Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: CONSULTING THE GENIUS OF THE PLACE – Wes Jackson [Vol. 3, #42]

“The Gospel of the Land”

A review of
Consulting the Genius of the Place:
An Ecological Approach to the New Agriculture
By Wes Jackson.

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

Consulting the Genius of the Place:
An Ecological Approach to the New Agriculture
By Wes Jackson.

Hardback: Counterpoint, 2010.

Buy now: [ Amazon ]

CONSULTING THE GENIUS OF THE PLACE - Wes JacksonWes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has been of the leading voices of the agrarian movement over the last four decades.  And yet, his books are relatively unknown.  This fate, however, is perhaps about to change, with the recent release of what is perhaps his finest work, Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to the New Agriculture.   The themes of place, biodiversity and the virtues of perennial plants that have abounded in Jackson’s previous books converge in Jackson’s thorough argument for a new approach to agriculture that is dictated not by market economies or agribusiness but rather by the land and ecology of a given place.  Jackson’s argument is fairly simple: humanity needs to learn to shift our agricultural efforts away from large-scale monoculture operations which contribute to the catastrophic effects of erosion and of the chemicals in the fertilizers and pesticides that such monocultures demand.  Instead, he argues, we should return to diverse plantings that include perennial crops and that fit with the land, climate and other ecological features of our particular places.  He says in the book’s preface:  “As our minds sweep over the past and back to the present, I want them to center on the natural ecosystems still with us as our primary teachers.  They are our source of hope.  Reduced in number and limited in scale, they still hold answers to countless questions we have not yet learned to ask” (xi).  The primary natural ecosystem, of course, that Jackson and others at The Land Institute have trained their focus – given their home base in Kansas – is that of the prairie.

Although Jackson’s argument is relatively simple and concise, he takes his time developing it over the course of the book, leisurely narrating story after story that illustrate and flesh out the keys points of his argument.  The stories he tells are literally all over the map, from his own experiences growing up in Kansas and spending summers working on a relative’s ranch in South Dakota, to those of Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to Roswell Garst’s hybrid seed farm in Iowa in 1959, and his stories include a host of colorful characters – many of which are ordinary people whose names will not be familiar to readers – which make for delightful reading and almost make one forget the dire ecological situation that has occasioned Jackson’s writing of the book.  One of my favorite chapters in the book is a collection of stories of people whose lives begin to embody the cultural changes that Jackson believes we need to make in parallel to the agricultural changes, specifically that we need to move “away from the extractive economy.”  For followers of Christ, Jackson’s first story in this chapter, that of his friend Leland Lorenzen, a man who was convicted by reading Thoreau’s Walden to adopt a simple life of voluntary poverty, holds much fruit for reflection.  For instance, Leland’s conviction that our lives of consumption are rooted in our constant “building or protecting of an image,” is a disturbing and challenging point that echoes some of William Stringfellow’s finest theological work on the powers.

Consulting the Genius of the Place, which borrows its title from a line in an Alexander Pope poem, offers us, in the style its writing, a rich parallel of what Jackson hopes we will be able accomplish in agriculture: not a one-sided argument streamlined and efficient, but rather a diverse mix of stories, science and preaching that are intertwined with the places in which they unfold, featuring many familiar stories whose roots run deep and tend to recur (perennially?) in our minds.   This is a book that we cannot afford to ignore, though its solutions are not magic, but rather are rooted in the sort of wisdom that calls us to deny ourselves and the consumptive patterns of the world into which we have been formed and to allow our minds to be made new and our hearts transformed.  Yes, there is indeed a gospel of hope here, one that resonates with the faith to which we have been called in Christ, and like the biblical gospel, we cannot hear the good news clearly until we have come to a deep understanding of the mess in which we find ourselves.  May our hearts and minds be open to hear what Jackson is preaching and may the Spirit lead us to confession and repentance!

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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