… being a slightly expanded version of a talk given at the 2015 FPR conference in Genesee, New York.

Ingham County, MI

You might know Ithaca, New York, as that lovely little town that the Ithaca College Bombers call home. The Bombers used to be called the Cayugas, but the mascot got renamed for reasons that to this day, near as I can tell, remain disputed. One theory, and the one I favor, is that sometime around the 1930s members of the basketball team there were known for launching half-court bombs. Apparently I am not the only one who believes that passing is how I get the ball.

At any rate, the distinguished alums of this institution include Gavin MacLeod, Jessica Savitch, Rod Serling, and, speaking of The Twilight Zone, Ricki Lake. I join you New Yorkers in hoping that Cayuga Lake not be renamed after that learned scholar, lest Buttermilk Falls State Park be renamed Love Boat Falls. For then, as the Good Book says, shall the end come.

But of course it needs no displaced Michigander to tell this audience that the town of Ithaca—and the city too—is also home to another school of some renown, Cornell University, one of only a few schools with a mascot named after a chewing gum. If you travel to Ithaca, I suggest only that you bear in mind what one of Cornell’s most distinguished faculty members said exactly 100 years ago:

When a traveler goes to a strange country, he is interested in the public buildings, the cities, and some of the visible externals; but if he wants to understand the country, he must have a detailed map of its roads. The automobile maps are of no value for this purpose, for they show how one may pass over the country, not how the country is developed. (42)

That was Liberty Hyde Bailey, who was educated in botany at our nation’s first Land-Grant University, Michigan State (then called Michigan Agricultural College), and who eventually became the dean of the school of agriculture at Cornell, another Land-Grant college. He wrote sixty-five books and had a hand in another hundred and thirty-five, either as editor or co-author. I have time to instance but one, Hortus, his concise guide to gardening and general horticulture: concise yet massive, large enough to commit suicide off of should Cayuga Lake ever endure the indignity of being renamed after one of Ithaca College’s greatest alums.

But to the matter at hand:

There’s meaning in a life if only we can divine it. Bailey was born on the Ides of March four years before the signing into law of the first Land-Grant Act—the Morrill Act of 1862—and he died on Christmas day in 1954 at the age of ninety-seven. (He was planning a trip to Africa at the time.) Or, to put this another way, he was born on the brink of the Civil war, came of age during the Land Grant era, and, with “peace on earth” still ringing in the cold December air, he died in the post-World War-II years that inaugurated the all-out assault on American soil known as industrial agriculture, which has been an almost complete betrayal of the intentions of the Land-Grant acts articulated and signed between 1862 and 1914. In fact, it was around the time of Smith-Lever, 1914, the third and final act of the Land-Grant Complex, that Bailey began work on The Holy Earth. The book was published the following year and has been with us now for a full 100 years.

You see the picture: an attempt to preserve land and rural communities and the disciplines of the soil failing against the backdrop of war. You know the narrative arc: a story that moves from order to chaos. Its name is tragedy, and hubris is everywhere implicated.

But pride was not one of Bailey’s flaws. He did have one, and I will mention it at the end, when all of you are asleep, but it is no intention of mine to speak ill of my fellow displaced Michigander.

I am interested here in Bailey’s localist—that is, his Front Porch—credentials, and to establish them I must satisfy two other purposes, both great. One is to convince you to read his little masterpiece, The Holy Earth, or to re-read it if you’ve read it already; the other is so to amuse and charm and amaze you as to drink for free tonight. If the recompense in my brief moment of fame here is not abundant enough, I have brought some jokes to make up the difference. But those will have to wait until the Gemütlichkeit begins and our local hero, Bill Kauffman, is on a table doing his famous Chippendale imitation–an act, I am told, not to be missed for all the cream ale in Genesee county.

