What is not yet Seen Clearly
about Our Current Way of Life
A Feature Review of
American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland
Marie Mutsuki Mockett
Hardback: Graywolf Press, 2020.
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Reviewed by Karen Altergott Roberts
People may pick up this book because they are interested in farming in this century. Yes. And there is so much more, subtly woven into the story of a journey from Texas to Idaho with a harvesting crew. Faith and science are discussed within a team that has strong and divergent beliefs yet needs to work closely and in coordination. Some people find ways to talk deeply with the author and we come to see the world from multiple faith perspectives. We see the edges of belief, just as we see the boundaries of property. We learn about GMO, monoculture, highly sophisticated combines and people on the ground working as vital forces in the agricultural system. The author helps us understand the food of now. We experience, with her, a sense of otherness as city meets country, fundamentalist meets emergent faith, love of the land meets economic realities, daughter of Japan and the US meets the descendants of settlers who came to live on the land and natives who have always been here. We come to understand more about what is understood and what is not yet seen clearly about our current way of life.
I didn’t expect to learn so much about faith, family, work team dynamics, generational connection to land, history, the variation in agriculture from state to state, climate, urbanism, kindness, patience, and goodness. But I did. The author writes with a style I have never read before – gently integrating discussion of one topic with another, smoothly moving from work team interactions to faith distinctions, from the significance of life stage in faith development to the insignificance of human innovations in the face of weather events. She weaves together diverse topics in subtle and effective ways, and we learn more than we ever expected to learn. It is a book about so much more than one harvest season.
Marie Mutsuki Mockett spends a harvest season with a particular team of custom harvesters that has been helping her family for many years. The harvest and the travel through the heartland provide the central flow of this beautiful book. And the purpose of feeding the nation and the world underlies every action. Ordinary men and women work together for a summer to make the harvest happen. From here to there, just the harvest would have been enough for a story full of drama, pathos, cliff-hangers and comedy. Weather and machine either hinder or help. Team cohesion must sometimes be attended to, or things get difficult. The not-so-ancient crimes against the native people leave the land with untold stories. For over 100 years, her family has owned a piece of Nebraska and Colorado. The laws and social attitudes governing land ownership lead her to be challenged as she stands as landowner and descendant of a pioneer grandmother. Her persistence in getting to know, really getting to know, the people she is with, the land she owns as well as the other land the harvesters serve, and the many ways of faith have produced a book that will open our heart to new people and places..
While part of this story takes place on her land, she has the opportunity to compare her land with fields in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Idaho. Perhaps she also compares her life to her grandmother’s. Her grandmother was a writer in early life and gave it up after returning to the heartland to live out family life and farming there. There are many examples throughout the book of the existential challenge of truly being oneself, without hurting or hindering others. Sometimes, we do what we must, not what we wish to do.
Even as she informs her audience about the heartland, millions of acres of farmland are disappearing. Farming and eating habits change with technology, science, and choices people make with their lives and diets. The early experience of the green revolution reduced variety of food, and now different values and norms such as organic, traditional and highly mechanized and large-scale farming are seen as alternatives. What will this lead to? Care of the soil is something that has varied from generation to generation. How well will we care for the heartland of our nation?
In this annual migration, we see gender roles in a variety of community contexts. Gender roles are shown in an impartial and clear way. How do men and women develop their pathways in the midst of declining rural communities, and on the harvest caravans, and in different religious communities we get to visit? The author visits the variety of rural and small-town churches, pondering her own beliefs while learning about the beliefs of others.
One question or two gets repeated attention: what about hell, love, God? The various sermons she hears, the readings of Anne Lamott and Rob Bell, the conversations, the images in the book of Revelation which ends, as the author points out, with a city, all show us some of the theological issues that create barriers within the faith communities today. Her conversations with Native, Mormon, Amish, Mennonite, and other religious traditions are thoughtful, respectful and informative. Hell and judgment, acceptance and support, eclipse and social criticism, all are integrated as they naturally show up on the harvest trail.
There are several parameters that are shown to, if not divide, at least differentiate people. Are people city or country, Christian of one type or another, atheist, seeker or other, male or female, farmer or knowledge-worker? And if we are with people who are different from ourselves on every characteristic, how do we learn about each other? The qualitative research that underlies this book is a sophisticated blend of listening to others and oneself, and careful observations. Integrated into a main story of the harvest, this book teaches us so much. You may not like it if you want pure history, pure memoir, pure insight into contemporary agriculture, pure analysis of faith and theology variations. But you will love it if you like to learn about all these things woven together in a well-written story. At times, the author offers such beautiful, metaphorical writing, one just wants to savor it, like poetry. These moments appear abruptly, delight the reader, and then she returns to narrative. But the beauty of language never leaves the book; it is a joy to read.
Marie Mutsuki Mockett is a bridge-builder, a translator, someone who finds it easier to live between cultural variations within our country. She understands much, whether she is understood or not. This volume was written before the Covid-19 crisis in our country, but it is especially timely for several reasons. First, we need bridge-builders now. We need people who can observe and understand across a range of lived experience. Second, we need to be moved outside of our local way of thinking even though this is not a good time for travel. Read this and you may find a way to be understanding of the harvesters, the farmers, the native people who were assigned these vast areas of land in exchange for restrictions on their community ways, the high tech harvesters, the low-tech churches and the variations of belief about food, community, and the purpose of life. Third, we definitely need to learn about how our food is produced and how we are to live into the future, hopefully into a future in which hunger is conquered, understanding among peoples with different experiences than ours exists, and curiosity is greater than certainty.
Karen Altergott Roberts
Karen Altergott Roberts has been a faculty member at several midwestern universities, a pastor in Indiana, and a writer. She writes on social issues, teaches public speaking, and paints as a spiritual discipline.