July 29, 2011 / Theology
In one of the most astonishing passages in the book of Genesis, in the book’s …
August 25, 2011
If, as the editors of The Other Journal write, “there is a growing cultural concern that we are abstracted from our food’s source and forgetful of its meaning,” then attending to our words is indispensible for diagnosing the nature of our abstraction and forgetfulness, as well as for keeping vigil against it. In so attending, there is no better example than Wendell Berry, a poet-farmer who urges us to reconsider how we envision our relationship to land, as well as the words we use to speak of, think of, and write about land. For as Berry consistently reminds us, our words both image and enact our relationship to the world. They are therefore critical for understanding how we might better order our agriculture in relation to what we celebrate in the Eucharist.
In his essay, “The Agrarian Standard,” Berry pauses to reflect upon his life’s work:
What we have undertaken to defend is the complex accomplishment of knowledge, cultural memory, skill, self-mastery, good sense, and fundamental decency [. . .] for which we can probably find no better name than “good farming.” I mean farming as defined by agrarianism as opposed to farming as defined by industrialism: farming as the proper use and care of an immeasurable gift.
The notion that land is a gift, along with the effort to think through the practical implications of what it means to learn to receive and to use the gift of land, is at the center of almost everything Berry writes. Berry’s work, we might say, is an extended attempt to reflect upon the agricultural implications of Rowan Williams’s observation in Tokens of Trust that “things in the universe exist in relation to the Creator before they exist in relation to us, so that a degree of reverence and humility is appropriate when we approach anything in the created order.”
For Berry, one of the main obstacles in the cultivation of the reverence and humility correlative to the acknowledgement of the giftedness of land is the way we typically speak and write about it. This essay focuses upon the tropes of mechanism and commodity that saturate the language and practice of much writing about agriculture, scientific and otherwise, and how these tropes arise from and sustain a particular kind of agriculture.
A good example of the tropes of mechanism and commodity can be found in the classic soil science textbook The Nature and Properties of Soils, written by Nyle Brady and Ray Weil. One quickly gets the impression that, for Brady and Weil, land is simply an exceedingly complex machine. Early in the book they refer to land’s “functions in our ecosystem,” along with the “mechanisms by which the concentration of nutrient ions at the root surface is maintained.” One also encounters the commodity trope in its most ubiquitous form when they refer to soil as “one of our most important natural resources.” In the discussion of soil fertility, the commodity trope takes the form of a bank account. The authors write of the nutrient “balance sheet” and the necessity of “nutrient budgeting” in order to maintain “the balance between system inputs and outputs.”
These tropes not only characterize the language of much mainstream agricultural science but also the writings of many authors who diligently seek to offer alternatives to it. For instance, in A Sand Country Almanac, Aldo Leopold argues for a land ethic as the only way “for land to survive the impact of mechanized man.” At times, however, Leopold himself articulates his ethic precisely in the language of mechanized man, writing that “an ethic to supplement and guide the economic relation to land presupposes the existence of some mental image of land as a biotic mechanism.”
In An Agricultural Testament, Albert Howard, a founding member of the Soil Association and a pioneer of organic agriculture, critiques the rise of modern industrial agriculture, characterized by the concentration of landholdings in fewer hands, unbroken production in monoculture, and widespread mechanization. Yet, in writing of the mycorrhizal association—the relationship between a fungus and the roots of a plant—and the role of that association in preventing plant disease, he asserts that “nature has provided a marvelous piece of machinery for conferring disease-resistance on the crop.” This “mechanism” enables us to see “the way the plant and the soil come into gear.”
To be clear: anyone concerned with agriculture in our own day and age has much to learn from Leopold and Howard. My purpose is simply to draw attention to a tension between the kind of agriculture they advocate and the language—particularly the tropes of mechanism and commodity—that they use to articulate it. What we are dealing with here is the way, as Ludwig Wittgenstein puts it in Philosophical Investigations, a “picture” can hold us “captive”: “And we couldn’t get outside it, for it lay in our language, and language seemed only to repeat it to us inexorably.”
If my own experience is any indication, this tension in the texts of Leopold and Howard relate to additional tensions for Christians concerned with agriculture. After graduating from college, I lived and worked in Central America and devoted many years to acquiring the agricultural tools I thought would be helpful in working with others to grow food. But the more agricultural and ecological science I learned, the more I was filled with an unmistakable sense of the dissonance between the language and practice of those sciences and the theological convictions that had led me to the work and study of agriculture in the first place. At stake was a problem that certainly involved issues of correct application of agricultural tools to particular people, places, and needs. But the problem concerned more than issues of application; it had to do with fundamental questions like: what is land? What is it for? How to characterize our relationship to it? What does it mean to receive it, like our lives, as gift?
