Caring for the land is caring for ourselves: A deeper look at care work

Story by Aubrey Streit Krug

Growing up in a small town in Kansas, where my parents still farm wheat and raise cattle, I understood that humans are social beings who need each other. Only through community effort was it possible to accomplish education in the school system, religious practice through the church, the economic realities of agricultural labor from planting to harvest.

And we depended upon each other for basic needs. My grandma watched my sisters and me after school. My mom cleaned and cooked and counseled a range of friends and family. Though I preferred to spend my time reading, I babysat other kids and went to my great-grandma’s house to scrub her bathroom and kitchen. (She taught me to crochet, an activity I still love. The first thing I learned to make were dishrags.)

The creation and maintenance of human community requires work. Care is work and requires skill and effort. Caring for others is the necessarily repetitive work that doesn’t get “done” in any final sense—it must be done over and over again for daily life to continue.

As an adult (and a parent), I’ve not only continued to do care work but also become more interested in seeing and studying it critically. Care work is understood as necessary, but it is not very well monetarily rewarded and is often rendered invisible and taken for granted. Though some of it is visible in professions like childcare, nursing, and teaching, much goes unseen and under-recognized. As feminist economists have demonstrated for years, care work is unevenly distributed across genders and stereotyped as feminine.

Aubrey Streit Krug is Director of Ecosphere Studies at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas

I’ve learned how the concept of justice in care work grows from ideas of disability justice. Disability, illness, and mortality are realities shared across the human community—though the care work of attending to these realities is not shared evenly.

In many cases, those taking up such necessary care work are survivors of historical trauma and ongoing structural violence, and are now bravely working to heal and flourish. For example, in North America, Indigenous peoples who have survived catastrophic and genocidal system change, and who have already experienced climate change through forced relocation, are leading ecological advocacy efforts, which depend on practices of care work.

Aubrey Streit Krug, The Land Institute’s director of Ecospheric Studies, talks of the prairie as she leads a sunrise prairie walk that is part of the institute’s annual Prairie Festival. All images are covered by a Creative Commons license (CC-BY-NC-ND) and are trademarked by The Land Institute.

For those of us working to build networks in the face of social-ecological crisis, we should seek to make visible and recognize who is doing the care work in our collaborative relationships.

In our organizations and communities, is the care work that goes into building partnerships fairly distributed, or is it primarily people of color, immigrants, and women who carry that responsibility? How are care workers and their work recognized (or not) socially and economically? How could white people and men become more willing and able to do care work and do it well? And who will do the work of teaching people how to care well? How do we learn the skills of care work?

I have also come to realize the vitally interconnected work of caring for the land and the more-than-human world. Humans depend not just on each other but also on land, water, air, and many other creatures. Our understanding of care must place people in their ecological, relational context. As the home page for Grassland 2.0 emphasizes: “Caring for the land is caring for ourselves.”

Tending to gardens, laboring in fields and pastures, restoring landscapes, protecting biodiversity—these could be considered as forms of care work, practiced by humans and non-humans. Ecosystem processes are vital for Earth to sustain human life. For our part as a human society, we should learn how to prioritize such processes. We should learn how to do our care work both for the land and each other more skillfully and fairly and value it appropriately.

We can help build the community capacity needed to support a just transformation to diverse and perennial agricultural economies. Applied projects in perennial agriculture allow people to engage in such care work: to provide physical, emotional and ethical labor to build ecological relationships with plants, animals, land, and water.

For instance, at The Land Institute I organize collaborative civic science communities, in which people grow, study, and care for future perennial grain crops. These perennial plants could someday care for people by feeding them while holding on to soil and supporting biodiversity.

Perennial agriculture is a long-term vision for positive human reconnection with the land, or ecosphere, that stretches across generations and geographies. My experience has helped me to realize that this long-term vision can be aligned with now-urgent human tasks. I have learned that serving potentially radical and justly transformative long-term solutions is exactly what I need to persist at this moment in time.

Through this work of caring for other people as we together in community learn to care for perennial plants, I have started to grasp my personal answer to the question Kathleen Dean Moore and her colleagues pose: “What would you be willing to spend your whole life taking care of?”

Aubrey Streit Krug is Director of Ecosphere Studies at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Aubrey collaborates with Grassland 2.0 via the learning hub team. This blog post is adapted from her longer article “Ecospheric Care Work” published in 2020 by The Ecological Citizen, which is freely available and includes more information and citations.