Posted on

A colony no more

The first princple of the exploitive mind is to divide and conquer.

Wendell Berry, “The Unsettling of America,” 1977

The Marathon County Environmental Resources Committee last week Tuesday dutifully reflected on a two-hour racial sensitivity training held Aug. 27, “The Uncomfortable Truth: A Primer for Undoing Racism,” but not for long. Committee members had nothing to say. A suggestion from county staff that land use and zoning rules be scrutinized for racial bias was brushed aside. Don’t go looking for problems, supervisor Arnie Schlei, town of Easton, advised.

Here, we can’t disagree with Mr. Schlei. At the same time, however, we would remind supervisors we count on the county board to deal with problems, even hard problems, and not look away.

One of the problems the committee should be dealing with is water pollution. The western side of Marathon County is choked with impaired streams, creeks and rivers. The Big Eau Pleine Reservoir has periodic fish kills. The extent of the water pollution has been documented in an EPA-ordered study through the state DNR. The amount of phosphorus pollution coming off of individual fields has been numbered by the pound in sophisticated computer modelling.

The county’s Environmental Resources Committee owns this problem. The committee has known about it for years, even decades, and has done little to reverse it.

The interesting question is why.

An answer here requires an honest look at our past, including our racial history. We need to recall the earliest days of white settlement in the United States, our history as a colony, the crucial role of slavery in agriculture and, following the Civil War, replacement of slaves by ever more powerful agricultural machinery.

It was explorer Christopher Columbus who set the terms of how the New World would be conquered. Looking for India, he turned up in the Caribbean, where, unable to find gold, he settled on bringing back Taino natives for slaves to labor in sugar plantations. Later, in as early as 1502, African slaves were brought to the New World to mine for metals and raise sugar, coffee and tobacco.

When Columbus planted the Spanish flag on the island of Guanahani in 1492, that said it all. The New World would be developed as a colony. It would be a place to be exploited.

Today, that psychology persists. Agriculture no longer uses human slaves, but treats the land as one. The result is water pollution caused largely by farm field run-off. That includes the phosphorus- rich sediment that lies feet thick at the bottom of the Big Eau Pleine Reservoir.

The soils of Marathon County join with other soils from across the Upper Mississippi Valley and, in a muddy journey south, flow into a “dead zone” that spreads across the Gulf of Mexico. This chocolate water passes by the very docks where black slaves were bartered and sold in New Orleans. The history of American agriculture is a complicated, interwoven story that has unfolded over centuries.

In this story, we, as Americans, have made progress to become a nation, not a colony. The Revolutionary War was a fight to end colonial rule. So was the adoption of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The Civil War ended slavery, the economic cornerstone of colonial America, and, in 1964, the federal government guaranteed the vote to the grandchildren of freed slaves. But we have made more progress. In 1964, the federal government passed the Clean Air Act and, eight years later, the Clean Water Act. These laws protect the nation’s environment. They declare our land, air and water to be part of our homeland to be safeguarded, not assets of a colony to be ruthlessly and carelessly exploited.

The county’s Environmental Resources Committee need not wring its hands or issue apologies for an American agriculture that, in its long history, pollutes the environment. It need only to stop thinking of the rolling hills and creeks, woods and rivers of western Marathon County as a foreign country to be exploited, but as a home where, with a little work and love, we can live for generations.

The committee, just like the rest of us, need to learn and grow past a 500-year old exploitive, colonial mindset. The rest is easy.