The Man and the Land – Part 2

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“Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.”

-Genesis 2:15

I began addressing in Part 1 what I feel we might be losing as a society increasingly losing our connection to the land. Writers and thinkers have long pondered this connection. I’ve gathered many choice morsels on the subject in my reading over the years. My own experiences in the realm of homesteading and in the cultivation of a self-sufficient life-style have also contributed to my views.

I mentioned in the first part that I feel like we might be losing our self-respect and intellectual freedom. These are both areas that directly pertain to us as individuals. But there are two other areas that crucial to consider when investigating the man and the land. They relate to relationships—that which transcends individualism and are even more important to our spiritual well-being.

The first is the connection to my neighbor. I feel we are losing our dependence upon one another. But wait, you said we need to be independent minded. I did. This is a precursor to intellectual freedom. But I didn’t say we don’t need one another.

Self-sufficiency has always gone hand in hand with community. I can’t produce everything I need. You produce something I need. I trade you for what I need to supply you with what you need. We therefore, in effect, meet one another’s needs while retaining a healthy freedom to continue to pursue our own God-given goals and personal interests. It is a cycle of supply and demand, forming the basis of a free-market economy.

Capitalism has gotten a bad rap in recent years. The problem, however, isn’t with the free-market, per say, but with super-corporations and mega-banks who are given special privileges like tax-exemptions and unregulated rein to manipulate the markets. When the government has its hand that far in the economic cookie jar and those who created the financial mess get a nod and a wink for their misdeeds, I have to call it what it is: good-old fashioned fascism.

The economic freedom that evolves out of our mutual-dependency as producers and consumers lifts up the little guy as well as rewarding the go-getters. But bottom line, we need one another. Self-reliance might be better termed community-reliance. This implies our individual and corporate efforts toward sustainability.

But I don’t want to get too far off into economics and risk missing the point: we are losing a healthy dependency upon one another. Or, as is put so succinctly in the Scriptures: love your neighbor as yourself. In seeking to meet my neighbor’s needs, I demonstrate love toward him, and, in the process, find that God meets my needs through my neighbor.

This leads to the final loss I’d like to mention. By losing our connection to the land, we are losing our sense of dependence upon God. Nature is created. It is not divine, though it certainly bears the marks of the Divine. Nature doesn’t care one way or the other because it’s not a personality. It’s amoral. The sun shines equally on the righteous and the wicked. The drought affects the believer and the non-believer. What I’m saying is that we can’t put our trust in nature as if the creation has any power in and of itself to help us. That is folly.

We can, however, place our trust in Him who holds nature together by the power of His Word. The seed God created grows because He designed it to do just that. Sowing and harvest come in regular cycles because of the laws He established. We labor and toil, but do so in faith. I till, plow, and plant. But I can’t do anything to cause the rain to come or the seed to sprout. In fact, there are an infinite number of factors outside of my control. At the end of the day, I have to entrust the meager work of my hands into God’s hands.

I think it would be difficult to work the land, to finish the day with dirt under the fingernails and an ache in the back, to enjoy nature’s bounty, and still be an atheist. The natural realm is a physical testimony of spiritual reality. Philosophers and advocates of religions of all brands have acknowledged this. Many have groped with darkened understanding as they’ve tried to grasp meaning behind it all. I like how the Apostle Paul put it: “…He [God] did not leave himself without a witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17).

I don’t believe everybody is supposed to be a farmer. I don’t even think everyone necessarily needs to have a garden in their backyard or on their apartment balcony (though, there are many benefits to doing so!). You’ve probably perceived that these last two posts have not even really been about land itself. It’s about what the man in connection with the land represents. I believe the further we continue to remove ourselves, individually and as a society, away from vital contact with the land, the more we will suffer the consequences: loss of dignity, loss of intellectual freedom, loss of community, and ultimately, a loss of faith.

