Let me start with a couple of quotes.
…’developing elegant solutions predicated on the uniqueness of place.’
As we search for a less extractive and polluting economic order, so that we may fit agriculture into the economy of a sustainable culture, community becomes the locus and metaphor for both agriculture and culture.
(Wes Jackson, Becoming Native to This Place)
These two quotes, which occur a page from each other in Wes Jackson’s excellent book, provide a fortuitous starting point for my thoughts on my past, present, and future.
Don’t worry, this post isn’t going to be so epic as that sentence sounds. But it will encompass a lot.
That’s because I think in broad strokes.
One might think the first quote an odd choice to begin thoughts about one’s place in the world. Indeed, it sounds more like the electric company’s motto than a philosophy of life. But its posture is one of pragmatism, which is a philosophy I continue coming back to over and over again. (Those of you who know U.Va.’s Religious Studies department will know from whom I inherited this attitude.)
Pragmatism conceives all intelligible experience as a problem, to which one’s fundamental response is to find a solution. Moreover, pragmatism’s basic stance toward the solutions on offer from the world is, “Will it work?” But we need to deepen this question to include context: “Will it work for this situation?”
That’s the agrarian position in a word; that different solutions are required for different contexts, locales. What might “work” (produce consistent high yields) in a Kansas prairie might not “work” in the marshlands of northern Florida–or the temperate coast of Oregon.
What is more, the quote seems to suggest that the right solution will be the beautiful (“elegant”) solution. I recall hearing a scientist (I think he was an astronomer or perhaps a particle physicist) say that the more we inch toward a UTE (unified theory of everything) the more vastly gorgeous that theory inevitably becomes. In other words, if you’re setting out to account for the entirety of material reality, you’d better be open to thinking in aesthetic categories alongside purely scientific ones.
So that’s one concept that drives me: beauty. And I’ve no qualms confessing that in searching for the right path (re-enter pragmatism…), I’ve willingly allowed myself to be led by visions of the beautiful.
Put it in concrete terms, you say?
OK. Take my current life plan. I’m heading off to New Zealand on August 25th to volunteer on organic farms all over the country. This will be a period of sustained apprenticeship in a number of agricultural scenarios, from beekeeping to cheese making to sheep shearing. Granted, I could have chosen to conduct such an apprenticeship anywhere in the United States–or anywhere in the arable world, really. But I chose New Zealand.
Why? Because it’s flippin’ gorgeous.
Which brings us to the second quote. That second quote is connected to the first in that it offers a solution (“community”) to a global problem (“the extracting and polluting economic order”).
I suck at community. Seriously. I’ve church-hopped for as long as I can remember; every time I begin to share my life with a group of people, I move away; and I’m far too concerned with time efficiency to really be available to the unfolding of community in a place, which–being an organic process–does not happen on cue.
But I’ve come away from my spiritual and theological formation believing strongly in the redemptive power of community. And so I intend to devote my life to building it up.
Time to get concrete again. “How, Scott, do you suggest community be the solution to an extractive and polluting economic order? And what in hell does agriculture (which you have not mentioned once save your plans to go cowpunching in New Zealand) have to do with all this?”
I believe that community grows out of a commitment to a place. Be that place a city, a town, a landscape, a plot of soil–whatever. We’ve all been captured by the physical or cultural beauty of a place. Relatedly, most of us have experienced the kingdom of God in a very spatio-temporal fashion. For example, I often envision redemption as spiritual and cultural renewal. And where does that renewal occur except in a materially-bound space and among physically-bound vessels of Christ’s love?
This is no coincidence. God recognizes our material and physical finitude and meets us there. He uses our creative inclinations to reshape the life of a place, one conversation at a time.
My goal is to foster this reshaping for a particular community in a particular place. Right now, that looks like pioneering some sort of community space where people can pursue faith and relationships, where the “extractive and polluting economy” can be subverted by the purchase of fairly traded and sustainable goods, and where beauty and truth can be sought.
Alright. So we’ve touched on all the starting elements (pragmatism, community, economy, etc.)–but we’re missing one:
Agriculture comes in at the same point as community does, in part because agriculture implies community, just as agriculture implies a commitment to a place. Agriculture and community go hand in hand. When we stop relying on the industrial economy to provide our food–or when we no longer trust them to provide our food–we inevitably must begin relying more on each other again. One household cannot do it all: we must live near and be in constant communication with various households that produce a variety of foodstuffs and housewares.
My dream is to live in a community where almost everything I use on a daily basis comes from someone I know. The food I prepare; the soap I use to wash my hands and my children; the clothes I dress in; the art and literature I reflect on in leisure time; and so on.
My friend Chris and I have lately been talking about the virtues of Amish life. Perhaps this is the ideal scenario. But we leave behind so much that needs attending to–the urban poor, the wider cultural milieu, the spiritually lost. Suffice it to say, my dream community space will be a little bit of Amish philosophy in material representation…