Beloved Community, Land Community: Joining In

Author: Margy Stewart

Adapted from a talk of this title given at the opening of “Prairie Me Home,” an art installation featuring Betsy Roe, Staci Dawn Ogle, and Margy Stewart at the Noto Arts Center, North Topeka, Kansas, April 1, 2022

“Prairie Me Home” is a wonderful title as it captures renewed connections to the natural world.

Mainstream conservation—what some these days would call settler-colonialist conservation– used to see “home” as one place and “nature” off somewhere else. That attitude gave us our great national parks, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite and the Grand Canyon—places that preserved the wonders of nature by setting them apart—making them a place to visit, not a place to work and live. “Take only pictures; leave only footprints” was the motto. Civilization versus wilderness—civilization here, wilderness out there.

But now there is a growing movement to “bring nature home,” epitomized by Douglas Tallamy’s bestseller, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. “Prairie Me Home” is a part of that movement, as is an explosion of recent publications, quotations from which are scattered throughout the installation.

Here are quotations from some of those new books:

“Couldn’t prairies exist in our backyards in some meaningful form?”

  • Benjamin Vogt, A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future.

“You might start by planting a little garden, if only in a windowsill box. Move on to working with local authorities and organizing volunteers to create a small green neighborhood park. Or two. Then support county open-space bonds that compensate rural landowners for placing conservation easements on their property in order to maintain some of its natural character. Maybe go on to lobby for protecting a chunk of the nearest intact backcountry as wildland. And consider supporting one of the groups working internationally to conserve natural habitats.”

  • Douglass Chadwick, Four-Fifths a Grizzly: A New Perspective on Nature that Just Might Save Us All.

“The land is the real teacher. All we need as students is mindfulness. Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world, receiving the gifts with open eyes and open heart.”

  • Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

“Across the United States, millions of acres now covered in lawn can be quickly restored to viable habitat by untrained citizens with minimal expense.”

  • Douglass W. Tallamy, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard.

The problem with non-native lawns and ornamental flowers and shrubs is that they don’t connect up with the native biomes, such the prairie ecosystem here in Kansas. Maples might look beautiful in the fall but they can’t take the place of our native oaks in providing food for the caterpillars and larvae needed by nestling birds. Native grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and trees, on the other hand, support the soil microbes and insects that all the other creatures depend upon.

One of the beautiful things about “bringing nature home” is its inclusivity: Everyone is invited and needed, and everyone can enjoy the benefits of native plant gardens where they live and work.

We once hosted a Chicago author who pooh-poohed the value of the backyard prairie gardens springing up in Illinois. He said small plantings would attract only ordinary butterflies—they wouldn’t save endangered species. But common butterflies are endangered too, as are a worrisome number of other insects. In fact, fish and bird species are in trouble because of plummeting insect populations—what numerous science writers have been labeling the “Insect Apocaplypse” (Goulson, Jarvis, Wagner).

Now we’re not going to have bison running through urban and suburban backyards. But that’s not necessary to support the prairie ecosystem.

Chris Helzer, the Nature Conservancy’s science director in Nebraska, makes this point in his blog “The Prairie Ecologist.” Successful prairie conservation depends on biodiversity. “Biological diversity is formed mainly by small organisms like plants, invertebrates, and members of soil and other microbial communities,” Helzer says. Plants, invertebrates, microbial communities? That’s exactly what we can foster in our backyards. In addition, we are learning that urban and suburban areas are in some ways healthier for insects than agricultural areas where chemical intensive farming is prevalent.

Helzer also cites connectivity, which prevents genetic isolation, as crucial for conservation. That’s where inclusion comes in. If we go from window boxes, to backyards, to city parks, to schools and churches, to public grounds, to rights-of-way, to field buffers, to go-back land, to county and state wildlife areas, to conservation easements, to large-scale restorations, to native preserves, we can manage the connectivity part as well, linking our scattered communities to each other and even to our national parks.

We in Kansas can do this for the prairie ecosystem and people everywhere can do this for their native biomes, whether grasslands, woodlands, or deserts. We can bring nature back!

