Michael Abbaté on Wendell Berry’s “The Gift of Good Land”

The Gift of Good Land

The Gift of Good Land

Today’s response to Wendell Berry’s essay “The Gift of Good Land” comes from Michael Abbaté, an architect, author, and Flourish 2009 conference speaker.

“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 Michael Abbaté’s reflection.

Crossing Lines Between Heaven and Earth
By Michael Abbaté
Once again, I can’t wait to get dirt under my fingernails. Reading Wendell Berry does this every time.

He is a man soaked clean through with “farmerness,” a practical sensibility that affirms that the loftiest of ideas are completely worthless if they don’t ever hit the ground. And hit the ground he does.

Berry reminds us that stewardship requires both motivation and means. Motivation is demonstrated when we assume our God-given responsibility for earth-care for spiritual reasons. We recognize that ownership of creation remains with God, but we humans have been granted, in Berry’s words, “a sort of tenancy; the right of habitation and use.”

The means to steward is shown when we assemble the practical skills needed to effectively practice creation care. We need to know how the world works: the interrelated creatures, biota, processes and systems that combine to bring forth the great communal dance of life. When we have this basic understanding, we have the means to be earth-stewards.

Both are needed—the emotional/theological and the practical. Here in the 21st century, we have especially neglected the skills needed to make sure that we are “not so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good.”

Berry puts it this way:

“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?”

Here, in the mud of creation, all things are made clear and direct. No longer am I dealing with abstract theological concepts; instead I am confronted with the practicalities of existence. How best to remove the invasive blackberries that want to choke the life out of my beloved Fairview Creek? How can I prevent weeds from taking over my garden? How can I help the threatened Western Painted Turtles make a comeback? The black and white of it all is purifying to the soul. And Berry inspires us to experience this rite often.

In a world that wants to separate church from state, the metaphysical from the material, the present from the future, Berry encourages us to view it all together; to embrace the heavenly mystery of the Creator while keeping our feet firmly planted on the ground.
Michael Abbaté is an ASLA, LEED™-certified architect and author of Gardening Eden (2009, WaterBrook Press/Random House).

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