Bailey was born in South Haven, Michigan. His ancestral house is a registered landmark and a well-administered museum—featuring, incidentally, a terrific front porch. To this day the region is agricultural, devoted in large measure to fruit production, just as it was when Bailey was a precocious boy trapping passenger pigeons with the Potawatomi and establishing himself as the area’s best apple grafter. He was named after his father, who was given the name “Liberty” by the Vermont abolitionist who sired him. The elder Bailey, a farmer and a Puritan, indulged his son’s intellectual curiosity enough to let him read Darwin, wherein the boy first encountered the phrase a priori. Bailey asked his teacher its meaning, and she, the appropriately named Mrs. Fields (if I remember aright), decided to teach him Latin. She also got herself up to speed on other disciplines he coveted instruction in.

It is worth noting that Bailey’s father had a farm hand who went off to fight for the Union army in the war of Northern Aggression and Southern Secession. The stories this man returned with were apparently responsible for the younger Bailey’s life-long antipathy to war, and with that I begin the catalogue of Bailey’s Front Porch credentials.

He abominated the widespread inclination that would make military domination a major premise of social order. He called it “organized destructiveness” and said that those who hold to it combine “desolation with viciousness and violence, ravaging the holy earth, disrespecting the works of the creator, looking toward extirpation, confessing thereby that they do not know how to live in cooperation with their fellows; in such situations, every new implement of destruction adds to the guilt” (15).

He wasn’t the sort of man who would have had much patience for the casuistry that issues from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or from a nearby five-sided architectural abortion:

Vast changes in mental attitudes may result from a great war [he said] . . . and while we adjust ourselves to these changes, no one may say at the time that they are just or even that they are temporarily best. We are never able at the moment to measure the effects of the unholy conquest of peoples who should not have been conquered. (57)

You will have noticed in these passages Bailey’s use of such unscientific words as “holy,” “unholy,” “guilt,” and “just.” It was a particular triumph of his that although he was a thorough-going man of science and a Darwinian, he saw no reason to abandon a good vocabulary. For Bailey, “creation” remained an important category, and “creator” an important title. He regarded the earth as holy for the plain reason that we didn’t make it. We don’t get to treat as unholy what we didn’t make or what we have received as an unmerited gift.

He even carried his antipathy to war into his discussion of the so-called “struggle for existence,” which is a phrase he didn’t much care for. He would countenance no use of it to justify war:

We are confusing very unlike situations in our easy application of the struggle for existence to war. The struggle is not now between individuals to decide the fitter; it is between vast bodies hurling death by wholesale. We pick the physically fit and send them to the battle-line; and these fit are slain. This is not the situation in nature from which we draw our illustrations. . . . The military method of civilization finds no justification in the biological struggle for existence. (57-8)

Bailey went so far as to say “it is a blasphemous practice that speaks of the hostility of the earth, as if the earth were full of menaces and cataclysms” (8). He had little use for nature “red in tooth and claw.” “The struggle in nature,” he said, “is not a combat, as we commonly understand that word, and it is not warfare. The earth is not strewn with corpses” (59). Rather, “the final test of fitness in nature is adaptation, not power. Adaptation and adjustment mean peace, not war” (58).

But before Bailey brought adaptation to bear on war, he first made it a governing principle of farming. “Most of our difficulty with the earth lies in the effort to do what perhaps ought not to be done. Not even all the land is fit to be farmed. A good part of agriculture is to learn how to adapt one’s work to nature, to fit the crop-scheme to the climate and to the soil and the facilities” (9). This, of course, has been a signal theme of the New Agrarians—learning to say to the land, “not my will but thine be done.” “To live in right relation with his natural conditions,” Bailey continued, “is one of the first lessons that a wise farmer or any other wise man learns. We are at pains to stress the importance of conduct; very well: conduct toward the earth is an essential part of it” (9).

You get the feeling that for Bailey adaptation was not so much a law as a disposition or an ethic, and he insisted that it govern other human endeavors as well. He worried about a legal system insufficiently knowledgeable to regulate farming unless it could adapt to “widely differing conditions,” and he lacked patience for those who would answer the “good-roads question” “as if it were a problem only of highway construction” (43). As in farming, so in civic design and infrastructure: we must consult the place, for we are too likely “to place roads in the wrong locations and … render the countryside monotonous and uninteresting” (41).

