Torah and Agrarianism

October 17, 2008

[This post is adapted and expanded from notes for a dvar torah I gave this past spring.]

In all the talk of humanity’s punishment for mistreating the land, there is the understanding that while they exiled from it, the land will be “desolate.” It cannot be complete without the presence of its stewards; though it is harmed by their maltreatment of it, it is also harmed by their absence.

(I should make clear now that this all hinges on the translation as “desolate” of a particular, unknown—at least to me—word of Hebrew in my bible. I acknowledge I’m walking on thin ice here, at least temporarily.)

That the land is desolate—that it is devoid—implies a connection of mutual dependency between the land and the people who live on it. This is not discussing the mistreatment of the land—that is why they are gone: it is desolate after their removal, after they have ceased to mistreat it.

It is desolate because of the disconnect between mankind and the land that is home: the land falls desolate, and Israel is in “the land of your enemies.” The land suffers, as is implied in the word “desolate”; Israel will suffer during the period of disconnection, not merely physically—which could happen without the disconnect from the land—but in the soul, in a way that can only happen during the disconnect: “As for those of you who survive, I will cast a faintness into their hearts”; there will be “heartsickness”; and, most importantly: “the land of your enemies shall consume you.”

(If you allow me the digression and analogy: the land of Israel is the Harford place in Berry’s Port William; the land of their enemies is Sutpen’s Hundred, or the mansion at Frenchman’s Bend in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha.)

There is no completeness, either of the land or of the people, when one is absented of the other. The disconnect, prolonged too long, is fatal.

This leads me to the concept of “Kentucky Environmental Conservatism,” the latter word in both the sense of conservation and of the traditional. It is a poor label, I am aware, and I intend it as nothing more than a temporary shorthand to be discarded at the conclusion of this essay. For whatever reason, it is common among Kentucky men (and women) of letters. It is an eccentric little worldview, and one that I am somewhat susceptible to. It is also at least partially responsible for my Classics major.

To attempt to distill it and unfairly flatten a varied perspective that has produced and informed a range of beautiful (and, in many cases, underappreciated) works, it views modernity as a potentially threatening force, not because it is inherently immoral or dissolute, but because it, and excessive rationalism, leads to the disintegration of a sense of wonder and awe at the world; more precisely, Nature and Life. It can lead, that is, to an embrace of unthinking disconnect with, and abandonment of, the land. In Kentucky, it essentially has; hence the underlying urgency of the last fifty years of literature to come from the commonwealth.

To give examples: There was Guy Davenport’s unyielding hatred for the automobile, which he felt allows one to travel without ever going outside—without ever encountering the world; Wendell Berry’s refusal to buy a computer. Or, as T. Crunk puts it in his poem, “On Visiting A Church My Grandfather Once Pastored”: “Years later I will remember my grandfather saying they strip away the land but all they put back is the dirt.”

It results, Davenport claimed (“The Symbol of the Archaic,” “Olson,” etc.), in cultural disintegration, cancellation of place, depletion of resources, and the transformation of the human mind into a vacuum. He was not the most optimistic man to live.

You can find traces of it elsewhere, even in the works of the likes of Saul Bellow. In his novel, Herzog, the title character’s emotional, intellectual, and moral deterioration are linked to the deterioration of his home and property in the Berkshires. His fate, ultimately, is tied to that of the land.

Herzog’s lowest point occurs in downtown Chicago, not far, I think, from the Shedd Aquarium, which leads me back to the present. Some months ago, on one of the first (and more pleasant) days of spring, I went to Millenium Park with several friends. Walking across the street, coffee in hand, I failed, for some time, to find the “park” I had been promised. There was only concrete, and a concert lawn.

I was standing in the park, I was told, and was horrified. A park is not a concrete expanse; nor is a park a glorified median with benches and sculptures, despite the insistence of the city of Evanston.

Back at Millenium Park, what was more terrifying was that no one else I was with found this troubling. We eventually found a soccer field, and spread out with our books.

I like to think I’m not yet so pessimistic as many of these “Kentucky Environmental Conservatives,” though the last several months have made me doubt how much longer I’ll be able to resist the pull. But the concept underlying this loose worldview—mutual dependence of the people and the land—is not cynical, revolutionary anti-modernism. Though Berry accepts the title of “Luddite,” he rejects the connotations of its pejorative uses. It goes back to the idea that, even recovering from harm done unto it by man, the land will suffer; that man will become something less while absent the land: that each can survive devoid of the other, but neither can flourish.

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