What is wrong with the tropes of machine and commodity as I have sketched them? Part of the answer has to do with the way these tropes suggest a profoundly different relation to land than that of the reception of a gift. The folksinger and storyteller Utah Phillips on his album with Ani DiFranco suggests something along these lines when he recounts being at the Washington State Young Writers Conference. His son is in the audience, and Phillips is slated to speak to the students. But when Phillips realizes that the subsequent speaker is from the Chamber of Commerce, he says this to the gathering of budding writers:
You are about to be told one more time that you are America’s most valuable natural resource. Have you ever seen what they do to valuable natural resources? Have you ever seen a strip mine? Have you ever seen a clear cut in the forest? Have you ever seen a polluted river? Don’t ever let them call you a valuable natural resource! They’re going to strip mine your soul. They’re going to clear cut your best thoughts for the sake of profit unless you learn to resist.
Phillips’s remarks are pertinent because they help us better to understand how Berry thinks about language, and specifically how Berry believes there is an intimate relationship between the way we think and write about land and the way we use land. If Berry is right, then the language of machine and commodity arises from and sustains a very particular kind of agricultural practice.
According to Berry’s understanding, language is not an empty vessel in which we insert and extract meaning, like the industrial farmer who inserts chemical “inputs” and extracts crop “outputs.” Rather, the words we use—or, to invoke another of Berry’s essays, the words we stand by—both image and enact our relation with the world. Language expresses thought and indelibly shapes it. This is why Berry is constantly searching for a language “spoken in reverence for the order and grace that I see, and that I trust beyond my power to see.” Or, as he puts it more recently, “To say that life is a miracle is thus a restoration of language. If I have called life a miracle, that is because I am trying to find a language that can keep us whole enough and humble enough to preserve the world and stay alive.” The difference between Berry’s language and the language of machine and commodity will therefore have profound implications for our perception and use of land.
James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State helps us to concretize these reflections with regard to agriculture. In recounting the development of what he calls “state-sponsored high-modernist agriculture,” Scott shows how the tropes of machine and commodity have worked in unison in the shaping of agricultural practice. A distinguishing mark of this agriculture, especially as it developed over the course of the twentieth century, was control over land, epitomized by increasing mechanization, which enabled unprecedented extraction of harvestable yield, and therefore, profit, in a market that increasingly demanded products of uniform size and quality that could ship well. Farmers increasingly sought cultivars whose architecture, for example, did not interfere with the pass of a tractor and whose grain grew uniformly and matured evenly, facilitating mechanical harvesting. Plant breeders, in turn, developed corresponding varieties to satisfy these needs. A subdiscipline—phytoengineering—arose in order to adapt agricultural practices to the constraints of mechanization. Plant breeding, however, is only one part of a much larger story. Agronomic science in general bent to the demands of mechanization by developing, in addition to new varieties, technologies like irrigation and agrochemical “packages” in order to promote uniformity in growth. For this emerging agriculture, the logic of the science relates so closely to the logic of commerce that the two become nearly indistinguishable. Land becomes, in Scott’s apt phrase, “a commodity machine.”
Writing against an agriculture that would view land in such terms, Albert Howard worries about the way modern scientific agricultural research has increasingly made the farmer, “not a better producer of food, but a more expert bandit.” Echoing Howard, Peter Maurin, cofounder with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement, observes that in such farming, “Farmers aren’t farmers at all. They are land miners. They just take stuff out of the soil and don’t replace it right. The miner just takes things out of the earth and never returns anything. It’s really soil robbing, and practices of this kind don’t make for good character.” Following Wittgenstein’s suggestion that “what we call ‘descriptions’ are instruments for particular uses,” we might articulate Howard and Maurin’s concerns this way: the language of machine and the language of commodity function like instruments within the context of an activity governed primarily by the ends of extraction and profit, in which land is first and foremost a machine of production. This language, in other words, images and enacts not reception of gift, but the twin goals of power over and profit from land.
We have been talking about land, but Maurin’s concern for character likewise helps to illustrate that the human is under complex negotiation in these descriptions. The assumed anthropology of the language of machine and commodity is that of the scientist or other observer as thinking subject, standing over and against land. An alternative view, increasingly predominant in our time, is that as much land as possible should be protected at all cost from human interference, because for humans to use land is inherently for them to degrade it. But note that for both these views the underlying anthropology is identical: a fundamental separation between humans and land. Both envision the human without kinship to land, culture without kinship to cultivation.
In encouraging us to rely instead upon the theological doctrine of creation and in speaking of land as part of God’s creation and of ourselves as creatures, Berry seeks to provide a truer vision of land and of ourselves. When we speak of land, we are not speaking of something outside of us or apart from us, despite the unique role of human beings within creation. As creatures, we exist on the near side of the creation-Creator divide, and as embodied creatures, we depend upon all manner of creatures—human and otherwise—for our nourishment and sustenance. Christians should therefore be vigilant against language that would suggest otherwise, for, as Berry puts it, such language “falsifies the nature of the creature needing to be healed.” In response to those who would urge reconnection or going back to land, for instance, the right response is to point out that we never occupy a location in which we could ever be disconnected from or away from land in the first place. In speaking in this way, we fail to see land and our relation to it rightly, and so we fail to appreciate our predicament, much less move toward its healing.