As Aldo Leopold once put it, it is so much easier to build a road than to ask what the country really needs.

Bailey insisted that everyone, farmer and citizen alike, be “put right toward the planet”:

The whole body of public sentiment should be sympathetic with the man who works and administers the land for us; and this requires understanding. We have heard much about the “marginal man,” but the first concern of society should be for the bottom man.

And perhaps here more than anywhere else Bailey spoke from deep inside the Land-Grant complex:

If this philosophy should really be translated into action, the farmer would nowhere be a peasant, forming merely a caste, and that a low one, among his fellows. He would be an independent co-operating citizen partaking fully of the fruits of his labor, enjoying the social rewards of his essential position, being situated and protected by a body of responsive public opinion. The farmer cannot keep the earth for us without an enlightened and very active support from every other person, and without adequate safeguards from exploitation and from unessential commercial pressure. (26)

It is worth adding at the end of this fine paragraph—in case the fact be not obvious already—that Bailey stands squarely in the tradition that descends to us from Thomas Jefferson and, minus a few embarrassments, the Southern Agrarians: “farming land may develop character in people,” he said (20); if “the farmer is our financial mainstay[,] so in the good process of time will he be a moral mainstay, for ultimately finance and social morals must coincide” (20); “the exigencies and frugalities” of farm life “beget men and women to be serious and steady” (27); the best contact with the earth is on “many small parcels of land” (35); “If it were possible for every person to own a tree and to care for it, the good results would be beyond estimation” (36).

Now I want to touch briefly on a few more themes, all in service of those two very important purposes I mentioned near the beginning, one of which is to encourage you to read The Holy Earth during this year of its centenary and the other of which I need not, I hope, remind you. These themes are: democracy, efficiency, proper contempt, independence, and, finally, the triumvirate of religion, morals, and man’s dominion. A few sentences on each.


Bailey held that it is “very important in our great experiment in democracy that we do not lose sight of the first principle in democracy, which is to let the control of policies and affairs rest directly back on the people” (99). He was impressed that the rural movement of his own day had been “wholesomely democratic” (101) and he held without equivocation that “if agriculture cannot be democratic, then there is no democracy” (103). He disliked centralization, lauded whatever checks against it his countrymen had managed to develop, and he especially favored a decentralized agriculture (though he did allow for centralization in some governmental programs, as for example the postal service).


He regarded efficiency a false god, in government because it could not accomplish government’s primary aim and in economics because it is far too narrow a standard. Commercial efficiency could not be the “sole measure” of a civilization, because a civilization requires “higher ends” than that (45), and the “measuring of farming in terms of yields and incomes,” he said, “introduces a dangerous standard” (52) that we are only now beginning—maybe—to understand. He saw the relation, both real and etymological, between economy and good housekeeping (14-15), and he was suspicious of wealth when regarded as an end in itself. The gifts of the earth are to be used, he said,

for service and satisfaction, and not for wealth. Very great wealth introduces too many intermediaries, too great indirectness, too much that is extrinsic, too frequent hindrances and trivialities. It builds a wall about the man, and too often does he receive his impressions of the needs of the world from satellites and sycophants. (20)

The morals of commerce do not provide freedom, nor have we “learned how to withstand the prosperity and the privileges that we have gained by the discoveries of science” (16). Rather, the morals of commerce merely lead us back to war: “Rivalry that leads to arms is a natural fruit of unrestrained rivalry in trade” (16).

Proper Contempt

Bailey had the good sense to dislike the right things: “We are so accustomed to these essentials—to the rain, the wind, the soil, the sea, the sunrise, the trees, the sustenance—that we may not included them in the categories of the good things, and we endeavor to satisfy ourselves with many small and trivial and exotic gratifications; and when these gratifications fail or pall, we find ourselves helpless and resourceless” (7). “Lack of training in the realities drives us to find satisfaction in all sorts of make-believes and in play-lives. The ‘movies’ and many other developments of our time make an appeal wholly beyond their merits”; what is more, they “challenge the methods and intentions of education” (53).


