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Farmers and Humanists in an Age of Crisis: Technology, Death, and Resurrection

July 10th, 2019 | 13 min read

By Tessa Carman

As a teenager at my parents’ small-town church, I heard men in business suits express relief that they made it out of the farm where they grew up. “I got out,” they would say. The implication: I moved up.

I don’t begrudge them that they found farming not to their liking. I believe in following one’s calling—my own father left the family farm to pursue his vocation as a teacher and theatre director. But I did find disquieting the implication that the work of farming wasn’t just not for them, but beneath them.

This was my introduction to the common paradigm that seems to undergird our societal thinking: that white-collar work is superior to blue-collar work, that farmwork and manual trades are beneath our dignity. We may wax sentimental about the small farm, but the disciplines of farming and housework are still treated as drudgery. Such things are for those we deem lower than us. This has guided mainstream political policy as well: if a few communities are destroyed and people’s livelihoods disrupted for the sake of (government and business-determined) higher profitability and efficiency, that’s a sacrifice rural and small-town Americans will have to make for the sake of businesses those rural people will never know.

My own college’s stated mission was to produce movers and shakers in the top levels of American meritocracy, in the strategic institutions of corporate business, government, and Broadway. But amidst the hustle of New York, I found myself thinking more and more about my grandpa’s farm in the Midwest. What, I wondered, had rural northern Minnesota to do with Manhattan? What had my family’s farm to do with Wall Street? (Even Wall Street brokers need to eat.) Wasn’t the world run by these black and grey suits that I passed by on my way to classes every day? Wasn’t the world run by the great technological systems that these suited folks served?

Many of my fellow undergraduates—and, it seems, most of the policy makers and business leaders in America—were believers in the free market and in the resourcefulness of the human mind to solve any straits we find ourselves in—world hunger, nutritional deficits, health epidemics—through better technology. But this presumably unlimited resourcefulness of the human mind assumes unlimited capital with which to better the world. There seemed to be an unvoiced assumption that, if natural resources—water, topsoil—are unable to provide the raw material with which to create the technology to save us from ourselves, then we’ll simply be forced to create that technology ex nihilo—or else, as popular culture suggests, we’ll just use the resources from other planets once we’ve depleted this one.

To me this faith in technology and markets, or as Wendell Berry puts it, the “industrial formula: Science + Technology + Political Will,” seemed groundless, but I didn’t know how to articulate that doubt. I suspected, however, that the way of living practiced by my grandfather—a formidably industrious and entrepreneurial farmer keenly aware of human and natural limits—and his farming neighbors, had something to do with my intuition. And reading Berry—his essays, stories, and poems—compounded my skepticism.

The Work of the Humanists

Alan Jacobs’s 2018 book The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis traces the thought and writings of five Christian intellectuals—Simone Weil, Jacques Maritain, C.S. Lewis, W.H. Auden, and T.S. Eliot—who, in the midst of the crisis of civilization that was World War II, and just when an Allied victory seemed imminent, sought to outline a plan to “win the peace.” The Nazi threat was more than one of belligerent force: it attacked the moral foundation of liberal democracies, and the challenge, these five saw, was of winning not only by greater might, but by a greater civilization: what, after all, they asked, separates us from the Nazis? Moral superiority was in question, especially when violent superiority was devastatingly exhibited at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Each of the five Christian (mostly) humanists focused on education: the moral, intellectual, and spiritual formation of persons: thus T.S. Eliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society, Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, Weil’s essays on education, Maritain’s Education at the Crossroads, and Auden’s lectures. Jacobs’s unsettling conclusion is that all five thinkers were at least a century too late. Despite the great power and prescience of their work, none could prevent the cementing of the technological society, in which we have lived for the past hundred years.[1]

In the last pages, Jacobs considers the work of Jacques Ellul, who described our regime as one of la technique: “Technique has become the dominant factor in the Western world…. Technique now constitutes a fabric of its own, replacing nature. Technique is the complex and complete milieu in which human beings must live….” Perhaps this is the reason that our culture has seen fit to keep retelling the story of the “Greatest Generation” again and again, and yet again: it is a story we tell ourselves to distract us from what came next, from the moral failings of the peace. The Dark Lord became a clear evil with which to seek no rapprochement. He was defeated. But then Saruman’s “mind of metal and wheels” ascended. And technique is so established that we cannot imagine another way to be than within a technocratic, impersonal (even impersonalist) society. As Tolkien himself would imply in a 1958 speech in Rotterdam, Sauron was defeated, but Saruman took his place.

