the common good

Don't Beat About the Bush...Change the Culture! More on Land and the Common Good

Landowners have a duty to leave some food for the poor and give people access to get it. Or that's what it looks like at least. Here are two scriptural passages taken from the Office of Readings (part of the Liturgy of the Hours) that  caught my eye when I read them. One is from January and the other is a Lenten reading. Office of Readings 24th Jan 2011, Commemoration of St Francis de Sales: "You must not pervert justice in dealing with a stranger or an orphan, nor take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I lay this charge on you. When reaping the harvest in your field, if you have overlooked a sheaf in that field, do not go back for it. Leave it for the stranger, the orphan and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees you must not go over the branches twice. Let anything left be for the stranger, the orphan and the widow. When you harvest your vineyard you must not pick it over a second time. Let anything left be for the stranger, the orphan and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt. That is why I lay this charge on you." (Dueteronomy 24) And Tuesday 4th week of Lent “When you gather the harvest of your land, you are not to harvest to the very end of the field. You are not to gather the gleanings of the harvest. You are neither to strip your vine bare nor to collect the fruit that has fallen in your vineyard. You must leave them for the poor and the stranger. I am the Lord your God.(Leviticus 19) I have written on a number of occasions, here, that land is considered by the Church a common good. This means that like air and food it is something that should be available to all people. This does not mean that there should not be private property however, provided that private ownership of property is viewed as an entitlement to work the land. This privilege of ownership brings obligations. Its use should be for the benefit of the common good. This is not so completely counter cultural as it might sound at first. Generally, growing crops on a farm; and then selling anything (beyond what is needed for personal consumption) for distribution through the market is in accord with this. This entitlement, however, and this part might be counter cultural in some parts of the world, is not always seen as extending to allowing the owner to exclude others from his land all the time, as the quoted passages above indicate.


In a number of European countries (I know of England, Scotland, Spain and Italy specifically) there is public right of way preserved in law, on privately owned land. This is a tradition that goes back to medieval times. While the landowner is obliged to allow people on his land, those who go onto the land are also obliged to respect the property and the crops that are growing respecting it's function as contributing to the common good. I don't know if any applications of this extend to being in accord with the passages from the bible, which clearly allow for "the stranger, the orphan and the widow" to go onto the land and gather food.

There is an American version of this approach, as I understand it whereby in some states the default situation is that people do have access to private land to hunt. In New Hampshire there is an option to pay a higher land tax and that allows you then to bar everyone else from your land. I wouldn't be interested in hunting, just the chance of finding a walkable path across farmland. I did find one farm west of Nashua, NH when I was living there that had a notice saying. Please do come an enjoy our farm land but we ask that you respect it. I don't know if it was a coincidence, but the was a large statue of he Virgin Mary very visible next to the farmhouse as we walk off the land.

It seems that perhaps the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council and those subsequently who actually revised the Office of Readings considered this an important principle for today; otherwise it would not have been included in regular readings in the Church's liturgy. I believe that access to the land is important even for those who are not so poor that they need to pick the crops for personal use. It is important for the soul, I think. And this means access to cultivated land, productive land, not the wilderness. It is good to have firsthand experience of man's productive and harmonious activities with nature. This shapes not only the view of nature, but the view of man's proper relationship with the land. olivesThis access will also, I believe raise people's wonder at the beauty of cultivated land (whether ornamental garden or agricultural) and so perhaps help to offset the neopaganism that gives rise ultimately to the culture of death.  When the only country landscape available to man is wilderness, and all else he sees is modern suburbia or a cityscape, then it reinforces the idea that the standard of beauty is that land which is untouched by man, that is wilderness. This in turn reinforces the idea that man's influence on nature is always detrimental and the natural extension of this idea is profound evil: the most effective way to restrict man's bad influence on nature, so the logic runs, is to restrict his activity through population control, which means contraception, abortion and euthanasia.

I do not believe that this alone will reverse the culture of death (abortion exists in Europe too). However, if any discussion of these ideas in both Europe and the New World is combined with the example  of what people see if they have access to cultivated land it will, I feel,  speak of man's positive impact on the natural world. This then could help to change views on man's relationship with Creation. The change will not occur through engagement in discussion, so much as through a subtle influence that seeps into the thinking of society. Then perhaps, in some small way at least, it could contribute to the transformation a culture in the reverse direction to what is happening now and which is so anti-human.

