By Leah Bayens
March Featured Essay
Editor’s note: this is part two of Leah’s two-part series on the Berry Farming and Ecological Agrarianism Program at St. Catharine College in Kentucky. Part one, “A Way of Thought Based on Land,” introduced readers to Wendell Berry’s vision and an affection-based curriculum. PBS has also recently featured Wendell Berry and the program; watch the PBS video here.
The activist in me is inherently suspicious of institutionalization. In my mind, institutionalization invokes Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Institutions are bastions of nullifying and constrictive power. They’re ivory towers and conservative think tanks. Institutionalization of individuals, thoughts, policies, and practices are linked to racism and classism. Ultimately, institutionalization leads to the declining ability to think and act independently.2
So why risk ecological agrarianism succumbing to the orthodoxy of an institution? After all, agrarianism has been used—and is still being used—by social and economic institutions to produce civil injustices and ecological harm.3 Institutionalizing agrarian thought could become rote, as we have seen with the codifying of multiculturalism. Or it could lose the particularities of affection for specific neighborhoods and ecosystems. In the long run, we risk chipping away at the core of our ethos as the concepts and practices expand.
The Berry family’s unexpected support for institutionalization made me think about the concept at its most basic level, which is to establish a norm or a standard.4 Institutions can solidify liberatory practices, or they can reinforce systems of inequality (or first one and then the other). Since sociology’s inception in the nineteenth century, sociologists have bandied about theories of institutionalization in social norm creation and reinforcement.5 In the late twentieth century, W. Richard Scott provides a unifying overview of these theories:
Institutional theory attends to the deeper and more resilient aspects of social structure. It considers the processes by which structures, including schemas, rules, norms, and routines, become established as authoritative guidelines for social behavior. It inquires into how these elements are created, diffused, adopted, and adapted over space and time and how they fall into decline and disuse.6
Institutional theory encourages us to examine consensus and conformity as well as conflict and transformation; it takes into its purview the cultural, symbolic, and cognitive elements that “provide stability and meaning to social life.”7
Institutionalization is neither fundamentally conservative nor liberatory; it depends entirely on the nature of the original concept and how it is established and maintained. To preserve the ethos driving ecological agrarianism, we must insist over and again that the complexities of “nature’s standard” not be simplified and that experience in and service to actual places not be supplanted by placebos. Failing these, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to cultivate the sort of affection necessary for the paradigm shift an ecological worldview entails.
In this light, I ask: What would it mean for ecological agrarianism to become the established custom? Institutionalizing ecological agrarian thought will mean making a fundamental shift in our minds and, thereby, our cultures. Compassion, collaboration, and respect must guide our actions. In other words, we will be guided by affection. We will be asked to see ourselves as absolutely placed in particular, rather than abstract, locations because a “mind so placed meets again and again the necessity for work to be good.” In this vein, Berry writes in “The Whole Horse”:
[T]he agrarian mind is less interested in abstract quantities than in particular qualities. It feels threatened and sickened when it hears people and creatures and places spoken of as labor, management, capital, and raw material. It is not at all impressed by the industrial legendry of gross national products, or of the numbers sold and dollars earned by gigantic corporations. It is interested—and forever fascinated—by questions leading toward the accomplishment of good work…. questions which cannot be answered in the abstract, and which yearn not toward quantity but toward elegance. Agrarianism can never become abstract because it has to be practiced in order to exist.8
That practice will be deeply embedded in our everyday acts, beliefs, arts, religions, and economies—each of which ultimately constitute our institutions.
The extraordinary yet indispensable standard of affection and particularity does not lend itself to the minutiae of educational institutions. It seems ludicrous to translate such high ideals into the Carnegie Units for class meeting durations and formats. It feels counterintuitive to subject students’ wranglings with compassion to the accounting of grade points. It is nearly impossible to avoid lapsing into abstract quantifiable data while, for instance, crafting an institutional sustainability assessment plan that reflects how students, faculty, and staff internalize an ecospheric worldview. Still, I have found that when these assessments are framed as opportunities to use good work to counter alienation, they can facilitate necessary relationships. These standards can help us gauge whether our principles are, in fact, guiding our practices.
