not enough for many modern humans?

WJ: I think part of the answer is that we’re too caught up in the daily activity of making a living, and so we don’t see what’s in front of us. This is an idea that has come to me during the past year, after I sold the few head of cattle that had been on our pasture. I can’t count how many times in the past forty years I’ve been over that small acreage of pasture where the cattle were, sometimes on the way to the woods to take a walk. And now, all of sudden, with the cattle gone, I am seeing details in the landscape that seem to have become accentuated. My sensitivity to the contours of the landscape is greater and I see more details than I had perceived previously. Why is that? I think part of it has to do with the fact that I am no longer focused on the utility of the pasture. When the livestock were there, I didn’t see it the same way. Now it seems that there are little hills that have grown, though it’s only my perception that has changed.

RJ: As long as we are looking at something with utilitarian eyes, focused on what we get from it, that keeps us from seeing the landscape in a deeper way?

WJ: I think so. My mind was not on the relief of the land for its own sake. I was paying attention, and if I saw a little gully developing I would do something to stop it, but that was still utility. I’ve written about this in the essay called “The Loss of Eden.” When I bought this property, before we started building the house, I had a certain feeling being here, when I would come out and just walk around and sit on the bluff over the Smoky Hill River. Once I began to build the house, that feeling went away, and I never got it back. As soon as I effectively took possession of that land through digging the foundation with a backhoe, something flipped. I called it the loss of Eden, but I also considered it a bargain in some ways. The old feeling was gone but we had a house in which to raise a family.

RJ: The landscape stays the same, but your understanding and awareness of it changes.

WJ: And I wasn’t ready for that. It took me by surprise.

RJ: I want to come back to a religious question. You come out of a Protestant tradition, but long ago you left behind the traditional dogma of Christianity. You don’t believe in a creator God, but you use the term creation to talk about the world. You hold onto that term, even though you have let go of some other religious terms.

WJ: I think this is where the idea of God as emergence and creativity comes in handy. It’s all flow, all change, all movement. Nothing holds still. Stones dragged down by those glaciers and deposited in Kansas look to us like they haven’t changed. But those stones are also wearing away due to the ordinary weather and elements. Nothing holds still, and that is creation, that is the act of creating. Some may think I have too expansive a definition of creativity, but I think it helps us understand ourselves and the world, and where we fit in that world. We can’t avoid being participants in creating the Creation.

Wes Jackson is cofounder and president emeritus of The Land Institute. Robert Jensen is professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin.
Jackson and Jensen are coauthors of the forthcoming book An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity, to be published by the University of Notre Dame Press in fall 2022.
The edited transcripts of five episodes of “Podcast from the Prairie” was published as an open-access online book by New Perennials Publishing in 2022.

“Podcast from the Prairie,” a project of Perennial Films in collaboration with the New Perennials Project and The Land Institute, was produced by Michael Johnson, Bob Sly, and Bill Vitek. Episodes are available online on all the podcast platforms, including SoundCloud.