What I am trying to suggest is that there is creaturely kinship between humans and land, and therefore, humans and land are not the kinds of things that can ever be fundamentally separate from one another. Moreover, to imagine them as such is to misconstrue not only our relation to land but to ourselves and to our creaturehood. Perhaps this kinship is why the gospel writers compare those who follow Christ to good soil that brings forth abundant grain (Mt. 13:1–23, Mk. 4:1–20, Lk. 8:4–15), or, relatedly, trees that bear fruit (Mt. 3:10, 7:17–19, 12:33; Lk. 3:9, 6:44). Whatever obvious differences exist between humans and land or trees, there are also not-so-obvious kinships as creatures between them as well, to which these analogies likewise bear witness. For the gospel writers, there are important analogies between the land from which we live—whose fruits quite literally become our body and blood—and the ways in which we are like land that must be prepared to receive God’s word and that must be cultivated to bring forth its fruit.
Berry’s critique of the tropes of mechanism and commodity is most trenchant in his book Life is a Miracle. He acknowledges that this language possesses tremendous “analytical power.” Indeed, the agriculture with which it is associated is at the center of what many celebrate as the unprecedented advancements and material abundance of the modern era. Nevertheless, for Berry, this language “has lost much of its power to designate what is being analyzed or to convey any respect or care or affection or devotion toward it.” He writes that
The problem, as it appears to me, is that we are using the wrong language. We have a lot of genuinely concerned people calling upon us to “save” a world which their language simultaneously reduces to an assemblage of perfectly featureless and dispirited “ecosystems,” “organisms,” “environments,” “mechanisms,” and the like. It is impossible to prefigure the salvation of the world in the same language by which the world has been dismembered and defaced.
In this passage, Berry puts his finger on the crux of the issue: language is not epiphenomenal to how we envision food and flourishing. The words we use, and the ways we learn to stand by them and to let our lives be shaped by them, are the heart of the matter.
To convey the appropriate reverence and humility for the gift of land by which we live, to remind ourselves and one another of the existence of it and of all things in relation to the mystery of what Christ accomplished in the land where he lived, died, and rose, is no easy task, because so much within our language suggests otherwise, captivates us to a different picture, makes the world seem naturally opaque to God’s gifts. So much within our language obscures the relationship between land and altar manifested by the offering of bread and wine, which initiates the Eucharist. In offering bread and wine, we give what is ours only because it has first been given. As Saint Paul asks not only the members of the church at Corinth but us as well, “What have you that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7). Learning to farm and to live from a farming that prefigures the salvation of the world is part of the Christian art of displaying thanksgiving in every facet of our lives, including our words, for what we have received.
 Many thanks go to Natalie Carnes, Pete Jordan, and T. J. Lang for reading earlier drafts of this essay.
 Berry, Citizenship Papers (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2004), 143–44.
 Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 50.
 Another related issue, which I do not engage here, is the way entomologists, especially in the aftermath of the First World War, not only drew upon military tropes in speaking and writing about agricultural “pests”—the need for chemical “armaments” to “fight” and “exterminate” our pest “enemies”—but likewise adapted military weapons like airplanes and poison gases to the task as well. See, for instance, Edmund Russell, War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 53–94. See also John H. Perkins, “Reshaping Technology in Wartime: The Effect of Military Goals on Entomological Research and Insect-Control Practices,” Technology and Culture 19 (1978): 169–86.
 Brady and Weil, The Nature and Properties of Soils (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002), 2, 28–29, 26, xv, 670, 671–72, 735–36.
 Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1970), xix and 251.
 Howard, An Agricultural Testament (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1943), 17–18, 166–68, and 168.
 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, ed. and trans. G. E. M Anscombe (New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1953), §115, emphasis in original.
 Phillips and DiFranco, “Natural Resources,” on The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere (Righteous Babe Records, 1996).
 Berry, “Standing By Words” in Standing By Words (San Francisco, CA: North Point, 1983).
 Ibid., The Long-Legged House (Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004), 200.
 Ibid., “Is Life a Miracle?” in Citizenship Papers (Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2003), 185.
 Both Scott and Robert Pogue Harrison provide excellent accounts of similar developments in relation to forestry science. See Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 11–52; and Harrison, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 104–52.
 Scott, Seeing Like a State, 262–306 and 21.
 Howard, An Agricultural Testament, 199.
 Maurin, Catholic Radicalism: Phrased Essays for the Green Revolution (New York, NY: Catholic Worker Books, 1949), 195.
 Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §291, emphasis in original.
 Ibid., Another Turn of the Crank (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1995), 96.
 Ibid., Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2000), 8.
Featured photo on the main page courtesy Elizabeth Whelan.
Matthew Whelan just finished up his second year in the PhD program in Christian Theological Studies at Duke. His educational background is a B.A. from University of Virginia, a M.Sc. from the Center for Tropical Agriculture Research and Higher Education (CATIE) in Turrialba, Costa Rica; and an MTS from Duke Divinity School. He lives with his wife and daughter in Waco, Texas.