When the Papacy is vacant the whole Church looks longingly for a puff of smoke from a little chimney – the household of the Church feels lonely without Papa. When it comes we rejoice, because our father has come home. When I see puffs of smoke from little homesteads in the countryside I feel the same – a father has come home to be with his family by living together on the land.
There’s a movement in the hearts of men, especially young fathers. They want to farm. I can’t count the calls I’ve received that begin: “I think God is calling us to homestead.” I can only describe it with that word: a movement. There’s no need for big organizations to promote it – its just happening. Call it another “back to the land” fad or what have you, but something is happening. Pope Benedict XVI recognized it too when he said:
“More than a few young people have already chosen this path; also many professionals are returning to dedicate themselves to the agricultural enterprise, feeling that they are responding not only to a personal and family need, but also to a ‘sign of the times,’ to a concrete sensibility for the ‘common good.”
I can’t say it any better. Men are moving back to the land for their families and as a response to the “signs of the times”. And you can put that negatively, bringing up the need to flee the horrors in cities or the vapid banality of the suburb, or positively by bringing up the need for family farms providing quality food to their neighbors. Whatever the motivation, something is happening. I’m here to encourage those of you that feel this movement: pursue it!
You’re not alone either. G.K. Chesterton dedicated the end of his career to writing about recovering an agrarian and craft-based culture through what came to be called “The Catholic Land Movement”, a movement he would sum up simply as: “Three acres and a cow.” He was joined by other brilliant men like Hellar Belloc and Fr. Vincent McNabb, author of The Church and the Land. The rise and fall of thise movement is fascinating, but the point is that you are not the first Catholic to look around and have that guttural reaction: this is not how man ought to live!
Some people will roll their eyes and scoff at the idea that we need more young farming families, seeing it as silly idealism, but I can’t see a need more real than food and family – can humanity go on without the two?
Yes, you’ll be accused of “turning back the clock”. And? “The question is not whether you can set back the clock,” pointed out John Senior. “Of course you can. Clocks are instruments…” We farmers and homesteaders aren’t reactionaries or extremists, we simply want to live as men have lived since the dawn of time and still do the world over. We feel like Joseph and Mary wandering in Egypt longing to return to the Promised Land.
The scriptures, especially the Psalms, paint the happy man as a man blessed by his family and the land: “Blessed is every one that feareth the LORD; that walketh in his ways. For thou shalt eat the labour of thine hands: happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee. Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house: thy children like olive plants round about thy table” (Ps. 128). Pope Pius XII, echoing the long tradition of the Church, praises farming thus: “God gave man the earth for his cultivation as the most beautiful and honorable occupation in the natural order” (emphasis added).
One of the greatest blessings of homesteading and farming life is the intimacy with nature. God speaks through nature – they sing his praises: “Through all the earth their voice resounds, their words, to the ends of the earth” (Ps. 18). Its not that we find “symbols” in nature of divine things, but that nature itself points beyond itself to the divine, and by living contemplatively on the land we learn to read the meaning of nature. In the book The Color of Blue: Recovering the Spirit of Contemplation, Benedictine monk Luke Bell says nature “is not something whose import we have decided upon: it is something given to us so that by contemplating it we may go beyond it to what it expresses.”
“Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (CCC 32, Rom. 1:19-20). God speaks through things He has made, and it seems that the more we are surrounded by things we have made the harder it is to hear Him. For the many that are not called to live on the land, they are still called to find ways to listen to God through nature, because “[the natural world] expresses a design of love and truth. It is prior to us, and it has been given to us by God as the setting for our life” (Benedict XVI). The farm is where almost all of life – work, leisure, prayer, meals – takes place in that very setting
Today we are not only utilitarian of each other, but also of the land, forgetting how to wonder and enjoy. We confuse knowing about a thing with knowing a thing. Our use of each other and nature mingled with our prideful spirits of doing and building make us forgetful of the spirit of reception, which is essential to wisdom and salvation.
Sweet is the lore which nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things:-
We murder to dissect.
Enough of science and of art;
Close up the barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives. (The Tables Turned, Wordsorth)
But it’s not just the intimacy with the land that brings the homestead to life, but intimacy with your family. I think the witness of fathers bringing their families to the farm is important for the broader agrarian movement, not only because family-less farms have a short economic shelf life (who keeps it going?), but it’s the full flourishing of the human person not just in nature but in a family. “You can’t have family farms without families,” Chesterton pointed out. This land and family affair is just plain good for men. Pope Pius XII, having already witnessed the effects of industrialization, which separated fathers from nature and family, said that farming is “so close to nature and based so substantially on the family,” that it is known to “produce altogether different men.” In my experience so far, that’s very true.
