Theology and Ethic of the Land
“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace. To avoid the first danger, one should plant a garden, preferably where there is no grocer to confuse the issue. To avoid the second, he should lay a split of good oak on the andirons, preferably where there is no furnace, and let it warm his shins while a February blizzard tosses the trees outside.”--Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1949)
My new year began on the right note the first weekend with a visit to the Southern Appalachian mountain cove farm that has been in my family since 1789. As the first generation to be born off this farm, I was blessed throughout my childhood and youth by monthly trips with my parents as they returned to their roots. By the time my late mother was a girl, one in two persons in the United States lived in urban areas. By the time I came along, that ratio had changed to two in three. For millennials, that percentage increased to four in five.
Even as people continue moving off farms and farther away from rural farms, a recent National Gardening Survey revealed that millennials’ interest in gardening has increased the number of practitioners of the nation’s #1 hobby to over 5 million.
My church, Caldwell Presbyterian, is one of at least ten congregations in the Presbytery of Charlotte with a community garden. (What better way to be relevant to millennials!) Even so, our summer youth mission trip to Heifer Ranch in Arkansas was an enlightening experience for the youth. During group sharing times in the evenings after working on the ranch, more than one of our youth vowed to change their eating habits after their eyes were opened to the environmental and human costs of our food production system.
Presbyterians for Earth Care biennial conferences are often a rich source of information and inspiration on sustainable agriculture. One conference featured a breakout session on permaculture. During another conference, Duke Divinity School scholar Ellen Davis taught us to read the Hebrew scripture with agrarian eyes. And at another, Columbia Theological Seminary’s William Brown shared his translation of one of my favorite scripture verses, Gen. 2:15: we are called to “serve and preserve” the Garden, Creation.
This year, the federal Farm Bill is up for reauthorization for another five years. This comprehensive legislation includes a nutrition title that provides for programs that address hunger, and a conservation title that includes such provisions as incentives for farming practices that promote soil health while reducing soil erosion.
Our organization’s name includes the tagline, “An Ecojustice Network.” Working together with faith organizations and other groups that are advocating for a sustainable agriculture in the 2018 Farm Bill, Presbyterians for Earth Care is guided by Restoring Creation for Ecology and Justice, a major policy statement adopted by the 202nd General Assembly in 1990, which reads in part: "The churches have a historic responsibility to be supportive of land stewardship, farm people, and rural community life. An important dimension of this responsibility is educational—nurturing a theology and ethic of the land. The Presbyterian church working with other denominations. . . should foster responsibility for protecting and restoring creation by building awareness of what it takes to till and keep the land."
At Heifer Ranch, dining hall staff daily monitor food waste by weighing what’s left in bowls and on plates. Reducing food waste and adopting a plant-based diet—along with dramatically reducing emissions from home energy use and minimizing automobile and plane travel—were one of three commitments contained in “Walk on Earth Gently: A Multi-Faith Invitation to Sustainable Lifestyles” addressed “to all members of the human family and to leaders gathered at the COP23 climate talks in Bonn, Germany last September. Presbyterians for Earth Care was among the organizations signing this invitation.
This is time of the year when farm fields in much of the Northern hemisphere lay fallow. Resting. I close where I began here, with a word from the father of the land ethic, Aldo Leopold:
"A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such."