“Until we understand what the land is, we are at odds with everything we touch. And to come to that understanding it is necessary, even now, to leave the regions of our conquest – the cleared fields, the towns and cities, the highways – and re-enter the woods. For only there can a man encounter the silence and the darkness of his own absence. Only in this silence and darkness can he recover the sense of the world’s longevity, of its ability to thrive without him, of his inferiority to it and his dependence on it. Perhaps then, having heard that silence and seen that darkness, he will grow humble before the place and begin to take it in – to learn from it what it is. As its sounds come into his hearing, and its lights and colors come into his vision, and its odors come into his nostrils, then he may come into its presence as he never has before, and he will arrive in his place and will want to remain. His life will grow out of the ground like the other lives of the place, and take its place among them. He will be with them – neither ignorant of them, nor indifferent to them, nor against them – and so at last he will grow to be native-born. That is, he must reenter the silence and the darkness, and be born again.” – Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace. pg. 27, “A Native Hill”
Nine months ago we purchased 50 acres of land. Once wild forest turned farmland, the land is now mostly an overgrown mélange of moss, pine trees, and blueberries. Scattered throughout the land are the left behind reminders of the former residents. There are neatly piled rows of field stones made by farmers seeking to plant and harvest crops, and there are piles of scrap metal and trash left by the most recent resident. It has a history of both nurturing and abusing, of care and neglect.
We thought we were buying a place to call home and a place to try our hand at farming, but we have discovered that rather than owning a place…we are learning our place in the world. Like the character-shaping lessons of waiting and longing for a home…so are the lessons of being employed by the land. I like writing those words; because the one thing we have learned is the importance of remembering it is not us who employs the land. We are seeking to recognize there is a larger work that is already underway and join it rather than forcing our own way upon it.
Unfortunately it is the latter that is seemingly most common in life. We have forgotten our place in the world, neglecting our primary calling of caretakers. Some live in a posture of scarcity and consume at unsustainable and abusive rates. Some live with a crazed view, driven by poor theology, that our presence in the world is only temporary and thus justifying our left behind piles of scrap.
It seems Berry is right that most live at odds with the land. Most tumble along ambivalent to the very land that sustains them. We need to live with a new awareness.
Living within the awareness that we are employees of the land is what allows us to become farmers. It would be impossible to call ourselves such without the land. The land itself allows it. And it is the land that shows us our place.
The land requires new practices. No longer do we look at our calendar and determine our days, the work of the land now determines our calendar. The chickens, ducks, goats, sheep, and soon-to-be crops require a routine. Our schedules are determined by the land. The land requires aligning our lives to its seasons and ways.
The land reveals our ignorance. When we pride ourselves as owners…the land chuckles at our naivety. One day we too will be gone and our home will rot back into the soil from which it came. Our finite presence on this land will soon only be a memory; and the memory of the land extends long before and after our own. Our lives are but the time it takes a pine cone to fall to the ground compared to the length of time it takes the topsoil to form. When we plant a seed in the ground, our effort is limited to the planting and the nurturing. We cannot hurry productively. We cannot cause any plant to grow. We participate, we cultivate, we hope…but we are dependent on a land that operates on its own accord.
The land provides limits. Only certain types of crops will grow here. There is a limit to the size of a herd that can be hosted here. These limits can be abused and the land will bear the weight of it, but only for a time. It is only with respect of its limits can the land grow past its current condition. Only with faithful care-taking can the not-yet become the now. The soil can be amended, but not replaced. The overgrowth can be tamed, but never ceased. The land is what the land is. And it comes with limits.
It seems the land will have more to say as we continue to listen, but this is a start. These 50 acres have been a gift as we learn to love the daily routine of the chores, embrace the truth of our novice-ness, and live within limits.