Rolf Gardiner Lecture

This lecture from Rolf Gardiner was reported in the News Sheet of the BDA in November 1950, In it he gives a feeling for the concerns for the Kinship in Husbandry and the road trip around the UK by Pfeiffer with a team  – “all of outstanding merit individually” – .


Can Farming Save European Civilization ?

Rolf Gardiner

(This was the theme of a first European Husbandry Meeting held in Southern England, Ist-14th July 1950),

SINCE the close of the periods of classic civilization around the shores of the Mediterranean, the evolution of European culture may be traced in the ever-widening clearances of original forest lands north of the Alps, and in the drained fens and deltas of the great river mouths around the North Sea and the Baltic. This immense labour, begun in the days of Alfred and Charlemagne, was originally directed and led by the Christian Church through monastic orders and feudal manors. It extended to the borders of Russia and founded islands of civilised society in the the midst of that vast Sarmatian land-ocean. And later, since the Reformation, the expansion of Western man has known no halt, neither overseas nor eastwards across the Vistula, until recent times.

But now, not merely a check, but a reversing motion, has penned the European multitudes within amazingly narrow confines. In the areas forcibly vacated by the Germans, the Estonians, Letts and Lithuanians, not merely Russians and Poles but Mongols, Tartars and Manchurians have been settled on age-old European farms and estates. East Prussia to-day is an Asiatic colony.

Meanwhile the over-industrialized west of Europe is no longer capable of sustaining itself without outside succour. It is estimated that Western man increased from 150 to 700 millions during the period from 1800 to 1930, while the soil available for nourishing these vast hordes of predominantly urban people is still shrinking in quantity and quality.

In America, in Russia, in East Asia, in Australasia, above all in Africa (so recently bruited abroad as “the larder of Europe”), soil erosion is still the major threat, and everywhere it is a race between food and population. The difficulties arising from surplus stocks in mass-productive lands agrarian lands do not alter the fundamental facts of widespread starvation and desiccation.

In the middle of the second World War a group of Englishmen who formed a Kinship in Husbandry gave much time and thought to the foundations of the Natural Order1. Their discussions and exchanges had a germinal influence and a fructifying effect on their individual tasks. England, they knew, had grown great because of her soil and an unbroken tradition of husbandry and craftsmanship. But this tradition was in danger of being extinguished by scientific industrialism and impersonal bureaucracy. If England was to resume the task assigned to her by Pitt “of teaching the other nations how to live” she must indeed undergo radical atonement and restoration. Return to Husbandry2 was the title of a pamphlet circulated among thousands of Service men and prisoners of war in enemy camps abroad. This annotated agrarian book-list and its essays (by Edmund Blunden, Arthur Bryant, H. J. Massingham, Lord Portsmouth and Rolf Gardiner) made a forthright appeal : between now and the year 2000 let the sorry mess of a suburbanized Britain be cleared away and England be restored to her royal health and beauty. It was a call which met with a hungry and baffled response from hundreds of readers who felt the need of country-living as opposed to the uprooted existence of suburban life.

To leading members of this Kinship England, however, was an integral part of European Christendom, the fount of inspiration which had sent St. Boniface from Wessex to become the first Bishop of Germany, and had reared Shakespeare to become the acknowledged king of European poet-dramatists. To a Europe engulfed by Slav-Mongolian collectivism and American en masse-democracy, England had a special mission. Perhaps here our struggles to resume the rightness of a decentralized local order of society and culture might be of service in the greater efforts of Europe as a whole to find a third way between so-called Communism and Capitalism. The pursuit of this aim was necessarily shelved by the immediate campaigns at home (of such bodies as the Soil Association, the Council for the Church and Countryside and other groups, all of which drew on the ideas and personal contributions of the Kinship in Husbandry). But the point was never given up that sooner or later consultations between leaders of organic agrarian thought throughout Europe must take place, and that these should begin with a few carefully chosen personal contacts and exchanges rather than by general conferences. With Germany and Switzerland we had already longstanding friendships. With the Scandinavians we were always on very natural terms of understanding. With France, a great country of undoubted regional and local reserves, but exhausted by centralization and Parisian intellectualism, we had few relations. But it was now suggested that ” L’homme et le Sol,” although probably somewhat academic in the grand French manner, might provide a bridge.

