Romantic Myths of American Environmentalism: On Scott Chaskey’s “Soil and Spirit”
By Jenny LiouJune 18, 2023
Soil and Spirit: Cultivation and Kinship in the Web of Life by Scott Chaskey
In the pages of Soil and Spirit, Chaskey travels around the world and revisits familiar American landscapes, weaving together the literature, art, and agricultural traditions of each region he visits. As he continues his journey, tropes from each stop along the way reverberate through the text, creating a complex transcontinental portrait of sustainable agriculture and its entanglements with daily life. In China, Chaskey visits Beijing to attend an international conference on community-supported agriculture (CSA), and he contemplates the history of Chinese poetry throughout his trip. In Cornwall, he expounds upon the marvels of Cornish landscapes alongside the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Chaskey carries the British spirit back to American soil, weaving author Basil Bunting’s lines and life of exploration into his own meditation on the American Northeast, and he travels to New Mexico, from where he documents the interwoven Latin and Indigenous agricultural communities reaching down into Mesoamerica. The latter portion of the book settles into Chaskey’s environmental practices close to his northeast US home, where he reflects upon and attempts to employ the agricultural and artistic wisdom he’s gleaned from his trips around the globe.
Chaskey’s project appears to be concerned with the unearthing of a universal relation to the land that he has discerned through his lifelong engagements with writing and farming. CSA farming, which US consumers might recognize as farm box deliveries, offers a unique convergence of agricultural, ecological, and aesthetic practices. It positions farming to operate as a mode of storytelling, connecting community members to each other, to food, and to the earth. As CSA farmer and author Jessica Gigot observes:
The community support agriculture (CSA) or subscription model that has evolved in the United States can facilitate a direct relationship between small farms and regional customers and generally offers farms much needed capital before the growing season begins in earnest. On an educational level, this connection gives farmers a platform to tell the story of why their farm matters without the distortion or romanticism of wholesale marketing middlemen.
And yet, for all the loveliness of the agricultural and literary practices Chaskey surveys, Soil and Spirit sometimes risks appropriating the sentimental aesthetics of the places he visits. In this, Chaskey risks missing the political and cultural nuances constituent to a local and specific sense of place. For example, when he ruminates upon the relationship between historical Chinese peasant labor and the origin of modern CSAs, he uncritically borrows language from Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda. Chaskey appears to idealize a CCP vision of “ecological civilization” within a larger Chinese project called New Rural Reconstruction (NRR). Chaskey writes: “Within the NNR movement, CSA is viewed as a way to revive socially and economically depressed rural areas, and to heal the rift between urban and rural dwellers, the rift between producer and consumer.” It’s true that China’s history is one of intermittent famine. But Chaskey’s description of Chinese anxiety around agricultural production makes no mention of the main driver of China’s 20th-century famine, which claimed upwards of 30 million lives—the CCP itself.
In China’s “Great Leap Forward,” the Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong, attempted to revolutionize science by, as historian Jasper Becker details, making science so simple that “even a child could excel at it.” Mao persecuted China’s scientists and intellectuals, institutionalizing an overly simplified and fallacious vision of Chinese science instead. The CCP modeled dubious Soviet agricultural practices developed by Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (Becker describes Lysenko as ruling “over Soviet agricultural scientists as a dictator”). Chinese Lysenkoism involved the popularization of new breeds and seeds, close planting, deep plowing, increased fertilization, the innovation of farm tools, improved field management, pest control, and increased irrigation. This one-size-fits-all approach did not suit all, or most, of China’s disparate terrains. Deep plowing disrupted shallow soils, household rubble was substituted for fertilizer, and high-density planting resulted in dead plants.