Doing so will also help to mitigate climate change, as nothing takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequesters it in the soil like native plants.

So we can do this for our ecosystems and for the planet—but what would it do for us?
Of course, the salubrious effects of contact with nature on mental and physical health are well documented. Lucy Jones’ 2020 book, Losing Eden: Our Fundamental Need for the Natural World and Its Ability to Heal Body and Soul, is a compendium of recent scientific studies concluding exactly that.

But the benefits can also extend into a more nebulous emotional and spiritual realm—inside, as Emily Dickinson wrote, “where the meanings are.” Here reconnecting with our native ecosystem can transform our experience of “home.”

Here I have to share a personal experience:

Thirty years ago we lived in town, and we had a little front lawn with a slope that was hard to mow. So I dug up the turf grass and put in prairie grasses and wildflowers, right next to the street. The result was scragglier than conventional landscaping, and some neighbors looked askance. But others came by every day just to look at the ever-changing leaves and blossoms and the birds and insects that visited them. “It’s different every day,” one said. For me also that patch was a magnet. I would go and sit next to the plants and just feel good. I told my husband that putting those wildflowers in the soil was like plugging in an appliance. All of a sudden there was something running, some electricity going from soil to sky and back again. I could feel that energy, and it was exhilarating—and motivating. We wanted to do more for the prairie!

Our friends were going into debt to send their children to college: We didn’t have children, so going into debt to preserve a Flint Hills ranch didn’t seem like an impossibility. The McDowell Creek ranch we purchased and named “Bird Runner”—for “Wah-nin-dhe-ju,” the Kaw word for McDowell Creek, “the place of Bird Runner”—contained 240 acres of native upland prairie and 80 acres of plowed fields along the creek. As we lived surrounded by prairie and began restoring the cropground to bottomland tallgrass prairie, we experienced those force fields more and more.

Such a statement may sound wifty, but if you think about it, it is not illogical.

Aldo Leopold, a founder of modern ecology, wrote, “Land is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals. Food chains are the living channels which conduct energy upward; death and decay return it to the soil”(253). Why shouldn’t such energy be palpable? For most of human history, we depended directly on such food chains for our survival. Isn’t it likely it’s hard-wired into us to pick up on the health or illness of the land? Why wouldn’t our spirits be buoyed up by “fountains of energy?”

In addition, science writer Michael Pollan writes about the “chemical chatter” through which plants converse with each other and with their surroundings. Among the chemicals plants exude are dopamine and serotonin, which just happen also to be human neurotransmitters—the very ones involved in anti-depressants. (No wonder I felt so good sitting with my wildflowers!) Perhaps on some chemical level we humans can “hear” plants holding forth.

Non-native plants leave the land tongue-tied, while the native plants call forth its eloquence. “What better expresses the land than the plants that originally grew on it?” wrote Aldo Leopold (203). He put forward the construct of the “land community”—where soil, water, plants, and animals were humans’ neighbors in a social whole. He was inviting humans, his fellow “social animals,” into a new concept of sociability.

Thus, already in the 1930s and 1940s Leopold was talking about nature where we live and work, nature as a community to which we belong, nature as a place of interactive reciprocity. He is considered a founder of ecology, but he was in essence reintroducing to Western science concepts that had been widespread for centuries in indigenous cultures.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, indigenous scholar and professional botanist, writes, “[The Potawatomi] understood a world of being, full of unseen energies that animate everything.…In Potawatomi 101, rocks are animate, as are mountains and water and fire and places “ (47, 55).

So we must ask the question, why did Leopold need to “recover” indigenous knowledge? Why wasn’t it accepted, built upon, learned from? Or, in the case of the crop fields where I am trying to bring back the native plants, why were they plowed in the first place? If we ask those questions, we see that when we’re talking about conservation, about restoring ecosystems, we bump right up against the destructive effects of white supremacy. Manifest Destiny–the idea that Europeans knew better than anyone else what to do with the land—involved replacing everything native with something non-native–plants, animals, people. How ironic that we talk now of “bringing nature home,” when our national parks were formed by expelling the native peoples from their homes. The expulsions of the Shoshone to create Yellowstone and the Miwok to create Yosemite violently imposed the racist view that “nature” must be forcefully purged of people’s “homes.”

