It was the fourth of July, American Independence Day, and I was out hacking weeds on our property, in particular poison oak, a beautiful plant, but not so pleasant for the skin. This has been my effort for the past several days: chop out the poison oak and wild raspberries growing along the pathway on the side of our property. It’s sweaty work and my arms get tired but it feels great to be doing the work, an act that I know is caring for the land here. I don’t like to cut flowers growing in the garden, as I think they will last longer on the plant itself, and it is a joy to see them in the garden, but in taking care of a garden and nurturing the plants on our land, I’ve come to see the value of trimming plants. Just as people need to cut their hair and fingernails, plants grow better with a bit of trimming. It takes time to learn how to care for the land you live on and the plants that grow there. As I think of it now, gaining that understanding and making the effort to care for that bit of earth where you live could be viewed as a patriotic act. More than singing a song or saying a pledge, getting out to water and weed is literally caring for the country where you live–wherever it is you live.
In the United States, we sing the song “America the Beautiful,” and one of the things that keeps America, or any country’s land beautiful are people who grow to know the land they live on and to nurture that relationship to it. If you want your family to function well, or if you are in a close relationship with someone, you need to act in caring ways on a daily basis if you want the relationship to continue and to be satisfying. You do the things that keep the growth going and the communication close. You pay attention to each other’s needs. Different people in a family have needs unique from each other according to their personality and their history. You might have a babysitter for the children now and then, but connection between people deepens when there is a long term commitment and connection, such as a parent has for a child as he or she grows. A parent is there for the long haul. It is similar in developing a relationship with the land we live on. If we see the place we live as just a place we crash, or if it is merely a place for commercial investment, we will not care for it in the same way as if we see it as our home, the place we belong. When we see it as a relationship, as a place of belonging, we are willing to get out there and weed for hours and weeks over periods of years. We study the best way to trim back the vines, we give the vegetables compost. We learn what activities erode what you want to remain solid, and which not.
Wendell Berry describes what this kind of connection to the earth looks like in his essay, “Conservation and Local Economy.”
I. Land that is used will be ruined unless it is properly cared for.
II. Land cannot be properly cared for by people who do not know it intimately, who do not know how to care for it, who are not strongly motivated to care for it, and who cannot afford to care for it.
III. People cannot be adequately motivated to care for land by general principles or by incentives that are merely economic—that is, they won’t care for it merely because they think they should or merely because somebody pays them.
IV. People are motivated to care for land to the extent that their interest in it is direct, dependable, and permanent.
V. They will be motivated to care for the land if they can reasonably expect to live on it as long as they live. They will be more strongly motivated if they can reasonably expect that their children and grandchildren will live on it as long as they live. In other words, there must be a mutuality of belonging: they must feel that the land belongs to them, that they belong to it, and that this belonging is a settled and unthreatened act.
VI. But such belonging must be appropriately limited. This is the indispensable qualification of the idea of land ownership. It is well understood that ownership is an incentive to care. But there is a limit to how much land can be owned before an owner is unable to take proper care of it. The need for attention increases with the intensity of use. But the quality of attention decreases as acreage increases.
VII. A nation will destroy its land and therefore itself if it does not foster in every possible way the sort of thrifty, prosperous, permanent rural households and communities that have the desire, the skills, and the means to care properly for the land they are using.
Just as a relationship with another person would be unsatisfying and dehumanizing if people entered into it only for what they could get out of it, as if it were a commercial enterprise, so it is with our connection to the place we live. You stay with the land through drought, as we are currently experiencing in California and give what you can to help things along, conserving water while still thinking ahead to the future–not knowing what will come, how long you will need to wait before the skies bring rain. I want to think of loving the country of my birth as literally loving and caring for the earth I stand on, the earth I work to understand and nurture.
On one blog I follow, Mozzarella Momma, Patricia Thomas, journalist for the AP in Italy, quotes Pope Francis’s recent description of humans’ relationship with the earth, “We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor….” The pope goes on to express concern for the “environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all,” reports Thomas. It’s critical that loving the country we belong connects to carrying for the earth itself and doing the things that will help it to flourish into the future. Without nurturing the earth, our country, as well as the earth will eventually not be able to sustain itself. If we keep taking from a relationship without giving back little of the relationship will be left at all. This begins by paying attention to where it is we live, and its physical needs, to the things that make it healthily beautiful, and that will help it continue to be this way into the future.
Soon, a family member of mine will be celebrating a wedding anniversary of several decades. After years of living together as a couple, you know each other, just like you know the house you grew up in, just as you know the land you walked daily down your driveway as a child to the bus stop or the end of your block. You know the tunnels and dark places, as well as the open field or yard, know when and why certain plants flower when they do. You know that place in all its seasons. In Wendell Berry’s poem,”They Sit Together on the Porch,” Berry describes a couple that have been in relationship with each other for a long time.
They sit together on the porch, the dark
Almost fallen, the house behind them dark.
Their supper done with, they have washed and dried
The dishes–only two plates now, two glasses,
Two knives, two forks, two spoons–small work for two.
She sits with her hands folded in her lap,
At rest. He smokes his pipe. They do not speak,
And when they speak at last it is to say
What each one knows the other knows. They have
One mind between them, now…
The poem goes on to describe how the couple awaits the coming darkness, not knowing who will be the first to go and who will be left sitting alone, but the love is there, and felt between the silence. They are at rest with each other and with the place they inhabit. They have taken care of each other for many years. They are at peace with each other and with the earth. This is a vision to work toward, people at one with each other and with the earth.