In the meantime, Jacobs’ humanists were not the only ones confronting this challenge. While Weil was furiously writing, Maritain was involved in rescue activities, and Auden was teaching in New York, the Bruderhof, a pacifist Anabaptist group, sailed from England to Paraguay. They began farming a new land, endeavoring to cultivate a Christ-like community from the ground up. While intellectuals raged in debate and soldiers fell in the front lines, the Bruderhof were cutting down jungles, digging wells, taming cattle, pumping water, and ploughing virgin fields.

Farmers Amongst the Yellow Vests

Michel Houellebecq’s Sérotonine arrived during the winter of the discontented yellow vests—and, more particularly, amid the growing farmer suicide crisis in France. Nearly two years earlier, on August 2017, Paméla Rougerie reported in the New York Times of a “quiet epidemic of suicide” among French farmers depressed by rising financial pressures: lower milk and meat prices seemed to be connected to the EU’s ending of quotas for dairy farmers in 2015. “The most recent statistics,” Rougherie reported, “show that 985 farmers killed themselves from 2007 to 2011—a suicide rate 22 percent higher than that of the general population.” In 2016 the Santé Publique France survey reported that, in 2010–2011, “the mortality rate of French farmers’ suicide is 20% higher than that of the general population and 30% only for the dairy cattle farmers.”

Set in rural Normandy, Houellebecq’s novel features a middle-aged agronomist protagonist who witnesses the showdown between local farmers caught in a cycle of despair, pinioned by agribusiness on one side and EU policies on the other. One scene describes an industrial chicken farm: “300,000 or so inmates, plucked and emaciated, struggled to live among the decomposing cadavers of their fellow chickens.” As Foreign Policy’s Robert Garetsk notes, it is hard not to notice a parallel between the chickens and their caretakers.

Houellebecq, though he studied agronomy before becoming a novelist and poet, is no Wendell Berry. And yet there is a strange meeting between these two very different novelists: each writes about people displaced by the regime of La Technique.

On Being Caretakers

In a 1974 speech, Berry argued that food was a “cultural, not a technological, product,” and that excellence, not efficiency, is the preserver of abundance. “To pursue quantity alone,” he said in his measured Kentucky accent, “is to destroy those disciplines in the producers that are the only assurance of quantity.” The culture—the families, songs, stories, relationships, home economies, and country—of a place is what preserves the possibility of producing food from that place for years to come. Pursuing the farms of the future, Berry warned, brings real damage to the present.

But the problem of stewardship is inextricable from a powerful cultural prejudice against small towns, farms, and rural communities—and their people. A set of potent clichés supports the reign of the industrial mindset: farming is a dead-end job; smart people are too “smart” to farm; farmwork is merely drudgery; former farmers have been “‘liberated’ from their narrow, depressing lives.” The idea of “moving up in the world” in a rural community always means leaving home. The hard truth is that, no matter how compellingly one may present the case for agrarianism, this prejudice works so powerfully that air-tight arguments for the necessity of small-scale agriculture come to nothing.

“We were meant to be pioneers, not caretakers,” sneers Matthew McConaughey’s character in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, in a concise summary of the industrial attitude. Wendell Berry counters that we are precisely meant to be caretakers: Work the garden, and keep it. But instead, we chafe at the work—slow, hands-on, laborious—required to sustain the garden. It’s easier to use up what we’ve been given, toss away our poisoned homes, and move West—or to another planet—to start the cycle again.

Why is our tendency not instead to overvalue the manual trades, husbandry, forestry, gardening? Why do we not rather hallow the work that is most foundational, original, and necessary? Tilling the dirt, bearing and caring for children, harvesting and preparing food—without these there is no business, no books, no prayer. There is no Augustine, no Shakespeare, no cathedrals, no banks, no schools, no churches, without topsoil.

