Today’s response to Wendell Berry’s essay “The Gift of Good Land” comes from Cindy Crosby, a writer, naturalist, and Flourish contributor whose work appears in Christianity Today, Books & Culture, and Backpacker. “The Gift of Good Land,” was published thirty years ago, and we reprinted it in the Fall 2009 issue of Flourish Magazine to celebrate Mr. Berry’s work, but also to provoke some questions: How has the natural world, and efforts to steward it, changed in these 30 years? How has Christianity changed? What is still relevant about Mr. Berry’s words today? What have been our successes and failures as creation’s stewards in these three decades? Where do we go from here?
We’ve asked a wide variety of Christian thinkers, writers, and leaders to respond to Mr. Berry’s essay, taking into consideration these questions and their own relevant experiences. Here is Cindy Crosby’s reflection.
Opening the Good Gift
By Cindy Crosby
“The land is a gift.”
Wendell Berry’s words reverberate as I wander the tallgrass prairie near my suburban Chicago home. The “prairie state” was once covered by 22 million acres of tallgrass. Today, less than 3,000 acres remain.
This prairie where I walk is not a restoration—a revival of something that was once there—but rather, a reconstruction, building from scratch something that was completely destroyed.
Reconstruction of a prairie is as much art as science. Plants you believe will thrive, die. Others, unexpected, spring up and surprise you.
In an age of instant gratification, the prairie disappoints. Most prairie plants are slow starters; some take almost a decade to become established and to bloom. This prairie is mature, more than 40 years old. Many of those who first worked on it and dreamed of what it would become are long dead.
Of what value is a prairie? You can’t eat prairie grasses and flowers. You can’t sell the grasses and flowers for hard cash. Yet, when I push through the switchgrass and bluestem and look up over my head—nine, ten, eleven feet—where the prairie dock and compass plants wave their sunny flowers against a blue sky, I feel as if I’m opening a precious gift. The gift of good land, as Wendell Berry tells me.
Dragonflies buzz down Willoway Brook, then chase insects across the spread of Indian grass. Fritillaries, dotted orange and black, smother the stiff goldenrod blooms, craving their nectar. Chipmunks run busy errands on trampled paths through the tallgrass. This steady hum of life could not be orchestrated by chance. There are patterns here, deep mysteries.
“The land is a gift.” Because of this, we care for the prairie. In the spring, we lay fire to the hem of its fabric, watching the flames race across the dry grassland, morphing it into a smoking, charred ruin. Yet the ashes and warmed ground choke out the weeds and stimulate the prairie to grow, send up tender green shoots, flourish. In fall, we gather the rare seeds and scatter them in the bare patches to help the prairie rejuvenate. Weekly, I push through the tallgrass, lay down in its fragrant grasses and flowers, learn the names of unfamiliar plants and insects. The land whispers secrets. I listen, alert to its messages.
Berry tells us to be “faithful, grateful.” He also tells us to “remember.”
I walk the prairie in all its seasons. The land’s memories soak deep into my bones. I’m grateful. And I pledge anew to care for this little patch of creation, the “gift of good land.”
Cindy Crosby is the author of By Willoway Brook: Exploring the Landscape of Prayer, and a contributor to the study guide, Creation Care.