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“Life From Our Land” Revisited

Seven years ago, it was a great honor and humble surprise to be asked to speak on of all things Agrarian Distributism. For me to do this square on would truly have been a clear example of the Peter Principal, for being by far the worst farmer who ever lived, and mostly inept in economics, I certainly would have been rising to the level of my incompetence. However, I tried to address this, in a kind of convoluted way.

Actually, the invitation stated clearly that my focus was to be my adventures as a farmer as presented in my new book, Life From Our land. Carl Olsen, editor of Ignatius Insight.com and Catholic World Report, had kindly stated that my book was “a rather unique book in that it’s not easily placed into a settled genre.” I couldn’t have agreed more, because even when I go into a bookstore, I’m not sure where to look for it! Within my book are elements of Nature, outdoor living, family life, autobiography, economics, agrarianism, distributism, subsidiarity, theology, biblical exegesis, apologetics, and a little bit of “preaching” to boot. Mostly, however, I wanted to discuss how I was rediscovering the most important priorities of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s not that I didn’t already have faith in Jesus; that I hadn’t already experienced rebirth by grace through faith and the waters of baptism. It’s just that there were important things that Jesus had said, necessary difficult things, that I had either forgotten, or never heard. 

For the first forty-five years of my life, I had no interest, knowledge, or experience in either farming, agrarianism, or distributism. I had been an engineer, an ordained pastor, a founder and manager of non-profit ministries, and now a director of evangelism for a Catholic university, but I had never been a farmer, not even a gardener! Then my wife Marilyn inherited a small portion of her family’s century farm in the Appalachian foothills of SE Ohio. The land had first been settled in 1825 by a Marylander and his family escaping the escalating industrial and economic chaos of the post-revolutionary Eastern states. What land was available had already been spent from generations of unsustainable farm practices, but rather than survive by surrendering as a human cog in the gangrenous spread of industrialism, the Morgans loaded up what they could on a horse-drawn wagon and headed west.

The family was looking for a new start, so they bought wilderness, heavily wooded and hilly unglaciated land in the new State of Ohio, which they cleared by hand, to feed and support themselves with what they could grow between stumps and brambles, and by raising sheep. They lived subsidiarity before subsidiarity was cool, as did all the settlers who founded all the small towns of the Midwest. And they lived happy, self-sufficient lives before electricity, indoor plumbing or heating; before gas, steam, or battery powered machinery; before department stores, radios, telephones, movies, television, internet, cars, trains, planes, Segways, laptops, social media, or smartphones. That’s not to say they wouldn’t have accepted these conveniences if they had been offered, but none of these things, upon which our lives have become so dependent, even crossed their imaginations. 

Our family’s goal, nearly 170-years later, was to escape the growing unrest, violence, pollution, and liberalism in the city, mainly for the sake of our three sons—not really thinking so much about a simpler life, or especially farming, and certainly not agrarianism. Unlike the settler before me, I left the city for the country with a job and an income—I didn’t need to farm to feed my family. We thought we were leaving the craziness of the modern city for the peacefulness of a house in the woods.

So, we built our saltbox home high up on the northern slope of a deep creek bed, overlooking the ‘new barn” over on the southern slope. The “new barn” had been built nearly a hundred years before by Marilyn’s grandfather who felled the trees, had the logs milled at a neighbor’s water-powered mill, and then with the help of neighbors, raised the barn—while the wives cooked a grand meal for all who helped. The barn had been built for a purpose, to house sheep, and like a house without a family is not a home, it was the constant sight of that old “new barn”, there across the hollow, that spawned our first thoughts about farming.

In time, we began dabbling with sheep, chickens, a small garden, a hand-milked Jersey cow and her calves, pigs, a horse, a goat, dozens of beef cattle, a half-dozen long-horn heifers and their calves—but through all of this, our largest crops were always wild raspberries, blackberries, and that blessed invasive species, Multiflora Rose. In the process our family learned something, maybe best said by Louise Dickinson Rich in her classic book, “We Took to the Woods”. When asked why she and her husband had chosen to live such a primitive life without electricity, in the mid-1930s, in a logger’s cabin in the backwoods of Maine, she responded:

“Why did we come to live here in the first place? We thought it was because we liked the woods, because we wanted to find a simple, leisurely way of life. Now, looking back, I think that we were unconsciously seeking to find a lost sense of our own identity. . . . I know that … perhaps most people … couldn’t feel that, living here, they held within their grasp all the best of life. So for them it wouldn’t be the best. For us, it is.”