Bailey anticipated the independence of the Mad Farmer when he noted that the great John Muir, who had recently died, was able to make real contributions to his generation for the singular reason that he was unattached “to any of the great institutions or organizations or to big business” (91). And Bailey outdid the dull Sage of Concord in his insistence on self-reliance, or what he called the “separate soul”: “Of the great underlying classes of occupations, farming is the only one that presents the individualistic side very strongly. If individualism is to be preserved anywhere, it must be preserved here. . . . I hope that the farmer’s obligation may be so sensitively developed in him as to produce a better kind of mass-cohesion than we have yet known” (96).

Religion, Morals, and Man’s Dominion

Just as Bailey retained “creation” as a category, so he kept and turned to good account the Puritan air he breathed in his father’s South Haven farmhouse. But he was no more interested in what he called “the old-time importance given to personal salvation, which was permission to live in heaven” (10) rather than where we actually do live, than in replacing it with a “nature religion” (2). On these points he was clear. Instead, he was at pains to indict a religion that is “detached” from the holy earth; our tendency, he said, is to live at a distance from what he called “the everlasting backgrounds” (2): the “great unoccupied spaces,” the “large environments in which we live but which we do not make” (104), the

sky with its limitless reaches; the silences of the sea; the tundra in pallid arctic nights; the deserts with their prismatic colors; the shores that gird the planet; the vast mountains that are beyond reach; the winds, which are the universal voice in nature; the sacredness of the night; the elemental simplicity of the open fields; and the solitude of the forest. (104)

These backgrounds, Bailey said, are “the facts and situations that stand at our backs”; we must “adjust our civilization” to them and “measure ourselves” by them (104). A failure to do this is nothing less than a moral failure. Announcing that “a society founded on an unmoral partition and use [of the earth] cannot itself be righteous and whole” (12), Bailey set out to do nothing less than put us straight.

And so The Holy Earth is, in the end, a guide to morals for people who live here. Bailey was not an old scold, as Thoreau sometimes was, and he didn’t always write with the vigor of an Aldo Leopold, who understood as well as anyone that nouns and verbs are the muscle cars of the language. But like Thoreau and Leopold he was governed by a great concern: a right relation to the given world, to what is.

Bailey allowed the human dominion spoken of in Genesis, but he insisted that we “put our dominion into the realm of morals” rather than into the “realm of trade,” where it is now (11). And dominion for Bailey is a responsibility given us within the limits of tending and keeping (“to keep and to waste are opposite processes” [82]). So “a useful contact with the earth places man not as superior to nature but as a superior intelligence working in nature as a conscious and therefore as a responsible part in a plan of evolution, which is a continuing creation” (53). And that superior intelligence ought to be able to distinguish “the elemental virtues as against [what Bailey called] the acquired, factitious, and pampered virtues” (53). That superior intelligence should know that “if art is true to its theme, it is one expression of morals” (80). That superior intelligence should be capable of asking whether our daily fare has been honest (71)—and it should recognize that if we “live mechanically, from shop to table,” we therefore live “without contact, and irreverently” (65). It should know that “no one has a moral right to contribute unsightly factory premises or a forbidding commercial establishment to any community” (80). It should recognize “the awful sin of partitioning the earth by force” (34).

In fine, when Bailey said “our relation to the planet must be raised into the realm of spirit; we cannot be fully useful otherwise” (2), he was in no wise spiritualizing man or nature. Far from setting the material world at a discount, he too, like the Creator at the end of the sixth day, accounted the creation very good. Raising our relation to the realm of spirit means recognizing the original material as holy. It means rejecting a “crass materialism” in order that we may accord matter its proper due. “We shall conceive of the earth, which is the common habitation, as inviolable. One does not act rightly toward one’s fellows,” he said, “if one does not know how to act rightly toward the earth” (2).

And so Bailey was never in danger of being elected Grand Manichaean of the Malevolent and Protective Order of Gnostics—or of penning apocalyptic delusions to line the bookshelves of The Family Christian Bookstore.

