Tracey Bianchi on Wendell Berry’s “The Gift of Good Land”

January 27, 2010


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 Tracey Bianchi, author of The Green Mama, forthcoming from Zondervan.

“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 Tracey Bianchi’s reflection:

Hands in the Dirt, Eyes on the Promised Land
By Tracey Bianchi
When I first encountered Wendell Berry’s wisdom I nearly burned through all the ink in my pen. I flipped through pages humming “Yes, of course!” while underlining and adding dark blue exclamation points, in triplicate, at the end of his paragraphs.

I turned pages with the sort of impatient earnestness most middle schoolers exhibit: scrambling to get to the next point while equally lost in the moment. Berry captured my mind. He is a brilliant man with a heart for God and a passion for people, and an ability to marvelously communicate both.

This 30th anniversary of his timeless essay, “The Gift of Good Land,” is a reminder that living as wise stewards of the earth is as poignant and urgent a matter today as when Berry penned these words in 1979.

Two threads of thought stand out to me from his essay:

First, while so many conversations on environmental stewardship draw instinctively upon stories from the Garden of Eden, perhaps the best place to draw parallels is from God’s gift of land to Abraham. The Promised Land, as Berry reminds us, was “a divine gift to a fallen people.”

Rather than ruminate on the perfection that was Eden, turning our perspective toward the Promised Land helps us understand how to function today as the messed up folks we are: by being faithful with the gift, acting generously to strangers, and practicing good husbandry. These details get lost in the spirit of our increasingly isolated culture –one that would rather serve itself than even get to know its neighbors. One that would rather crash frenetically through life than pace itself or take a sabbath for the land or its occupants. And one that offers our children a disposable future.

The second of Berry’s themes that resonates with me is that to live as good stewards, we must understand that each day of our lives matters more than isolated acts of heroism. To Berry, living as a good husband for fifty years is a greater accomplishment than one heroic or romantic feat “because ordinary behavior lasts so much longer than heroic action.”

As Moses’ prayer suggests in Psalm 90:12 (“Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom”), to live wisely and well is our daily calling. Stewardship of the earth is less about placing hope in the heroic acts of governments or industries, and more about living into daily patterns that embrace our neighbors and honor the skills and crafts they bring to this world, doing all we can to create healthy space to daily cherish the good land in small, ordinary ways.

Taking seriously the Biblical mandate to live as stewards means we honestly love our neighbor (and ourselves). Sure, it means we may bring in their mail, but it also means we honor our shared fragile ecosystems so that they can breathe clean air, eat, drink water, and care for their families. Whether that neighbor is next door or across an ocean, to be a good steward of creation means to be cognizant of the fact that we are inextricably linked to creation, and, therefore, to one another. It means that we move one another toward greater health, awareness, and the beauty of charity that exists when we embrace the ordinary, the gift of good land.

Tracey Bianchi is a wife, mother, writer and speaker living in the heart of the Chicago suburbs. She wrote Green Mama: The Guilt-Free Guide to Helping You and Your Kids Save the Planet (Zondervan 2010) and blogs at The Green Mama.

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