“A lost sense of our own identity.” Louise Dickinson Rich wrote that in the 1930s, when technology, transportation, communications, and consumerism were far more than when the Morgans moved west from Maryland to wilderness Ohio a hundred years before, but exponentially far less than nearly a hundred years later in our day. To what extent have we and our children lost the “sense of our own identity” through our addictions to modern technologies and consumerism?

Nearly two thousand years ago, St. Paul gave a dire warning to his novice bishop St. Timothy that I believe has never been more relevant: 

“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it. (2 Tim 3:1–5)

Sound at all familiar? All around us are people who seem oblivious to Eternity—and I don’t just mean our neighbors who don’t go to Church. I mean Christians who have slowly over time become acclimated to a truncated version of the Gospel. The ease, availability, and speed of technology, as well as a culture defined by the pursuit and accumulation of wealth, has carried so many of us along on a rollercoaster of supposed progress—and the only time many of us notice how completely our lives have been altered by technology is when we try to do anything the “old fashioned way.” Most of us just quickly give up and return rejoicing to the newer, easier, quicker, cheaper modern methods and gadgets, because the muscles we need to do things the “old fashioned way”, as well as the patience, have all atrophied. Like when my oldest son and I tried to cut down a fifty-year old walnut tree with a two-man saw: after about fifteen minutes of back and forth, start and stops, and tons of sweat, we finished it off with a chainsaw. The point of this is that this is also true of our faith—the disciplines, devotions, and service that once were normal have been supplanted by easier, quicker, and more readily available techniques, resources, and media presentations. And of course, I’m not pointing fingers — this is true of me, too, which is what the book was about. 

In my book, I tried to describe how I came to rediscover the core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ by tending sheep, cattle, and other livestock; by failing at gardening; by trying to understand what is going on with our culture and economy; by getting a grip on preparing for the future of my family when the day comes that I no longer have an income to pay the bills; by understanding what is happening to my friends and family as they fail to see the need for Jesus Christ and His Church — and for some, this has meant not coming to see this before passing on to their next reward; and to ask myself, with all the opinions out there, how can I know which opinion is true? My goal in writing this book was hopefully to help at least a few more wayfarers, like me, find their way through the narrow gate.

I suspect that many Christians tend to believe that the primary reason God gave us minds and hearts was to know Him, or maybe also eyes and ears to read and hear His Word written or preached—and since the senses are gateways to our passions, they must be controlled! Well, yes, this is far more true than apparently most people in our world realize. But St. Paul also wrote, “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20). I have come to realize experientially that God gave us our minds, hearts, and senses to come to know Him, first, through the world that He created around us. 

The devil knows this, of course, and does everything possible to turn and distract the attention of our senses, and consequently our minds and hearts, away from anything that might point us to God. And so the vast majority of us fill our lives, our houses, and our extra storage units with as much stuff as we can gather, that entertains or satisfies us, or maybe distracts us from uncertainties, or gives us the false confidence that we can face any crisis—and most of this stuff only celebrates the creativity and ingenuity of Mankind. Most of us, then, plan for our “retirements”, doing everything within our means to make sure we save enough money to ensure that the stuff just keeps on a’comin’! In the process, however, we may isolate ourselves from seeing, hearing, touching, and tasting, and thereby recognizing with gratitude the most basic messages of God’s love and provision in His Creation.   

Christ called His followers to be so detached from the world—from the love of money, and the accumulation of stuff—that if the world around us were to fall, our souls would not be in jeopardy. Maybe it’s here that my experience of trying to be a farmer and living “on the land” taught me the most about what salvation and living the gospel truly means. It has helped me rediscover what in the end is most important. None of this is anything so profoundly new, but things which we all know but too often take for granted and ignore: property, prosperity, prestige, success, power, popularity, none of this lasts. In fact, they can all be distractions and detractions from attaining that which is most important—hearing in the end those words from our Heavenly Father, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” 

In the end, how have we loved? When we are gone, and our spouse, children, grandchildren, and friends all gaze down at our lifeless body in an overly priced casket, how will they remember us? As one who lived selfishly, or selflessly loved? If we arrive in heaven, by the grace of God, how will He introduce us to those there that we meet? As one who loved?

Lord, help us to let go of ourselves, and all of our stuff, for the sake of everyone else whom You have called us to love.

(For information on getting a copy of Life From Our Land, click here.)

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