In Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan recounts a trip to Polyface Farm, run by Joel Salatin, the self-described “lunatic farmer.” Rather than raising cattle or chickens, Salatin thinks of himself as a “grass farmer” since grass is the foundation of the whole system of life on the farm, thus requiring particular care and attention.
Consequently, Salatin is careful to not overgraze a pasture, moving cattle quite frequently from location to location, subsequently wheeling in a portable chicken house—the “Eggmobile”—for the birds to peck and pick through the cattle manure droppings for their sustenance. Then the pigs come and root through the cattle bedding and droppings mixing up the organic matter, making compost and enriching the soil.
The process is repeated, and in so doing the soil is made better, richer, more vibrant. Proper use does not deplete, but enriches the soil—use makes it better, richer, stronger, more resilient, more capable of nurturing life.
The formation of culture is like this as well.
The New Criterion includes a beautiful piece (subscription required) by Jim McCue recounting T. S. Eliot’s two visits to East Coker, where he is buried and for which the second of his Four Quartets is named. Eliot notes the ongoing succession of life and death. “Houses rise and fall,” he tells us, and “in their place is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass,” for not only is there a time for “building … living … generation,” but so too “for the wind to break the loosened pane.”
It isn’t just life turning to death, but also, as in Salatin, life from death, for as the living cast off their flesh they nourish that which is yet to come: “old timber to new fires, Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth.” And that earth? It is “already flesh, fur and faeces, Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.” That which passes away nourishes that which is to come.
The town of East Coker, McCue tells us, has a dancing circle, which “emphasizes not the individual but the life in which we all take part, a chain of regenerative dances and variations … which began before we were born and will go on in its rhythmic way after we die.” Eliot himself, McCue notes, wrote elsewhere of “the number of generations and peoples who have labored the soil and in turn been buried beneath it, and of the contemporaneity of the past;” the ancient dancing field symbolizes this, reminds us of those long-dead whose blood courses in our veins, whose bodies nourish the soil from which we glean our living, and whose cultural work allows us, even now, to be human.
In the poem, dance is linked closely to marriage: “…you can hear the music … and see them dancing around the bonfire. The association of man and woman … signifying matrimony,” that “dignified and commodious sacrament.” Dignified, yes, but still these “two and two,” however tightly they hold “each other by the hand or arm,” will die. Each has “Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth … of those long since under earth.” These married folk, now long dead, were themselves nourished by the past, and even in the height of their mirth and dance and culture and joining together in bliss had feet of loam, were already nourishing the cultural soil as their bodies moved ever closer to returning to the actual soil from which they—and we—came.
Culture, McCue reports Eliot saying, is like potatoes, something which needs to be “produced again and again,” but this can only be done if we are “ploughing enough nourishment back into the soil.”
Sane culture depends upon retrieving the sanity of the past, retrieving—and altering—it for our own moment, and passing on enough richness to enrich the soil for future generations. But if we corrupt the cultural soil . . . what dances will they know and be able to perform?
Even as I write, the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments about the definition of marriage, that “dignified and commodious sacrament,” and we do not know its future. Many will find themselves involved in this discussion. Many will encounter fear, worry, or dread as they watch and wait.
Some wonder what kind of cultural soil will be handed on, what heritage will remain, whether we will manage to plough back enough for those who are not-yet to receive what should be their birthright. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that it a mark of God’s greatness that He allows creatures like us to cooperate “in the accomplishment of his plan,” and, moreover, that we are enabled to “complete” and “perfect” the work of creation (306; 307). We don’t exist merely to take up cultural space and time, but rather exist as free and intelligent causes.
And, thus, we can do it wrongly. And perhaps we will, stripping the soil of its life, handing on dead dirt. Perhaps.
Yet, as another poet tells us, a Jesuit, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” The inexhaustible grace of God does not disappear, it is not wounded nor does it become silenced merely because men renounce him or blear and smear the soil. On Palm Sunday, another Jesuit exhorts us: “do not let hope be stolen!” Still, top-soil, which may take centuries to “grow,” can be thoughtlessly destroyed in an afternoon, requiring hundreds of years of thoughtful rebuilding.
Perhaps this is where we are—it may even take centuries of enriching the deadened soil. Fine, this is what it will take. Our task—the long game, I like to call it—remains what it ever was, co-working for God’s kingdom, and allowing the timbers of our work to become those ashes returned to the soil.
We teach, we marry, we work, we raise children, we receive the sacraments, we hear the Scriptures—we plough nourishment into the soil, even when it has been stripped bare by others.
Do not be robbed of hope. Plough.