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A PRACTICAL HARMONY
By Wendell Berry 1988

In I9I3, seventy-five years ago, Liberty Hyde Bailey retired from his post at Cornell after a quarter-century during which he had been, first, Professor of Horticulture, and then Director and Dean of the New York State College of Agriculture and Director of the Experiment Station. Two years later he published a little book with the remarkable title The Holy Earth. In it he wrote: "Most of our difficulty with the earth lies in the effort to do what perhaps ought not to be done.... A good part of agriculture is to learn how to adapt one's work to nature.... To live in right relation with his natural conditions is one of the first lessons that a wise farmer or any other wise man learns."*


Was that perhaps the exhalation of a restless soul, having cast off at last its academic bonds? No, it was not. For in 1905, the second year of his deanship, he had published a book entitled The Outlook to Nature, in which he spoke of nature as "the norms 'If nature is the norm," he wrote, "then the necessity for correcting and amending the abuses of civilization becomes baldly apparent by very contrast." And he added, "The return to nature affords the very means of acquiring the incentive and energy for ambitious and constructive work of a high order." **


Dean Bailey was not, of course, against the necessary pursuits of the human economy. He was merely for bringing those pursuits into harmony with nature, which he understood as their source and pattern. I mention him here not just because he is one of the inevitable measures of the subsequent history of the Land Grant system, but because, as an officer of that system, he spoke for a view of things that, however threatened in his time and since, goes back to the roots of our experience as human beings.


This view of things holds that we can live only in and from nature, and that we have, therefore, an inescapable obligation to be nature's students and stewards and to live in harmony with her. This is a theme of both the classical and the biblical traditions. It is not 50 prominent a theme as we could wish, perhaps because until lately it was taken for granted, but it is a constant theme, and it is more prominent than modern education prepares us to expect. Virgil, for example, states it boldly at the beginning of The Georgics, written between 36 and 29 BC:

. . . before we plow an unfamiliar patch
It is well to be informed about the winds,
About the variations in the sky,
The native traits and habits of the place,
What each locale permits, and what denies.
(Translation by Smith Palmer Bovie, The university of Chicago Press, 1966, p. 5.)

And several hundred years before that Job, the man of Uz, had said to his visitors:

. . . ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee:
Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee: and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee.

In the English poetic tradition this theme is restated by voice after voice. Edmund Spenser, toward the end of the sixteenth century, described Nature as "the equall mother" of all creatures, who "knittest each to each, as brother unto brother." For that reason, perhaps, he sees her also as the instructor of creatures and the ultimate earthly judge of their behavior.


The theme was stated again by Shakespeare in As You Like it, in which the forest performs the role of teacher and judge, a role that is explicitly acknowledged by Touchstone: "You have said; but whether wisely or no, let the forest judge." And Milton stated the themes again forthrightly, in Comus, when the Lady says of Nature:

she, good cateress,
Means her provision only to the good
That live according to her sober laws
And holy dictate of spare Temperance.

And Alexander Pope stated it, as plainly as the others, in his Epistle to Burlington, in which he counseled gardeners to "let Nature never be forgot" and to "Consult the Genius of the Place in all."

After Pope, so far as I know, this theme departs from English poetry. Later poets were inclined to see nature and humankind as radically divided and were no longer much interested in the issues of a practical harmony between the land and its human inhabitants. The romantic poets, who subscribed to the modern doctrine of the pre-eminence of the human mind, tended to look upon nature not as anything they might ever have practical dealings with, but as a reservoir of symbols.


The theme of nature as instructor and judge seems to have been taken up next by a series of agricultural writers in our own century. I say "series" rather than "succession" because I don't know to what extent these people have worked consciously under the influence of predecessors. I suspect that the succession, in both poetry and agriculture, may lie in the familial and communal handing down of the agrarian common culture, rather than in any succession of teachers and students in the literary culture or in the schools. I do not, for example, know the ancestry of the mind of Liberty Hyde Bailey, though I would guess with some confidence that he is one of the heirs of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's preoccupation with what he called 'horizontal plowing" and other issues of proper husbandry was certainly an attempt of a "wise farmer" to farm "in right relation to his natural conditions." But such a coincidence of thoughts does not establish succession. There remains the possibility—and I think it is a strong one—that, though Bailey undoubtedly knew the example of Jefferson, both men worked out of predisposing ideas and assumptions handed down to them as children.


