2016 - Issue Two

Tilling and Keeping

Margaret Harper McCarthy Download Article
The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.
Genesis 2: 8‒9; 15 (RSV)

In our second issue on ecology we take up the first work of man in the garden: “tilling and keeping.” Here we consider two questions which that work raises: about the relationship between the “garden” and the “gardener,” and about who—or what—is at the center of it all. The last question usually gets caught up in the either-or of the two bad alternatives discussed in our first ecology issue. But Virginia farmer Joel Salatin―whose Polyface Farm became a sort of mecca after his meteoric rise to fame with the appearance of The Omnivore’s Dilemma—offers a way forward. This would take us beyond the choice between, on the one hand, the unchecked human “dominion” of nature, and on the other, the misanthropy which plagues so much of the environmentalist response to it. Tortured by the failure of his own evangelical world to bridge the gap between the value of human life and non-human life—not to mention the “anthropocentric” disregard of the latter, especially in the production of food—Salatin takes the “pro-life” outlook to the pastures, standing at the bridge “like Queen Esther,” rooting, in his case, for a “community of beings” which nonetheless maintains the distinction between those beings.

Salatin is not a “tree-hugger” (his disclaimer).  He recognizes that he is making the case for the “community of beings,” that he is shepherding the non-human members of “the community,” and that much of this is for the purpose of his food (and ours). The point that Salatin makes, both as farmer and as author, is not that every living organism is on the same level, but that in every case one is confronted with something or someone that is already something or someone—with a given nature—to which, therefore, attention must be paid, for its good, and then for ours (the eaters’). We are reminded of what Fabrice Hadjadj wrote on the origin of the idea of “matter” that the Greeks took from the “wood” (hylè) of a living tree, to which the Romans later added the idea of maternal potency (mater, materia). Living plants and animals are not mere raw material. Each has its own inner capacity to bear fruit, having a “life of their own,” so to speak. Salatin begins there, taking stock of that life.  Then he raises his crops and animals in accord with it, in accord with the “pig-ness of the pig,” as he calls it. 

This is what the older farmer Masanobu Fukuoka (1913‒2008) meant when he championed the activity of “not-doing,” which, as our reviewer explains, is really “a human ‘co-working’—a simple sophistication, involving precise timing of sowings, clever use of ground cover, and ‘random’ applications of straw.” This has nothing to do with taking the “gardener” out of the picture (“biocentrically”). On the contrary, the same reviewer insists: “just because his approach is free of machines and chemicals does not make it any less the fruit of human intellect—indeed, it arguably makes it more so.”

Calls to return to a proper relation to the nature of things—beginning with a recognition that there is such a thing—are not as obvious as one might suppose in an era dominated by talk of sustainability, biodiversity and organic farming. How else do we explain the fact observed by Pope Benedict XVI that “the manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned.”[i] It is clear enough that the absence of a proper relation to the natural order is at the heart of the degradation of the natural world to which environmentalism is a response. But it may be that parts of the environmental movement itself suffer the same absence, especially where appeals for “mother earth” are made along-side campaigns for assault—chemical and otherwise—on the human mother.  Human inconsistency aside, might it be that in this case the guiding principle is not so much a return to nature—and its “community of beings”—so much as recourse to short-term solutions for crises (rightly or wrongly perceived) in a world of competing subjects?  This may explain, in part, the apparent schizophrenia, even among modern-day Mennonites who offer some of the best “back to nature” advice in their More with Less books, while, at the same time, being party to the promotion of population control in the missions. 

It should not come as a surprise that, where a proper relation to nature (human and otherwise) is lacking, its effect will come either in the form of the abolition of the natural world, or the abolition of man, or both. As C.S. Lewis wrote:

The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself. Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. We shall have ‘taken the thread of life out of the hand of Clotho’ and be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be. The battle will indeed be won. But who, precisely, will have won it?[ii]

The antidote to this is what the Canadian philosopher Kenneth Schmitz calls “the new asceticism of power” grounded in a “new attitude to things which respects in them their interiority and their depth,” and a (non-sentimental) love of things “that sponsors our mutual well-being. . . a companionate love.”[iii]

Indeed, some new farmers are trying to re-establish this attitude by re-establishing the relationship between the family and the farm. In the footsteps of Wendell Berry, Patrick Fleming and Jesse Straight point to the mutual benefit between the two. On the one hand, the farm provides the family with a common project (beyond the much celebrated, but evidently fragile, affective bond) and a productive household (beyond the merely consumerist one, so prevalent today). On the other hand, the family provides the farm with an end other than profit alone. A family farm is, as Fleming says, a setting for a family’s life; and, as such, becomes the object of a particular concern and affection, likely an intergenerational one.  This is true even for the back-yard garden when it provides a “little way” for practicing permaculture, as Meghan Schofield witnesses.  Aside from everything else, where the family and the farm (or garden) come together, the land is not easily sold to developers! In sum, as Pearce suggests in his Small is Still Beautiful—an update of Schumacher’s classic—it will be the family that will put the break on the “giantist” tendencies that degrade the land and, not to mention, our health.

Finally, returning to the question of what stands at the center of all of this, we turn to neither of the two alternatives, but to the Source and Origin of each, represented by “the tree of life in the middle of the garden.” It is only by “re-ascending to origins . . . that we should be able to return with great spiritual knowledge, to our own situation,” observes T.S. Eliot in his classic essay “The Idea of a Christian Society.” But the re-ascent, of course, falls pre-eminently on the shoulders of the “gardener” whose unique freedom is called into play with the command about that other tree in the middle of the garden. As Angelo Cardinal Scola argues, everything depends on that drama between God and man. Will the garden—our world—be grasped at or received in wonder and gratitude?

It is in view of the way the drama played out in the God-man that Christians can consider farming to be “apostolic” as Catherine de Hueck Doherty proposes. Turning to her native Russian language which uses the same word for “farmer” and “Christian” (Krestianin), the foundress of Madonna House (in Combermere, Canada) conceives of farming as a form of the Christian Apostolate. For it is not the case that “anything will do” in order to meet others, or even to do good for them—feeding the hungry, etc. To work on the land is first and foremost to participate in the “restoration of all things in Christ.” And that is reason enough for anything.


Margaret Harper McCarthy is an Assistant Professor of Theology at the John Paul Institute and the US editor for Humanum. She is married and the mother of three teenagers.

Keep reading! Click here for Cardinal Scola’s article, O beauty, O world drunk with eternal love and life!

[i] Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the Roman Curia, 22 December 2012.

[ii] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1955), 72.

[iii] Kenneth Schmitz, The Recovery of Wonder (London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), 119.