So it seems that the dictum, spare the rod and spoil the child doesn't extend to olive trees! The photograph below of the Tuscan countryside. Above that we have Spanish olive groves and an illumination from Crete dating from the Byzantine rule.

Come Out of the Wilderness and into the Garden

The garden is the symbol of the culture of life

Gardens and farmland are more natural and more beautiful than pristine, untouched wilderness. Or at least they should be.

Of course the wilderness is beautiful. I am not trying to change anyone's view on that. But I am seeking to raise the status of cultivated land relative to it. The assumption of most conservationists today seems to be the opposite. In fact, my experience is that for many if there is an objective standard of beauty, it is nature unaffected by man.

This is consistent with a neo-pagan worldview. Many people even take this idea - that man is inferior to untouched nature - a step further and consider man not to be part of nature at all. The work of mankind is assumed to be unnatural …by nature (if you’ll forgive the phrase, but it does seem to highlight the absurdity of the position). Man's activity is seen as something that necessarily defaces creation. This places wilderness above gardens and farmland in the hierarchy of beauty; and above man in the hierarchy of being.

In the Christian worldview, man is the greatest creature in God’s creation. Man is not only part of creation, but his work can act to perfect it, that is to restore a fallen world to what it ought to be. To the degree that he works in harmony with the divine order (which is a standard higher than anything in the created world) his work is beautiful, productive and in harmony with the common good; and nature flourishes. This is the true ecology.

As soon as one acknowledges the possibility of man perfecting nature, then the route to a ‘green’ world is not the restriction of human activity, but an increase in the right sort of activity.  If one seeks to change the form of human activity so that it is working beautifully, in harmony with the divine order, then the more people there are, the better.

The neo-pagan worldview, on the other hand, cannot conceive of this restorative human interaction with creation. His activity is just more or less destructive. The only solution therefore that it has to propose is the reduction of all human activity. There is only one really effective way to do this – population control.

In some ways, it is not surprising that this secular, neo-pagan world view predominates. Many would look at man’s work, especially of the last 100 years, and see destruction and ugliness. This is, it seems to me, just another reflection of modern culture, along with the art, the music, architecture and so on. And the solution is the same. The via pulchritudinis is as much the answer to the culture of death as it is the culture of ugliness.

 I believe that when man cultivates the land and farms beautifully, then it is in harmony with the natural world and everything including wildlife flourishes in those parts that are left; the food produced is of a greater variety, healthier and tastier and it is produced in abundance. A discussion of farming methods is ultimately one about economics. This should be no surprise. Economics and business are a reflection of the culture as much as high art. However, this is beyond the scope of this short article. I have included, though, a picture of myself out for a walk in the Shropshire countryside in England. This landscape was formed by centuries of sympathetic farming (although one wonders how much longer it will be maintained). I could have as easily picked out a photograph of Tuscany , Provence, Granada or any small farm in New Hampshire (although these are disappearing fast).

This article is in praise of gardening. Unlike farming, there is no need to discuss economics. Anyone with the smallest plot of land can create a beautiful garden as anyone who has visited England will know (England is a land of beautiful gardens). when I talk of gardens, I am talking here of the cultivation of land for beauty, rather than for food. If farming is the Martha of man’s relationship with nature, gardening is the Mary. Adam was the first gardener in Eden. I would love to see the adoption of beautiful gardens as a modern symbol of a true ecology where man works with nature to restore Eden!

The traditional European model of the garden is geometric in form. I always imagine that the cloistered pathway into the church, should look onto the cloistered garden which is a re-creation Eden and a preparation for entering the church, which should evoke heaven. It should be the place in which man elevates the natural world, through God’s grace, into the highest and most beautiful form he is capable of producing. The picture shown above is of a cloistered garden, not in a monastery but in a stately home in Wales. Although simple (I had hoped to find something more ornate, but couldn't) it is still beautiful I think.

The English tradition of the landscaped garden arose in the 17th century in imitation of paintings by the baroque masters of rural idylls in the neo-classical tradition. So for example we see a painting by the 17th-century French landscape painter Claude Lorrain and a garden designed by Capability Brown at Stourhead in Wiltshire, England. There is even a ‘folly’ (a building that has no utility other than its place in the view) which mimics the Roman Pantheon.

