What is enough? Finding true abundance in a world of scarcity

A bumble bee digs into some bee balm at Hickory Hill Park in Iowa City. — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

In recent weeks and months, I seem to have been bombarded with pleas for monetary contributions, all promising a world of abundance if the scarcity in question can be resolved. Most, if not all, of these causes are worthy, and in the world we have constructed for ourselves, these groups and organizations cannot be faulted for requests for resources. We have created a human world where too many good ideas are chasing too few dollars.

Even among pressures such as these, my mind turns to the natural world. Like the troubled speaker of Wendell Berry’s famous poem “The Peace of Wild Things,” who, in despair and fear over the modern world, retreats “where the wood drake rests … and the great heron feeds,” finding grace and freedom in “the presence of still water,” I, too, turn to nature for solace and guidance.

Among the most powerful of continuums that define our lives is that of scarcity and abundance. Modern capitalism and modern society are based on scarcity — the idea that the best and most important resources, ideas, fashions and so forth are scarce, difficult to obtain and thus expensive.

Abundance, which underlies the thinking of hunter-gatherer societies up to contemporary thinkers and writers on sustainability, tells us the world is overflowing with all we need — that is, if we define “what we need,” even “wealth,” as what the world provides us rather than as exploitation of the earth.

The prairie is much on my mind these days as I have written so much about it in recent months. As well, with May underway, the explosion of abundant new life in the tallgrass has launched. One of the most important essays in my life is Paul Gruchow’s “What the Prairie Teaches Us.” I carry the essay’s message with me every time I visit, think about or write about the prairie — what is the prairie teaching me?

The prairie has so much to teach about abundance. Gruchow doesn’t use the word “abundance,” but he does tell us that “there are thousands of species of living things on the prairie,” that “it is lovely … in a hundred thousand ways and in a million details” and indeed that “the prairie grows richer as it ages.” Self-renewal is the quintessence of abundance.

It’s not difficult to understand that the prairie provides enough to itself to be a self-sustaining ecosystem. Numbers tell that rational story. The original 150-250 million acres of tallgrass prairie — once the largest ecosystem in what is now the United States — boasted at least 500 different plant species (including 70 grasses), 150-250 bird species, more than 30 reptile and amphibian species, over 30 mammals, 1,500 insect species and countless microorganisms.

But the abundance of the prairie is not merely a numbers game. A prairie in full bloom astonishes me. I might encounter a hundred different plants across just a few acres of a prairie hike, but the tallgrass’ abundance lies more in the exuberance of its collective beauty and spirit. Our human lives may often seem rich and bountiful, but the artificial constructs of “civilization” pale against an explosion of blazing star, prairie sunflower, columbine, bluestem and grama, accompanied by a sighing wind and a warbling meadowlark.

The prairie created and supported itself in this incredible bounty for thousands of years. As human hands attempt to restore what has been destroyed, abundance rises once again in joyful eruption. One of the fundamental questions of living sustainably on this earth is, “What is enough?” As I gaze out onto the proverbial sea of grass dotted with yellow, purple and red wildflowers, prairie tells me — teaches me — “This is enough. What more could you possibly want of this world?”

Thomas Dean is also finding the lessons of abundance in the North Woods this month. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 263.

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