Caring for the Land – Our Stewardship Responsibility
I was born in 1936, and I grew up in a dairy farm in northern Michigan in a time when life was still relatively simple. Stewardship of the land was mostly about conservation and preservation practices. Stewardship on the farm meant you rotated crops, left land fallow, cultivated for weed control, terraced to prevent soil erosion, maintained soil quality by growing alfalfa and plowing it under, and used the animal manures to keep up soil fertility. Commercial fertilizers were used sparsely, and you saved seed for next year's planting.
Our "way of life on the farm," was done mostly with knowledge passed on from the previous generations. We strived to work with and follow the laws of Nature. We understood that we would make sacrifices for the greater good of soil and water sustainability.
That early philosophy of stewardship did not last, and it bothers me as to what has happened over the past 75 years (one short lifetime). Natural resource stewardship has degenerated to where we now routinely use the resources for our personal and corporate advantage. Farming has become more about business than about Nature. In many cases Nature is viewed as being inanimate, an infinite resource chest, and a place to dump toxins and wastes.
We have grown to think of Nature as an object that we control; as a slave, rather than a "living being" with a heart beat, and a partner in a cooperative venture. Nature is often viewed as property, to be bought, sold and used in keeping with what is deemed necessary and desirable for ourselves. We have done many things to destabilize Nature, rather than working to stabilize the Natural systems. It's appropriate to say, "Our heart is bent in on itself," meaning that we have treated Nature with self-centeredness rather than self-sacrifice. And it happened on our watch with governments, big business, and Universities participating, if not leading the way.
Perhaps like many cultures, our American transformation came as we ushered in and promulgated the benefits that came with the Industrial Revolution. We took pride in our technical successes, doubled our life expectancy, and lifted millions from poverty and scourge of disease. Unfortunately, maintaining intimacy with the Earth and Nature was not a central theme.
The 20th century theme in America could very well be characterized as "becoming bigger consumers." Alan Durning, in How Much Is Enough?, claims that during the period of 1950-2000, global workers and consumers produced and consumed as many goods and services, than in the entire period of history before that date. Americans in particular became a nation of people who collected "stuff". It was better to have more than to have enough. Witness today those who have houses full of stuff plus rented storage facilities for their "overflow."
In Matthew 12:24, we hear the clear message: "No man can serve two masters." In many ways, the money master has won the day, sometimes in the very name of God.
It's time to change our behavior regarding stewardship of land and all natural resources. It needs to begin with the Hippocratic oath, "First, do no harm" -- to the environment. It needs to be about respecting the laws of Nature, in all that we do. And for ourselves, it's about sacrificing and living with the philosophy that "having enough is better than having more."
To help provide standards and goals for desired future conditions, we need to understand the conditions that develop when Nature is in control. We can also learn a lesson from the description of the Creation account in Genesis 2. I understand that the Hebrew word for Adam means "earth creature," and the Hebrew word for Eve means "living." Soil and Life are our primordial identity. Our reason for being here is to be the guardians of the earth, meaning the topsoil, all the land, all the waters, and all resources.
As we deal with stewardship of planet earth, we need to have full appreciation of our roles as humans. First, we must be like vigilant, caring shepherds who look out for their sheep, selectively intervening for the sake of sustaining the flock. Second, we are responsible for serving the Earth and protecting it. We must become partners with the Earth, not operating like we have control over it. And third, we need to honor the immaculate integrity of all the natural systems. Resource practices that build, restore and amplify life should be encouraged.
The land stewardship practices that are needed today include a lot of remediation efforts. The issues revolve around two classes of natural resources – those that are limited and those that are renewable. For the limited resources, like oil, coal, copper, etc, it's a matter of developing proper extraction management policies and practices to insure extension of the resources, while looking for substitutes.
For the renewable resources, the issues of today have developed because of bad management practices. It is sad but true, that among many things, we have polluted our streams, rivers, and ground water, and have lost much of our top soil and soil fertility. These are critical life-giving resources that took a long time to develop, and will require long-term remediation techniques.
Our forbearers would be appalled to find that our stewardship practices have sent essentially every major life system into decline, and threatens the well-being of future generations of all earth's creatures, including man. If able to inquire, our forbearers would surely ask about life on the farm. They would ask questions like, "who runs the family farm, how are the neighbors getting along, is that old spring still functioning, and does Aunt Susie have enough vegetables "put up" for the winter?" They would be shocked to know that the family farm was sold to a large farm corporation, the neighbor's land is now a shopping center with 4 acres of asphalt parking, the spring has been polluted with farm pesticides, and that most folks don't grow their own vegetables, and certainly could not be bothered with "putting them up," whatever that means. Maybe we should give some thought to "life on the farm."