Featured Reviews, VOLUME 1

FEATURED: Liberty Hyde Bailey: Essential Agrarian and Environmental Writings [Vol. 1, #46]

“Hope in the Redemption of the Creation”

A Review of
Liberty Hyde Bailey:
Essential Agrarian
and Environmental Writings.

Zachary Michael Jack, editor.


By Brent Aldrich.


Liberty Hyde Bailey: Essential Agrarian
and Environmental Writings.

Zachary Michael Jack, editor.
Hardcover: Cornell UP, 2008.
Buy now from: [ Doulos Christou Books $29]  [ Amazon ]

Having only come across the prolific writings of Liberty Hyde Bailey less than a year ago – upon the recommendation of farmer/writer Ragan Sutterfield – the scope of Bailey’s work continues to unfold for me.   Recognition of Bailey’s work must also be rising on a broader scale, as evidenced by several publishers bringing his writing back into print this year, so that we may once again hear prophetic words from this early twentieth century agrarian. Bailey’s immense body of work is grounded in his own desire to see and experience the reality of the world within the creation, and to derive human culture at peace with the order of nature. From this simple desire came an outpouring of books; the newly published book Liberty Hyde Bailey: Essential Agrarian and Environmental Writings draws from ten of Bailey’s books, offering an introduction to Bailey’s work. Six of Bailey’s “Background Books” (including The Holy Earth and Wind and Weather) are excerpted here with three titles relating to the nature-study and Country Life movements, and The Apple Tree, for what editor Zachary Michael Jack calls “a Bailey anthology suitable for the general and scholarly reader alike” (3).

                Divided into nine thematic chapters, including “Workmanship,” “Community,” “Nature,” and “Appreciations,” this anthology does well to distill huge volumes of thought down to some of the essential ideas. The order of these chapters begins by characterizing the work of the agrarian as distinct from that of other occupations, then describes the social relations that constitute the relations of agrarian and industrial people alike, and the education of the agrarian, before offering Bailey’s writings which are mostly inspired by the natural world, and are indicative of the passion with which he writes. The selections from The Holy Earth read as a large manifesto for a theology rooted in “the essential goodness and quickness of the earth and the immanence of God” (185), and in sections from The Harvest of the Year to the Tiller of the Soil, this immanence is described in particulars, among them apples, wind, morning, and peaches: “This peach is sunshine. It is night, the twilight, and the dawn. It is dew and rain. It is noon, and wind, and weather. It is heat and cold. It is the sequence of the seasons, winter and spring, summer and autumn, and winter again, all of which have gone into the tree that gave it birth” (243).

                Overall, the order and selection of editing for this collection is excellent, and the anthology will be most helpful as an introduction to the immensity of Bailey’s writings. As for critical analysis, this book has a lengthy introduction, which is primarily biographical but helpful. However, this intro draws from a single Bailey biography by Philip Dorf which does much mythologizing of Bailey, and Jack similarly tends to mythologize Wendell Berry. Also, the original subheads have been omitted throughout The Holy Earth text, and none of the Wind and Weather poems are printed in their entirety, which is really unfortunate. Additionally, I must mention a casual reference made to Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” in the introduction, which is misread by Jack to place it in opposition to Bailey’s writing, which it is not. As for editing through Bailey’s work the selections are well-chosen, but as for contextualizing Bailey for the current agrarian dialogue, this book does not do that.

                Returning, then, to Bailey’s words, I was pleased to re-read many chapters from The Holy Earth that describe the holiness of the earth, and the agrarian vocation as a divine participation in the redemption of the creation: “the sacredness to us of the earth is intrinsic and inherent…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” (186). In many ways, to practice this conviction means to be in the most direct, un-mediated relation with the natural world as possible, to experience “brooks and nesting birds, and windy bloom, and soaring hawks, and horizons bounding real landscapes” (61). Many of the references to Bailey’s role as a teacher are not in the colleges of agriculture at Michigan and Cornell, but in the program of nature-study, for children, which is primarily about “directness and naturalness,” (117) forming a love for nature that is based in their own experience in it before any classroom or ‘scientific’ method. As always, Bailey wants to minimize any mediation between people and the earth in order to strengthen the relationship.

                This relationship extends also to relationships among people, with specific regards to militarism and nationalism, both of which Bailey witnessed coming to their inevitable end in World War I. Bailey deftly makes the connection that it is the same disconnect from natural processes, the inherent sanctity of the creation, that gives rise both to an industrialism that destroys land and life, and war which does the same. A root of both these disconnects is commercial rivalry, specifically as it is played out in an industrial free-market economy: “today we wage war…to protect ourselves in a dominion of trade. Peace does not lie in the present organization of society.” Bailey continues, sounding to me much like Thomas Merton, “We speak as if anything short of armed conflict is peace. This language really confuses the whole subject and obscures the causes. Armed outbursts are the occasional eruptions of a laval internal state: this state may exist even if no explosions take place, and so long as it exists there is no peace. To stop war or to avoid war is not to have peace” (159). Again, Bailey is after the root of the problem, looking past linguistic or economic justifications. He is radical in the true meaning of the word, not the political sense.  Indeed, this book reminds us several times that Bailey repeatedly refused public office, in favor of working directly with people, children, farmers, the land, and eliminating that which obscures the ‘reality.’

                Bailey has throughout all his writing a hope in the redemption of the creation, experienced by his life lived in direct relation to the earth. This hope is evidenced in his description of the morning: “One of the offices of the morning in the scheme of nature is its regeneration or renewal of all things” (250). The continual renewing and eventual reconciliation is the vision of the New Jerusalem, the garden city of Revelation. Bailey’s writing attests to the communion with the divine that is to be experienced in the creation, in rich theology and very mundane practices. The reach of his work is so broad because he views the entire creation as reflecting the nature of God, and all things as incarnational. This book is an excellent introduction to the breadth and depth of L.H. Bailey’s writing, and may serve to greatly expand the conversation around Bailey’s work to a much larger audience.

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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One Comment

  1. Brent, this is a thoughtful examination of Bailey’s life and work, along with an insightful critique of Jack’s work as editor. Thanks for doing the hard work, for doing more than just enjoying the beauty of Bailey’s words and images, and for looking to see how they might serve as an alternative form of communication about humans on the earth.
    Just go easy with my friend, Wendell, ok?