In addition, in the North, Midwest, and West, racist violence during the Jim Crow period drove Black families off of farms and out of small towns. “Sundown Towns”—where Blacks were officially banned from rural communities—were common, with the result that the countryside was unnaturally “whitened” and rural areas became dangerous places for people of color. They were certainly not safe or inviting places for picnics, hikes or camping or a relaxing walk or drive along a country road (Campney, Loewen). For years, the legacy of those times persisted as environmental organizations skewed unnaturally white, and European-American leaders and members accepted the distortion without question.

This history makes it impossible to separate conservation challenges from the need for conscious opposition to racism. The land itself bears the scars of white supremacy, as do the organizations charged with conservation. That’s why I include “Beloved Community” as well as “Land Community” in the title of this talk. During the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s Martin Luther King was asked, “What are you for?” He would answer, “We are creating the Beloved Community.” The Beloved Community is an ideal that comes out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, a vision of the harmony of Creation, the unity of humanity, and the creative force of Love.

The sense of entitlement that energizes racism also justifies destruction of the land, so it’s not surprising that antidotes to both poisons should be similar. Just as Martin Luther King invoked the Beloved Community, so Aldo Leopold promoted the Land Community—in both cases replacing polarization with mutuality, exploitation with synergy, and lethal antagonism with reciprocity.

To do this, Leopold had to resist Western science’s privileging of objectivity over subjectivity. He had to center feelings, indeed invoking, like Martin Luther King, the power of Love.

In promoting what he called a “land ethic,” Leopold wrote, “We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love” (251). He urged us to love our neighbors in the Land Community. Once again, he approximated indigenous thought. Writing about Potawatomi culture, Robin Wall Kimmerer says, “Knowing that you love the earth changes you. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond” (125).

In their separate ways, Leopold and Kimmerer are both transforming the concept of “home” from a place of individual residence to a locus of connections. For Leopold the bonds are neighborly; for Kimmerer, they are familial. She says, “In the indigenous view, humans are referred to as the younger brothers of Creation” (346).

Today Western science is validating that vision of kinship. DNA analysis shows that we share 20% of our DNA with plants; 80% with grizzly bears, 98% with chimpanzees (Chadwick, 31-35).

We are family for sure!

Kinship has implications for what a restored environment and a restored relationship with that environment have to offer us. “Like younger brothers, we must learn from our elders,” Kimmerer writes. “Plants were here first and have had a long time to figure things out. What if Western scientists saw plants as their teachers rather than their subjects?” (346-347).

What new discoveries would open up to us?

An African American scientist spent his life answering that question. He was looking at plants as teachers long before either Aldo Leopold or Robin Kimmerer put pen to paper. That scientist was George Washington Carver (ca. 1863-1943).

Carver was a profoundly religious Christian, but of a mystical, pantheistic variety. His favorite Bible verse was from JobAmong the many ways Carver countered white supremacy was his forceful articulation of how humans could be at home in the world—not by lording it over Creation but by respectfully attending to it.

He urged people to learn from local plants and animals and interact personally with them.

“The singing birds, the buzzing bees, the opening flower, and the budding trees–all have their marvelous creation stories to tell,” he said. “To those who have as yet not learned the secret of true happiness, begin now to study the little things in your own door yard, going from the known to the nearest related unknown for indeed each new truth brings one nearer to God.”

In his view, nature “in our own door yard” was a portal to endless discovery—intellectual and spiritual.

In grade school I learned about George Washington Carver as a great scientist who was born in slavery and invented many uses for the peanut. It’s only recently that I have been learning about Carver as an ecologist.

