Knowing the Value of Having a Little Land
Some time ago, in the country-side of Europe, thirteen men began to work the soil on a barren piece of land that was given to them to make the best of. They were poor, and thin, and not of any noble upbringing. This was virgin soil, but not rich. It was the cast-away plot of a wealthy landowner who hadn't even dreamed of cultivating this part of his vast estate.
These men drained the marshes, improved the streams, and planted wheat and vegetables where the thistle had grown up unchecked. They bartered for a few cattle, which now spotted the back meadow, and within a few seasons, sheep would occupy the upland hills. The wool would be used to make clothing, the cows would be breed each year for more, and now with some hired help, land was expanded, trees were planted, and their methods honed for the climate and the place.
In the years to come, and in the aftermath of war and poverty, these men would add to their number others who were drawn to a place which was once filled with disease and rot and uninhabitable, but that now produced a surplus of food and goods which were sold in the towns. Peasants and kings alike came to learn a lifetime of devotion to prayer, which, according to their rule of life, also meant work. Work and pray, said St. Benedict. ora et labora. Each man (and later women) would find a role---the orchard, the apiary, the hay-fields---and in each decade the project was expanded and more land reclaimed until a system of agricultural advancement occupied over one-fifth of England's parcel.
At a time when the work of raising crops and tending the land was spurned as degrading by men who should have had their hand on the plow, monks emerged from their place of solitude to plow fields and dig ditches, providing a model of living that eventually helped peasants re-imagine the noble work of tending the land, and caring for livestock.
Though it was not inspired by an ecological crisis or a particular eschatological vision, beginning in the 12th century, the people who seemed to pray the most, and whose life was most centered around the work of God, were also the ones who grew the most food, tended the most land, and taught others how to do the same.
In a 1901 address to the Massachusets State Board of Agriculture, the then President of the Massachussets Agricultural College, Henry Goodell, said that these men (and later women) "saved agriculture when nobody else could save it. They practiced it under a new life and new conditions when no one else dared undertake it."
During the emergence of monasticism, food was scarce, and land lay fallow. With the fall of the Roman empire, barbaric tribes swept across Europe, and civilization as it had once been known, ceased to exist. Lands that had once been filled with food to feed families and villagers, through neglect, reverted to forests and swamps; towns lay in ruins, and most common people became beggars and slaves.
Emerging from this state of affairs, many who professed faith in God, at God’s invitation, sought out the land as refuge and solitude, only to much later find that their presence was so great, and so great was God’s presence within them, that multitudes were drawn toward them. What began as beds of herbs and small plots of gardens, stretched out eventually to fields of waving grain, hills clothed in vines, and valleys covered in fruit trees. They went out to pray and to embrace a life that they imagined would be quiet and inconsequential to anyone else. And while their life was quiet, it was far from inconsequential.
The monastic institution unconsciously became an instrument of helping people move from a place of disease, to a place of health. Its rise was also the rise of free agriculture for the world. This was the people of God, exchanging worthless parcels of barren marshland and thorny forests, for beautiful estates.
These men would eventually make known to the world the wisest and most productive methods of agriculture. Agriculture and the art of living well came first, by necessity, and what followed was civilization, and eventually conversion of countless men and women who would come to work alongside these monks who opened their doors to all. Shelter and protection were given to the sick and oppressed and then the skills of production and good work, and indeed, peasants began to know well, as Wendell Berry has said it, the value of having a little land.