My parents were avid gardeners who cultivated the back garden in the tradition of the English cottage garden. They are now retired and live in southern Spain (along with a host of British ex-pat retirees). Many English people recreate this style in the gardens of their villas in Malaga region. It is a year-round watering job just to keep the lawn, the tulips and petunias alive. My mum and dad, on the other hand, decided to use a similar design to their English garden, based upon foliage colours of shrubs and perennials, but by making use of indigenous species. Consequently, it thrives with a fraction of the watering. Mention this just to make the point that wherever you are, there plants that grow well and which can be ordered in a beautiful way. So you can plant your monastic cloistered cactus garden in Arizona, starting today!


A Walk in Wales, Seeing an Ancient Roman Aqueduct

When I did my summer trip, after seeing my parents in Spain I went to stay in England and the area where I grew up (a little town near Chester called Neston). As well as seeing friends and family there I wanted to re-establish my connection with the familiar places and especially the walks and the countryside that I remembered from when I lived there (not all that long ago - I don't want to sound too whistfully romantic here!). Neston is near the border with Wales, which is rural and hilly. Just to give you a sense of the place, I thought I would post some photos of one of these walks; but also there are interesting parallels here between this walk and one that I did in Spain (I wrote about this in an article posted on 6th July). First is the existence of laws of 'right to roam' and 'public right of way' on private land. In the UK there are public footpaths across farmland, which require the farmer to maintain for the common good. Second and even more specifically, for part of this walk, one of the reasons for this public access is that we can follow the line of an old aqueduct. The idea of the common good and access to private land here.

The Spanish aqueduct  was built by the Moors, this one was built by the Romans. The Spanish one was in a good state of repair and still used to irrigate olive groves, this has fallen into disrepair and is now a toepath along a muddy ditch in the woods because it is not needed for water any more. My guess here, because you don't need irrigation channels in rainy rural Wales, is that the Roman aqueduct would be used to provide drinking water for a town, perhaps Chester (Roman name Deva). Drinking water supplies have changed - no longer would people drink redirected stream water taken from a mountainside and so there is no reason to have kept it operable.

As you follow the path described below, remember this: the enjoyment and direct contact with farmland and farm animals is possible because of what remains of the traditional application of an idea that comes from Catholic social teaching, that land is a common good. We are crossing privately owned land, but still in the UK there is the understanding that with that privelege comes the responsibility of making it available to all in as way that doesn't stop the owner from cultivating it.

So the first step was for my friend Jim and I to take the car up to a ridge on the Clwyd hills in Wales (pronounced 'clue-id'):

From there the ridge path goes off in two directions, one through grazing sheep:

And the other up a more developed path that takes you up to the highest point on the ridge, Moel Famau (pronounced 'mole vamma') a mountain about 2,000 ft above sea level, so not very high. We took this one. It's a popular destination so the path is well maintained:

The terrain here is, like the whole of Britain, man created. In this particular area, sheep grazing stops the growth of trees, and this hilly terrain is low woody plants of dark heather (which has bright purple flowers) and lighter billberry (a small and not-so-sweet version of the American blueberry) grows wild here.

As we look down into the lower parts, some copses and naturally growing trees are allowed to remain, but much of the wooded area is planted for commercial reasons, for wood. There are also bare patches where the trees have been harvested and no ground cover has yet grown.

After several miles we turn right, climb over a stile and down into the valley below. The gate to left which can be raised is for people to walk their dogs through.

We gradually descend until we hit a level part in the valley below:

We continue until we descend again into a tree-filled broad gully. This has a stream running it, and running parallel above it, but still in this wooded gully, the aqueduct. This is known locally as 'the Leet' (or 'Lete'). I do not know why it has this name.

When we hit the Lete we turn left and walk along the gully alongside it for about two miles.

It looks like this for about another two miles until we emerge into farmland and little village called Cilcain. We stop at the pub for lunch. The red, white and blue balloons are there because this was the Monday after the recent Jubilee celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II's reign.

And we admire the cottage gardens across the road from where we sat eating sandwiches and drinking coffee.

Then we headed out of the village back up to the ridge from where we first descended, through low hills first, past grazing sheep again, then on to the ridge itself, now several miles further along from where left it this morning.

And once at the ridge path, we turned left once more, to complete the final phase of the circular walk along the ridge and back to the car.

Footnote: if anyone who is not used to the spelling of Welsh words found the pronunciation of 'Clwyd' difficult to fathom, then have a go at this name of this place, also in north Wales (it really is a genuine place name):

It is the railway station in the town of 'Llanfair p g'. I grew up in England so wasn't native Welsh speaker at all. However, we used to enjoy learning and then reeling off the pronunciation as party trick. For the curious, this what it sounds like: