“To live in right relation with natural conditions is one of the first lessons that a wise farmer, or any other wise man learns.” So wrote Liberty Hyde Bailey 100 years ago in his masterful work, “The Holy Earth” (free to all courtesy of the Gutenberg Project). The chair of the nation’s first Department of Horticulture and Landscape Gardening at Michigan State University, he placed himself squarely at the intersection of nature and civilization, and served as an able and passionate advocate for both.
Throughout his long, illustrious career, (at 92 he was preparing to go on a palm-collecting expedition to the Congo Rainforest when a broken leg thwarted his plans), Bailey understood that the human enterprise could not flourish without the manipulation of Earth’s bounties and resources, but with two major constraints.
First, that human use and refinements must always advance the health and capacity of the Earth, and neither limit nor diminish them, and second, that the equitable sharing of Earth’s resources is a desideratum for the well-being of humankind.
“The lesson of the growing abounding Earth,” he wrote, “is of liberality for all, and never exploitation or very exclusive opportunities for the few. More iniquity follows the improper and greedy division of the resources and privileges of the Earth than any other form of sinfulness.”
Bailey’s message of faithful Earth stewardship and equity for all rings strong and true even at this remove. All of us who toil in the primary green fields of natural capital including food, land, energy and water, as well as those of us work in the derivative “green” field of economics that both supports and is dependent on natural capital, should read this book on this notable anniversary.
Yet Bailey’s message is not new. It is captured and preserved in human memory in the very first chapters of the Bible. Adam and Eve were not merely passive foragers in the garden. They were tasked with tending the garden in a way that would both serve their needs and advance the goodness and health of the land (Genesis 2:15). They were called to manage Earth’s resources so all creatures would share and thrive, abiding by the limits of Earth’s natural boundaries that could not be breached without creating irreparable harm to all.
Such is the call to civilization today: How shall we live in Earth’s garden so that all creation, the entire biotic sphere, can thrive?
It is a timely question to ask, for it is not just the 100th anniversary of The Holy Earth but the sabbatical year noted in the Bible (Leviticus 25, Deuteronomy 15). For six years farmers can manage their lands as they see fit, within the confines of the Bible’s agricultural laws. But in the seventh year, the world changes. The land must lie fallow, fences must be torn down, horticultural commerce ceases, personal storehouses must be opened and shared, debts are suspended or forgiven and the produce of the land is open to daily, equitable gleaning for all.
The sabbatical year is the Bible’s cyclical counterpoise designed to correct and reset the seemingly inexorable impulses of greed, exploitation and aggregation of wealth that all too easily overtake the human spirit.
Through its laws of limits (whether regarding land, our harvesting of it, or the debts incurred by life’s bumpy exigencies), the sabbatical year poses fundamental questions whose answers help us reset our ethical and commercial compass.
In its restraint of production, consumption and capital, the biblical tradition asks us: How much is enough? How much do we really need to live the good life? How well could we all live if we worked “only” for the blessings and satisfaction of “enough”? What could we do with our time, energies, passions if we contained our appetites for the unnecessary, frivolous pursuit of goods that is driven by posturing, positioning or misplaced spiritual hunger, and instead devote ourselves to what truly mattered?
In its dismantling of fences and dissolution of private lands (albeit temporarily), the sabbatical year reminds us that such boundaries are artifacts; that in truth, all place, all life, all of Earth is intertwined and that we live at the beneficent grace of the flow of the natural and cultural commons. Without the wisdom of generations before us; without Earth’s healthy air, land and water; without the sun; without our ancestors stories and inspiration; without the open sharing of all this, we could not be as we are. We could not survive.
So we celebrate Liberty Hyde Bailey, and we celebrate the sabbatical year. May we live deep within their inspiration.