Intimacy with the Land

By S. Roy Kaufman | Mar 5, 2013

One of the beauties of farming as a way of life is the intimacy that it affords farmers with land and the natural community of life among which we humans live. Writing in the Iowa State University newsletter of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Fred Kirschenmann writes, “Every farmer ultimately knows that good management requires intimacy. Like all living organisms, farms constantly change and therefore close involvement with the plants, animals and soils of the farm is essential to skillful farming.” (Leopold Letter, Summer, 2012, p. 5)

This intimacy has been reduced by the pressures of industrial agriculture to specialize and achieve economies of scale. Farmers, like the rest of us, have been encouraged by Enlightenment philosophy to see a disconnect between themselves and the rest of the natural community of life among which we live. We are led to believe that we can “master” nature. We claim to own the land to use as we please, instead of seeing ourselves as a part of natural systems and dependents of the land.

But even so, most farmers I know pay close attention to their land. They learn to know how the land lies, what creatures and plants are most likely to thrive on each part of their land. They observe how the land absorbs and holds the moisture, where it is likely to erode, and how best to conserve the soil. Undoubtedly there are moments, perhaps daily, when farmers pause in awe at the mystery and grandeur of life in which they are privileged to play a part as tillers of the soil and keepers of the plants and animals we have shaped to form our agriculture.

This intimacy with the earth which sustains our lives by God’s providence and grace is something that is also sought and claimed increasingly by people in every walk of life, including urban dwellers. It explains the explosion of urban gardening we witness in decaying cities like Detroit. It is in no small measure the reason for the popularity of the local food and community supported agriculture (CSA) movement which links rural food producers with urban consumers. Often these CSA’s will encourage and invite urban consumers to visit the farm and assist in caring for the crops and livestock. There is deep within us, alienated as we are from nature, a longing to be more connected with the deepest sources upon which our lives depend.

Some years ago Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute in Salina, Kan., wrote the provocatively titled book, Becoming Native to This Place. The title suggests that the heart of the agricultural task is learning how to fit in and belong to the place we find ourselves. Another provocative book title in my library is Learning to Listen to the Land, a collection of articles about sustainable ways of living here on planet Earth. And still another book I have is titled Meeting the Expectations of the Land, suggesting that it is the land, and not we humans, that calls the shots. As Fred Kirschenmann says at the end of his column, “Being ‘a part of’ our world instead of ‘apart from it’ will be critical to any sustainable future.” (Ibid.) It is important for each of us, farmers and city dwellers alike, to learn how to “be at home” in the place we find ourselves, to be content there, but also to understand how and where we fit in the grand scheme of things, this web of life in which we find ourselves.