Harvest and the Human Spirit: Henry Beston on How Our Relationship to the Earth Reveals Us to Ourselves
“If we are to live and have something to live for, let us remember, all of us, that we are the servants as well as the masters of our fields.”
By Maria Popova
“Farm work is one of the best jobs for getting to know people as they really are,” young Sylvia Plath wrote in reflecting on how her formative job as a farmer shaped her as a writer. What makes farm work so revelatory is that by making us bow down, kneel, and commune with the land through our naked hands, it makes us contact our most elemental and creaturely nature, invariably exposing the interconnectedness of all earthly things. As Wendell Berry, that great poet-laureate of farming, memorably observed, it dismantles the “every man for himself” doctrine of modern life.
That’s what Henry Beston (June 1, 1888–April 15, 1968) explores in a characteristically beautiful passage from Northern Farm (public library) — his increasingly timely manifesto for reclaiming our humanity from the tyranny of technology, published mere months before Plath had her formative farming experience, brimming with Beston’s lyrical meditations on the limits of knowledge and happiness, simplicity, and the sacredness of smallness.
With an eye to how harvest season illuminates our relationship to the Earth and to ourselves, he writes:
How wise were the ancients who never lost sight of the religious significance of the earth! They used the land to the full, draining, ploughing, and manuring every inch, but their use was not an attack on its nature, nor was the ancient motherhood of earth ever forgotten in the breaking and preparing of the soil.
They knew, as all honest people know in their bones, that in any true sense there is no such thing as ownership of the earth and that the shadow of any man is but for a time cast upon the grass of any field. What remains is the earth, the mother of life as the ancients personified the mystery, the ancient mother in her robes of green or harvest gold and the sickle in her hand.
When farming becomes purely utilitarian, something perishes. Sometimes it is the earth life which dies under this “stand and deliver” policy; sometimes it is the human beings who practice this economy, and oftenest of all it is a destruction of both land and man. If we are to live and have something to live for, let us remember, all of us, that we are the servants as well as the masters of our fields.
Complement the timelessly elevating Northern Farm with Beston on how the beauty of darkness nourishes the human spirit, then revisit Wendell Berry on the perils of our “rugged individualism.”
Published September 16, 2016