Loss of Farmland, Loss of Soul
Article by Patricia Damery
What is the impact on the human soul of a people losing the land they farm along with their right livelihood?
Growing up on a small farm in the Midwest, I was of the last generation to be raised in a large, predominately rural culture. When I entered first grade, almost all of my classmates’ fathers farmed. Our small farms punctuated the landscape, all at least a half mile apart, on a square mile road grid system that reached for hundreds of miles in every direction.
We were a very local people. We knew everyone in town, worshiped in our small country churches, shopped locally, patronized our country doctor and dentist. Neighboring towns’ schools were our competitors. All winter everyone followed the high school basketball games. We intimately knew our landscape, its slightest variations, which would not be noticed by non-locals, the areas that were damp, the wooded creeks lining the horizon. But get three or four miles away and the landscape was strange. Even today I can get lost in this grid system if I get out of the three or four mile radius I was raised in.
The land we lived on was once a sea bottom and then, about 15,000 years ago, scraped flat by a glacier. Over centuries deep-rooted prairie vegetation built three to four feet of rich topsoil. In the last 150 years farmers have wiped out almost all of these native plants as they mined the riches of the soil. Perhaps one percent of the prairie survives and only along railroad rights-of-way and ditches. Prairie chickens, still abundant at the turn of the last century when my grandmother was a girl, are extinct. But the amazing thing is, the never-tilled areas, left unmowed and unsprayed, sprout big blue stem prairie grass and Indian grass, even after one hundred years.
By the time I graduated from high school, many of my classmates’ fathers had sold their farms and prematurely retired or had taken jobs in the city 15 miles away. My mother started teaching as the youngest of us entered school, so my own father could keep farming. Empty storefronts were showing up in town. We lost our grocery store. Within a few years, the high school was consolidated with our nearby competitor. High schoolers no longer “walked beans” for summer money because herbicides stopped anything growing but soybeans. We all celebrated this. I hated walking beans! It was hot and dusty, tedious work.
We all knew most of my generation could not stay in the community, although it was never discussed. We were baby-boomers, born after the Second World War, and there was no place for most of us. The future was of large farms, using chemicals for fertility and weed and pest control. Less labor was required. We were told that this was the “only way to feed the world,” an arguable assertion, as it turns out. Of course, the small towns suffered. Statistics say that for every five farms lost, a local business in town closed. So over the next 10 or 20 years, a viable way of life was dissembled, largely through the corporate interests of chemical and seed companies. Large-holding farmers became wealthy while also receiving government subsidies, while more and more small farmers were snuffed out. The Midwest is riddled by what have become almost ghost towns and bedroom communities.
I am heartbroken about what has happened to the land, the communities, the people there. Whereas before, land stewardship was paramount, requiring a sense of reverence and humility, production became the god. And although these chemical solutions worked their magic, increasing production to levels that would shock our grandfathers, many of the people have cancer and autoimmune syndromes. People eat the same amounts they ate when they worked 16 hours a day, and for the first time, obesity is rampant. Last year my cousin complained that she could no longer have a garden because “overspray” from the fields kills everything— but corn and soybeans.
As a Jungian analyst, I question the impact of this separation from the earth through the demise of the small farm without care to maintaining respectful connection to the earth. What is the subsequent soul loss? One hundred years ago 98 percent of our country was agrarian. Now less than 2 percent is. Most of our immigrant ancestors were farmers and had been for generations, so this represents a sea change. Carl Jung asserted, “…he who is rooted in the soil endures. Alienation from the unconscious and from its historical conditions spells rootlessness. That is the danger that lies in wait for the conqueror of foreign lands, and for every individual who, through one-sided allegiance to any kind of -ism, loses touch with the dark, maternal earthy ground of his being.”¹
Are our current attitudes toward the earth impacted by the lack of grieving this loss of relationship to the earth, so necessary in re-establishing a renewed, updated sense of place? As Jung intimated, could our lack of grieving a way of life be connected to the mass migrations into America in the last two hundred or so years? My own relatives never spoke of Ireland and Wales, lands they had left only decades before. In contrast our Irish relatives in Ireland did remember who left, and still do. Did the shock of such migration affect the ability to bond again with a piece of earth?
Many farmers knew the old ways of communing with non-human living beings. There was a sense of reverence that is important in any relationship to nature, our earth, and our psyche. Yet, as it came down in the Midwest, farmers also became intermediaries in transforming native prairie into chemical minefields.
We need a balanced approach to the earth, one returning to ancient spiritual sensitivities, if we are to survive. We have developed our intellect as a people: however, intellect is not a god, nor is production, an outgrowth of intellect. The over reliance on production and intellect is one-sided and unbalances both the earth and the psyche .
We need both to be able to expand into and be in relationship with nature, recognizing ourselves only one part of it, and to consciously think about the relationships we experience. No longer able to rely on old ways, we need new ways to re-establish relationship with the earth. I have come to believe our planet— and our souls —depend on it.
Patricia Damery is the author of Farming Soul, a courageous offering that will help to reconnect us to our deeper selves, the often untouched realities of soul, and at the same time ground us in our physical relationship to self and Mother Earth.
¹C. G. Jung, Collected Works, Volume 5 ¶103