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The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural Paperback – May 1, 2009
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In this collection of essays, continuing the argument begun with The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry writes of the importance of good farming to a healthy culture. By health he means not the mere absence of disease, but the operation of a balanced, nondestructive way of life; his essays on the Amish people of Pennsylvania and Ohio offer a model. "An economy of waste," Berry writes, "is incompatible with a healthy environment"--an environment that operates in balance, within bounds. Arguing for the primacy of family-based, local economies, and for the exercise of intelligence, reverence, and community values, Berry crafts a prose idyll celebrating the pastoral existence. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"These pieces are angry, urgent, courageous, joyous and reaffirming." --Philadelphia Inquirer
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The Gift of Good Land was written in tribute to the small-scale farmer because “small-scale agriculture is virtually synonymous with good agriculture”. Mr. Berry gives evidence of this principle by introducing us to about a dozen small farmers whose varied practices are intimately tied to the specific nature of their given piece of earth. The Peruvian who cultivates steep and rocky terrain on a mountainside high in the Andes uses a type of “hoe farming” that has sustained his family and their Inca forbears across centuries. The Amish continue to farm small holdings because their horse-drawn implements limit the acreage they are able to plant and harvest. And yet their farms remain abundant and profitable generation after generation.
In their small agriculture, these men and women come to know the unique habits of their land in ways that industrial farmers with their massive “acre eaters” never can. In any particular region, Berry tells us, there is a limit beyond which a farm outgrows the attention and affection of a single owner. Keenly aware of the living interplay between their own topography and the many acts of nature which condition it, the small farmers’ sense of place becomes ingrained. Because they know their land and love it, they learn to sense its needs and harvest potential acre by acre or even yard by yard. It responds to their mindful cultivation with a bounty that does not deplete the earth.
And for all that, there is virtually no public appreciation for the disciplines necessary to good farming. The good farmer, along with the bad, is “typically regarded as a drudge without learning, a hick without dignity.”
I didn’t buy this book from Amazon—I picked it up at a library bin sale. I’m taking time to write this review because I want other readers to know that, over 30 years later, the wisdom in these pages has not lost relevance and has, perhaps, gained in urgency. It would be hard to come up with a better companion piece to the Pope’s latest encyclical (the one about climate change). Wendell Berry is no Bible thumper. But that did not stop him from making his own case for the proper Christian approach to agriculture and the conservation of resources.
In the final chapter he advocates for an ethic that esteems perseverance in un-heroic tasks equally with the grand action. He wonders whether the work of real stewardship, like real prayer and real charity, must be done in secret. These are his concluding words: “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of the Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.”
I think I need to read more Wendell Berry.
All in all, these are excellent essays, but as many of them were drawn from farming journals, may find less of an audience. However, that should not stop anyone, suburbanite nor city dweller, from reading this fine, fine collection. "To see and respect what is there is the first duty of stewardship." --from "The Native Grasses and What They Mean."