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Liberty Hyde Bailey

American horticulturist and botanist


A selection from

Narrated by John Lescault

Download mp3 file: The Holy Earth

This file is 3 MB; running time is 13 minutes
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So bountiful hath been the earth and so securely have we drawn from it our substance, that we have taken it all for granted as if it were only a gift, and with little care or conscious thought of the consequences of our use of it; nor have we very much considered the essential relation that we bear to it as living parts in the vast creation.

It is good to think of ourselves—of this teeming, tense, and aspiring human race—as a helpful and contributing part in the plan of a cosmos, and as participators in some far-reaching destiny. The idea of responsibility is much asserted of late, but we relate it mostly to the attitude of persons in the realm of conventional conduct, which we have come to regard as very exclusively the realm of morals; and we have established certain formalities that satisfy the conscience. But there is some deeper relation than all this, which we must recognize and the consequences of which we must practise. There is a directer and more personal obligation than that which expends itself in loyalty to the manifold organizations and social requirements of the present day. There is a more fundamental co-operation in the scheme of things than that which deals with the proprieties or which centres about the selfishness too often expressed in the salvation of one's soul.

We can be only onlookers on that part of the cosmos that we call the far heavens, but it is possible to co-operate in the processes on the surface of the sphere. This co-operation may be conscious and definite, and also useful to the earth; that is, it may be real. What means this contact with our natural situation, this relationship to the earth to which we are born, and what signify this new exploration and conquest of the planet and these accumulating prophecies of science? Does the mothership of the earth have any real meaning to us?

All this does not imply a relation only with material and physical things, nor any effort to substitute a nature religion. Our relation with the planet must be raised into the realm of spirit; we cannot be fully useful otherwise. We must find a way to maintain the emotions in the abounding commercial civilization. There are two kinds of materials,—those of the native earth and the idols of one's hands. The latter are much in evidence in modern life, with the conquests of engineering, mechanics, architecture, and all the rest. We visualize them everywhere, and particularly in the great centres of population. The tendency is to be removed farther and farther from the everlasting backgrounds. Our religion in detached.

We come out of the earth and we have a right to the use of the materials; and there is no danger of crass materialism if we recognize the original materials as divine and if we understand our proper relation to the creation, for then will gross selfishness in the use of them be removed. This will necessarily mean a better conception of property and of one's obligation in the use of it. We shall conceive of the earth, which is the common habitation, as inviolable. One does not act rightly toward one's fellows if one does not know how to act rightly toward the earth.

Nor does this close regard for the mother earth imply any loss of mysticism or of exaltation: quite the contrary. Science but increases the mystery of the unknown and enlarges the boundaries of the spiritual vision. To feel that one is a useful and co-operating part in nature is to give one kinship, and to open the mind to the great resources and the high enthusiasms. Here arise the fundamental common relations. Here arise also the great emotions and conceptions of sublimity and grandeur, of majesty and awe, the uplift of vast desires,—when one contemplates the earth and the universe and desires to take them into the soul and to express oneself in their terms; and here also the responsible practices of life take root.

So much are we now involved in problems of human groups, so persistent are the portrayals of our social afflictions, and so well do we magnify our woes by insisting on them, so much in sheer weariness do we provide antidotes to soothe our feelings and to cause us to forget by means of many empty diversions, that we may neglect to express ourselves in simple free personal joy and to separate the obligation of the individual from the irresponsibilities of the mass.

The proper care-taking of the earth lies not alone in maintaining its fertility or in safeguarding its products. The lines of beauty that appeal to the eye and the charm that satisfies the five senses are in our keeping.

The natural landscape is always interesting and it is satisfying. The physical universe is the source of art. We know no other form and color than that which we see in nature or derive from it. If art is true to its theme, it is one expression of morals. If it is a moral obligation to express the art-sense in painting and sculpture and literature and music, so is it an equal obligation to express it in good landscape.

