Most Friday afternoons I meet with students in a small coffeehouse in Knoxville to discuss "The Big Questions": the nature of truth, the meaning of life, and other queries worthy of late adolescent exuberance and idealism. Often our conversations touch on the dreadful state of "the environment" and how so many seemingly insurmountable problems could be responsibly addressed if people would only do as the bumper stickers say: "Think globally, act locally."
By the third or fourth cup of French Roast, the enthusiasm reaches such a crescendo that I, too, begin to believe our planet's woes can be resolved with merely the right combination of intellectual abstractions. Grease this big global machine with the proper public policies, the appropriate environmental legislation, and the sound future of the Earth will be assured. To meet their objectives, these soon-to-be graduates of the University of Tennessee set their sights on "the big city" or working "inside the Beltway"-these are the places to really get things done. With such grandiloquent schemes, who can blame them when they do not care to return to the old home town of McMinnville or White Pine or Bean Station?
Meanwhile, a voice cries out in the wilderness...out in Kansas, where there is a well-known tradition of not looking too far beyond one's own back door. There, just outside of Salina, Wes Jackson, a plant geneticist with a certain passion for changing the face of agriculture, is getting back to his roots, our roots. Part Amos, part Albert Schweitzer, and seasoned to taste with a dash of Wendell Berry and a pinch of Wallace Stegner, Jackson radically challenges the wisdom of the global thinkers in his most recent book, Becoming Native to This Place.
Jackson is wary of abstractions, of "the Big Ideas," having felt all too keenly the destructive effects that agribusiness (a notorious global thinker) has had on his "ground of being."