 

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The Man and the Land – Part 1

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“The man who is more than his chemistry, walking on the earth, turning his plow point for a stone, dropping his handles to slide over an outcropping, kneeling in the earth to eat his lunch: that man who is more than his elements knows the land that is more than its analysis…”

-John Steinbeck
The Grapes of Wrath

I find it intriguing how novelists from Leo Tolstoy and Thomas Hardy to John Steinbeck and Pearl Buck all extensively explored the relation of the man to the land. Granted, Tolstoy and Hardy tended to romanticize the peasant’s lifestyle. Conversely, Steinbeck and Buck employed the gritty realism of the farmer’s chronic plight as he struggles against the elements, both natural and man-made. But these were legitimate reflections shaped by the authors’ times and experiences.

These writers (and thinkers) all respected, even revered the land, taking pains to endorse the need for man to live in harmony with its moods and rhythms, to receive of its sustenance as a gift and birthright. This idea crescendos in the more contemporary voice of Wendell Berry as he admonishes us to not completely lose sight of that which is essential in any well-ordered society—the hardworking, honest labor of the person in tune with his surroundings, sensitive to the land’s needs and willing to take his place among a community of those who bend their backs in order to receive heaven’s blessings.

Taking it a step further, consider the biblical presentation. Israel was a society that revolved around the family farm. The context of the Old Testament is agrarian. It is wise to read it with this in mind. Simply peruse the Torah, the first five books of the OT, and note how many references there are to man and how he should live in relation to the land. Many laws given by God are in direct reference to properly and constructively living in harmony with the natural world.

Skip forward to the Gospels. Jesus grew up in a rural village. His teaching is steeped in natural and agricultural imagery. He spoke primarily to people who understood His parables because they were drawn from common experience. This doesn’t mean Jesus’ message is only relevant to country folks. It should, however, cause one to pause and at least contemplate the medium through which much of Scripture is presented.

So then, is there a legitimate loss in modern society, as we become increasingly concentrated into cities and more and more divorced from the land?

When the Great Depression struck, many Americans either lived on farms or had relatives who did. Presently, only a minority of Americans practice to any degree lifestyles that encourage self-sufficiency. In other words, most people would not make it more than three or four days if there happened to be a catastrophic economic collapse or sudden widespread civil unrest. Pantries would run dry in under a week and there would be no grocery store to rely upon to replenish food supplies. The complete (undesirable) transformation of society as we know it would occur unbelievably fast.

So, what might we be losing?

First of all, I feel we are losing our self-respect. We (and I’m speaking of us in “advanced”, “first-world nations”) are becoming a domesticated, dependent people. Over 50% of Americans now receive some form of government subsidy—and that is daily increasing. Most Europeans are caught up in economic systems demanding enormous taxes in order to offer social services, regardless of whether the individual wants to participate or not. By accepting the provision of big government, we risk giving up our independence.

A lack of independence results in a loss of motivation. We as human beings have an innate desire to create, invent, excel and produce. These flames are fanned by the oxygen-rich breezes of independence. Without an outlet to express who we as individuals are created to be, we quickly become deflated of our dignity. This almost imperceptible descent finally settles in the mire somewhere between helplessness and self-pity. Once the basic self-respect that allows us to hold up our heads and persevere through tribulation is gone, it is difficult to reclaim.

Domestication and dependency breed apathy and lethargy. But the person who is at least to some extent self-sufficient, who does his best to be free of entanglements (whether it be debt, welfare or even rent), and who is willing to work with his hands (even metaphorically-speaking), this person can hold up his head as a contributor and not merely a consumer. Land, at least as a symbol, represents this freedom. This is why individual, private property ownership has traditionally gone hand in hand with the propagation of inalienable rights.

Secondly, we are losing our intellectual freedom. It can be legitimately argued that this is a result of a number of factors. But there is a clear correlation between physical dependency and mental conformity. A man who owns a plot of land, honestly works that plot and enjoys the fruit of his labors is a man (or woman, of course) who knows how to manage himself. He is a disciplined. He knows how to appreciate blessings and how to bend without breaking under the inevitable hardships of life.