Early this year Lord Portsmouth, J. E. Hosking and the present writer determined to pick up the threads of this pattern. We therefore planned what we called a European Husbandry Meeting and invited four Germans, two Swiss and three Frenchmen, all of outstanding merit individually, to join us in a fortnight’s fairly leisurely journeying from point to point across southern England. In the end all the Frenchmen failed to appear. But three Germans, and a very redoubtable veteran Swiss, Konrad von Meyenburg, the inventor of rotary tillers, joined us. To this party came also, like Hermes, Dr. Ehrenfried Pfeiffer.

Pfeiffer, the author of Soil Fertility, its Renewal and Preservation and The Earth’s Face, Landscape in its Relation to the Health of the Soil, whose scientific work at Dornach in Switzerland and practical farming on the island of Walcheren in Holland are not widely enough known, is probably the greatest Continental authority on organic husbandry. His return from America to Europe this summer was therefore an event of importance.

In order to welcome Pfeiffer to these islands a tour by charter plane and car was arranged for him (as President of the Bio-Dynamic Association) which bore him from Kent to Aberdeenshire and thence to the West Midlands and back to Wessex, Middlesex, East Anglia and London. Thus this valuable observer of soils and farms could see for himself much of our green and pleasant land, and meet men and women at many centres, farms and estates. His comments were penetrating and wise. Seldom was there a man who knew the peculiarities of the working soils of different European countries and who had then became a practical commercial farmer in the United States who could look at the whole earth with such earned authority.

Meeting at Hosking’s beautiful manor home in Kent the group of friends began their tour, first across Sussex to Hampshire where a second sojourn was made in a delectable nook of Lord Portsmouth’s Hurstbourne estate, and then to Springfield where a fine week-end brightened a sodden summer. The luxuriance of England’s vegetation, the many closes and compartments of our folded, hedge-ribbed landscape, made a great impression on the Continental visitors two of whom had wide experience of the open monotonous steppes of eastern Europe and torrid southern Russia. They felt that the innumerable “islands, within the island” of Britain, gave England her ancient strength and repose, her unexhausted reserves of power and beauty. Even the belching industrial areas of the midlands and the north, the concrete wastes of metropolitan London, the shoddy suburbs of our provincial towns, could not efface the stretches of deeply loved, variegated, carefully stored countryside where every tree seems to have individual personality and refuse regimentation, where order is natural and happily untidy rather than imposed. To our German friends especially, England is still Zauberinsel, the land of Shakespeare’s Histories and The Tempest, tenanted by historic ghosts and natural faeries. And these give England lasting strength and glory, only to be betrayed by cheap commercialism and parvenu State-Socialism.

At Springhead took place the essential discussion on the agrarian situation in Russia-Asia, in America, in Europe. Ehrenfried Pfeiffer described the situation in the United States where, he said, the struggle between soil-exploitation and commercialism on the one hand, and organic peasant, family-farming on the other, was by no means decided. Dr. Theo Oberländer and Professor Hans Raupach, both with wide experience of Eastern Europe and Russia, reported on the upheavals which are taking place behind the Iron Curtain and the transformation of ancient primitive peasant communities into industrialized agrarian factory brigades. But they also emphasized the inevitability of change and the enthusiasm which modernity can engender among unsophisticated peoples in spite of state violence and arbitrary organization. In Russia the tendency was for ever bigger land units. The Stalin Plan was grandiose and would doubtlessly be forced through. Would the benefits that emerged ultimately balance the frightful sacrifices entailed?

