Agrarianism is limited

I’ve never made much progress in understanding poetry, but I have learned a few things about it over the years. One of those things is that form liberates rather than restricts. Shakespeare was not at war with the strict patterns enforced by the sonnet form; he embraced them and used them as a central element in his work. The almost impossible limitations of haiku (seventeen syllables in three lines of 5, 7, 5) somehow permit the poet to speak to the heart in a spare and direct manner not possible in longer forms. I know these things more in my head than in my heart, but they ring true to me.

Wendell Berry makes the point that the agrarian mind is respectful of limits—in fact, it embraces them, and even uses them as an integral part of the canvas upon which a life is painted. In his essay “The Agrarian Standard,” Berry discusses an archetypical agrarian as he is described in Virgil’s Fourth Georgic:

Virgil’s old squatter, I am sure, is a literary outcropping of an agrarian theme that has been carried from earliest times until now mostly in family or folk tradition, not in writing, though other such people can be found in books. Wherever found, they don’t vary by much from Virgil’s prototype. They don’t have or require a lot of land, and the land they have is often marginal. They practice subsistence agriculture, derided by agricultural economists and other learned people of the industrial age, and they always associate frugality with abundance. In my various travels, I have seen a number of small homesteads like that of Virgil’s old farmer, situated on “land that no one wanted” and yet abundantly productive of food, pleasure, and other goods. (“The Agrarian Standard,” Citizenship Papers, p. 148)

What distinguishes Virgil’s old squatter, and ennobles him, is that he has not only accepted his lot in life but embraced it, even living abundantly within the severe limits it places upon him. For Berry this approach to circumstances is a vital part of agrarianism:

In any consideration of agrarianism, the issue of limitation is critical. Agrarian farmers see, accept, and live within their limits. They understand and agree to the proposition that there is “this much and no more.” Everything that happens on an agrarian farm is determined or conditioned by the understanding that there is only so much land, so much water in the cistern, so much hay in the barn, so much corn in the crib, so much firewood in the shed, so much food in the cellar or freezer, so much strength in the back and arms—and no more. This is the understanding that induces thrift, family coherence, neighborliness, local economies. Within accepted limits, these virtues become necessities. The agrarian sense of abundance comes from the experienced possibility of frugality and renewal within limits. (p. 149)

It is a paradox that while true abundance can be found within limits, attempts to transcend natural limits only succeed in turning abundance on its head, taking the things that might be savored for themselves and turning them into fuel for efforts to achieve an illusory abundance that can easily claim to outstrip the simple pleasures because it always stays tantalizingly out of reach. This is the so-called abundance that modern industrial culture urges us on towards:

This [the agrarian sense of abundance] is exactly opposite to the industrial idea that abundance comes from the violation of limits by personal mobility, extractive machinery, long-distance transport, and scientific or technological breakthroughs. (p. 149)

I would add that industrial thinking also seeks abundance through abdicating personal responsibilities, both financial and social, by turning them over to institutions—public schools, welfare, socialized medicine, social security, Sunday schools, youth programs, professional organizations, political parties, schools of theology.

Although farming is a good place to learn about embracing limits—there are so many of them, and God abundantly rewards the farmer who respects them—this is an attitude that can be profitably adopted by non-farmers. You are where God put you, shaped by the history He gave you, equipped with the resources He provided you, surrounded by the friends and neighbors and relatives He blessed you with, bounded by limits He imposed for His own good purpose. Embrace these things, and begin living the abundant life they make possible. 

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One thought on “Agrarianism is limited

  1. Thank you, Rick, for affirming and expressing so eloquently that which the Lord has been impressing on my heart lately: to cease focusing bitterly on what I CAN’T do, and begin to wholeheartedly and gratefully pursue what I CAN do. Because of physical limitations (“bounded by limits He imposed for His own good purpose”), I have had to abandon many plans, but who am I to question the Potter? Very well said.

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