by Brittany Buttry

Through the haze of the low hanging dust in the air, the headlights of a combine are soon spotted as it rustles through the rows of soybeans, working against the clock in order to collect the year’s bounty.  Rural roads are crowded with tractors pulling their full carts and semis hurrying to and from the local grain elevator. Women and men all over these farming communities work long hours to provide for their family by responding to the demand of the crop market. For families whose livelihoods are built on such a scene, they imagine it painted on a backdrop of lovely auburn colored tree lines and the pinks of the setting sun.

 

 And yet to many in this generation, the picture I’ve painted and lived for much of my life is an unsettling image.  Our society is drowning in available facts and figures about the evils of modern agriculture.  Focusing on the negative implications the last seventy years have brought to farming communities may better suit the current conversation.  But to be honest, I am starting to find the critique a bit repetitive, unoriginal, and rehearsed.  I would prefer at the present moment to point out the erroneous sentiments of the current critique and to reflect on the beauty farm work awakens and the redemptive work of Christ in the entire world, including the reparation of agriculture.  

I am aware, however, of the pains mechanization has brought to our land and culture (which, for the sake of space, I will not go into here), and while knowing there is a problem that needs to be addressed, I am dissatisfied with many of the arguments.  In Cultivating Soil and Soul, (2009) Michael Woods offers a rich account of agriculture in monastic communities, but also points to a dissatisfying ethical separation between two groups of people, referred to as “the industrial mind” and “the agrarian mind” (p. 200).  The seemingly axiomatic separation found here and in other critiques suggests that there are two opposing sides which reveal an individual’s virtue, intelligence, or capacity for caring for the Earth. Within the list of distinctions, he boldly states that “the industrial mind is incapable of honoring truly good work, skillful—mindful of the whole—people and creation.  The agrarian works thoughtfully, asking: how should this field be plowed? Should this tree be cut…?” (p. 200). This differentiation invokes a good vs. evil image which does not appropriately depict individuals or communities on either side.  I have observed good work and thoughtful decisions in both the conventional and alternative forms of agriculture.  I have also observed lazy and unconcerned work labeled as organic or sustainable.   

In the aforementioned text, Wendell Berry is cited to support the idea that conventional farming:

 

contributes to the destruction of culture, pulling people away from ‘home’ and the wider network   of human-nature relationships that gives a person roots…. There exists no affection for a place…no deep intimate knowledge and love for land and people and their profound interconnectedness. (as cited in Woods, 2009, p. 199 & p.194)

Berry often talks about the value of home and committing to one’s roots and in the same breath disapproves of the very place I call home.  He has found beauty in the Jeffersonian model of agriculture, a memory from his family’s experience which has been challenged by the newer way of life–a way of life committed to by my family.  Berry has been an important voice in my own conversion, but his perspective is shaped by his own remembering, as is mine.  

 I recognize the limits of my own conversion when I begin remembering.  I can still see my mother loading up her five daughters and the dinner meal in the bed of the truck to head out to the field my dad was combining.  I fondly recall celebrating my sister’s birthdays in the middle of a field, chasing balloons through the stalks as we waited for my parents to finish the next round.  I picture myself in my grandmother’s kitchen helping her prepare ham salad with the meat grinder for our lunches.  I remember the excitement I could hear in my dad’s voice, thankful for the harvest and ready for the rest winter provides.  I recall my grandpa proudly sharing the history of each acre of land and member of family covering over a 100 year span.  I still think about those times I would journey around the fields with my dad to check to see if the beans had sprouted, inspect the wind damage, or just head uptown to Howard’s for chocolate milk and a candy bar.  I remember the joy of digging in the garden, putting in fences or walking beans, and caring for the chickens and pigs.  In my first home, I was no stranger to the land or to the need for hard work.  Even with the changes of belief and perspective I have undergone, these memories are not filled with regret or embarrassment, but intricate to who I am, representing the roots of my love for farming.

These reflections do not come out of a defensive spirit towards crucial critics, but rather my own need to wrestle with the tension I’ve encountered.  How could I reject a place and a way of life that is so much a part of my own being?  In learning to live in the tension I hope to expect redemption in all things.  These words remind me that salvation is a much larger act than my own redemption. I believe in and resonate with the way we at the Good Earth Farm are attending to the land and one another. Nevertheless, when I think of the alternatives, I do not want to respond with discord or separation, but look for the beauty and respond with love, seeing my childhood home as part of the whole.

Woods, M. J. (2009).  Cultivating Soil and Soul. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

 

Brittany Buttry is originally from Illinois and joined the Common Friars in August 2010.  She enjoys learning new skills and playing competitive games, recently this involves learning how to frame a wall, and playing Settlers of Catan and badminton.

 

 

 

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