“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…”
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.