Making a book list

Here’s a tip that may have already occurred to most people. My book shelves are overflowing, and there are a lot of books which I am sure I won’t be reading anytime in the near future if ever, but which I am not yet ready to get rid of. Those I plan to store in boxes in the basement.

So that I don’t forget that I own those particular, I wanted to make a list of books and the boxes they are stored in. A tedious thing to do by hand, but it occurred to me that using an online book catalog service might speed things up. I created an account on LibraryThing, and it’s pretty quick work to type in the ISBN of each book as it goes into a box. (I give the books tags like “box1,” “box2”.)

The Gift of Good Land, by Wendell Berry

Anyone thinking about agrarianism has to deal with Wendell Berry at some point. Berry is by far the most well-known proponent of agrarianism today; one of the chapters in Allan Carlson’s The New Agrarian Mind is devoted to his thought and writings. Although he is often touted by liberals and environmentalists for his stands against imperialsm and industrialism, Berry has come to those positions from a different place than usual, and quite often his fans are brought up short when he begins to talk about the sanctity of life, or tobacco, or the Gospel, or his refusal to give up his typewriter for a computer. Conservatives generally don’t like him at all, because he insists that human endeavors must be limited in scope and is perfectly comfortable with having the government impose those limits.

Early in my studies of agrarianism I was a Berry enthusiast. As I’ve read more widely in the area and learned more about the subject in general and Berry’s thinking in particular, I’ve become less enthusiastic—and more respectful. My enthusiasm waned as agrarianism became less an abstract philosophy to me and more a practical approach to living. Wendell Berry is a thinker’s thinker, one who conducts his analysis at a very high level, and as I got caught up in the concrete details of agrarian living his analyses became harder and harder to apply. But my respect grew for the same reason—I could tell from his writings that he was able to apply his principles to his own life and come out at a place where I wanted to be, and so the challenge was to understand those principles deeply enough to apply them myself.

So I return to Wendell Berry often, but not for the pleasure of reading him. For a congenial read I much prefer Gene Logsdon, and for practical exhortation I turn to Joel Salatin. Berry is an excellent writer, and his subject matter is so difficult that I couldn’t begin to understand it if he were any less a writer. But his writing is austere, as is his thinking; rigorous and uncompromising. I know he must be warm and personable, since Gene Logsdon is his very good friend, and he is respectful and admiring of small-scale farmers. But little of that comes through in his writing. (I must point out here that I have only read his essays, not his novels or poetry, kinds of writing I am unable to judge anyway.)

I’ve read nearly all of Wendell Berry’s nonfiction writing, and have wanted to offer at least one of his books in our bookstore as an introduction to an important strain of agrarian thought. But none of them seemed quite right. His best-known book, The Unsettling of America, is very good but one is more likely to appreciate it after having read through some of Berry’s shorter works. Last week my friend D.J. Hammond asked me if I had read his collection of essays called The Gift of Good Land; I thumbed through his copy and realized that, although I had a copy of my own at home, I had not even looked at it. D.J. was very enthusiastic about it, and so I wondered if at last I’d found the book to offer.

I’m still not sure. I finished it tonight, and I enjoyed it very much, but I’m still trying to figure out whether it is a good introduction to his work. Some of the essays are very short, some very long. Some are about very practical matters (small scale farming in the Peruvian Andes, an Amish man and his children and their seven farms) and some quite abstract (gardening as an effective protest against industrialism). The essays I enjoyed the most, having read Berry extensively, are probably not the ones a first-time reader would like the best. So I have to think about it some more.

My favorite essay was the title essay, “The Gift of Good Land.” Wendell Berry is a Christian, the sort that drives his conservative brothers a little crazy. He doesn’t wear his testimony on his sleeve, he doesn’t evangelize, and his theological writing is far from systematic. He just assumes that the Bible speaks to all areas of life, and then tries to figure out what the Bible has to say about things that worry him. In “The Gift of Good Land,” he tries to extract a basis for agrarianism from the story of God giving His people the Promised Land. What he sees in this story is that the land was a gift, one that put the recipients in a moral dilemma to which the only answer was stewardship:

Charity is a theological virtue and is prompted, no doubt, by a theological emotion, but it is also a practical virtue because it must be practiced. The requirements of this complex charity cannot be fulfilled by smiling in abstract beneficience on our neighbors and on the scenery. It must come to acts, which must come from skills. Real charity calls for the study of agriculture, soil husbandry, engineering, architecture, mining, manufacturing, transportation, the making of monuments and pictures, songs and stories. It calls not just for skills but for the study and criticism of skills, because in all of them a choice must be made: they can either be used charitably or uncharitably.

