[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”1597310182″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/519b2WY5IuL.jpg” width=”222″ alt=”Lord Northbourne”]Wendell Berry’s Prototype.
A review of
Look to the Land
Paperback: Angelico Press, 2013.
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Reviewed by Alden Bass
The English Baron Walter James (Lord Northbourne) wrote his short treatise on the land on the eve of the Second World War. After being out of print for many years, it was recently republished by the “traditionalist” press Angelico Press, perhaps in response to the growing interest in localism and organic farming. Although it was originally composed nearly 75 years ago, the degree to which James reflects current trends in agriculture, localism, and back-to-the-land sentimentality is uncanny. Though not as influential in his own day, James is to 20th century UK what Wendell Berry is to the 21st century US.
James studied agriculture at Oxford in the 1920s before inheriting his family’s estate in Kent. On the farm he implemented new “traditional” farming methods, including the use of mixed crop-livestock farming, green manure, crop rotation, and a host of other techniques which we now call “organic farming.” In fact, James coined the term “organic farming” in Look to the Land. In contrast to farm-as-factory model of industrial agricultural, James believed that a farm must be seen as living organism: “the farm itself must have a biological completeness; it must be a living entity, it must be a unit which has within itself a balanced organic life” (58). Industrial agriculture upsets the balance of the life cycle not only on farms, but throughout human society. Disease, malnutrition, loss of soil fertility, and even “man’s strife against man” are both causes and symptoms of a larger “world-embracing disharmony” whose “effects can be traced to every department of human life” (113).
James’ central insight is that the fragmentation of modern industrial agriculture can be healed by the restoration of “wholeness”. The goal of his own farming practices was to achieve “balanced organic life.” Farms which rely on external inputs such as chemical fertilizers, cheap labor, and large-scale mechanization are imbalanced. Rather, organic farmers “look to the land” and achieve equilibrium by through the observation of two basic rules: the “rule of return” and the “rule of wholeness”. In the complex cycle of life and growth, the rule of return states that all which comes from the soil must return to the soil. This is the basis for the use of green manures such as vegetable compost and dung. The corresponding rule of wholeness governs the upward swing of the cycle: all that is produced should consumed without waste. Here James has in mind industrial food processing, which wastes huge portions of the organism (such as organ meat and less-desirable plant parts) in order to package it attractively and then sterilizes the finished product in order to distribute the food efficiently over vast distances. In the process, nutrition is lost and valuable microorganisms are killed. Modern agricultural practices interrupt both sides of the cycle, thus creating an imbalance.
Some of James’ prescriptions are quaint or only applicable to his native England, yet the majority of what he said in the 1940s will resonate with those concerned with whole foods, nutrition, food security, and healthy agricultural practices today. James was a trained agriculturalist, yet he wrote this book for ordinary people. He believed that the solution to the problems of a fragmented agricultural and social system would come from such ordinary folks, not specialists (and certainly not bureaucrats!) who learned to delight in the soil and in the production of their own food. His two agricultural rules are based not only on advanced agricultural theory, but on a more fundamental theological principle: “give and you shall receive.” “Love can express itself in many ways, but if it is genuine it means giving – not of gifts but of self” (113). One must be willing to sacrifice self by looking to land, with all the toil and difficulty that entails, for the sake of personal and communal wholeness. Even as Axis planes were dropping bombs on London, James took comfort in the power of the virtues of farming to heal and restore human life. He wrote: “Death cannot be overcome with his own weapons, be they bullet or knife or poison, but only by the cultivation of the good in life” (61). Berry couldn’t have said it better himself.
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