Here’s an example of nature, family, work, contemplation, and prayer coming together on the homestead: We decided that this winter we’re only using wood to heat our home. We have natural gas, but, well, I don’t like it. Yes, the gas is cheap and easy, but that thing drudged up from the darkness under us doesn’t compare to the gift of kindling which falls as a gift from above and is literally stored sunshine (that’s what a tree really is). The cutting, chopping, stacking, and drying that my family and I have to do constantly (and it is a chore!) bring us together around a unified work, filling our time with an activity that is both deep in meaning and fulfilling, and cultivates a spirit of gratitude for the earth’s abundance. As the Psalmist said, we are blessed “by the labor of [our] hands”. (And not one part of it is taxable!) This direct contact with the world and each other cannot be recreated anywhere else, without artificiality akin to a petting zoo.
We homestead together. We all watch for signs of spring – swelling buds on the dogwood out front and new grass in the pasture that the chickens, cows, and pigs will turn into eggs, milk, and meat. We know what seed on rocky soil does. We know that grapes only fruit well when pruned. Christ’s words are all around us.
When we first got out to the country the kids were bored. In the city we had basically lived a life of entertainment – how to we keep the kids occupied? Questions like that never come up now – there’s always work and simple fascination right outside. And we work and are fascinated together. We don’t have a TV but I can promise you a thunderstorm crawling over the hills can’t be recreated with computer graphics. Have you ever seen a child chase a firefly in a pasture? Oh it’s good. And it’s obviously something that has to be re-learned because when friends and family come to visit they always want to go somewhere – an attraction up the road or a neat store in the next town up. This home-centrism is odd to them.
And we homestead with neighbors. There is no spirit of competition out here. Excellence comes from communion with your neighbor not out-smarting them. Farmers give away secrets, and will stop in to tell you the latest piece of wisdom gained. Men help men because it’s right, not just when it benefits them or helps their profits. That’s love. It’s more than systems and economics out here. “Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand,” said Wendell Berry, “it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.” And for those that think you can’t evangelize or witness to the Gospel in a rural setting I say: “Huh?” People with souls live out here too, and I have found that the deep spirit of community lends very well to witnessing to our Faith.
And as a father the great blessing is to be able to spend time with kids without simply being at the house. In the city, when I took time off to “just be with the family” it was actually kind of awkward. I basically just did stuff that my wife normally had to do alone, and as fun as it was it was a sort of disruption of the order that would need to be rebuilt when I left again for work. Helping your wife is good and necessary, but on the farm there is a sort of domain that I get to bring them in to which integrates seamlessly with the world inside. The homestead is an extension of the house into a household, with levels of activity and work suited to different ages, etc. Its more than just “being home more”.
Now, I might be accused of being romantic, but the reason farming sounds so romantic is because it is. Sure, the reality of it involves blood, dirt, and manure, and its really hard, and sometimes that’s the case just with kids long before you step in the barnyard. There are neighbors here that will steal as fast as anyone in the city, and the beloved agrarian culture you read about in Wendell Berry novels is long gone, replaced by Dollar Generals, monoculture farming, and empty mills. And I also recommend that you give up the grandeur parts of your ideal: big colonial farmhouses and endless pastures.
The reality will be much humbler. But, like I said, I think we are in a movement of recovery and rediscovery. Men are remembering that “husband” means “house-bound” and that the word is also used to describe caring for the farm – “husbandry”. Farming and fatherhood just go together. I think the coals left from a more vibrantly burning culture of community, land, and God are being blown. And it’s getting warmer out here. I know some who have made it in a farming enterprise and others that have failed; I know those that stopped at the backyard gardening and others who homestead and live in a tiny house off-grid. I know some who left the city and returned jaded by the whole thing. It’s not for everyone. But it is for some, and those that try don’t regret it. And I think some of it – like the integration family, land, and God- is good for all. My point here is to say this: your dream is good, that desire is there for good reasons, and I encourage you to get your hands dirty. If the world seems too cold and lonely, maybe you just need to warm it up with a good tall compost pile.
Jason Craig is the Executive Director of Fraternus, which trains and equips men to mentor the boys into virtuous, Catholic men. Jason holds a Masters in Theology from the Augustine Institute and writes for TCM from his homestead in Western NC, where he milks cows and tends to a variety of plants and animals with his wife Katie and four kids (and counting).