In Germany, bisected by the Iron Curtain, the ancient peasant holdings of the West were swamped by refugees from the East. Preeminently industrial Western Germany had lost its natural agrarian hinterland and its obvious markets. The whole economic equilibrium had been violently upset. There was a feverish unrest among the western farmers, particularly the youth, who felt that the traditional methods of tiny parcellated holdings had become intolerable in a modern age, and that perhaps the changes in the Eastern Zone were of a kind which deserved emulation. Here was a grave and imminent danger. The West German peasantry was chafing against the restrictions of an outmoded and in some ways oppressively narrow farm economy: it might explode and surrender to very powerful pro-Soviet propaganda.

It became clear to those participating in these slow, careful deliberations (sheltered by the bright colours of the Springhead Millroom while outside, across the Lake, the downs and afforested slopes gleamed radiant with high summer), that Europe was still the Hellas of the modern world with Aesculapian powers of rededication and recovery. It was still for Europe to find a third way” between Russia and America. This must remain our steadfast theme, our search and our endeavour. Anything else was betrayal and abdication. This responsibility implied a sacramental approach to agriculture. To the European who is true to his traditions and beliefs husbandry cannot thrive without a Blessing. Is it not the exemplar of wholeness and balance, continuity and true history? Hence the urgency for regaining the attention of the Churches and of all religious denominations for this central activity of men: the cultivation of the earth. movement of the Church and Countryside in England had been halted by a certain theological inflexibility, by the scholastic tradition and by lack of Bishops and clergy of calibre (save for a few outstanding exceptions such as the late Archbishop Temple, Bishop Bell of Chichester and Bishop Lovett, recently of Sarum Diocese). But a few imaginative steps in the right direction had been tried out and the people had responded to a remarkable degree. In Germany the Roman Catholic Church was perhaps more aware of the need and more capable of effective action than the Evangelical Churches with their ethical approach and impoverished liturgy. Nevertheless every endeavour to fashion a new concept of agriculture as a sacramental task should be welcomed and furthered.

The great responsibility which Britain had overseas in the Dominions and Colonies was also emphasized in the discussion. Both Lord Portsmouth and Rolf Gardiner had personal affiliations with Central Africa and were therefore deeply interested in the plea of the Continentals for opportunities to give the best of their unemployed young men scope in the development, on organic and religious lines, of a modern Africa. These overseas countries were either extensions of European culture or its natural hinterland. The time had come when the British Commonwealth and Africa should look to western Europe as a whole and not merely to Britain as their ancestor, and as a source of both fresh man-power and inspiration. The overseas lands were a common responsibility and task confronting all the Western peoples of European stock.

At the week-end, after excursions to other parts of Dorset, a garden-party was held at Springhead to which came distinguished local agrarians such as Sir George and Lady Stapledon, Dorset and Wiltshire farmers, and members of Young Farmers’ Clubs. Sitting in the shade of a great multi-stemmed Locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia) and looking out towards the bright garden, the ancient strip-lynchets and the wooded slopes of the downs, the conference extended to hear addresses by Dr. Pfeiffer and the other guests. The Locust seemed symbolic since this tree, a legume, is known as one of the great agents of soil-restoration in many parts of the world. It is now common to America, Europe and Russia. Thus it is a sort of modern Yggdrasil (of Yggdrasil, the ash tree of northern mythology, it was said that the roots run in three directions: one to the Asa-gods in heaven, one to the Frost-giants and the third to the underworld. Under each root is a fountain of wonderful virtues.). Richard St. Barbe Baker, founder of the Men of the Trees, recounted the campaigns for shelter-belts in both Russia and America and the need for a New Earth Charter. Thus the tree became the living symbol of world peace, concord and fruitfulness. Under its shade men of all natures and races could converse without fear in a diversity of tongues.

1 The Natural Order, Essays in the Return to Husbandry, edited by H. J. Massingham (Dent).

2Return to Husbandry, edited by Edmund Blunden (Dent).