Among his reasons for writing The Holy Earth Bailey drew special attention to this:

the population of the earth is increasing, the relative population of farmers is decreasing, people are herding in cities, we have a city mind, and relatively fewer people are brought into touch with the earth in any real way. So it is incumbent on us to take special pains—now that we see the new time—that all the people, or as many of them as possible, shall have contact with the earth and that the earth righteousness shall be abundantly taught. (18)

This little masterpiece is available from several presses—though not, if your relation to nature has been raised to the level of spirit, through Amazon dot com, which the devil may take, and the sooner the better. One edition is from something calling itself CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. Michigan State University Press put out an edition in 2008 that is available in an inexpensive paperback. Nothing competes with Dover for inexpensive (or cheap), and in 2009 Dover issued an edition introduced by Front Porch ally Norman Wirzba. And this year, still to come, Counterpoint will issue a 100-year anniversary edition with an introduction by one of the Porch’s tutelary spirits and last year’s keynote speaker, a certain Kentuckian not unknown to many in this room. In his introduction Wendell Berry calls Bailey a “complete human being” (xiii), and he says that “to understand him it is necessary to keep always in mind, as [Bailey] did, his three devotions: to nature, to the farm, and to the farmer” (x). Proof whereof: Berry takes special pains to remind us of something Bailey himself took special pains to insist on: that “when the final history is written, the lot of the man on the land will be the saddest chapter” (98; xviii).

And now that you are safely asleep I come to Bailey’s one character flaw:

Toward the end of the book, in a petulant little chapter on food, Bailey complains of complicated meals consisting of several courses. “Such laborious uselessness is quite immoral,” he assures us (67). So he was no foodie, but that wasn’t his flaw. In fact, we might the more honor him for his little sneer at hotel fare. But here it is: after venting his spleen on fancy victuals, this farm boy turns his attention to potables.

Every process that removes us one step farther from the earth is a distinct loss to the people, and yet we are rapidly coming into the habit of taking all things at second hand. My objection to the wine of the grape is not so much a question of abstinence as of the fact that I find no particular satisfaction in the shape and texture of the bottle.

Sometimes great men, so as not to be thought demigods, will be made by some divine agent to subscribe to the most heretical of doctrines. May that same divine agent protect us from this gross heresy, especially tonight, when we combine our energies to fulfill the second of my two great purposes.

N.B. All page numbers are from the Dover edition.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. I was happy to hear that you, ‘Front Porchers’ we’re going to the Genesee Valley.

    I spent a lot of time at the Abbey of the Genesee and was ecstatic that Father Gerard was invited to your conference.

    Professor, I am also happy that you gave a talk about, Liberty Hyde Bailey. Farming and localism is so important around Piffard and I am proud that ‘you’ teachers chose to go to Western NY.

    I am still getting used to the Front Porch Republic and your band of teachers, farmers and family men and women. It’s a pleasure to know you care so much about localism, small towns and the people that live their.

    It’s a great outlet for me and I hope my son and my wife’s children are taught by you guys someday.

    Thanks again!

  2. Thanks for this excellent introduction to Bailey’s work. I’m looking forward to that Counterpoint edition.

    I hate to break this to you, but Amazon owns CreateSpace.

  3. So he does not fancy mashed potatoes, but a plain and unadorned spud. I could not make out if he preferred baked or boiled. I assume baked, as it sounded to me as if he was describing a russet.
    Anyway, enjoyed his book – thank you – and it reminded me offhandedly of Daniel Klein’s Travels with Epicurus which I had the pleasure of reading not too long ago. Year or three, I do not remember. At least a passage or two seemed in concert. I believe Klein discussed Epicurus’s fondness for a pot of lentils. All other troubles aside, in the mountains I adopted some decades ago we discovered, after a time, that some will drop by to share soup beans and pan bread and greens. So I stayed. Beyond any sense, what sense there was in me anyway, thin at first and careworn now. But still have the soup beans and bread and greens. And the mountains.

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