Lines are everywhere. On a map, they tell us where we are—and where we’re going. On a piece of printer paper hanging from the fridge, they tell us which drawing scratched out by me or my brother was deemed most deserving of immortal familial praise—at least, according to my mother. Lines take us to, and through, the airport. Lines define political districts. And lines tell us what we own.
“You see that tree?” My grandfather’s voice was calm but stern. This was serious business. I knew from his jaw-line and the way he kept his face turned toward the sun—his mouth, eyes, and cheek bones flecked with the shadows of early evening.
“Yes.” I squinted into the distance. “I see it.” I saw lots of trees, but I think I knew the one he was talking about. It was bigger than the rest, its branches the width of most tree trunks.
“That,” Papa turned to me, “marks the beginning of our property.” I shook my head like I understood. “All those trees down there,” he motioned to the bottom of the hill, “and that pasture, and over that ridge back towards the old house?” I nodded to show I was listening. “That’s ours, sug. It’s the Old Tweedy Farm.” He took me by the shoulder, smiling. “Come on, we’ll walk the property line. One day, some of this will be yours.”
His land. My land. His tree. My tree. That piece of earth. That dust. That micro-fungal-floral-forest. It belonged to us. That’s what Papa was telling me as the sun began to fade over Campbell County, Va., and I was proud to hear it. I was proud to own something so beautiful. I was proud to be a part of it. I’m still proud. But the older I get, the more I question who belongs to whom. Did the land belong to us? Or did we belong to the land? If I could ask him today, I think my Papa would opt towards the latter.
Ownership is a tricky thing. When something is considered one’s property, it is handled with or without care. It’s considered the owner of said property’s right to decide how it is managed, used, or misused. The ethic surrounding “property” is muddled if present at all.
This said, it is an unfortunate reality that many view land, primarily, as property—something that is bought and sold, owned but typically not borrowed, and used to benefit an owner. Land is an investment, a taxable commodity, an economic venture. We have ultimately shaped landscapes with our eyes on profit and not place. Though land is many things, it is not always loved. And it is rarely known.
Wes Jackson, co-founder of The Land Institute in Salina, Kan., has said that “since the advent of agriculture, we have forced the land to meet our expectations.” He’s right. Though perhaps a bit dark in his perspective, it is true that we have been telling the land what to do a lot longer than we’ve been listening to it. Had we listened, the American prairie would never have been plowed into oblivion, strong-rooted perennial wheat would still sway throughout the plains, biodiversity would reign supreme, and the Great American Dust Bowl would be a thing of nightmares and not history. In the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, had they been listening, farmers never would have “approached farming with the attitude of capitalists rather than conservationists.” Had they been listening, the land would look different. It would be healthier. It would be more beautiful. Our food would even taste better.
Of course, it is important to note that many were listening before the first white settlers, emboldened by a wayward interpretation of the Biblical notion of “dominion” and a horrific concept of manifest destiny, made their way to the American prairie. Indigenous peoples witnessed the settlers refusal to listen to the earth with great pain. And it is only in remembering the truth of that story that we can begin to walk the path of reconciliation and righteousness.
Thankfully, many today are listening. They are remembering, and they are learning the meaning of yellow-flowered-fields hungry for sulfur. They are re-learning the taste of food staples like wheat. They are re-learning the power of healthy soil through cover-crops, nitrogen-fixing legumes, and microbial relationships. They are re-learning the meaning of hard work, and they are coming to know the dips, mounds, grasses, and vines of the fields they belong to.
This is a different way of being in relationship to the land—a way rooted not in concepts of “ownership” or “property,” but in communal notions of understanding and symbiosis. A shift in paradigm that can change how we live, eat, breathe, and exist as humans on this earth, these stewards of the field are advocating for a “land ethic” much like that presented by American ecologist Also Leopold in his A Sand County Almanac. In the words of Leopold, “A land ethic changes the role of homo sapiens from conquerors of the land community to plain member[s] and citizen[s] of it.” And isn’t that what coming to know the land does?
Isn’t that what farm-to-table chef Dan Barber is talking about as he travels from farm to farm—realizing what he’s been missing all along is a connection to, and understanding of, his ingredients? Isn’t that what organic wheat farmer, Klaas Martens, is talking about when he lovingly holds a kernel of wheat in his big hands and describes the humility he feels touching this ancient grain? A grain threshed in the Biblical story of Ruth, and placed, by some sort of providence, in his care today? Isn’t that what Wes Jackson is getting at by taking on a problem bigger than what he can fix in his lifetime? Is he not investing in the “land community” the same way that nature invests, long roots and all, in perennial wheat?
Isn’t that what they’re all talking about, at the end of the day? Living within our means, and loving what makes life, not only possible, but beautiful, and delicious, and worthwhile? I think so, and I think it’s holy. If the land belongs to anyone, it’s God. And what better way to celebrate, worship, and love our Creator, than by participating in the sacramental work of coming to deeply and truly love the land God has made and proclaimed good? What better way to love?