We aren’t all called to be farmers. But we are all called to keep the Garden. Farming has historically been judged a lowly occupation, and our new technical, industrial age has only exacerbated our contempt. Why? If working the land was one of the first God-given commandments to the first human beings, why our disdain for work that provides basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter? Why do we so often treat care of the earth and the production of life’s necessities—food, clothing, and shelter—effectively as subhuman endeavors, things we do only because we haven’t yet transcended the need to live in a body?

I confess bewilderment when those who claim to believe in the God of the Garden are sniffy toward those who would voluntarily work with their hands or on the land, in the forest, on a farm. Too many Christians are quick to distance themselves from the Amish and amateur agrarians (to whom it is oft pointed out that they would not want to go back to a world without high-quality medical care, as if rotting teeth and distended bellies were an essential component of the agrarian life). It is clear that destitution is manual labor itself is deemed something we ought be rescued from. Escaping from manual labor, Berry writes, “is a large component of ‘the American Dream.’”

But as my grandfather would say, “Who will do the work?”

“We romanticize what we have first despised.”

In his essay collection, The Gift of Good Land (1981), Berry wrote that he had “seen enough good farmers and good farms, and a sufficient variety of both, to convince me beyond doubt that an ecologically and culturally responsible agriculture is possible.” But he noted two remaining impediments to the success of such an agriculture: the “low public standing” of “the discipline of farming,” and the rapidly diminishing number of living farmers to pass on their tradition. Contempt for farmers remains the rule, despite romanticization of the small farm. “It is the rule, I think,” wrote Berry, “that we often romanticize what we have first despised.”

Debbie Weingarten, reporting on the high rate of American farmer suicides in the Guardian, echoes Berry’s musings: after vegetable farming in Arizona, she took to journalism, “to explore our country’s fervent celebration of the agrarian, and yet how, despite the fact that we so desperately need farmers for our survival, we often forget about their wellbeing.” During the 1980s Midwest farm crisis, farmer suicide hotlines were established and helped prevent many suicides, but despite the rise of farm-to-table and farmers’ markets around the country, there remains a deep divide between rural communities and the rest of America. Today the suicide rate of farmers in America has increased. And the interdependent relationship of culture and agriculture ensures that addressing today’s crisis demands much harder work than any farmer suicide hotline can address.

Despite the weary work of defending the small farmer in a technocratic age that nevertheless depends on the work of that same farmer, Berry has persisted, in the nearly forty years since The Unsettling, to speak for those who care for fields and forest, and for those communities built around the disciplines of farming and forestry. In his latest collection, The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings, he contrasts what he calls the “industrial” mindset and the agrarian mindset. The industrial way of thinking is concerned with efficiency to the exclusion of nearly every other value. Really the industrial mindset is hardly distinguishable from the technocratic mind, or rather with Ellul’s technique, which “does not mean machines, technology, or this or that procedure for attaining an end,” but is rather “the characteristic mode of thought of the twentieth century,” which depends on commitment to two essentials: efficiency and objectivity. Writes Jacobs in The Year of Our Lord 1943: “If a person cares about values other than efficiency and objectivity, and therefore fails to flourish under the sovereignty of technique—as happens to many people—then the regime has means of dealing with her: technical means, of course.”

The subjective, as the N.I.C.E.’s Filostrato (from Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength) might say, is messy, unhygienic. It is only the quantitative that technocracy can deal with: the qualitative is either “transformed” or “annihilated.” And, indeed, the industrial mindset does not seek to understand or to work with nature: it seeks to remake it (the nature of soil as well as of humans) or, if that doesn’t work, eliminate it.

The Scouring of the West

When World War II ended, nothing could be as it was. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, it must be emphasized, is not an allegory for the Second World War, but, given that war’s lingering effects, it is no slight to its author to say that it is a work with great relevance and applicability to our own time. We may read “The Scouring of the Shire” as a realistic portrayal of the challenges of winning the peace: life can never be the same after a great calamity like a world war, and thus the relevance of this anticlimactic chapter applies to any postbellum community in any point in time. But for us, who are still trying to reckon with the regime in which we live, it is particularly pertinent, even damning for those of us without hobbit-like courage to rebuild and replant, who instead assimilated to the technocratic, global regime of which the United Nations was a harbinger. And so we continue to retroactively condemn Nazi and fascist sympathizers and distance ourselves from any who smell the least like them. But no talk will cover up the fact that we are still “men without chests.” The world excoriated in Lewis’s The Abolition of Man remains with us:

You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more “drive” or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or “creativity.” In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

One could add: We laugh at chivalry and are shocked to find predators in our midst. We make men without virtue and expect them to be honorable and self-controlled. We destroy rural communities (for the sake of efficiency) and insult people who work with their hands or with the soil, who are worth more dead than alive, and bid them feed the world.

