Better than any argument is to rise at dawn
and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.
–Wendell Berry, from “A Standing Ground”
The sun woke me each morning of the summer whether I liked it or not, streaming through the burlap curtains of the barn’s bunkroom. Careful to dodge the mice dainties that the barn cat left just outside my door, I joined with monks and nuns across the country in morning prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours. After retrieving my tithe of fresh goat milk the farmer left me after the milking, I made my way to the hen house to rob some unsuspecting chickens for my breakfast.
Then off to the fields for a day of weeding, planting, pruning, weeding, harvesting, weeding, and finally weeding.
The farm I spent the summer working is an organic vegetable farm located at the foot of the mountains on Washington’s Olympic peninsula. It is owned, worked, and lived on by three generations of one family, though the youngest generation can be more often found snacking on the fruits of the labor than actually laboring.
My host farmers cart their produce each Saturday in a rickety red pickup to an active farmers market in Port Townsend, then make CSA deliveries to neighboring towns.
My reasons for retreating to the farm were many, and without a doubt, some of them were romantic: I love Wendell Berry, I wanted to know what it felt like to go to bed sore, I longed for solitude in which to pray and read, and I wanted to learn how to grow green things.
What I learned, perhaps above all, was the simplest and truest truth about the order of the created universe: everything hinges on love. My farmer family was living in the most environmentally responsible manner possible; their carbon footprint was miniscule. They actively promoted environmental, healthy eating, responsible food practices, and stewardship of the environment. They built their own house, made their own kambucha, even had a composting toilet. But not one bit of this was motivated primarily by abstractions like ‘social responsibility’
They were motivated by love: love of God, love of the parents for their children, love for the neighbors downstream, and love for the soil that was sustaining them.
I learned on the farm that the most sustainable and sound environmental practices don’t stem from government policy, economic reform, or even from guilt about your own consumerism or from sanctimonious documentary-watching. Real stewardship will always be a result of deep love for your own place, that which is closest to you—literally under your feet. In Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Merry tells Pippin, “It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must start somewhere and have some roots, and the soil of the Shire is deep.” Only by first cultivating a deep affection for one’s own place, one’s own soil, can a person possess a proper orientation toward the environment in general.
And the only way to learn to love a thing is to interact with it: to learn what kind of tree grows in your front lawn and when it blooms, to find out what sort of berries are growing along the back fence and eat them if possible, to test out if your soil is suited to growing zucchini, to try composting your compostables and making your soil even better.
In addition, connectedness to land leads to connectedness to neighbor. There is no reason that the phrase ‘put down roots’ should be a metaphorical cliché. Rootedness in our place and in our community is what we all crave, but what few of us are willing to commit to. But if you have carrots that need harvesting or tomatoes that need watering, you’re going to be connected and committed to your local neighborhood whether you feel like sweating it out or not.
Plus, you come to rely on your neighbor: after all, you need someone to milk the goats when you go out of town. In exchange for a wheelbarrow full of zucchini, of course.
Pope Francis, in his recent encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, recognizes that it is those who love the land, rather than any government or economic policy that will ultimately lead to responsible environmental practices: “while the existing world order proves powerless to assume its responsibilities, local individuals and groups can make a real difference. They are able to instill a greater sense of responsibility, a strong sense of community, a readiness to protect others, a spirit of creativity and a deep love for the land. They are also concerned about what they will eventually leave to their children and grandchildren.” Pope Francis understands that love alone will successfully motivate change, and that practices that promote love for creation must be encouraged.