How can you love your neighbor if you don’t know how to build or mend a fence, how to keep your filth out of his water supply and your poison out of his air; or if you do not produce anything and so have nothing to offer, or do not take care of yourself and so become a burden? How can you be a neighbor without applying principle—without bringing virtue to a practical issue? How will you practice virtue without skill?

The ability to be good is not the ability to do nothing. It is not negative or passive. It is the ability to do something well—to do good work for good reasons. In order to be good you have to know how—and this knowing is vast, complex, humble, and humbling; it is of the mind and of the hands, of neither alone.

The divine mandate to use the world justly and charitably, then, defines every person’s moral predicament as that of a steward. But this predicament is hopeless and meaningless unless it produces an appropriate discipline: stewardship. And stewardship is hopeless and meaningless unless it involves long-term courage, perseverance, devotion, and skill. This skill is not to be confused with any accomplishment or grace of spirit or of intellect. It has to do with everyday properties in the practical use and care of created things—with “right livelihood.”

I think Berry is right about what it requires to treat your neighbor with charity. Whether he is right to draw those conclusions from the story of God giving His people the Promised Land, I don’t know yet. But I will be studying on it.

Older writings

Years ago I wrote a series of essays for the Every Thought Captive newsletter. I thought I had posted them all here and here, but now I discover that at least one was left off the list. So I’ve posted it, an essay titled “Modeling Faithfulness for Our Children.”

As often happens when I re-read my older writings, I thought I made the point well enough, but I’m surprised at how much my style has changed since then. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to decide whether it is a change for the better.


Even though a few weeks back we had enough compost delivered to last us quite awhile, we’re already looking ahead in hope that we’ll someday be self-sufficient in that area. Our friend Roger who lives nearby keeps cows, and periodically he scrapes together their manure into a big pile. He was about to have the pile moved over to his garden area, and he offered us as much as we wanted. Since you can’t learn to turn manure into compost without some manure, we quickly took him up on the offer.

The problem, as always, was how to transport a high volume of a relatively low-value substance. I hoped to arrange for a dump truck to move a load, but no luck. So the best we could do was use our pickup truck, which will carry maybe 1 1/2 tons worth. Roger had arranged for a Beachy Amish neighbor to use his Bobcat to move the pile, and to load our pickup. There wasn’t really time to get a load, take it home, unload it, and come back for another one. But Roger was kind enough to lend us his pickup as well, so we could get two loads.

This evening we drove over at 6pm and met the Beachy Amish fellow at the manure pile. He filled our truck, which I parked there, and then Roger’s truck, which Chris and I drove home. It took us about half an hour to shovel out the manure, and close to another half hour to wash out the truck. Then we went to put some gas in Roger’s truck, dropped it at his place and picked up our own truck, then drove home and parked our truck in the field where we had dropped the manure. Unloading can wait until tomorrow.

It was nearly dark as we walked up from the field to the house, and there wasn’t much of the evening left, but that in itself was satisfying. We’d gotten some useful work done after supper, and we had taken a first step in an important area. Now all we have to do is figure out how to make compost out of that stuff.

Stillwater Farm

Last week Chris, Matthew, and I drove a few hours east to visit our friends the Hammonds in Mendota, Virginia. While we lived in Bristol I kept a close eye on D.J. Hammond as he and his wife Jennifer forged ahead and began to build Stillwater Farm, an old-fashioned homestead on ten acres in Poor Valley. Our families got together often and talked about our very similar visions for what such a life could mean to us. (You can hear some of that conversation on the Plain Talk interview I did with D.J.)

Without the example that the Hammonds set for us I doubt we would be anywhere near as far along as we are right now. And since they have focused on raising livestock, a direction we want to pursue, it seemed like a good idea for us to pay a visit and take an up-close look at how to manage animals on a relatively small property.

We showed up around 11am, and D.J. told us he had decided the best course of action was to feed us a hearty midday meal and then put us to work moving animals around the property. That is, after we had chased down a couple of escaped pigs. So after getting the pigs back inside the fence, we had a leisurely dinner with the family and then set to work.