Under political pressure, Chinese farmers reported the hyperbolic success of the new approach, even as agricultural production foundered and the country began to slip into famine. All the while, Chinese artists and writers proclaimed the glory of China’s new agriculture, though these paeans rang patently false. Perplexingly, three pages after the lines quoted above, Chaskey, visiting China for an agricultural conference, reflects back on one of his previous publications praising Chinese artist Ai Weiwei: “Weiwei’s seeds, evocative of the oppressive power of the state, also speak of the promise of human hands, able to fire and paint a husk of clay or to place a seed into the fertile soil.” Ai’s work is openly critical of the Chinese government—in 1958, when he was only one year old, his family was denounced during China’s Anti-Rightist Campaign, sent to a labor camp, and then exiled in far northern China until they were allowed to return to Beijing after Mao’s death. After singing Ai’s praises, Chaskey, worrying about his own political safety while visiting China, writes: “I had never thought to disguise my sympathies, nor had I anticipated a trip to China.”
But despite his professed admiration for anti-government/anti–Chinese Communist activism, Chaskey’s writing almost immediately slips back into what feels like CCP rhetoric. He emphasizes the Chinese people’s enduring history of agricultural connection to the land, with little mention of how profoundly China’s Cultural Revolution disrupted that connection. Chaskey writes:
In a moving finale to the conference, young farmers from all over the vast motherland each poured a sample of their local earth—transported to Beijing—into a long glass tube, as music swelled in the resonant wooden hall, one thousand people in attendance. Full of soil, the tube resembled a timeline: multiple shades of red, brown, yellow, and gold soil symbolic of centuries of earth care. The Chinese people first domesticated wild rice over six thousand years ago.
The book unearths an interesting problem here—the clash between the nostalgic stories we tell ourselves about the ways our cultures care for the land, and the discontinuities and upheavals that characterize those stories. Soil and Spirit romanticizes labor and struggle as authentic modes of relating to the earth. Part of the challenge Chaskey seems to encounter is that Chinese Communist propaganda and Chinese anti-governmental activism have converged around a set of charismatic tropes, which Chaskey accepts as the Chinese agricultural experience without adequately conveying the cultural and political conflicts and contradictions within that shared aesthetic. This feels less like an accidental oversight than an inevitable by-product of Chaskey’s effort to synthesize some sort of global land ethic in the book. Perhaps the very notion of a universal land ethic comes at the cost of political or historical erasure.
Another version of this problem surfaces in Chaskey’s treatment of Cornwall, the book’s other primary locale. The fifth chapter of Soil and Spirit, titled “Older than Thought,” weaves a Hopkins poem into Chaskey’s description of the scene, performing geographical and political elisions—Hopkins, after all, was not Cornish; he was a British poet whose fascination with feral language led him to explore the poetic conventions of Welsh literature in his verse, literature that perhaps shares the Cornish landscape’s sense of mystic wildness. Chaskey writes:
Familiar with his poem “The Windhover” long before I settled on the Penwith Peninsula, here I became part of the composition. I voiced Hopkins’s poem as I leaped from granite rock to rock, or stopped to watch the flight of fulmars returning to nest in stone pockets within the cliffs. I remember no separation between a kestrel’s wings, my human stride, the mist of Mount’s Bay, the face of granite, the words of a Jesuit.”
This radical self-identification with Hopkins’s falcon continues throughout the chapter, culminating in the assertion: “I am the walker within the space the windhover knows by the beat of her heart and wings. […] I am feldspar and mica that mirror the glider’s wings.”
The first stanza of Hopkins’s poem does indeed describe a falcon on the wing; however, the remainder of the poem subverts the fantasy of its initial lines. Here is the final stanza of the Hopkins’s poem that is so often echoed in Chaskey’s work:
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
That phrase “ah my dear” is a direct lift from a line by George Herbert, a 17th-century poet whose work Hopkins is known to have admired. But despite Chaskey’s incessant allusiveness throughout Soil and Spirit, this is one echo he does not pursue. It’s from a poem entitled “Love (III),” in which the speaker grapples with his hesitation when personified Love invites him to a feast because he is unwilling to consume that which does not belong to him. One gets the sense that Herbert would never wholly identify with a falcon on the wing, the mist of a bay, or a granite face. Although Herbert’s speaker eventually eats, he does so with systematic, humble hesitancy: “Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back …” In Herbert’s work and, by proxy, Hopkins’s, love consists of critical distance from a subject rather than close identification with it. This kind of distance is the dimension that sometimes feels lacking in Chaskey’s transcontinentally synthetized land ethic. He claims such closeness to each of his subjects that his text is left with little room to critically navigate the tensions and conflicts contained within his sweeping vision.
