Today’s response to Wendell Berry’s essay “The Gift of Good Land” comes from Kristen Page, a disease ecologist and professor at Wheaton College in Illinois.
“The Gift of Good Land,” was published 30 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 Kristen Page’s reflection.
Healthy Land, Healthy People
By Kristen Page
“…it is a contradiction to love your neighbor and despise the great inheritance on which his life depends.”
Wendell Berry, “The Gift of Good Land”
In my work as a disease ecologist I study the link between the land and disease. I observe how we manipulate our environment and measure changes in the rates at which diseases spread. Our misuse of creation leads to human suffering in many ways:
• Deforestation leads to erosion, and the result often is an environment well-suited for hookworm transmission (600 million people are infected by this parasite).
• Dams and irrigation can change the hydrology of a landscape, increasing habitat for snails that transmit Schistosomes (infecting 200 million people) and mosquitoes that vector malaria (300-500 million cases per year).
• Nutrient-poor soils have been over-farmed and over-grazed to the point that crops fail and malnutrition contributes to over one third of child deaths each year.
In “The Gift of Good Land,” Wendell Berry reminds us that we are tenants of a land that God created and cares for. As such we should be “faithful, grateful, humble” neighbors who consider both our human neighbors and the non-human creation in which we all live. Berry challenges us to define charity as actions that extend beyond human interactions to encompass all of creation. Understanding the link between our environmental actions and human health might motivate us toward a mindset of what Berry calls “real charity,” which involves a thorough understanding of the world in which we live—“local problems of ecology, agriculture, and culture.”
Christ came to “reconcile himself to all things whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:20). In light of this, a proper response to the suffering caused by inappropriate attitudes toward non-human creation is to act as Christ’s agents (image bearers) of reconciliation. Paul outlines rules for holy living in Colossians 3, and urges us to “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:10). Berry’s claim that our “possession” of the good land requires us to be “faithful, grateful, humble, and neighborly” is exactly what Paul urges in verses 12-14 of Colossians 3, that we live with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and love.” Living this way, even in regards to the creation, we can truly love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:37).
Kristen Page is an associate professor of biology at Wheaton College where she teaches ecology and other courses that link human health and environmental issues. She studies the transmission dynamics of parasites in an effort to develop affordable and ecologically appropriate management strategies.
Related Links at Flourish
Sowing Seeds of Sustainability: Understanding deforestation & doing reforestation in Haiti by Bob Morikawa of Floresta/Plant With Purpose