First up was moving the rams. D.J. had separated rams and ewes so as to avoid lambing in January; the ewes were in a paddock with the cows, and the rams needed to be moved from their paddock down to the river, where there was a good stand of grass that shouldn’t be going to waste. D.J. uses a lot of portable electric fencing in his operation, and since we plan to rely on it as well we were glad to get some hands-on experience using it. We used a small section of fencing to corral the rams, then took up the rest and carried it down to the river to piece together a paddock for them there. The plan was to run them from the old paddock down the driveway to the new one by luring them with feed. It didn’t work exactly as planned, but there were enough of us to shore up the weak spots in the plan, and we did get them down there without too much trouble.

Next we moved the cows and ewes from one side of the property to the other. First we used five sections of portable fence to enclose about an acre of hillside.; tedious, but it went more quickly than I had expected. Then D.J. stationed us to form a rough corridor from one paddock to the other, and got the herd moving. This went much more smoothly than the first moving job, and so we got on with carrying over the waterer and feed troughs and shademobiles (wheeled structures with a roof that can be moved around the pasture to provide shade for the animals).

By now it was time for a water break, so we all went and sat on the front porch and drank water and chatted. As we did, we noticed that the two pigs we had penned up were out again, but we decided we might as well leave them be until we had moved their paddock to its new location.

Finally it was time to deal with the pigs. D.J. has discovered that pigs do a better job even than goats when it comes to clearing underbrush, so he has been penning them up along the edge of the woods on his land, moving them every few days. He took a machete and cut a way through for the new fence to run. After we had run the fence, we discovered that one of the pigs that had gotten out had somehow made its way into the new paddock without our help. That left one outside, but after twenty unsuccessful minutes of fussing with it D.J. that it probably wouldn’t wander off, so it would be better to wait until the next day when it was hungrier to try and lure it inside. So we cleaned up and had dinner and then a long and pleasant evening visit.

The next morning we were up early enough to help D.J. with the morning chores. Usually this involves milking, but right now he only milks twice a week because the calf hasn’t been weaned yet, so mostly we helped to let various animals out of coops and set out feed. Next we tackled the job of getting the last pig inside the fence, which turned out to not be much of a job at all; it was standing outside the fence, looking longingly at its friends, and required just a few minutes of scooting around before giving up and heading in.

We needed to run a couple of errands in Bristol and then be home for supper, so we couldn’t linger. But we did share a leisurely breakfast with the Hammonds after chores, and as usual I had to force myself to break off our visit when the time came. I think we all wonder why the Lord has seen fit to put a couple of hundred miles between us, but we know it’s for the best, and so we are trying to figure out ways to exchange visits without disrupting family life too badly.

The visit really was a useful one. I knew about most of what we did from reading, but there is a much deeper understanding that comes from even a small bit of tangible experience. I’ve taken down and put up the portable fence, I’ve chased animals from one paddock to another and help set up waterers and feeding troughs, I asked a lot of questions, and now I think I know more or less what to do to manage animals on our own land.

Fall garden work

I’ve mentioned before that we have enough ground preparation to do this fall that we decided to not plant any fall crops. Today most of the remaining garden came out We pulled the bean plants and took down the trellises, and we went through and picked the few plants that were still bearing—some cucumbers, a few yellow squash, a bunch of ground cherries, and a lot of bell peppers. All that’s left to deal with are a bed of carrots (which didn’t do very well) and three beds of sweet potatoes (which are doing very well, so it seems).

We’re planning on growing garlic for market next year, and that will plot be planted first week in October. We also want to have cover crops planted in the other plots by about the same time, so we’re having to plan out the days between now and then to make sure the work gets done. The past couple of mornings we’ve been out spreading compost on the plots—two done, three or so to go (we need to leave at least part of a plot unfertilized for the crops that don’t care for fertility, such as carrots and bell peppers and sweet potatoes). We’ll plow in the compost and weeds, then seed with rye and vetch, which we’ll plow in again this spring.

Plow? Yes, plow. Recently we bought a rotary plow attachment for the BCS walk-behind tractor, a gizmo I’ll describe in detail in a later post. The main reason we bought it is that it makes it very easy to build raised beds, one of Jerome’s seven keys to successful organic gardening. But it also does a very good job of incorporating cover crops into a plot of ground, which otherwise we have to handle by mowing close to the ground and then tilling multiple times. So far we’re very happy with it.

After the garden was picked today, Maggie and Matthew decided to take most of the produce in a wagon and walk up and down the hollow offering it to neighbors. They got quite a few enthusiastic takers, and I realized that this is something we should have been doing all season. Next year we’ll be more diligent about sharing God’s bountiful blessings with them all through the season.