For most of us, beauty is difficult to define, but we know it when we see it. There is an intuition that moves the human heart to recognize when something is truly beautiful—or when something is certainly ugly. Articulating why in such cases can be tricky, however, since beauty is too often regarded as a quality determined by the individual beholder. Too often, the following is stated with misplaced elasticity: “Don’t impose your standards of beauty on me, and I won’t impose my standards of beauty on you.” The connoisseur of subjective beauty says this somewhat abrasively, under the guise of open-mindedness. At the end of the day, this kind of regard for beauty is faulty; for there is an objectivity to beauty, and the human heart knows it.
But even an intuitive knowing does not alleviate the difficulty of articulating why something is truly beautiful. So, having a definition, or a framework, of what beauty means, is quite helpful. John-Mark Miravalle’s Beauty: What it is, and Why it Matters, offers a powerful definition. Put most simply, Miravalle defines beauty as a combination of order and surprise. Orderliness is necessary for a thing to be beautiful because the thing has an essence that must be respected in reality. This means that the thing is what it is, for the sake of some end, and will not change essences or its telos on a whim. This orderliness makes the thing comprehendible, approachable, observable, and predictable.
Order without surprise, however, makes something entirely banal. Without surprise, order becomes a dull, mindless drag with no creativity. Surprise adds creativity, an originality that the beholder might not have expected or imagined. For example, grass did not have to be green; it could’ve been blue, or red. But it is green, and there is something surprising about that. Somehow, that mysterious fact about it makes it beautiful, and gives us something to ponder. In contrast, a beige brick wall gives the person very little to ponder; all that it is, is before the person, and it has nothing more to say. It is a wall with a job, a purpose; it makes a statement about pure utilitarianism and maximum wall-building efficiency. Creativity isn’t necessary for the wall to accomplish its job, so it would not be right to say that the beige brick wall is beautiful.
Miravalle argues in his book that nature is inherently beautiful because it is both so orderly and yet so surprising. Nature has patterns that human beings can observe, and does sensible things that correspond with the essence of the plants, rocks and animals. Nature reveals the orderliness of the Creator, and the wonderful rationality and intelligence of Him. But it also reveals His lively personality, and His creativity. God chose to make the monarch butterfly orange; He could have made it purple. He could have made the wings a different shape, but He did not.
Nature is inherently beautiful, then, by virtue of its orderliness and its surprise. It is a marvelous harmony of the rational and creative powers of God, expressed in a million different ways. And the book of Genesis explains that human beings are made in His image and likeness, so we ought to act as our Creator acts: both with rationality and creativity.
What about on a farm? There is rationality and order there, for sure. But do modern farming practices stifle the surprise of nature for the sake of sterility and order? If yes, what becomes of the nature they are working with? Is it properly respected, or merely exploited? To answer, it is necessary to ask what role beauty plays on a farm, if any. Does it make any difference if a farm is “beautiful” or not?
In his classic work, One Straw Revolution, Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka offers radical opinions about how human beings have lost a sense of what nature really is like, and how that affects how we farm. He writes, “Almost everyone thinks that ‘nature’ is a good thing, but few can grasp the difference between natural and unnatural.” What many conceive of as natural on a farm is really, in Fukuoka’s opinion, quite unnatural: pruning, using pesticides, planting in long, straight rows—are these practices really what allow for nature to flourish best according to its forms?
Fukuoka argues that, especially for farms that want to grow fruit trees, allowing them to grow according to their natural form is necessary for long-term success. He writes, “Trees weaken and are attacked by insects to the extent that they deviate from the natural form. If trees are growing along a pattern of unnatural development and are left abandoned in this state, the branches become tangled and insect damage results.” But what about maximum yield of crops? Fukuoka argues that “if you use chemical fertilizer the trees do grow larger, but year by year the soil becomes depleted.” On a practical scale, the use of chemicals for greater yield is certainly harmful to the soil, and to the trees. Allowing them to grow according to their form, and unaffected by chemicals, is an excellent start in caring for them rightly. As a result, they flourish more fully, and become, by necessity, more beautiful.
