The Mission of the Land

I HAD occasion, some time since, to go upon a large country estate. It comprised about one thousand acres of naturally good farm-land which, until the previous year, when it was purchased by its present owner, had formed two adjoining farms, each operated by a tenant farmer. The farms had not been well managed; tenant farmers rarely do manage land well. And yet one had yielded its occupant a fair living, while the lessee of the other had not only brought up and educated a family of children upon its profits, but at the end of his term of occupancy had a considerable sum of money laid by.

As I walked up from the shore, for the land sloped beautifully to an arm of the sea, I noticed that, although it was late in August, the grass in the mowing fields was uncut, and there was no live-stock in the pastures. My eyes wandered over a broad expanse of brown, dried grass, unrelieved by animal life and broken only by the white blossoms of that foul landpest, the wild carrot. A footpath, now evidently unused, led through the orchard to the farmstead. The apple trees were loaded with fruit, and, under several of one early variety, many bushels lay rotting on the ground. Outside of the great cattle-barn was an immense pile of last year’s manure completely covered by a rank growth of weeds. In the empty farmhouse were broken window-panes and unhinged shutters; and the stone walls which fenced the farmstead and the outlying fields were broken, dilapidated, and overrun with blackberry vines. The whole scene was a melancholy picture of agricultural neglect, realizing vividly the words of Solomon: “ I went by the field of the slothful, and by the vineyard of the man void of understanding; and, lo, it was all grown over with thorns, and nettles had covered the face thereof, and the stone wall thereof was broken down.”

And yet the owner of this land was not “ slothful ” in the sense intended by Solomon, though ” void of understanding ” he very possibly might be. He was a man whose wealth ran far into the millions, having only to give the word of command to turn a wilderness into a garden, if he so chose; and the condition of the estate was not the result of neglect, or even of carelessness, but of intention. What purpose lay back of what was visible could only be surmised. Perhaps it was a game preserve. The lay of the land and the character of its owner warranted the supposition. Perhaps, as I was told by the general manager of the estate, it was “ a park-like effect, running here and there into the careless wildness of nature; ” and in the distance a great stone mansion, with macadam roads running from it through the more picturesque parts of the property, gave some color to the statement. Or perhaps it was only a whim, for the owner was widely known for his “ eccentricity,” a word which, in the case of very wealthy men, is too often used to describe that lack of sanity in word and deed which, in less favored people, is called by a harsher term. But whatever the object in view, this fact remained: a thousand acres of good farm-land had been taken out of commission, and was no more to be used for the production of crops or the support of domestic animals.

To me, an agriculturist by profession, and with the inherited instincts of a long line of farming and stock-breeding ancestors, the fact seemed most deplorable. But there is always more than one point of view, and the opinions of no one man or class of men can properly be taken as a criterion in sich a case. What concern is it of ours whether or not a man buys a thousand or ten thousand acres of land, or what he does with it after it is bought ? Presumably the former owners wanted to sell and he wanted to buy; the land has become lawfully his, and — assuming that he does not injure or incommode his adjoining neighbors — shall he not do as he sees fit with his own ? These are pertinent questions; and concerning, as they do, a matter of most vital importance, are not to be answered lightly or off-hand. They merit the most careful consideration, and that regard for the rights of the well-to-do and prosperous which, in an argument for the “ rights of the people,” is too often given scant place. For the well-to-do have rights as well as the poor; and it is the part of justice, not to deny them, but simply to consider in what they rightly and properly consist.

There is no question that there is an increasing tendency on the part of the very rich in America to buy land in large tracts. It is likewise beyond doubt that, speaking broadly and with no reference to special cases, the greatest good to the greatest number generally accompanies a more even division of the land. The recognition of this principle is as old as civilization; and Moses, probably the most sagacious and far-seeing of the ancient law-makers, carefully provided in his code against the accumulation of landed property in the hands of the few. His provisions apply only to country property; city property could be sold absolutely to the purchaser, “ his heirs and assigns forever,” as with us; a period of redemption of one year, however, being granted to all who had lost their property by foreclosure of mortgage or a sale under stress of circumstances. But in the country the period was much longer, and the law expressly states that “ The land shall not be sold forever. And in all the land of your possessions ye shall grant a redemption for the land.”

To a superficial view this may seem only a zealous attempt to keep the land fairly divided among men, to the end that each might have a share of the surface of the earth upon which he was born, But a deeper insight into the matter is essential to an understanding of its full and true purport. We must inquire why a general distribution of the land is usually productive of the best results. And if we study the question correctly, we shall see that it is not because man, being born upon the earth, has an inherent right to a portion of its surface; such a view is unreasonable and wrong. We must go far back of the days of Moses to read, in the teachings of geology no less than in the Bible, the first statement of the Mission of the Land; and, this learned, we cannot go far astray as to what is right or wrong in its ownership and use.

