Commusings: Don’t Mess with Texas by Jeff KrasnoJul 15, 2022
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Hello Commune Community,
Summer is settling in. The buzz of activity that surrounds the end of the school year has abated. Little Micah is off at farm camp – three weeks of milking cows and no Internet. I wonder how she’ll manage.
As much as I love community, I equally treasure my time alone. And midsummer provides. I find that the wisdom so often comes in the spaces. I wish everyone a long, sweaty hike replete with long-wave thoughts or no discursive cognition at all. Don’t push. Let it come.
I hope you enjoy this week’s musing.
In love, include me,
• • •
Don’t Mess with Texas
Arlington, Texas. 1985.
Billy Ray was wrapping up a long day at the shop. He scrubbed his hands, swapped out his Dickie’s overalls for dungarees and padlocked the garage door behind him. He sidled into his Ford F-150 pick-up truck, revved the engine and pulled out towards home.
Billy Ray had gotten his engineering degree at Texas A&M and jumped right into the Army. He completed two tours in Vietnam fixing choppers, 3rd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division. After the Army, he returned to his home town of Arlington, married his high school sweetheart, fathered three children and opened Ray’s Repair, an auto body shop on the edge of town.
His commute home was a 15-minute jaunt west on the I-20. Just before the on-ramp, a pair of towering golden arches loomed high in the sky. As was customary, Billy Ray pulled up to the drive-thru and ordered dinner for the family: 6 Big Macs, 6 large French Fries, 5 Cokes and 2 McNuggets that served as appetizers. As Billy Ray swerved onto the highway, he fished out a red cardboard box containing a Big Mac from the steaming bag. He flipped it open, dumped one of the cones of fries in the top of the box and nestled it snugly on top of his lap.
Billy Ray could crush a Big Mac in under a minute. He called this ritual pre-gaming and made a point of polishing off “first supper” before taking his exit at Bowen Road. Upon decimating the burger, he crumpled up the greasy napkins and sapped ketchups packets and packed them into the empty box. Then Billy Ray leaned over, cranked down the passenger side window and hurled the detritus toward the apron of the thru-way. When the box hit the k-rail flanking the road it exploded, its contents momentarily swirling in the air like a rubbish tornado and eventually settling into the enormous load of refuse that littered the emergency lane.
In the ‘80s, the Texas highways had become the state’s de facto landfill. Broken beer bottles, squashed coke cans, empty cigarette packs and heaps of fast food containers of every provenance stacked up along the roadways of Texas. Throwing trash out your car window had become standard operation procedure in the Longhorn state.
The Texas State government had launched initiative after initiative to rectify the problem. Not only was roadside trash an eyesore, it was hurting tourism. All the typical “stop littering” campaigns had elicited no more than an eye-roll, so the state turned to a young marketing whiz named Roy Spence. Roy and his agency, GSD&M, had helped launch Whole Foods in Austin and had done the branding for Southwest Airlines.
Roy’s team had an idea – which they codified in a simple motto. The slogan (launched by guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn at the 1986 Cotton Bowl) appeared on billboards across Texan highways, including on Billy Ray’s stretch of the I-20.
It was just another hot, long summer day when Billy Ray spotted the giant billboard. The remnants of his pre-game snack lingered on his lap. Billy Ray scrunched it all up into the box. He looked up at enormous sign again and read it aloud, repeating it a couple of times. He grabbed his rubbish and tossed it lightly onto the passenger side floor mat. He would put it into the garbage can when he arrived home.
The billboard read: “Don’t Mess with Texas!”
The adage reads like a maxim for the Marlboro man. It drips with machismo. Your association with it may be yoked with sports or guns. But, no, “Don’t Mess with Texas” originated as an environmental slogan.
Billy Ray was just an “ordinary” guy – working hard to provide for his family. He was a patriotic American and a fiercely proud Texas. This last trait was the vein that Roy had tapped. The anti-pollution motto tugged at Billy Ray’s pride. There wasn’t anyone who was going to mess with the land of his great state.
In the year after this campaign launched, Texans largely stopped littering and the highway aprons cleaned up. What was “normal” behavior ceased to be normal. Culture moved forward.
• • •
Topanga, California. July 2022.
