G. K. Chesterton & Catholic Homesteading

There is something about a desk job or a cubicle that makes a man dream of farming. Even a man like me, who grew up in the concrete wasteland of sprawling suburbia. I had barely even touched an egg shell, much less a chicken. So why should I feel a natural, even deep-seated, yearning for something so far from my experience. This is how natural things go, I suppose.

When Man is originally made for something, he can fall back into it simply enough. It’s as easy as falling asleep and as difficult as waking up. This is how movements begin, too, when people start waking up.

Pope Benedict XVI seemed to notice the stirring, as well, when he said:

“More than a few young people have already chosen this path; also many professionals are returning to dedicate themselves to the agricultural enterprise, feeling that they are responding not only to a personal and family need, but also to a ‘sign of the times,’ to a concrete sensibility for the ‘common good.”

For me, it’s very much a matter of leaving the concrete jungle for this “concrete sensibility.”

For me and my wife, it just began with the love of animals and a hate of waste, waste of any kind. These were the first seeds of our homesteading. Of course, these seeds were probably borne out of our Catholicism. In this, like all good things, it was just a natural outgrowth of our Catholic faith.

Catholics returning to the land is nothing new, however. It has happened again and again in Catholic history, usually in response to the excesses of urbanization. It happened by necessity following the devastation of the Black Death in the 1300s. Most recently, the “Catholic Land Movement” began in Edwardian England in the midst of rapid industrialization and urbanization. The “Distributist” movement sought to restore Catholic families on the land for the sake of the family. The flight to urban areas in this period had resulted in squalor, decadence, and vice previously unimagined. This is what Pope Leo XIII was describing in his Encyclical Rerum Novarum:

“In any case we clearly see, and on this there is general agreement, that some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class.”

No less a personage than G. K. Chesterton advocated for Catholic homesteading. In 1910, he wrote the book, What’s Wrong with the World?  He answers the titular question in this way:

Man has always lost his way. He has been a tramp ever since Eden; but he always knew, or thought he knew, what he was looking for. Every man has a house somewhere in the elaborate cosmos; his house waits for him waist deep in slow Norfolk rivers or sunning itself upon Sussex downs. Man has always been looking for that home which is the subject matter of this book. But in the bleak and blinding hail of skepticism to which he has been now so long subjected, he has begun for the first time to be chilled, not merely in his hopes, but in his desires. For the first time in history he begins really to doubt the object of his wanderings on the earth. He has always lost his way; but now he has lost his address.

That’s it, isn’t it? At its most basic, every journey requires a beginning and an end, a home and a destination. Skeptics have confused Man as to his ultimate end, God. Modernity has confused Man about his home, the family.

Chesterton proposes a middle way between the positions of Hudge and Gudge, between Hudge’s “tall bare tenements like beehives” and Gudge’s nostalgia for “slums and stinks”. This middle way is summarized by Chesterton’s phrase “three acres and a cow”:

Three Acres and a Cow, G. K. Chesterton portrait, www.catholichomesteading.com

This really hits “home” for me. Coincidentally, my family just bought “three acres” of land. Instead of a cow, though, we have its approximate weight equivalent in three (pregnant) sheep. Interestingly, our new home speaks to our ultimate end, the Lamb of God. God, as the Venerable Fulton Sheen says, does nothing “without a finesse of all details.”

There is something of this in the book The Color of Blue: Recovering the Spirit of Contemplation by the Benedictine monk Luke Bell. Bell describes the reason for not wandering too far from the land. He writes that nature “is not something whose import we have decided upon: it is something given to us so that by contemplating it we may go beyond it to what it expresses.

The Earth is our best vision of the New Earth and, consequently, Heaven. This cannot be adequately expressed, I feel, without quoting J. R. R. Tolkien:

Hobbits are an unobtrusive but very ancient people, more numerous formerly than they are today; for they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well-ordered and well-farmed countryside was their favourite haunt. They do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though they were skilful with tools.

So, while some have called this new wave of Catholic Homesteading, the Benedict Option, and perhaps rightly so, I will call it the Hobbit Option.

For our family, this middle way of “three acres and a cow” makes a lot of sense. God isn’t calling me to give up my desk job and, rarest of rarities these days, my pension to be a full-time farmer. Kevin Ford describes this choice in “To Farm or To Homestead”:

It didn’t take very many weeks of owning chickens and dairy goats or seeing weeds overtake the garden that I realized I would have to work very very hard to keep up with everything, and I had to have some source of income at the same time. I have the deepest respect for the Distributist founders of the Catholic Land Movement. Their dream of communities of subsistence farmers was a beautiful dream, but many things have changed since their day. Back then farms were cheap compared to today. There were even places like the USA and Canada that were giving land away free to anyone who wanted to farm it and live on it! Today land goes for very high sums.  How do you plan to pay for that land? Barring great personal wealth, you aren’t. You will find yourself in a hole too deep to get out of, and then your homesteading dream will be over. I don’t think that homesteading and farming are mutually exclusive, but I do believe that you have to make a choice. Will you continue to work your day job and homestead on the side, or will you become a full time farmer and eat some of what you grow?

As Ford described above, if this were still the day of America giving away “Forty acres and a mule,” I might be willing to upgrade from my “Three acres and a cow” – haha! Besides that, there’s been quite a steep learning curve for this child of suburbia. Our first year, while we were still at the “Quarter acre and some chickens” stage, our entire flock was wiped out by a mink or an opossum. Necessity is, of course, the mother of invention, but my family would have likely starved if we had transitioned too hastily. We must always leave room for discernment when following our dreams!

So here’s the philosophical basis for our Catholic homesteading, please stay tuned for a chronicle of the practical aspects, as well – like posts about the upcoming birth of our lambs!

For more on this topic, I recommend the following reading:

 

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