Featured Reviews, VOLUME 1

FEATURED: LH Bailey – The Holy Earth [Vol. 1, #29]

“Knowing the Creator
in the Creation”

A Review of The Holy Earth,
by Liberty Hyde Bailey.

By Brent Aldrich.

The Holy Earth.
LH Bailey.
Foreword by Ragan Sutterfield.
Paperback. Doulos Christou Press. 2008.
Buy now from: [ Doulos Christou Books $12 ] The Hoily Earth
In 1915, Liberty Hyde Bailey’s book The Holy Earth was first published as part of his series of “Background Books.” Bailey, a botanist and horticulturist, wrote this series as a call for the care of the earth as a holy and divine creation, a responsible and cooperative participation with the earth via agriculture and a concern for the increasing separation between people and the land, the backgrounds, as he names them. This book, then, makes the argument for local culture to use local nature as its measure: “the creation…is the norm.” Using nature as measure, though, the land and all its inhabitants must be understood as parts of a creation, so that “[the farmer] must handle all his materials, remembering man and remembering God. A man cannot be a good farmer unless he is a religious man.” 

                   This is a religion grounded and made manifest in the particularities of a place, which is practiced by the stewardship of the land and the peaceful relationships within the community. “If God created the earth, so is the earth hallowed; and if it is hallowed, so must we deal with it devotedly and with care that we do not despoil it, and mindful of our relations to all beings that live on it…To live in sincere relations with the company of created things and with conscious regard for the support of all men now and yet to come, must be of the essence of righteousness.”                   

           Overwhelmingly with this book, I am reminded of many of Wendell Berry’s essays, both in the large concepts, as well as many particulars, including saving land for wildness, an argument for diversified agriculture and the adaptation of culture to a place. This shared theme has been expressed by Berry, particularly in his essay “A Practical Harmony,” in which he traces back further to Virgil, and to Job, the “view of things [that] holds that we can live only in and from nature, and that we have, therefore, an inescapable obligation to be nature’s stewards and to live in harmony with her” (Berry, “A Practical Harmony” in What Are People For?). For Bailey (as for Berry), this means that “we shall find our rootage in the soil.”

          This rooting begins with the background spaces, “the large environments in which we live but which we do not make…the facts and situations that stand at our backs, to which we adjust our civilization, and by which we measure ourselves.” As the creation becomes the measure, all human acts must exist in accord to it. Bailey elaborates throughout the book on three practices that are in need of correction to be a “practical harmony”: agriculture, division of property and war.           

          Agriculture is given the most attention in this book; it is helpful to consider the rise of industrialized agriculture in Bailey’s day, and compare this to our present time. His warnings of “foods transported from the ends of the earth, and compounded by impersonal devices and condensed into packages that go into every house alike” have much the same tone as Michael Pollan, writing today about the similar need for unadulterated, natural food.

           A theme throughout The Holy Earth is the distance and the disconnect between a people and the land, people and food, people and materials, “and so we all live mechanically, from shop to table, without contact, and irreverently.” Bailey writes against the mediated experience, the irreverent and dispassionate life, not only in agriculture, but in the dividing of land and properties; of maps that ignore the particularities of place and other people, dividing the land into a grid despite rivers and hills; occupations and property that are based in selfishness.

          There is also this same concern in relation to the military, and to war. The Holy Earth was written at the beginning of World War I, and Bailey makes clear the connection of military destruction of people and land to the economic model that posits unlimited growth and resources. This underlying violence informs much of the abuse of the earth: “The organized destructiveness of those who would make military domination the major premise in the constitution of society, accompanying desolation with viciousness and violence, ravaging the holy earth, disrespecting the works of the creator, looking toward extirpation, confessing thereby that they do not know how to live in cooperation with their fellows…” Similarly, Bailey argues, in the diversity of life on earth, there is no example of this wholesale destruction; rather, the model found in nature is one of adaptation and interdependence, protecting the weak: “the very earth breathes peace.” 

          The Holy Earth is nearly a century old, although its words are just as fitting for the place we find ourselves in at the present; what can be depressing in reading it is how little we seem to have progressed since the first publication of the book. What is extremely hopeful, though, is to discover another person, decades ago, who was able to see the need to reclaim creation (nature) as the measure for our human culture, just as many of us have recognized this need in the present; again we are reminded that what we are doing is nothing new, it is just continued faithfulness, daily, to the call of inhabiting the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Remembering also, with Liberty Hyde Bailey, that “the final control of human welfare will not be governmental or military, and we shall some day learn that it will not be economic as we now prevailingly use the word…we shall know the creator in the creation.” Our hope is that we would learn to see – and to participate within – the kingdom of God already at work and revealed in the creation around us, and to adapt our culture to it.

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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