Of course, McDonald’s and its peers are responsible for a lot more environmental devastation than litter on the highways. The litany of delinquencies is too long to list. Fast food relies on government subsidized GMO cash crops – like corn – to sell Big Macs and Whoppers under the true cost of production. Cheap, monocropped corn is used as feed on CAFOs (even though cows evolved to eat grass) and synthesized into the high-fructose corn syrup that riddles sugary drinks. The fat-salt-sugar combination of a burger, fries and a Coke is engineered for the human bliss point. Tax-dollar supported $2.99 “happy” meals are biologically designed for over-consumption. From a human health perspective, the result is patently not “happy.” 44% of Americans are obese and half are diabetic or pre-diabetic. The knock-on environmental impacts of industrial food are just as devastating. Deforestation, water use, greenhouse gas emission, habitat destruction and soil degradation are just a few of the ramifications of conventional, chemical farming.
Last week, Commune and Farmer’s Footprint convened a mastermind at Commune’s 10-acre “lab” in Topanga focused on soil rehabilitation and regenerative farming. The event gathered thought leaders, land stewards, ecologists, agronomists, activists and scientists to explore solutions to address soil desiccation. (Commune will release this content in the fall.)
The synergy between indigenous farming practices and technology should give us hope. And we need it, given that 97% percent of our topsoil has been severely degraded. Topsoil that is bone dry and stripped of microorganisms and mycelium networks does not effectively store carbon, produce nutrient-rich crops or retain water. And chemical herbicides (like glyphosate-laden Round Up) subsequently run off into local water systems.
Regenerative farming practices rebuild soil through cover cropping, no-till techniques, composting, crop rotation, animal grazing and the removal of chemical fertilizers and herbicides. Black, aerated, bacteria-rich soil produces nutrient-dense food, conserves water and sequesters carbon. The answer to so many of our prescient human and environmental health quandaries is right beneath our feet.
After the lectures at our soil summit had concluded, I loitered on the patio chatting with Jesse Smith. Jesse is the director of land stewardship at White Buffalo Land Trust, a non-profit that practices, promotes and develops systems of regenerative agriculture.
I was regaling Jesse with description of the farmers markets in France – the fecundity of the produce and the stunning variety of the prepared foods – gambas paellas, tomato fougasses, olive tapenades and aubergine hummuses. When you buy produce at a French kiosk, the farmer comes around the table and helps you select and bag the choice pieces. The French are fervently proud of their gastronomy – their myriad fromages, bouillabaisses, patisseries and, of course, their wine.
This kind of nationalism is not unique to the French. And, by nationalism, I am not referring to the nativist or xenophobic sort. Nationalism, in its best iteration, can be understood as pride in what one grows (be it democracy or carrots). Nationalism can also refer to a patriotism of sacrifice, what an individual is willing to give up for the sake of the collective. And few have toiled harder for America than our farmers.
Like the French cherish their grapes, America treasures its amber waves of grain, its Watsonville artichokes, Gravenstein apples, Idaho potatoes and Vermont maple syrup. We sanctify our agricultural bounty yet, ironically, we are hell-bent on destroying it.
Many family farmers have been displaced through consolidation and stripped of the control over their inputs by multi-national corporations. The ones who have courageously stuck it out know that the modern chemical paradigm is not working. One of the primary roadblocks that inhibit conversion from “conventional” farming to regenerative is cultural. We are so accustomed to the iconic imagery of tilled fields and rank on rank corn stalks. Part of “success” as a farmer is delivering this aesthetic even though it may be detrimental to the land and, eventually, to their own finances. The regenerative farm, with its cover crops and asymmetrical produce, is easily maligned at the local diner.
Farmers need our support – emotional, technological, financial. We also need to change the culture – just like how Texas changed the culture vis-à-vis littering. We must tap into the pride we all feel for our land. This shared value transcends political fealty.
I was telling Jesse of my horrific return home from France. The airports of Europe currently do not have the personnel or infrastructure to handle the scale of tourism. There is too much pent-up demand. After a 5-hour security mosh pit, cancelled flight and lost bags, I literally kissed the ground at LAX when I arrived.
“I was so happy to be back on American soil,” I told Jesse.
He looked at me and said, “I have a new bumper sticker for you.”
“Real patriots build soil.”
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