A century after the publication of Liberty Hyde Bailey’s The Holy Earth, the book continues to inform our discussions about humans’ place in nature and our responsibilities to each other.
Rarely does the rural world encounter the likes of Liberty Hyde Bailey, Cornell University’s “Man for All Seasons” who graced us with his presence in the first part of the 20th century.
During the Progressive Era, Bailey stood out as an advocate for rural areas as chair of Theodore Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission. He is noted for his work as a horticulturist, botanist and co-founder of the American Society for Horticultural Science. As if these legacies were not enough, Bailey became an enduring pillar of the ongoing conservation-environmental-sustainability struggle because of his reverence for the Earth.
Bailey was named dean of Cornell’s College of Agriculture in 1903. He was largely responsible for legislation to establish the State College of Agriculture at Ithaca in 1904. He retired in 1913 at age 55, part of his goal of spending 25 years gaining an education, 25 years working in his profession, and 25 years just doing what he wanted to do.
Perhaps his first accomplishment after retirement was publication of The Holy Earth, which is not only a reaction to environmental despoliation caused by industrialization, but a continuation of his early conservation writings — The Nature-Study Idea, 1903, and The Outlook to Nature, 1905.
A century after its publication, The Holy Earth remains an affirmation of Bailey’s deeply held belief that human use of the earth is conditioned on a divinely inspired stewardship that not only considers future generations of people, but denies humans an inalienable right to intentionally harm our fellow creatures. His thinking underpinned what Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss would call “deep ecology” in the early 1970s.
As a conservationist, Bailey (March 15, 1858 – December 25, 1954) struggles with the deepest division of the conservation movement: use versus preservation. As a highly educated scientist, he understands the biology of life, its evolution on Earth, and the place of humans in the middle of the schema, not at the top. As a progressive agriculturalist who is highly critical of practices that abuse the Earth, he is an impassioned believer in the ability of humans, especially farmers, to progress into new ways of farming that work with the land, not against it. As a deeply religious person, he believes that humans, created by God, can become far more caring and perfect in their dealings with the land and its creatures.
In the book, Bailey says he is not a socialist or a utopian. He upholds private property rights, but he is clear that those rights are accompanied by the responsibilities of stewarding the land for future generations. Landowners cannot treat the land lightly and do whatever they wish. As living beings, they have the right to partake of the Earth’s bounty, but dominion commands that they must consider all future owners, including plants and animals.
If Bailey is not a utopian, he certainly holds the highest ideals and expectations for human behavior. He is a Jeffersonian agrarian. Farmers may be poor, but their calling is noble, the foundation of a democratic society that is built on healthy soil and careful tending of natural resources. As part of his agrarianism, he is suspicious of government and repeatedly asserts that farmers can, should, and will take care of the land because it is the right thing to do for themselves and their communities.
Bailey’s idealism about the human condition is problematic, especially in a society that had already rapidly evolved into an urbanized, industrialized, and “individualized” mass market that seemed to have less respect for the environment—or at least exploited it far more intensively—than any generation before. In addition, he seems overly hopeful in de-emphasizing the environmental damage that irresponsible farming already had done to the country’s soil and water and the government’s growing role in resource management and protection.
Bailey’s take on the problems with agriculture and the environment, however, are what make this book so intriguing. The Holy Earth sometimes reads as if Bailey is having a discussion with himself, working out the impacts of the changes sweeping across the country and the world. He could also be talking one-on-one with a student. The style is appealing. Whatever the contradictions of a particular time in culture or in expectations for human behavior, the reader walks away with a clear impression of what Bailey believes, why he believes it, and why the work is so important to the thinking that underpins certain fragments of the conservation movement.
In short, The Holy Earth shows a great mind at work, grappling with the place of humans on the land. Times were much different, yet the philosophical and biological issues have not changed. Bailey’s book has endured because it shares perspectives that continue to inspire many environmentalists today.
Bailey’s leadership and thoughtfulness in the areas of conservation and rural life still leaves us richer and more reflective on what needs to be done.
Bailey, Liberty Hyde. The Holy Earth. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916, originally published September, 1915.
The Nature-Study Idea. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1903.
The Outlook to Nature. New York: Macmillan Co., 1905.
Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.