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    Foreword to Water at the Roots

    By David Kline

    January 1, 2018
    This article is taken from the introduction to a collection of Philip Britts's writings, Water at the Roots: Poems and Insights of a Visionary Farmer.
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    I wish I could have met Philip Britts. Not only was he a prolific writer and poet, a pastor, an astute observer of his natural surroundings, and, to use a phrase of his, a steward of the mysteries of God; he was also a true landsman. Although I was only a child when Philip died, it is here, as a farmer, that I immediately connect with this gifted man. While I am not a trained horticulturist as Philip was, I too am a keeper of the orchard. I plant and prune and harvest.

    As editor of Farming Magazine, I often receive letters from readers in cities. One in the Bronx wrote, “I don’t have a farm, but my heart is there. I grow tomato plants in a window box.” Philip’s words are also for people like this; he knew that even though most people do not have land to farm and cannot grow the food they eat, everyone hungers, at least at some level, for a connection with nature. And he saw this hunger in the context of a related problem: our disconnectedness from one another. As he wrote in one essay:

    Man’s relationship to the land must be true and just, but it is only possible when his relationship to his fellow man is true and just and organic. This includes the relationship of all the activities of man, the relationship of industry with agriculture, of science with art, the relationship between sexes, and above all, the relationship between man’s spiritual life and his material life.

    One of the great tragedies of the modern world is the complete divorce of the city dwellers from nature and the land….

    The decisive factor in the success of the farmer will be, ultimately, the love of farming. This love comes when we find, not in nature, but through and behind nature, that something which impels worship and service. Part of the glory of farming is that indescribable sensation that comes, perhaps rarely, when one walks through a field of alfalfa in the morning sun, when one smells earth after rain, or when one watches the ripples on a field of wheat; the sensation hinted at by the poet, when his

    Restless ploughman pauses, turns and wondering,
    Deep beneath his rustic habit, finds himself a king.

    This love is fed by understanding, by knowledge. Without going the whole way with Leonardo da Vinci and his “perfect knowledge is perfect love,” the more one knows of the mysteries of the earth the better one can love farming in the sense of giving one’s service to it.

    It is obvious that Philip Britts lived the life he wrote about. He knew that working with nature and her seasons matters, that farming is not just a matter of tilling the land but loving it, of nurturing instead of exploiting it. Despite his short life, he lived fully and generously. What he wrote seven decades ago is as pertinent today as when he wrote it, perhaps even more so in this greed-driven society where many thoughtful people are looking at intentional community and sustainable living as alternatives to consumerism.

    Philip, I think, would argue that while we can promote such alternatives regardless of where we live, it is best to move not just spiritually but also physically from places of decadence. Maybe not to a cave in the mountains, but to the land, where one can be nurtured and be a nurturer in return. Where one can, like Elijah, in quietness, in the natural world, listen to the voice of God.

    I wonder what Philip would have to say about today’s agribusiness, or about the mindset that believes technology will solve all the world’s food production problems. Philip clearly believed in exercising caution: before welcoming a new agricultural development simply because it is scientifically plausible or commercially profitable, we ought to take care to avoid or diminish any moral harm it might cause. One cannot help thinking here of genetically engineered plants developed to allow minimum tillage, which have led to millions of acres of farmland being soaked with herbicides.

    Philip’s writings indicate that he understood what Omar Bradley meant when he said, “Technology is a useful servant but a dangerous master.” Although many of us do not live in an intentional community like Philip and his family did, we can heed his wisdom and take steps to control technology to the point that it doesn’t displace our neighbor.

    Philip’s writings remind me of the farming community I grew up in. My father was a thresher for many years. At one point he worked for twenty-five neighbors, spending day after day at their farms threshing, husking corn, hulling clover, and filling silos with corn. Those neighbors – Methodists, Catholics, Mennonites, Lutherans, and Amish – all shared their labor for the common good. As I told my father, he probably saw the best years of American agriculture, a period when there was enough technology to lighten your load but not enough to replace your neighbor. When my father lay dying, I would turn to his diaries from his years as an active farmer, and read from them to him. “Yes, yes,” he would remember; and he would smile.

    But back to the poetry that forms the heart of this book: in spite of the many hardships Philip and his community weathered in leaving his native England and hacking out a livelihood in the harsh wilderness of Paraguay, poetry never stopped flowing out of him, like water from a spring. With Wendell Berry, he believed that “life is a miracle.” And as his last poem, “Toucan,” shows, he never lost his youthful sense of wonder:

    The boy there,
    Standing, staring,
    Staring at the bird –
    Eyes alight, breath held,
    Bare toes gripping the sand,
    The boy there,
    Standing, staring –
    That’s my son –
    A sound from me
    And he will turn,
    Dart to me,
    “Daddy, did you see?”

    Reading Philip’s prose and poetry, you feel the kinship he had with all living things around him, both human and wild. His ability to see into the mysteries of their lives reminds me of what I have read of the Lakota Sioux. They knew that, removed from nature, a person’s heart becomes hard; and that lack of respect for living things soon leads to lack of respect for one’s fellow humans too. Philip kept himself close to the softening influence of nature. To be sure, Philip’s poetry also reveals his total commitment to Christ as Lord of his life. He believed the Sermon on the Mount where it reads, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33), and he trusted the promise of the Psalmist, who wrote, “I will both me lay down in peace, and sleep: for thou, Lord, only makest me dwell in safety” (Ps. 4:8). And yet this belief in God and in the goodness of creation did not make Philip self-satisfied. On the contrary, whether writing poetry, farming, or probing the science behind it, he kept grappling with the question, “How shall we live?” It is this tireless search that gives him undiminished relevance so many years after his early death and makes his contributions as a poet and a lover of the land deserving of as wide an audience as possible.

    Read the book: Water at the Roots: Poems and Insights of a Visionary Farmer

    Green Wheat


    1. A.E. (George William Russell), “Earth Breath.”
    Contributed By David Kline

    David Kline, an Amish organic farmer in Ohio, has written three books: Letters from Larksong, Great Possessions, and Scratching the Woodchuck.

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