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    The Gift of Good Land

    November 8, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    The Gift of Good Land:
    Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural

    This is book number two for my Finish the Book Challenge to myself. I’m having such a good time finishing books that I’ve decided to make myself finish two more, making a total of four, before I commence reading Umberto Eco’s Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages.

    Wow, I hope Eco’s work is as good as the rumors say it is. Otherwise, I’ll have built myself up with anticipation for nothing.


    The Gift of Good Land is a worthy read on a number of levels. For you armchair agrarians out there, it’ll put the culture back in agriculture and give you a taste of land management. For those of you with backyards like mine, which have more in common with strip mines than the Garden of Eden, you just might glean some creative solutions. But on top of all this, Wendell Berry is simply a marvelous writer.

    I think my favorite essays were, appropriately enough, the first and the last. The first was called An Agricultural Journey in Peru. It is a travelogue in a way, a journal of Berry’s adventure through some of the most difficult farmland in the world. Through the details he shares, readers get a glimpse at a different sort of land management, as well as a first taste of the principles shared throughout the book: strength through biodiversity, fitting farming style to the land at hand, the necessity and wisdom of pasture, and so on.

    If more folks understood the nature of healthy soil, that pasture and the {edible} animals that graze it improve soil, while row-cropping strips soil of its nutrients, we would quit allowing ignorant world leaders to say, or even imply, that vegetarianism will “save the planet.”

    The last essay, which I’ll offer some quotes from in a moment, was where the book gets its title: The Gift of Good Land. I expected this to be Berry waxing eloquent over the joys of good topsoil. Instead, it is equating a steward’s relationship with the land to the Promised Land of the Israelites: it is a gift in the truest sense, completely undeserved, though we might {and should} venture to prove ourselves worthy of it.

    This book is not a must-read for everyone, but I highly suggest it nonetheless. I mentioned in my last post that I believe knowledge is hierarchical. Classically speaking, when it comes to the four sciences, the natural sciences are on the bottom rung. This means that there is an extent to which we must master them before we can understand the sciences that come after them {which are the humane sciences, the philosophical sciences, and, finally, the theological sciences}. If we want to become wise ethically, or theologically, and yet we eschew the natural sciences, we are always going to come up short in our understanding, for precept builds upon precept in learning.

    The Final Essay: The Gift of Good Land

    I thought I’d share a few quotes from the pinnacle essay of this book. It is so beautifully and thoughtfully written.

    Berry starts out by arguing that we can learn more about our relationship with the land in the story of the Promised Land than from the story of Adam and Eve. He says that this is because:

    the Promised Land is a divine gift to a fallen people. For that reason the giving is more problematical, and the receiving is more conditional and more difficult.

    So let me leave off right here and make an argument that Berry doesn’t make, but I think it is important. I have met a number of Christians who, though they wouldn’t take issue with Berry’s conclusions per se, simply think that Christianity isn’t concerned with the land anymore. They approach Christianity in a way more akin to Buddhists, as a search for the other-worldly. When Berry starts to talk about Christians having a relationship to the land, I think he loses a lot of moderns.

    I can’t go into extensive detail here because I’ll lose the purpose of this post, but I do want to briefly mention a couple verse that I think might help bring modern Christians back down to earth. Let’s start with the Fifth Commandment:

    Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you.

    Exodus 20:12

    Notice that the reward of faithful children is a prolonged sojourn in the land. Now, I used to be dispensational, so I understand how some folks will have a knee-jerk but-that-was-written-to-the-Israelites response.

    However, comma.

    Paul repeated this promise to little Gentile Ephesians millenia later:


    Ephesians 6:2-3

    The word here translated “earth” is referring to arable land, to the ground. So now, God gives His people the whole earth as an inheritance, not just the ancient Promised Land. There is so much that can be discussed here, but the only part of it that is pertinent to this context is the idea that we and our children and our children’s children still have a relationship with the earth, and the earth is still the reward for the honoring of parents.

    Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection did not cheapen the value of a good farm.


    Berry goes on and explains why the land should be considered a gift:

    It is a gift because the people who are to possess it did not create it. It is accompanied by careful warnings and demonstrations of the folly of saying that “My power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth…”

    Deuteronomy 8:17.

    I do not have space to quote all that Berry says in regard to the Promised Land. He talks about the concept of tenancy, that the land is the LORD’s and His people are just tenants. This is why the Israelites were not allowed to permanently sell their land.

    Berry also speaks about the virtue of charity, and he explains that we must see it in light of the entire created order. He also speaks of charity requiring skills in a way that I thought would be interesting for the members of the Leisure book club:

    The requirements of this complex charity cannot be fulfilled by smiling in abstract beneficence on our neighbors and on the scenery. It must come to acts, which must come from skills. Real charity calls for the study of agriculture, soil husbandry, engineering, architecture, mining, manufacturing, transportation, the making of monuments and pictures, songs and stories.

    Some of my other favorite quotes include:

    It may, in some ways, be easier to be Samson than to be a good husband or wife day after day for fifty years.

    And also:

    For the principle of good work [the industrial revolution] substituted a secularized version of the heroic tradition: the ambition to be a “pioneer” of science or technology, to make a “breakthrough” that will “save the world” from some “crisis” {which is usually the result of some previous “breakthrough”}.

    I would compare this to I Thessalonians 4:11:

    …make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you.

    Here is true evidence of Berry’s wisdom:

    A typical example of the conduct of industrial heroism is to be found in the present rush of experts to “solve the problem of world hunger”–which is rarely defined except as a “world problem” known, in industrial heroic jargon, as “the world food problematique.” As is characteristic of industrial heroism, the professed intention here is entirely salutary: nobody should starve. The trouble is that “world hunger” is not a problem that can be solved by a “world solution.” Except in a very limited sense, it is not an industrial problem, and industrial attempts to solve it–such as the “Green Revolution” and “Food for Peace”–have often had grotesque and destructive results. “The problem of world hunger” cannot be solved until it is understood and dealt with by local people as a multitude of local problems of ecology, agriculture, and culture.”

    Remember that next some politician claims he can solve your problems {he is not local and is completely unfamiliar with your circumstances} or, even worse, some other country’s problems. Problems are, by definition, local.

    If you haven’t read Wendell Berry, you should start.

    Possibly Related Posts:
    Other quotes from this book can be found here, here, and here.
    Jayber Crow and “The Call”
    Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter
    Hannah Coulter: When Geography Separates
    Hannah Coulter: Double Incomes and Still in Debt

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