Norman Wirzba 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 Norman Wirzba, a friend of Wendell Berry’s whose writing and teaching explores the intersection of faith, ecology, and agrarian and environmental studies.

“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 Norman Wirzba’s reflection.

The Courage to Care for Creation
By Norman Wirzba
Reading “The Gift of Good Land” 30 years after its initial publication, it is remarkable how well Wendell Berry’s statement holds up as an analysis and challenge to our current situation. Given the ongoing, and in some cases accelerated, destruction of forests, oceans, fields, and watersheds, and the deterioration of many communities and communal spaces, it is a statement worthy of our continued attention.

Though a number of Christians now appreciate the significance, even urgency, of “environmental stewardship,” considerable work remains to be done. As we move forward, we should take careful notice of Berry’s insight that “stewardship is hopeless and meaningless unless it involves long-term courage, perseverance, devotion and skill.” If stewardship is to be anything more than a good intention it must saturate and transform daily economic life so that the health of habitats and humans together can be achieved.

This will not be easily done. The practical forms of contemporary life, as witnessed in much of our work, shopping, consuming, and entertainment, do not encourage or develop the sort of devotion and skill Berry thinks we need. Too much of the time we are insulated from the creatures and communities we need to know and love. Most basically, few of us really know where our food and energy come from, or value the patient work required to keep those within our care well. To care for creation in a skillful manner demands detailed forms of observation and sympathy, attentive work, and a complex intelligence that appreciates creatures in their particularity but also in their interdependent wholeness.

The place to begin is wherever we are, correcting the damage we are doing to the specific neighborhoods–the kitchens, homes, lawns, gardens, parks, streams, rivers, and fields we live in. To do this we must ask questions like: How much poison are we putting into the ground, water, and air? Is the food we eat produced, distributed, and shared in ways that honor the Creator and respect creatures? Where is the energy that fuels our ambition coming from, and how is it being produced and at what cost? What happens to all our garbage? Answering these questions, we will have a sense for what we must do.

Stewardship requires skill and understanding. But what it needs above all is love and affection. We will not adequately care for each other and for creation until we learn to see our care as the grateful response to God’s primordial and sustaining love and hospitality. Creation is God’s love made concrete, made beautiful and tasty. Creation is our home, the place of God’s provision, and the occasion for God’s unending delight. It will take courage to protect and cherish it.

To be alive is to be the recipient and beneficiary of incalculable kindnesses and blessings. The work of the church of the future is to help us name these blessings, and then to inspire us to exercise daily the economic practices that bring delight to God and joy to the world.

Norman Wirzba is Research Professor of Theology, Ecology, and Rural Life at Duke Divinity School. He is the author of The Paradise of God, Living the Sabbath, and editor of The Essential Agrarian Reader, and The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry. His forthcoming book is Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating.


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