“The Very Earth Breathes Peace”
Many Lessons Yet to Be Learned from
a 100-Year-Old Book on Farming
By Matt Low
Hopefully readers picking up this issue of Edible Omaha will have heard recent news of binding resolutions made at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21)—which has opened just as I’m writing this—by world leaders committed to preventing catastrophic damage to our coastal cities, mitigating the frequency of extreme weather events and especially protecting the world’s increasingly fragile agricultural systems.
Though COP21 has arrived at a time when there’s near universal agreement within the scientific community that addressing climate change is nonnegotiable, and a growing portion of the world’s population concurs, there has been no shortage of calls for human beings to have a less harmful relationship with the planet for going on at least a century now. Many readers will recognize the names Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson as among the very first to champion what we now refer to as environmental (or ecological) ethics, and their touchstone works A Sand County Almanac (1949) and Silent Spring (1962), respectively, call for balance between humanity and the rest of the natural world that still feels revolutionary to this day.
However, more than 30 years before Leopold’s most important work, a book was published that greatly influenced his thinking on these topics, agriculture in particular. Liberty Hyde Bailey’s The Holy Earth (1915) is not known by many today, but with a 100th anniversary edition just published by Counterpoint Press, a wider readership will come to see it as among the very first to advocate for changes that are still needed today, a full century after its initial publication. Readers of Edible Omaha, and all of the Edible Communities publications, especially ought to see this book as speaking directly to the causes of sustainable agriculture, local food and healthy eating that characterize nearly every story published in its pages.
A shared quality of the Edible Communities publications is their optimistic outlook toward agriculture, food production and eating, with a focus almost exclusively on success stories and emerging opportunities. Throughout The Holy Earth, Bailey’s writing exudes a similar sort of optimism, beginning with the premise that “the goodness of the planet is the basic fact in our existence.” By this he does not mean that the planet is only as good as we make it, but that we would not exist on this planet if the earth was not good to us. The logical extension of such an outlook is not only thankfulness, but reverence, an attitude that allows us to replace “the religion of fear” with the “religion of consent,” as in, appreciating what’s been placed before us and not greedily demanding more.
Recent stories in Edible Omaha have addressed innovations in community-supported agriculture, Nebraska’s unique seed-saving law and efforts to broaden the accessibility and longevity of sustainable agriculture, all topics concerned with closing the gap between everyday people and the sources of their food. Writing in 1915, Bailey knew even then that this widening gap must be addressed: “The population of the earth is increasing, the relative population of farmers is decreasing, people are herding in cities, we have a city mind, and relatively fewer people are brought into touch with the earth in any real way.” While Bailey’s prescience on this topic is certainly to be admired, one cannot also feel somewhat disheartened that he saw this disconnect, and its serious consequences, coming a full century ago.
The presence of Edible Communities publications in urban centers around the country is certainly one way that those “herding in the cities” are brought closer to agriculture and food production, at least those willing to pay attention. However, Bailey thought that this connection ought not to be optional, arguing that “every citizen should be put right toward the planet, should be quicked to his relationship to his natural background. The whole body of public sentiment should be sympathetic with the man who works and administers the land for us; and this requires understanding.” This idea of shared responsibility is at the core of Bailey’s concept of democracy, and also rooted in his Progressive Era ideas about education. Our own ideas about public education have strayed a long way from this vision—that many land grant universities are better known today as football factories than as a unique resource for American agriculture might be the most shocking change to Bailey in the last 100 years—but his call for “enlightened and very active support” of the farming community by all those who benefit from it must remain at the forefront of our public discourse on food and farming.
Bailey may not currently be a household name, but he has influenced our agricultural discourse in a number of important ways. Those readers who do recognize his name are likely to have seen it referenced in a number of writings by Wendell Berry, inarguably the most prominent figure writing on these topics over the last several decades. In fact, Berry provides a foreword to the new Counterpoint Press edition of The Holy Earth, where he writes about his earliest encounters with Bailey’s work at the start of his own career. Berry notes that Bailey’s writing is characterized by “three devotions: to nature, to the farm, and to the farmer,” and those familiar with Berry’s copious poetry, fiction and nonfiction will recognize the same three themes prominently featured in his own writing.
For those wanting to stay connected to the agricultural world during the cold winter months, an excellent companion to Bailey’s The Holy Earth is Berry’s recent collection of essays Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food (2009), also published by Counterpoint Press, which features an introduction from another prominent American writer on these themes, Michael Pollan, who writes at length about the debt he owes to Berry, further highlighting the lineage that stretches back to Bailey and The Holy Earth.
Even without the homage paid by today’s food and agricultural writers, Bailey’s voice carries through the century since the publication of The Holy Earth and imparts many lessons—about farming certainly but also about life in general—that we have yet to learn. For example, Bailey’s statement in the opening pages of the book that, “One does not act rightly toward one’s fellows if one does not know how to act rightly toward the earth,” seems so obvious on the first reading, until the realization sets in that we continue to fail on both ends. The immediate resistance by some to even the most basic proposals to address our myriad environmental crises and the daily violence we carry out against each other at home and abroad are not unrelated, a fact that Bailey, writing at the outset of the first World War, was one of the first to articulate.
If the earth truly “breathes peace,” as Bailey insists, we’ll be lucky to have another 100 years to learn how to fill our lungs.
The Holy Earth and Bringing It to the Table are both available in paperback at counterpointpress.com.
Matt Low lives and teaches in Omaha. He and his family enjoy exploring the growing number of sustainable food options available throughout the area.