Thousands of years ago, at the very dawn of the era when man had emerged from his prehistoric struggle with adverse forces and had taken his place as the dominant power in the world, the fiat went forth, “ Let the earth bring forth grass! ” Later came grain and fruits, and the whole tell simply and directly of the object in view; but the production of grass spoke most eloquently, as it maintained live-stock, which, in turn, enriched and repaid it. I may add, in parenthesis, that it has since been proved again and again that there can be no permanently successful agriculture without the keeping of live-stock; and the story of the offering of Abel being more acceptable than that of Cain is credible, because Abel, a keeper of livestock, was more in harmony with the purpose of nature, than Cain, who, a tiller of the soil, typified and foreshadowed that vast army of agricultural pirates who, by sowing and reaping but never restoring, have done to the land a wrong which is beyond the range of estimate.

The Mission of the Land is to produce and keep on producing food, live-stock, lumber, and other commodities, for the service of man. He who owns land and is indifferent to this, is guilty of a moral wrong; and he who takes good land out of commission and suffers it to lie unproductive and useless is guilty of a greater one. This is the only criterion by which we can properly judge of the right of an individual to own land in large tracts. The good results attendant upon small individual holdings are natural. The purposes of nature in the upward evolution of man are usually better carried out in this way; and not because, as is so frequently argued, every man has an inherent right to its ownership. The lazy, the incapable, and the densely ignorant, assuredly have no such right; and land is too precious, and its mission too high, to be thus wasted. If the owner of a great country estate can farm his land as well as, or better than, if it were in small holdings; if, following the precept of Swift, he make two ears of corn or two blades of grass grow where one grew before; if he supply his section with a better breed of horses, cattle, or sheep, well and good; no one with any knowledge of economics could say he was doing any injury to the world or mankind. It is not the amount of land that he owns, but what he does with it, for which he is morally responsible.

But while great fortunes have put it in the power of man to acquire land in great tracts, nature has placed a limit on the ability of even the most capable to manage it properly if it exceed the dimensions which reason and common sense would dictate. It might easily happen, for instance, that one of our modern millionaires should purchase a tract as large as one of our smaller states; and yet the man does not live who could manage afarm the size of the smallest county in the smallest state, in such a way as to get even moderately good results from the whole of it. By a farm is, of course, meant a tract of land suitable for general agriculture, and not a pasture range, which is rightly held in much larger areas. But be the land tillage, pasture, or woodland, the standard of conduct for him who assumes its ownership and management is precisely the same. " Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed and the tree yielding fruit; ” see that you do not hinder it; do not take the land out of commission; this law is written large in the evident purposes of nature and the needs of the world, and it lays upon the land-owner an obligation so sacred and so imperative that it not only demands his best powers of mind and body, but forbids him to undertake more than he can carry out. For he has assumed the kingship of a portion of the universe; he is dealing directly with the forces of nature and of evolution.

To me, personally, the sacredness of land-ownership, and its radical difference from the holding of all other kinds of property, were first brought home in a peculiarly emphatic manner; and while I am not so vain as to suppose my personal experiences would prove interesting to many of my readers, I may perhaps be pardoned for referring briefly to them in so far as they have a bearing on the matter in hand. Born to comfortable circumstances, and brought up with a taste and training in agriculture, I began my business life on a large country estate, where for many years I lived as a farmer and breeder of horses. Then the failure of certain outside enterprises in which our family was heavily interested brought me to financial ruin. I was obliged to sell everything and begin life over again.

To a strong man, in the prime of life, the acquisition of money seems an easy matter. I went to the tropics, associated myself with others in a large agricultural enterprise, and for some time felt that another fortune was soon to be mine. Then the financial stringency of the year 1893 crippled us in obtaining needed funds. Not long after, the price of coffee dropped, never to regain its former place, and, in a few years, the abandonment of the whole enterprise was an unavoidable result.

This was sufficiently disappointing, but life in the tropics had given me a great and abiding faith in the agricultural future of those regions, and I immediately started in another tropical enterprise.

Again fortune seemed fairly in sight, when stormy and revolutionary political conditions in the region we had chosen rendered successful agriculture impossible.

The greatest truths in life are often the slowest to impress themselves upon the minds of men, and it was not till this second disappointment that it dawned upon me, not only that life might be too short and too precious to be all spent in seeking a fortune, but that my whole view-point had been wrong: that the fortune and the privileges which, from association and long habit of thought, I had come unconsciously to assume were mine by right, and which, if lost, were simply to be sought till regained, were not so at all; and that the only rights that were inherently mine were those which nature has accorded to every man who is willing to work with hand and brain: namely, the right to have some land and cattle of his own, to maintain himself and family by the labor of his hands, and to be his own master.

