Great Possessions

I’ve had Great Possessions: An Amish Farmer’s Journal on my shelf for years. I kept passing it over for more “compelling” fare. Fortunately I didn’t pass it over this time.

The book has a foreword by Wendell Berry. I expected it to be a record of farming practices. Instead, it’s a book of natural history essays based on Amish farmer David Kline’s wildlife observation around his Ohio farm. (He has a more recent book called Scratching the Woodchuck that develops this theme further.) As someone who’s been enjoying our garden, our yard’s rich population of birds and bird’s nests, and the various wild visitors who pass through, I found lots of interesting material here.

Kline writes about all aspects of nature — seasons, plants and animals, timber, birds and bird-feeding, the “ribbon of life” of a fencerow, and anything else that captures his attention as he goes about his work. Everything about his farming practice bespeaks both an attitude of cooperation with the wilderness in which his farm exists, and a rich ecological understanding. All of it occurs within a context of his community’s gratitude and reverence for the world humanity is charged to steward in the creation account of Genesis.

The Amish are regarded as a curiosity by some, an anachronism. But as our acquaintance with this author grows, he’s more and more obviously merely a sane voice. “The Amish are not necessarily against modern technology,” he writes. “We have simply chosen not to be controlled by it.”

Besides writing in loving detail about his place, his observations are contextualized with many references to his wide reading in poetry and ecology. There is a quiet persuasiveness and delight in his literate reading of his native landscape. I have great respect for this tradition of farming, with its values on diversity (not monocropping), scale (not super-sized agribusiness), health (not just production), humility (not conquering), and stewardship (not depletion).

These pages also contemplate loss: loss of species, loss of pure water, loss of habitat for some wildlife irreplacable in the ecological network of relationships. One of the most compelling chapters describes the destruction of a patch of old-growth forest on a neighboring farm. It reminded me of the scene in Berry’s Jayber Crow in which an old forest is similarly flattened for profit. Before the wood vanishes, Kline gives us a glimpse of it as a world of life. It’s impossible not to grieve when it is destroyed — and even the original settlers’ grave markers are broken and scattered.

Last but not least, this book touches the nerve of my own deep loneliness as a modern person. Kline lives in an intact community, one in which people are still connected to the land they tend, to the God they worship, and to the neighbors they labor with in the most practical of ways. There is nothing comparable in my experience. I don’t have the cultural inheritance, the knowledge, the skill, or frankly the practical need for my neighbor that are enforced by the Amish lifestyle.

But what I do share with Kline is his love for the world around us. This book affirms that as only the work of a first-class naturalist can.