One of Liberty Hyde Bailey's contemporaries was J. Russell Smith, whose interests and loyalties as an academician will seem as improbable to us as those of Dean Bailey. In 1929, when he was professor of economic geography at Columbia University, J . Russell Smith published a book entitled Tree Crops, the aims of which were at once ecological and patriotic. The book, he said, was "written to persons of imagination who love trees and love their country." His concern was the destruction of the hill lands by agriculture: "Man has carried to the hills the agriculture of the flat plain." Smith's answer to this problem was that "farming should ht the land." Trees," he wrote, "are the natural crop plants for all such places ." The great virtue of trees is that they are perennials; a hillside planted in trees would be "a permanent institution." Tree crops, he believed, could restore both the ecological and the human health of the hilly land. His vision was this:

I see a million hills green with crop-yielding trees and a million neat farm homes snuggled in the hills. These beautiful tree farms hold the hills from Boston to Austin, from Atlanta to Des Moines. The hills of my vision have farming that fits them and replaces the poor pasture, the gullies, and the abandoned lands that characterize today so large a part of these hills.

That J. Russell Smith was aware of the early work of Albert Howard we know from a footnote in Tree Crops. Whether or not Howard knew Smith's work, I do not know. Nevertheless, when Sir Albert Howard (as he came to be) published An Agricultural Testament in xy40, his message was essentially the same as Smith's (and essentially the same as that of the Book of Job, Virgil, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, and Liberty Hyde Bailey). Nature, he said, is "the supreme farmer." If one wants to know how to farm well, one must study the forest. In a paragraph as allegorical as The Faerie Queene, he wrote:

The main characteristic of Nature's farming can therefore be summed up in a few words. Mother earth never attempts to farm without live stock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease.

Sir Albert Howard mentioned the prairie on the same page with the passage I just quoted, but he was native to country that was by nature forest land. It remained for Wes and Dana Jackson and their fellow workers at the Land Institute to take the logical next step to the proposition that if one lives on the prairie, one must learn to farm by studying the prairie. The difference between the native prairie and the modern grain field is a critical one, and it provides the only feasible basis for criticism and correction of the grainfield. The principle is stated by Wes in Chapter 8 of New Roots for Agriculture: "The agricultural human's pull historically has been toward the monoculture of annuals. Nature's pull is toward a polyculture of perennials."


If the work of the Land Institute is innovative, it is so partly in response to a long tradition and an old hope. It is not merely another episode in our time's random pursuit of novelty. The Institute's purpose, as set forth by Wes Jackson and Marty Bender in their article "Investigations into Perennial Polyculture," is at once new and recognizably ancient: "We believe that the best agriculture for any region is the one that best mimics the region's natural ecosystems.... Our goal is ... to create prairie-like grain fields."


The goal is a harmony between the human economy and nature that will preserve both nature and humanity, and this is a traditional goal. The world is now divided between those who adhere to this ancient purpose and those who by intention do not—a division that is of far more portent for the future of the world than any of the presently recognized national or political or economic divisions.


The remarkable thing about this division is its relative newness. The idea that we should obey nature's laws and live harmoniously with her as good husbanders and stewards of her gifts is old. And I believe that until fairly recently our destructions of nature were more or less unwitting—the by-products, so to speak, of our ignorance or weakness or depravity. It is our present principled and elaborately rationalized rape and plunder of the natural world that is a new thing under the sun.
1988

*the Holy Earth, reprinted by The Christian Rural Fellowship, I946, p. 9.
** The Outlook to Nature,
Macmillan, 1905, p. 8.




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