And with the recognition of this great truth came the desire, both sweet and compelling, to abandon the campaign as a soldier of fortune, and to buy a tract of land where I would not be dependent upon political conditions or capricious peasant labor; where my own hands would be a leading factor in its working, and where I could establish a permanent home. But where should I seek for such a tract? In the tropical belt, notwithstanding its unparalleled agricultural resources, I knew of no locality where the conditions were wholly satisfactory for the object in view. I turned again to my own land, the land that, for generations, has been a land of working farmers.

But here the search proved no trivial matter. I had been less than a dozen years absent, and yet a tremendous change had taken place, and in the better agricultural portions of the state the land was owned on a new basis. Farm after farm had been bought up by wealthy men, a single individual frequently owning half a dozen contiguous places, which he included in one grand country estate. The picture of agricultural abandonment drawn at the beginning of this article, though seen sufficiently often to force home its lesson, was not common; on the contrary, in the rich farming districts, costly barns, blooded stock, new walls and fences, and large crops were the general rule. But, to the eye of one who knew, the farming was not good farming, — indeed, farming carried on at a heavy loss never is, — and, despite the large crops, a very little investigation seemed to show that on scarcely a farm of them all was anything approaching the amount of produce put on the market that there had been when the same place was owned by a working farmer. The land, so far as its maintenance of mankind was concerned, was largely inoperative.

Nor was this all. The intervening land between these millionaire farms was held at a figure commensurate with the possibility of selling to a millionaire purchaser; and, in too many cases the hope of making such a sale paralyzed the best efforts of the working farmer who owned it.

The details of the search and the finding of the farm which I ultimately purchased need not here be given; suffice it only to say that the experience gave me a realization of the existing state of things that could hardly have been had in any other way. It gave me some insight into the land-hunger that must possess many who seek for a moderate acreage for their own maintenance, and a keener perception of the evil of great holdings.

But if the evil is great, what is the remedy ? Is it the system recommended by Henry George? In my whole career I have never yet found a man who ever owned land, or who hoped to own it, who would favor anything short of absolute ownership. Nor is the time yet ripe for a law limiting land-ownership to a certain acreage; for the great “plain people,” who make public sentiment and shape events, have not that knowledge and grasp of the matter which is needful to its intelligent regulation.

And knowing this to be the case, the only effective remedy, I am persuaded, lies in that better understanding and appreciation of the Mission of the Land which must come, as time advances, to the minds of mankind. For no one who looks back over the long path by which the human race has reached its present status can doubt that its evolution is still going on: and that, step by step, that which is fittest and best will prevail over the evil that is in the world.

How soon this better understanding will become sufficiently general to have an appreciable effect is more than can be foretold. But the subject of the land and its uses is receiving more attention than ever before, and it would seem that the time cannot be far distant. There is that which forces the attention, whether we would or no: for, besides the threatened evil of great holdings, which is of recent date, we are now paying the penalty of some mistakes in the past which were equally serious; indeed, it may be doubted if the harmful effect of great holdings would ever equal that of the despoiling of our forests of lumber, with no provision for restoration, that has already taken place; the heavy cropping of farm-lands without return, or the devotion of land to purposes for which it was unsuited by nature. The high price of lumber, and the low average yield per acre of our staple crops, are things which affect us all; and the abandoned back-country farms tell eloquently of the folly of conducting agriculture upon lands which nature intended for forest or grazing. Permanent success can rarely attend such misplacement, and I have sometimes thought that in no other way is the Mission of the Land so seriously thwarted.

In the tropical belt I have seen millions of acres of the finest sugar-land lying idle and unproductive, while, far in the north, with an unwilling soil and a colder sky, men were coaxing from beet-root a wretched modicum of sugar. The human race has to pay for such errors; for, in the school of nature, man must always be pupil: he can never be teacher. He can, it is true, turn the forces of nature to his account, and it is his duty to do so; but to do it successfully he must follow the channel in which they were intended to flow, and recognize the law of the eternal fitness of things.

I have spoken of the imperative obligation that the land lays upon those who own and manage it, but it is right for me to say, in conclusion, that, to those who realize and accept this obligation, it is neither hard nor unpleasant. On the contrary, its discharge is replete with pleasure, the consciousness of power, the joy of possession, and the joy of living. It opens up new and fascinating fields, fields which are bounded only by the limits of life and its manifold forces, and which a lifetime is too short fully to explore. If the landowner be rich and his tract of reasonable size, he will find that what one of the best of our old-time writers has called “ the God-appointed duty of working land to the top limit of its producing power,” will yield him a pleasure far more satisfying than any that can come from the ownership of unlimited, and therefore half-farmed, acres. Or, if he finds it necessary to work with his hands, he will find that the man who tills his own soil, feeds his own stock, and drives colts of his own raising, may be equally a king on his own domain, and experience a satisfaction no less keen.