Ragan Sutterfield, Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us, Cascade, Eugene, Oregon, 2013. 121 pp. $12.80. ISBN: 9781597526562.
Though Ragan Sutterfield never says it in these words, Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us is about the practical and spiritual implications of eating, whether the food eaten is a nuked Pizza Pop on the run or a leisurely family breakfast of pasture-raised bacon and free-range eggs from a trusted farmer down the road. What we eat affects the earth and our souls.
Eating is our most significant intersection with the earth. If we take responsibility for this connection, whether as farmers or “proxy” farmers, we can be enriched spiritually. A good measure of a life, Sutterfield contends, is whether our actions build or destroy soil. And so the church needs agrarianism—a “habit of mind” rooted in our dependence on dirt (2–3).
When he wrote the book, Sutterfield was involved in a small-scale farm in Arkansas, though he refers to his own experience less often than he might. The book adds to a mini-genre of writing that contrasts the virtues of agrarianism with the evils of “industrial” agriculture. That genre—which includes contributions from Wendell Berry, Amishman David Kline, Gene Logsdon, and Fred Bahnson, as well as Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, and Henry David Thoreau if you stretch the boundaries—faces a difficult task. Its authors swim against the tide of progress and civilization.
In her 2007 book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Kingsolver refers to a powerful societal “presumption that education is a key to moving away from manual labor and dirt—two undeniable ingredients of farming.”1 Like Kingsolver, Sutterfield is pushing against not only the weight of education but also the entire trajectory of history, which is headed toward the bright lights. The task at hand is to chip away at what I would call the urbanization of the collective imagination.
Cultivating Reality sets about this task not by prescribing exactly how people should eat or by calling for re-ruralization but by examining worldviews. Sutterfield uses a good portion of his book to trace the anti-agrarian notions of individual greed and utilitarian disregard for environmental health back to thinkers like John Locke, René Descartes, and Francis Bacon. Along the way he makes many and varied stops to discuss fasting, celebration (aim not only for that which is sustainable but that which calls for joyous observance), Genesis (be a servant rather than steward of the land), the Sabbath (not just a day to rest so we can work harder in the week to come), convenience (beware), agrarian farms as a monastic-like foothold in a culture adrift, the fault of liberalism (it’s bent on “coercion”), “shit,” and the gift of dependence.
The latter is the point I will call to mind most often after reading the book. Sutterfield observes that his infant daughter will become more dependent, not less, as she grows up. She will become intertwined in “the expanding network of creatures and people upon which she relies” (19–20). And that is a gift, Sutterfield says.
As an aspiring small-scale farmer myself, I resonated with many of Suttefield’s reflections, especially those on gift, satisfaction, and, particularly, humility. I know that every plant, with the possible exception of nodding thistle, is a gift. I know the bone-tired, soul-quenching satisfaction of manual farm work. I know the humility of battling weeds and shoveling stinky stuff. I know the humility of transplanting a tiny oak seedling, aware that I will have returned to dust by the time it is anywhere near as big as the three giants that anchor the yard we momentarily inhabit.
Soil, Sutterfield says, can offer the church humility; the church is to be “brought low, close to the earth” (112). This humility is a spiritual gift of a practical reality. As Thoreau wrote from his cabin in the woods, “Humility, live darkness, reveals the heavenly lights.”2 Such darkness is hard to find in cities.
But here I come to a danger that Sutterfield also faces—dichotomization. The city is not all bad and the country not all good. Likewise, the “industrial” farmer is not all bad and the “agrarian” farmer not all good.
The step beyond Cultivating Reality is to bring in the reality that cities, which will not go away, depend on land controlled by big farmers. Ultimately the food system cannot change without them and their land. You can’t grow potatoes in the pages of a book, only in soil.
Condemnation is too easy. Dichotomization itself partakes of the worldview that Sutterfield identifies as problematic. The big farmers—my neighbors—must be brought into the conversation, not categorically condemned. We’re all on this earth together, and we need to make it work.
Sutterfield brings in some of this nuance in his one-page epilogue when he confesses the compromises in his own life, a life which he says is “lost in plastic wrap and gasoline” (115). Then he comes full circle back to his starting point that the church needs agrarianism. Agrarianism, he says (not quite in these words), needs the church, which for Sutterfield is the only context in which to work through the contradictions and compromises of life.
Somewhat ironically—or not—Sutterfield is now training to be an Episcopal priest. In an email, he shared that he thinks churches should raise their own grapes and wheat for communion, and gather holy water from local streams.3 Sutterfield believes this would help us “understand the ecological connections of Christ’s body,” bringing us back to the dirt upon which our bodies and souls depend.
Will Braun lives with his family on an old farmyard near Morden, Manitoba, on the Canadian Prairies.
Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), 9.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods (New York: MacMillan, 1918), 331.
Ragan Sutterfield, email to author, June 22, 2015.