On a more philosophical level, this use of chemicals to enhance products is harmful for the consumers in that it teaches them to have an unrealistic appreciation of nature’s beauty. Fukuoka gives the example of the mandarin orange, which, when it is high in demand when it is not quite in season, is subject to layers of chemicals before being put on the shelf. A coloring agent is used on the oranges when they are harvested early, and then they are put “in a ripening room for gas treatment. But when the fruit is shipped out early, it is not sweet enough, and so artificial sweeteners are used… Finally, as a finishing touch, a paraffin wax solution is applied and the fruit is polished to a glossy shine… So from the time just before the fruit has been harvested to the time it is shipped out and put on the display counter, five or six chemicals are used.”
The expectations of consumers are now such that less than brightly colored fruits are no longer appealing, since our ability to perceive nature as beautiful has been warped. Not only is this harmful for consuming compared to more organic options, but it also harms our ability to respect nature for what it is: subject to bruises, sometimes duller in color, and more subtly sweet in flavor. In a word, such nature is imperfect, but beautiful in its own way. But we must relearn how to love it this way; and such a relearning must begin on the farm.
To remedy what has been harmed by these modern agricultural practices, I think that a farm must be beautiful in a way that respects both man and nature. To begin my explanation with a negative, let me first state from a purely intuitive standpoint that modern industrial farms are simply ugly. For one, such farms are most often perfectly sterile.
While industrial agriculture would like to intervene with chemicals, Fukuoka highlights the incredible fertility of nature if left alone: “if nature is left to itself, fertility increases. Organic remains of plants and animals accumulate and are decomposed on the surface by bacteria and fungi. With the movement of rainwater, the nutrients are taken deep into the soil to become food for microorganisms, earthworms, and other small animals. Plant roots reach to the lower soil strata and draw the nutrients back up to the surface.” The industrial chemical practices do not allow for this natural fertility. Much of what is mentioned in this circle of life is cut out on the sterilized farm since pesticides are used heavily, which results in the death of worms, bad and good bacteria, weeds, and fungi.
Nature is inherently fertile, and the industrial farm seems to almost take offense at that. Any trace of a living thing that is not supposed to be there by the farm’s standards is removed without any question of why it might be there. And, what nature does produce, the customer is not satisfied with, since chemicals seem to offer something better and shinier. As a result, the food produced is more synthesized than organic, thus reiterating the little difference we can tell between natural and unnatural nature. Fukuoka writes, “If you think commercial vegetables are nature’s own, you are in for a big surprise. These vegetables are a watery chemical concoction of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potash, with a little help from the seed. And that is just how they taste. And commercial chicken eggs (you can call them eggs if you like) are nothing more than a mixture of synthetic feed, chemicals, and hormones. This is not a product of nature but a man-made synthetic in the shape of an egg.”
If the modern conception of beauty is for everything to be perfectly clean and sterile—consider the current trend of minimalism and white-and-beige “earth tones” popular in interior decorating—then it follows that nature, which is messy, bright and colorful in its own right, and abundantly fertile, being seen as beautiful and desirable as itself is almost a foreign concept to modern industry. Therefore, its beautiful aspects have no real apparent “need” to be on the farm, so its fertile and complex components are cut out for the sake of maximum yield and efficiency.
Imagine the industrial farm: they are managed by massive combines and harvesters, and if a person were to stand in the center of one of the crop fields, they could turn in a circle and see endless rows of the same one crop—a farming practice called monoculture—and get dizzy from the sameness of it all. But this is nature at work, right? Plants, growing everywhere! It should be a breathtaking sight given its expansiveness, shouldn’t it?
But we know that there is a chasm of difference between the experience of standing in the vastness of a forest, and the vastness of an industrial farm.
Why is that? They are both miles of plant life growing. What is the difference? Why is one more beautiful than the other?
A main difference is that one place respects the natures of the things growing there, and one does not. Further, there is a certain hiddenness to the beauty of a forest, because of the things that can be discovered there that a passerby could not know. To really get to know a forest, one must remain in silence and listen: what is heard? Birds, singing. Bugs, flying and calling and buzzing. The tallest branches of the trees rustling in the wind high above.
What does one hear standing on the monoculture farm? When the combines are not running, there is a strange, eerie silence. What might’ve been allowed to live there because of the nutrients in the plants has been killed with a single administering of pesticide across the whole field. No bugs. No birds. No new life unless the farm decides it must grow. The man tilling this land has made it a relationship of the miner and the mined, the extractor and the extracted. Nature no longer can flourish as it ought to, but only as it is told to do. Beauty on the farm ceases, and one is left standing in the field of an industrial farm.
