A favorite essay of mine is Wendell Berry’s The Gift of Good Land. It is not his best piece of writing. But it renewed for me a way of thinking about our relationship to the land. Or maybe it is more accurate to say my relationship to land. Basic capitalist economics claims the three resources for production are land, labor, and capital. Beyond the mere mention of it, I do not recall anything about the role of land in production. One may as well say place or space where production is done. Even in the economics of industrial farming the area where growing or feeding is done may as well be consider place for fertilizing. We need to breathe life back into our regard for the land we are given.
Land as Gift
A gift or grace is just that. It is given. If someone gives me a new bicycle (hopefully electric), I can either take care of it or abuse it. Ignoring it is a form of abuse. We cannot make earth. We can nourish the soil. Humans can also kill it. Soil is not inert. A shovelful of soil teems with life, minerals, and vitamins. It may also contain traces of metal or microplastics. If so, the health of soil is threatened.
We do not understand enough about our land to allow us to disregard what we do. Soil is more than just dirt. Leviticus gives an interesting promise if Israel is faithful to the covenant, “I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. Your threshing shall overlap the vintage and the vintage will overlap the sowing…You shall eat old grain long stored, and you shall have to clear out the old to make way for the new” (Leviticus 26:3b-10)
The Spirit of Justice
There is a connection between justice, the land, and the divine. The Israelites understood their relationship to their God was individual and communal. Justice between persons and within the community was key to preserving that relationship. However, there was another factor in their relationship. The earth reflected how just the people were to each other. An unjust person will not only abuse other people but their animals and the soil. “The righteous know the needs of their animals, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.” (Proverbs 12:10)
No society that allows abuse of the earth can be called a just society. Since the environmental movement began, people discuss the best way to preserve the land and to keep a consumerist lifestyle. Can that be done? I have my doubts. Yet, we could reconsider the words convenience, pleasure, and leisure. What do we mean by them? If we have leisure, what do we do with it? And, more importantly, what should other people do for our convenience, pleasure, and leisure?
The Land of God
I often describe where I live as “God’s country.” My area of the Appalachia is beautiful. But everyone where I live has a choice. We have a few small cities and a medium sized one nearby. The people here can orient themselves to the cities or to the countryside. Most are oriented to the cities. Urban areas are usually more progressive, offer varieties of entertainment, and provide services one does not get in the rural areas.
Even though it surprises people, I tend toward the side of the rural people. Some friends and I drove through one of the more rural areas of my county when we were teen-agers. Seeing the poverty displayed one friend asked, “Where do the kids here go to school?” I replied, “With you.” It is easy to orient one’s self away from rural neighbors in need just as it is to orient one’s self away from impoverished urban areas. If we begin taking care of the poor in our communities, helping them overcome their poverty, we will find it easier to heal the world.