Carver was born in Missouri, kidnapped by pro-slavery bandits, rescued and raised by Missouri farmers. He homesteaded in Kansas, witnessed a lynching in Ft. Scott, attended highschool in Minneapolis, Kansas, was accepted by a Kansas college that then rejected him for his ethnicity. He found support at Iowa State and went on to a brilliant career as a soil and plant scientist at Tuskegee Institute.

He was asked once how he was able to discover so many things about plants. He replied, “You have to love them enough. They will share their secrets with you if you love them enough” (qtd. by Clark).

He was the kind of person that if you went for a walk with him you wouldn’t cover very much ground, because he wanted to pay attention to every being he encountered.

“At every little flower he met he had to kneel down,” one of his friends said about him. “He examined it, caressed it, studied it, talked with it” (Clark).

“How do I talk to a little flower?” he told an interviewer. “Through it I talk to the Infinite….I refer to the unseen Spirit …Try to express it….It can’t be done. Yet when you look out upon God’s beautiful world there it is” (qtd. by Clark).
“But ask now the beasts and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee. Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee; and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee.” (12:7-8.)

There it is. Existence—your fellow beings—paying attention—a door opens to your place in the universe, the place where you belong. Carver wrote, “A little flower—you can reach out and look into and suddenly find that you are taking hold of the things that lift you up and carry you along and make people love you and give you the joy of life and the joy of living and the joy of having come into the place God has for you, and the exuberance of filling that place in life.” (qtd. by Clark, Emphasis added.)

“The place God has for you…”: From within his own tradition, George Washington Carver thus offered us a vision that resembles those from other traditions, such as those of Aldo Leopold and indigenous wisdom-keepers—visions of what it means to belong, to be at home in the world. Like Leopold and indigenous wisdom-keepers, Carver is a guardian angel of the current movement to “bring nature home.” Writers and practitioners today such as Robin Wall Kimmerer, Douglas Tallamy, Lucy Jones, Douglass Chadwick, Benjamin Vogt, Chris Helzer, Courtney Masterson, the Missouri Prairie Foundation, and many others are guiding and inspiring that movement.

From all of them I learn that feeling the force fields of native plants might be only the beginning of discoveries.

The art installation at the Noto Arts Center, “Prairie Me Home,” seeks to make such ongoing discoveries accessible to all. The syntax of the title is striking. It’s not “I bring prairie home,” with me as the subject, and prairie as the object. In “Prairie Me Home” prairie itself is a verb, as it would be in the Potawatomi language. The speaker could be either the native plants who want to return or the humans who want to reconnect.

It is both!

Together–humans and more-than-humans–we can find our way home.

Works Cited

Campney, Brent M.S. This Is Not Dixie: Racist Violence in Kansas, 1861-1927. U of I P, 2015. Carver, George Washington. George Washington Carver: In His Own Words. Ed. Gary R. Kremer. Columbia: U of Mo P, 2017. Clark, Glen. The Man Who Talks with the Flowers: The Intimate Life Story of Dr. George Washington Carver. Macalester Park, 1976.
Chadwick, Douglas. Four Fifths a Grizzly: A New Perspective on Nature that Just Might Save Us All. Ventura: Patagonia Books, 2021. Goulson, Dave. Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse. HarperCollins, 2021.
Helzer, Chris. “The Prairie Ecologist: Advice for a Future Prairie Conservationist.” Wordpress. 3-23-22.
Jarvis, Brooke. “The Insect Apocalypse: What Does It Mean for the Rest of Life on Earth?” New York Times Magazine, Nov. 27, 2018. Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions, 2013.
Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac, with Essays on Conservation from Round River. New York: Ballantine 1949;1953; 1966. Loewen, James W. Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. NY: New P, 2018. Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Penguin, 2007. Tallamy, Douglass. Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard.
Vogt, Benjamin. A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2017. Wagner, David L. et al. “Insect Decline in the Anthropocene: Death by a Thousand Cuts.” Retrieved 5-5-22.

For information on native prairie planting, contact Native Lands, LLC, at or The Missouri Prairie Foundation, at

For information on native planting in other biomes, contact