(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Perhaps out of consideration for the general reader, who may not come to The Gift of Good Land with a ready interest in agricultural topics, the first essay, “An Agricultural Journey in Peru,” features picturesque locales and exotic cultural patterns. This chapter is Berry’s account of a trip to Peru to view at first hand agricultural practices in the Andean highlands, where limited resources of soil, moisture, and growing season impose upon Andean farmers a delicate relationship to the environment. Berry praises the farmers’ “highly refined ecological sensitivity” and judges that they are rightly suspicious of some of the supposed biological and mechanical improvements that national and international organizations seek to introduce to their agricultural practices. Berry’s most vivid example of the dubious value of these extraneous practices is the encouragement given by agronomists to the growing of foreign varieties of potatoes which, though larger and ostensibly more fecund, have considerably less dry matter and are, by virtue of their volume, harder to cook in a region with very limited supplies of inexpensive fuel. Additionally, as Berry asserts for the first of many times throughout The Gift of Good Land, variety is the security of agriculture; Andean farmers understand and practice this principle in their maintenance of a genetically diverse stock of potato species.

The extensive technical detail of “An Agricultural Journey in Peru” is interesting and readily understood, but Berry’s principal objectives are to describe the material consequences of Andean farming practices and to illuminate the cultural processes and qualities of life inherent in them. Turning to human relationships and the relationship of people to the land, he gives an account of a noon meal he shared with farmers, eating potatoes from a fire pit at the edge of a field, and describes another group at work making chuno, a potato food produced by an indigenous freeze-drying process. Walking in the fields with a farmer, he is shown by him how to close the blossom of a small blue flower by tapping the earth around the base of its stem; it is called “the flower that is embarrassed.” Such intimate detail is characteristic of Berry’s essays, but it serves an informational rather than a sentimental purpose. Notwithstanding the author’s affection for the farmers he meets in Peru, he applies a rational standard of ecological integrity to their work and acknowledges the hardships of their life. The deep and time-tested relationship of people to their land is a matter not merely of feeling but of survival.

A second essay of 1979, “Three Ways of Farming in the Southwest,” in some ways recapitulates the introductory essay, but in choosing an American locale Berry emphasizes that the issues he addresses are not merely problems of Third World nations but universal and highly political problems of the relationship of man to his environment. The author focuses upon the Papago Indians of Arizona, whose acutely water-conscious, water-conserving method of agriculture has been largely undermined by the historical processes of the last three hundred years. Berry calls attention to the “water affluence” of the arid southwestern United States and to the urban life-styles which he contends are not sustainable in the face of a chronic “overdraft” of water from the regional ecosystem.

In the third essay, “The Native Grasses and What They Mean,” Berry brings his emerging analysis to bear upon his native region by reporting on a tour of “the fugitive survivals and remnants of the native tall grass prairie” in western Kentucky. Berry asks, “What is the importance . . . of these perhaps ephemeral relics?” and his answer encapsulates, from a new perspective, much of the content of The Gift of Good Land. Noting that man successively imposed prairie upon native woodlands and cultivated fields upon overgrazed prairie, he concludes, “We have continued to sacrifice the health of the land and of our own communities to...

(The entire section is 1662 words.)