Auden, Weil, Maritain, Lewis, and Eliot may have been “too late” to stop technique from its ascendance in the West. And yet, despite the lateness of the hour, Berry’s Mad Farmer would have us “Practice resurrection.” In this world, “winning the peace” may not be possible, given that history is, in Tolkien’s words, a “long defeat.” But Samwise Gamgee would still have us plant new trees.

Dark Age Ahead

Dead towns and dispossessed people—“jobless, homeless, hopeless, and unhealthy”—are not a harbinger of progress. In her “gloomy” and “hopeful” book Dark Age Ahead, the great urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote, “Some who are fortunate enough to have communities still do fight to keep them, but they have seldom prevailed.” Indeed, such people are often viewed as backwards, those who dare stand in the way of progress in the name of hearth and home. Jacobs and her “bunch of mothers” could oppose Robert Moses’s new highway system because they knew their neighbors and loved their place. But here is Jacobs’s warning: while the community exists, people “understand that they can’t afford to lose it; but after it is lost, gradually even the memory of what was lost is lost.”

Both Berry’s and Jane Jacobs’ work have at their root a desire to live well in the home which, for the time being, has been given us. After all, it is this world in which we are placed; there is no other in which to practice being at home. It’s a large world, but we are happily limited by the place we are in. This means that those who love their homes, like Berry and Jacobs, do not have the leisure to not think about the particularities of their place, or not get to know the land, the creatures, and the people—let’s call them neighbors—around them.

Labor as Embodied Creatures

If we were merely mind, then perhaps manual labor would be something to be liberated from. But I suspect that we, embodied creatures who are not simply mind, who take pleasure in a well-cooked meal or the satisfaction of splitting wood by hand, are blessed to work the garden. The curse is that we must toil as well: there will be frost, and famine, and sin. But the work itself is good.

For my own part, the local and particular love I owe my husband, my children, my neighbors, and the land where I live, bids me to rebuild bonds that were once economically necessary, but now must be more intentionally cultivated. I can take responsibility for the place where I am. I can trade eggs for music lessons with my neighbor. I can take my children to the farms where their food comes from. I can tell them stories about their great-grandfather, and my dad can teach them the names of the plants he grew up with. I can take them on visits to my uncle’s farm, but I can also take them to the farms just outside of our own town. I can teach them to see all the good we’ve been given in this life, and how to practice the disciplines of love.

It’s not an easy world. It was never meant to be. We’re simpletons if we think “the simple life” is free from worry, sin, and disaster, if we think that reading a Wendell Berry novel prepares us to skip into a way of life that takes generations to build. Rather, we must take responsibility for what we’ve been given.

One of my dad’s brothers left the farm in Minnesota and began a farm of his own in Central America. Musing on his fifty-plus years of farm life, he said, “A land cannot be blessed unless people learn its rhythms. And I have seen that it takes more than one generation to learn these and a conscientious generation to pass them on.” He would think of one of his friends, a subsistence farmer who has since passed away. “I still remember the last time I saw him. He was standing next to the year’s harvest of corn. A pile out on the ground of corn in the husk, maybe fifty bushels. But he knew it should be enough to feed his family and a few chickens until next year, and he was content. We stood there and looked at the corn and he was content, knew he was, and told me he felt he could die that way. And he did.”

Resurrection, not defeat, is ultimate. And practicing resurrection can begin with returning to the soil, where the death of the seed yields life.

  1. Jacques Ellul, “The Search for Ethics in a Technicist Society,” 1983. For more on “technique,” see L.M. Sacasas, “Jacques Ellul on Technique as an Obstacle to Ethics.”