This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Book review: ‘From James Joyce to Organic Farming’

Maynard Kaufman is a South Dakota farm boy, a Joycian scholar and post-Christian theologian, a multidisciplinary professor in religious and environmental studies, an organic farmer, a communitarian and community organizer, a Green political activist, a gardener and home economist, an environmentalist and a writer.

From James Joyce to Organic Gardening
From James Joyce to Organic Gardening

Now nearing 90, he felt led to try to justify and reconcile the often disparate aspects of these many personas. In From James Joyce to Organic Farming: A Memoir he has written an apologia, not in the sense of apologizing for his life and choices but in the older sense of laying out the rationales, arguments and conflicts that have shaped his life.

The book may have a special resonance for a generation of Mennonites who grew up in traditional agrarian cultures and then left behind that culture — and, perhaps, its traditional religious beliefs — but found elements of their heritage cropping up in surprising ways later in life.

What began simply as an attempt at an “interesting story,” Kaufman says, morphed into an account of his “moral response to the major environmental issues of our time.”

Maynard Kaufman is my older brother, the second of six children and oldest son, 16 years my senior. Though he was effectively out of our parental home by the time I came along, he was a formative influence in my young adult years, shaping my own entry into academia. His and Sally’s farm home on M Avenue near Kalamazoo, Mich., was my home away from home during my college and seminary years in Indiana, and their farm at Bangor, Mich., was a refuge from the rigors of the pastoral role during my years of ministry.

The first two chapters chronicle the birth of the School for Homesteading he and Sally opened in the early 1970s. They invited about a dozen university students to live with them on the farm for a season, learning the skills and crafts of living off the land — gardening, canning, milking, making butter and cheese, butchering, grinding wheat and making bread. This constituted his major transition from academician and professor to farmer and community activist — a transition fraught with a sense of betrayal among his academic peers and within his own sense of self.

I particularly enjoyed Kaufman’s telling of the history of his farm at Bangor, going back to its first occupation by European settlers. Learning and telling this story is the way one becomes “native to one’s place,” in the words of agronomist Wes Jackson. Kaufman includes an account of the way in which the farm now supports three local-food farming operations in addition to his and his wife Barbara’s off-the-grid house.

Kaufman describes the roots of his environmentalism, including his youth on a South Dakota farm and its Mennonite culture. He reflects on his academic career, graduating from Bethel College in 1957 and going on to receive his Ph.D. from the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. His doctoral thesis was on the Irish author James Joyce. He notes that his move into organic farming might have come partly in response to the gnostic (material is evil; spiritual is good) denial of the goodness of creation in the works of Joyce. He went on to accept a teaching position in the religion department at Western Michigan University in 1963.

He describes his involvement in the organic movement in Michigan and reprints an earlier paper on the demonic character of the industrial food system.
A final chapter addresses his efforts to deal with climate change, the concern that has dominated his life in recent years.

Kaufman characterizes himself as post-Christian, which implies not so much a rejection of conventional Christian forms as a movement beyond them. Given these religious sensibilities and his “fallen-away” Mennonite identity, he finds it difficult to discern the full, positive influence of the agrarian Mennonite heritage in his life, particularly since the Mennonite church of his youth was deeply influenced by fundamentalism.

Many Anabaptists historically built religious cultures around agrarian communities, living in a healthy relationship to the land that sustained them. This communitarian heritage works itself out in the way Kaufman shaped the School for Homesteading. His communitarian involvements express agrarian Anabaptist culture better than most Mennonites are able to achieve, as we have abandoned agrarian life in favor of the dominant urban culture.

A strong work ethic, the ability to observe and learn from nature, the value of cooperation, the ability to improvise and make do and plan creative responses to adverse situations —these are all values instinctively learned in the context of an agrarian culture like that in which Kaufman grew up. Fallen away he might be as a Mennonite, but he is still at heart a Mennonite farmer, one who tends and nurtures both the land and the community that lives on it.  He has written a precious memoir of a life well lived.

S. Roy Kaufman is a semi-retired pastor and historian living in his and Maynard Kaufman’s home community of Freeman, S.D., and the author of Healing God’s Earth: Rural Community in the Context of Urban Civilization.

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