Does the monoculture farm allow for beauty? No; for it also does not allow for nature, which man works directly with in farming, to be what God created it to be—both orderly and surprising. In modern industrial farming practices, man cuts out the surprise of nature and states that it may only behave according to its orderliness. No, bugs may not pass through during their migration, and no, birds may not descend to interact with the foliage below. Weeds, especially, should not be allowed to grow alongside the plants; the value of cover crops is a myth, and we have no need of any plants except for this one plant we are trying to grow thousands of at the same time. That is how plants work, isn’t it? They are meant to grow alone, with no companion plants, and with nothing natural to enrich the soil, like weeds and organic matter. Certainly not: “monoculture for endless miles!” the industrial farm declares. “That is how we will till the earth and make it prosperous.”
This kind of farming ignores the fact that such a sterile practice is ultimately what causes desertification, which is ruined and unusable soil that has been mined and then left out to dry. We are potentially on the path to running out of agricultural land, but it is not because of the cows that eat grass daily; it is because of those desperate measures taken to produce more than we did yesterday, without any consideration for the essence of the things we are working with.
Industrial farming disregards the necessity of surprise in nature and demands that the earth be sterile. Pesticides, GMOs, and the practice of monoculture all contribute to this sterilization and desertification. And, not only are these practices harming the soil they are working with, but they are also harming the man working with the earth. His understanding of what the land is for, and even what the land is, becomes skewed. He begins to regard the earth as only something to be treated in a utilitarian way, asking it, “what is the maximum profit I can reap from this endeavor, with the minimum amount of effort and resources?” In the short term, maybe industrial agriculture accomplishes this and saves resources. But long term, the man will be disappointed to find that the earth has been ruined.
He forgets Genesis’ original passages about how Adam and Eve were meant to be stewards of the earth, not the miners and extractors of it. They were meant to be caretakers of the earth, and the loving authorities of it. The way they can love it best, then, is by caring for it according to its nature, not by cutting off half of its identity by demanding only its orderliness remain.
In order to heal this relationship between man and the land he cultivates, man must allow beauty to return to the farm. Farms can be beautiful, because they can facilitate both the orderliness of farming and the creative liberties inherent in nature. Farms do not have to drive the birds, bugs, and weeds away. Instead, they can strive to learn why they come, why they are there. Even the weeds have a purpose that can benefit the farm, if only the farmer takes the time to learn about it.
With time, the farm becomes a beautiful place to stand in the middle of. One looks around and sees lush trees, roots deep in the soil that has been fertilized by the animals that have passed through, and the organic matter which has been building for years. When the rain comes, thousands of gallons of water are absorbed into the soil, richly saturating it and armoring it should a drought come. One can close their eyes and hear the birds singing, the bugs chirping. The industrial farm had presented only one startlingly stiff plant growing for miles; here one sees a wide array of fruit trees, vegetables, and flowers. One is no longer dwarfed and drowned by the endless rows of industry which lie to the farmer, saying, “you are but a number who contributes to the profit of this farm.” Instead, one is enveloped by a different reality: “you are a human being, and a steward of God’s earth, who can have a real relationship with the nature around you.” One can be captivated by its beauty and yet the caretaker of its fruits; in doing so, one can be drawn up into the life of God through a celebration of both rational work and creativity.
There are repercussions to these considerations, even for the person who does not actively participate in farming. All people shop at grocery stores: what brands do we buy? Do we strive to support local farmers? Do we buy according to the season as best we can? Even the smallest efforts to purchase sustainably are worth it, if only for personal integrity and a personal healing of one’s relationship with nature. Though it is not all bad, every person has been wounded by technology and the vast possibilities the industrial revolution has introduced, but there are things we can do, and advocate for, that help heal.
This way of farming, which respects the essence of the plants and animals that the farmer is working with, will undoubtedly be more sustainable and regenerative than the practices of the industrial farm. It will also undoubtedly heal our relationship to the earth we cultivate, as it will teach us again to be stewards of the earth, as God originally intended. But these benefits and this healing can only begin to happen when beauty is allowed once again on the farm. One cannot truly have a good farm without it.
The author would like to thank Professor Stephen McGinley for the many conversations about beauty and farming, as well as his witness to living out holistic farming, which inspired this article.
Image via ArtUK: Charles Towne, “A Farm Landscape with Cattle and Sheep by a Pond,” 1804-8.