Interconnection has always been one of the defining concepts of my work. In doing research for my latest linocut on alfalfa of all things, I read articles about pollination, bee species, crop rotation and water export controversies.
This linocut is a depiction of a field of alfalfa, a plant from the legume family that produces a bluish-purple flower. Even more important than cranberries (the focus on my last linocut), alfalfa is a forage crop that is fed to dairy cattle. Like cranberries, alfalfa relies on bee pollination, in this case to produce seed to replenish the crop. So without bees, we wouldn’t have that milk for your coffee or for your favorite ice cream.
Alfalfa is a plant that has been around the world and back. We have records of its cultivation as a forage plant by the Greeks and Romans. It isn’t really a favorite of our imported honey bees. They complain that the structure of the flower smacks them on the head. And many experienced bees remember — so you need lots more bees — and young ones in particular — who are willing to be smacked on the head for the nectar. To the rescue comes our own native alfalfa leafcutter bee who somehow gets the nectar collected and the pollinating done without a fuss. But each of these species is greatly troubled by the use of the pesticides called neonicotinoids. You can read more about this issue in my previous blog.
In addition to the challenges of pollination, alfalfa is now positioned squarely in the middle of the water wars of the American West. Western farmers produce alfalfa (irrigated by precious water resources) as a good cash crop, and also as a rotation crop in the fields that grow the vast majority of the produce crops we enjoy. These farmers claim that if they don’t use their allotted water, they will lose rights to it according to current water laws. In addition, some part of this alfalfa crop is being harvested, baled, and shipped in containers around the world. Right now, American alfalfa is feeding Chinese dairy cows.
Beauty, fussy insects, water rights — honey, ice cream, the produce that makes up your nightly salad. I am left with a speechless fascination and awe of the intricacy and connectedness of our natural world. How to protect it? Which choices to make? How to make people care, especially when things get complicated — as they do with alfalfa.