Chaskey’s discussion of “The Windhover” quietly reveals another strand of sentiment running throughout the book. “Familiar with his poem ‘The Windhover’ long before I settled on the Penwith Peninsula,” Chaskey writes (italics mine). Despite its nods to Indigenous environmental efforts, the reflexes of Soil and Spirit feel steeped in the settler colonial rhetoric that pervades the history and literature of American environmentalism. Chaskey claims close knowledge of lands he visits by “settling them”—that is, by cultivating them. Let us not forget that, in the United States, as codified in the Homestead Act of 1862, settling the land and cultivating it were synonymous, and the systematic “improving of the land” in accordance with the Homestead Act facilitated the broadscale seizure of Indigenous territory. This challenge within Chaskey’s text is closely related to that unresolved challenge of reconciling romanticized CCP agricultural rhetoric with the realities and disjunctions of history. The US, too, clings tightly to our idealized agricultural mythologies, even once they have been recognized as harmful, obsolete, or contradictory.
Throughout Soil and Spirit, the reader encounters these disjunctions between the aesthetics that Chaskey synthetizes and their political entailments. In another example, in the chapter “Filters of the Earth,” Chaskey poetically describes a project called the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive (AATA) in Copemish, Michigan:
AATA began as Champion Trees over twenty-five years ago, with a seminal idea to save the genetics of the strongest trees of multiple species, and to plant arbors of the cloned offspring in well-chosen landscapes. The mission of AATA: to propagate the world’s most important old growth trees, to archive the genetics of ancient trees in living libraries, and to reforest the earth with offspring of champion trees.
Although Chaskey documents some resistance to this project, it involves practical reservations (“cloning ancient trees will never meet with success; perhaps preserving genetics is not the answer we are looking for”) without touching on the uncomfortably eugenic undercurrents (or perhaps thalweg?) of the project. I don’t mean to suggest that Chaskey’s uncritical support for a project expressly aiming to save and propagate the genetics of the fittest individuals is intentionally or sinisterly political. It’s more that it requires an immense and unacknowledged amount of positional privilege to entertain the idea that any of the projects described in Soil and Spirit could possibly be construed as apolitical.
This may seem like a harsh assessment, but part of why this harshness seems so necessary is that there is much to love in Chaskey’s pages. His journeys and meditations are emblematic of an entire era of American environmentalism: indeed, this book reads like a compendium of American environmentalism’s self-made myths, an autopoiesis. I catch myself waxing nostalgic when Chaskey references well-known environmentalists such as Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, or Peter Matthiessen, and check my surges of enthusiastic recognition when he draws less iconically environmental authors including Sappho, Cicero, and Lucretius into the mix. Yeats, Gastelard, Bashō, Bunting—the list goes on. The book contains a prologue, 12 chapters, and an epilogue, most of which contain multiple epigraphs, and the pages of each chapter overflow with literary as well as environmental conversations. But this systematic excerpting seldom allows us space to sit with the profound questions this book raises.
As we collectively reckon with climate catastrophe and the consequent specter of widespread agricultural collapse, what is at stake in our romanticization of Chinese agricultural methods that created and concealed a famine that took 30 million lives? How do we reconcile a potential future of ecologically necessary genetic engineering and genetic rescue with the international history of eugenics and genocide? In the face of Anthropocene suffering, Soil and Spirit allows us to imagine solace and interconnectedness between nature, the people of the world, and the past. And yet I cannot banish from mind the violence we would have to overlook if we were to allow ourselves to imagine, with Chaskey, that we are the windhover, the falcon, drinking in the natural world grown small and beautiful beneath us as we ride the steady air.
Jenny Liou is an English professor at Pierce College and the author of the poetry collection Muscle Memory (2022). She holds a poetry MFA from UCI Irvine, as well as an English PhD specializing in the literature/philosophy/history of early modern science.
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