Sisters of Peace
When I envision what shape our institution might take, I think about the model embodied by the Dominican Sisters of Peace, St. Catharine College’s founders and sponsors. So often on the margins of Catholic orthodoxy, these women religious used the church’s social teachings and dogma to institutionalize their dedication to social justice, ecology, education, and human health. They operate five ecology-based educational farms (one of which is a 700-acre, ASH-free cattle operation at the St. Catharine Motherhouse),9 three adult literacy centers, nine P-12 and postsecondary schools, four health care facilities, and seven spiritual retreat centers. In this work, they strive to “[c]reate environments of peace by promoting non-violence, unity in diversity, and reconciliation” and to “promote justice through solidarity with those who are marginalized, especially women and children, and work with others to identify and transform oppressive systems.”10 They see the transformation of human justice issues as inseparable from environmental issues. They have created systemic change that both calls on and upsets the conventions of one of history’s most powerful religious institutions.
Within their congregation, the sisters have institutionalized stewardship, and they have extended to the communities in which they work their belief in peace through healthy ecologies and democracies. They maintain this unity of vision by continuously considering whether their decisions—from establishing land conservation easements to funding educational programs—meet these established standards. They are mindful of the particularities of place and do not assume, for instance, that their farm education program in Columbus, Ohio, can be mapped onto one located in rural Kentucky. And most importantly, they are guided by love—not a sentimental and simplistic version of love, but love with all its difficult obligations. In sum, the Dominican Sisters of Peace embody ecological agrarian tenets and provide a generations-old example on which the college draws. In fact, the Dominican Sisters’ model—and its translation into the college’s mission—is the primary reason the Berry Farming Program is housed at St. Catharine.
But how have the sisters achieved this? How might we learn from them? In a critique of “encrusted religious structures,” Berry suggests that it is unlikely for change to happen from within institutions of orthodoxy. Change, he argues, “will have to come from the outside. It will have to come from the margins.” Religions are changed not by the institutions themselves but “by the one who goes alone to the wilderness” and returns with a new vision. In cultures dominated by fragmentation and hubris, a remedy from the margins will come when individuals in their own lives, begin “the private solutions that can only in turn become public solutions.”11
As it did with the Dominican Sisters, institutionalization of agrarian thought fittingly starts at home. This is what my colleagues, students, and I are trying to live out. We are shifting personal paradigms by “apply[ing] our minds directly and competently to the needs of the earth,” through which we begin to make “fundamental and necessary changes in our minds.”12 My students, who were raised on farms in Kentucky, Georgia, Tanzania, and Burkina Faso, as well as those who grew up in metropolises like Houston and Kinshasa, are heartened by the prospect of returning home or making new homes to hone sustainable agriculture practices and to build community-based food systems.
For a handful of my students, that means raising a variety of crops on family land and marketing in Louisville and Lexington. For a student from a nearby rural county, it means drafting food policies and legislation that work for families with small and mid-sized farms. For a student whose family moved south, it means advocating for farmer workers’ rights in Florida. For a student from Dar es Salaam, it means researching how tropical zone production practices affect crop nutrition. For the daughter of a Georgia chicken farmer, it means helping her family transition away from corporate contract farming. They say that wherever they end up, they have responsibilities to fulfill—obligations to figure out what they have to offer and how to connect that to natural and human inhabitants.
When we help these students establish a working farm or understand how to locally source food, we also simultaneously begin the process of institutionalizing ecological agrarian principles further afield. The institution of higher education links to others who, in the past or in the present, practice land-based cultures—the farmers, teachers, writers, women religious, monks, economists, gardeners, shopkeepers, journalists, heiresses, artists, researchers, organizers, doctors, cooks, ascetics, distillers, lawyers, politicians, conservationists, preservationist, wilderness advocates, presidents, and princes. We take heart in these connections because they strengthen the bonds of affection that cumulatively comprise worthy institutions.
Editor: Danny Mayer
Copyediting by Jordan Wick
Featured Image: “Unbarbed Wire” by Brian Connors Manke