This environment and lifestyle tend to cultivate a man’s ability to think for himself, to investigate matters thoroughly by asking the right questions and coming to his own conclusions. The very atmosphere of his surroundings breathes a freedom that allows him to break free from convention and exercise his mind.

Idealism? Probably so. But the value of the idea lies in that which it offers one to work towards.

 

The Land and Me…Thus Far

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“…farming, at any rate, after becoming well qualified for the business by a careful apprenticeship—that was a vocation which would probably afford an independence without the sacrifice of what he valued even more than competency—intellectual liberty.”

-Thomas Hardy
Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Having been increasingly involved in homesteading over the past decade, I currently have the advantage of possessing a sizable thirteen acre space to work with. However, the simultaneous disadvantage is that the area has been over-farmed, with the result that much of the soil is in dire need of rejuvenation. So I find myself (willingly) in the ongoing process of experimentation, that is, figuring out what works and what doesn’t–this, while coping with a harsh West African climate that vacillates between desert-influenced dry seasons and long stretches of rainy season sogginess.

My father grew up on a central Georgia farm, for better or worse, experiencing the intimate connection with the land upon which his large family’s survival depended. I was born and bred in the suburbs on the outskirts of a big city, as removed from the realities of farm life as would be expected in such a setting. The closest I came to working the land was mowing a few lawns in my neighborhood and growing some cucumbers behind my parent’s house.

Living in a Mayan Indian village in southern Belize for seven years broadened my perspectives on the symbiosis between the individual and the land. As I observed the Mayan’s farming methods, I came not only to respect, but to also value the most ancient of occupations which the first man put his hand to, the cultivation of the soil.

I was then further educated by a small community of old-fashioned Mennonites who lived about thirty miles away from my home in Belize. Graciously encouraged by one particular family to visit often, my co-worker and I would “get away” and spend a few days with them when we needed a break from our ministry duties.

In the traditional Amish sense, these Mennonites shied away from modernity, not using anything that required electricity and attempting as much as possible to be self/community reliant. They made extensive use of the horse: for plowing fields, for transportation, even for generating power in order to run shop equipment and to operate an ingeniously-designed saw mill.

At the time I didn’t have access to enough land in order to really try my own hand at what I was learning. I was only able to raise some chickens and a few sheep. I also owned horses that we used to pull a buggy—our primary means of transportation in those days.

Since coming to West Africa in 2007, I’ve had the opportunity to start the homesteading process afresh with several acres, a little bit of knowledge, and a lot of vision. Lord-willing, I’ll discuss in future posts some of what I’ve gleaned, both from successes and failures, on my journey of discovering the land and attempting to live in greater compatibility with it.???????????????????????????????

A Good Novel?

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What makes for a good novel?

As I writer, I’ve thought a lot about this question. Perhaps it’s all a matter of opinion, dependent upon the reader’s preferences…

Of course, the literary critics and English teachers will tell us there are certain criteria that make for a proper narrative.

But I’m not so much thinking about plot development, dynamic characterization, realistic dialogue, balanced sentimentality, or the proper amount of anticipation to keep the reader turning those pages. I’ve noticed the best novels, those we call “classics,” tend to have certain elements in common.

For one, the authors who have endured the test of time had something worth communicating. Writing for them wasn’t just about entertaining the audience or selling books. It was about a message burning in their bones that they felt had to be conveyed. Whether anyone agreed or even cared was beside the point. And they chose to convey their perspective through the medium of a fictional tale.

Secondly, it seems to be me that the best stories are stories of redemption. There is inherent in the human psyche a yearning for the broken to be fixed, the lost to be found, the underdog to triumph and the guy to get the girl (or vice versa). We relate to characters in novels that overcome, because we all live in a world where it the odds are often stacked against us.

And lastly, the best novels are those that stay with us. They in some way become a part of who we are, intertwining themselves into the fabric of our lives. I may not have ever had a particular experience, but a good writer can make me feel as if I did.

What do you think? Do you agree, disagree, or have your own idea of what makes for a good novel? I’d love to hear about it. Feel free to comment!