Of the first importance is it that the race keep its artistic backgrounds, and not alone for the few who may travel far and near and who may pause deliberately, but also for those more numerous folk who must remain with the daily toil and catch the far look only as they labor. To put the best expression of any landscape into the consciousness of one's day's work is more to be desired than much riches. When we complete our conquest, there will be no unseemly landscapes. The abundance of violated landscapes is proof that we have not yet mastered. The farmer does not have full command of his situation until the landscape is a part of his farming. Farms may be units in well-developed and pleasing landscapes beautiful in their combinations with other farms and appropriate to their setting as well as attractive in themselves.

No one has a moral right to contribute unsightly factory premises or a forbidding commercial establishment to any community. The lines of utility and efficiency ought also to be the lines of beauty; and it is due every worker to have a good landscape to look upon, even though its area be very constricted. To produce bushels of wheat and marvels of machinery, to maintain devastating military establishments, do not comprise the sum of conquest. The backgrounds must be kept.

If moral strength comes from good and sufficient scenery, so does the preservation of it become a social duty. It is much more than a civic obligation. But the resources of the earth must be available to man for his use and this necessarily means a modification of the original scenery. Some pieces and kinds of scenery are above all economic use and should be kept wholly in the natural state. Much of it may yield to modification if he takes good care to preserve its essential features. Unfortunately, the engineer seems not often to be trained in the values of scenery and he is likely to despoil a landscape or at least to leave it raw and unfinished.

On the other hand, there is unfortunately a feeling abroad that any modification of a striking landscape is violation and despoliation; and unwarranted opposition, in some cases amounting almost to prudery, follows any needful work of utilization. Undoubtedly the farmer and builder and promoter have been too unmindful of the effect of their interference on scenery, and particularly in taking little care in the disposition of wastes and in the healing of wounds; but a work either of farming or of construction may add interest and even lines of beauty to a landscape and endow it with the suggestion of human interest. If care were taken in the construction of public and semi-public work to reshape the banks into pleasing lines, to clean up, to care for, to plant, to erect structures of good proportions whether they cost much or little, and to give proper regard to the sensibilities of the communities, most of the present agitation against interference with natural scenery would disappear. One has only to visit the factory districts, the vacation resorts, the tenement areas, the banks of streams and gorges, to look at the faces of cliffs and at many engineering enterprises and at numberless farmyards, to find examples of the disregard of men for the materials that they handle. It is as much our obligation to hold the scenery reverently as to handle the products reverently. Man found the earth looking well. Humanity began in a garden.

The keeping of the good earth depends on preservation rather than on destruction. The office of the farmer and the planter is to produce rather than to destroy; whatever they destroy is to the end that they may produce more abundantly; these persons are therefore natural care-takers. If to this office we add the habit of good housekeeping, we shall have more than one-third of our population at once directly partaking in keeping the earth. It is one of the bitter ironies that farmers should ever have been taken out of their place to wreak vengeance on the earth by means of military devastation. In the past, this ravage has been small in amount and check; because the engines of destruction were weak, but with the perfecting of the modern enginery the havoc is awful and brutal. While we have to our credit the improvement of agriculture and other agencies of & check; conservation, it is yet a fact that man has never been so destructive as now. He is able to turn the skill of his discovery to destructive ends (a subject that we have already approached from another point of view). The keeping of the earth is therefore involved in the organization of society. Military power heads toward destructiveness. Civil power heads toward conservation. The military power may be constructive in times of peace, but its end, if it uses the tools it invents, is devastation and the inflicting of injury. When the civil power is subjugated to the military power, society is headed toward ravage.

To keep and to waste are opposite processes. Not only are we able to despoil the earth by sheer lust of ravage and by blighting the fields with caverns of human slaughter, but we shoot away incredible supplies of copper and petroleum and other unrenewable materials that by every right and equity belong to our successors; and, moreover, we are to make these successors pay for the destruction of their heritage. Day by day we are mortgaging the future, depriving it of supplies that it may need, burdening the shoulders of generations yet unborn.

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