The Holy Earth

February 11, 2009

A story is told about Liberty Hyde Bailey -- the dean of the agricultural college of Cornell University in the first years of the 20th century -- that on the day of his retirement in 1913 he locked the doors of his office, walked out of the building, and never looked back. He was 55 years old, but his career was, in a sense, just starting.

Bailey had been the center of gravity of the Progressive movement’s work investigating the conditions and needs of the American farmer. In the following decades his name would come up from time to time as potential Secretary of Agriculture, or at least as gubernatorial candidate for New York -- though Bailey himself had no political ambitions and instead kept himself busy producing dozens of books, including several standard reference works on horticulture. He wrote meditative works on “the holy earth,” calling for “biocentric” harmony between man and nature. And from time to time Bailey went off to the tropics on botanical expeditions. He was well into his 90s before doctors could persuade him that studying palm trees in Nigeria might be a strain to his system.

By the time he died in 1954, Bailey was a sage and a legend -- part Al Gore, part Indiana Jones, avant la lettre. After more than half a century, his work is “both overlooked and underappreciated,” according to Zachary Michael Jack in his introduction to Liberty Hyde Bailey: Essential Agrarian and Environmental Writings, published last year by Cornell University Press. The editor also states that “a Liberty Hyde Bailey resurrection is well underway ... well-timed for our moment of ecological crisis.”

It’s hard to know what to make of this contradictory claim. A look at the evidence would suggest that Bailey is slightly remembered but lacks anything like a sizable following.The first biography of Bailey appeared in 1956. It was also the last biography. A treatise on his contributions to botany was published 60 years ago by Princeton University Press. That’s it for the major secondary literature. In the meantime, he has had a few admirers who have kept his name alive, including the agrarian essayist Wendell Berry.There is a Lewis Hyde Bailey Museum in his home town of South Haven, Mich. It has been open since 1938 and last year celebrated the sesquicentennial of his birth.

A number of Bailey’s writings are now available through online booksellers -- evidence less of revival, as such, than of the thoroughness of print-on-demand entrepreneurs, battening off the public domain. His collection of poetry Wind and Weather (1916) has its champions. Less ardent readers may find his verse to be like a sing-song approximation of Robert Frost, minus the darker undertones.

Moving to Bailey’s writings on education, politics, and environmentalism, one finds that he is somewhat better as an essayist -- albeit one often inclined to the usual prose of editorials, sermons, and morally improving books of his era. Whole pages seem as heavily starched as an Edwardian gentleman’s collar. But occasionally this works in Bailey’s favor, as with his memorable apothegm, “If it were possible for every person to own a tree and to care for it, the good results would be beyond estimation.” That passage appears in what seems (from the selection that Zachary Michael Jack has made) like Bailey’s best book, The Holy Earth (1915), where the depth of feeling for the natural world is at its most lyrical and reflective. An edition came out last year from Michigan State University Press, with another to be published soon by Dover.

Here there is passion, and you see why environmentalists can rediscover Bailey as a prophet: “We do not clean up our work or leave the earth in order,” he writes. “The remnants and accumulation of mining camps are left to ruin and decay; the deserted phosphate excavations are ragged, barren, and unfilled; vast areas of forested lands are left in brush and waste, unthoughtful to the future, unmindful of the years that must be consumed to reduce the refuse to mould and to cover the surface respectably, uncharitable to those who must clear away the wastes and put the place in order....”

The editor provides an admiring sketch of Bailey’s life and work. But one gets very little sense of where he fits in the debates of era time or the development of ecological thought. Thus it proves difficult to judge some passages. The condemnation of “militarism” in The Holy Earth, for example, seems, on first reading, to treat it as a byproduct of global trade and the human (if deeply un-ecological) passion to dominate. But given a sense of the world in 1915, he may well have had German militarism in mind in particular. Did he? Did he direct any criticism at the Entente, or at Woodrow Wilson? Most of Bailey’s writings treat agriculture as the bedrock of American democracy -- indeed, of human society as such. So how did he understand the world that came out of World War One, then? You can’t really tell from this volume. A few pages of Bailey’s clichéd musings on democracy don’t help that much.

Any revival of Liberty Hyde Bailey’s work will need to look at it with a critical eye. In that sense, his rediscovery has yet to begin. An up-to-date biography would be a start. For now, we have a sampling of what he wrote, including a few bits of incidental self-portraiture that make him sound like an appealing figure. “I looked in a cookbook to learn how to serve potatoes,” writes Bailey in one passage. “I found twenty-three recipes, every one of which was apparently designed to disguise the fact that they were potatoes; and yet there is really nothing in a potato to be ashamed of.” It's the same spirit he brought to retirement as dean at Cornell: Don't make a big deal of it, just get on with what life has to offer.

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